Saturday, 17 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Overview map, floor plan, and the Sala dei Pontefici

Map to the "Old" St Peter's Basilica, Vatican and Borgia Apartments in the time of Alexander VI (JB 68-69)

Geoffrey Parker, editor and translator of JB, points out: “The rooms marked in the Vatican comprise two groups, the newer Borgia apartments  (I-VII), and the older, public Halls and Apartments (1-8). The Borgia apartments were the lower of two stories of the Palazzo of Nicholas V, together with additions made by Alexander VI known as the Torre Borgia (V, VI). Alexander commissioned Pinturicchio to have these rooms decorated, apart from I, which was completed to Pius IV” (JB 69).

Acknowledgement: I am profoundly grateful to Ms Alice Dill,
Editorial & Rights Assistant of the Folio Society (see the particulars of the "JB" source) for granting permission to use this image (adapted slightly from the original) and the legend information relating to it.


Main areas
A. Innocent VIII’s palace.
B. Paul II’s palace.
C. Main entrance to the Vatican.
D. The Great Courtyard where cardinals dismounted.
E. Main entrance to St Peter’s.
F. The Atrium.
G. St Peter’s Basilica.
H. The south end of the Belvedere Court, which did not exist yet in the Borgia period.
J.  The piazza in front of St Peter’s.
Public halls and apartments
1.  Sala Reale, used for public consistories and similar functions.
2.  Sala Ducale (Second Hall or First Sala Ducale).
3.  Sala Ducale (Third Hall or Second Sala Ducale).
4.  Sala dei Paramenti, the Pope’s robing room for official occasions.
5.  Sala del Pappagallo, an audience chamber, especially for ambassadors and envoys.
6.  Salotinna di Audienza, a small, intimate chamber used for less formal interviews.
7.  The Sistine Chapel.
8. Labelled as the Capella Paolina, with stairs next to it leading from the Palace to the Basilica (JB 68-69).  However, this used to be the Chapel of S. Niccolò da Bari as specified in the footnote by Setton in the section on the Vatican Palace (KMS 390).

 “Private” apartments

The Borgia Apartments will be clearly indicated in maps in other posts. However, note in particular the rooms marked VII and VIII in the graphic. Parker identifies them as the “bedroom and antechamber of Alexander VI, in one of which he died”. He also mentions that the apartments in the storey above were similarly arranged. Here Prince Djem was first accommodated, but Cesare Borgia used them occasionally after Djem’s departure to Naples with Charles VIII. Cesare was living in these apartments when Alexander died (JB 69).

Remember also this paragraph from the posting on the Vatican Palace:
"Rooms in the Torre Borgia (Sala delle Sibille, Sala del Credo), in the Palace of Nicholas V (Sala delle Arti Liberali, Sala dei Santi, Sala dei Misteri) and in the Palace of Nicholas III (Sala dei Pontefici) became known as the Borgia apartments. They were in fact not living quarters, but rather receptions rooms known as 'secret cabinets'. Pope Alexander’s living area consisted of small chambers behind the Sala delle Arti Liberali" (MDB 69, 70).)

Salvatore Volpini's publication

Salvatore Volpini's Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897) is an extended essay of 30 pages in which he takes you on a fairly detailed tour of the apartments; for example, where doors have been walled up and window frames changed, he tells you about them. 

Finding reliable maps of the apartments with more detail, showing the windows, for example, is difficult. The best I could trace are those of Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican (1882). Most other maps, for example, simply grey out the private rooms marked as VII and VIII in the first graphic (after JB 69). And that is to say if other publications take the trouble to publish maps of the Borgia (first) floor – more often than not they will detail the Raphael Rooms and say that the Borgia Apartments on the floor below are similar. What is particularly useful about Letarouilly's maps is that they are more or less contemporaneous with Volpini's description.


Regarding the interiors and walls of the Borgia Apartments, the descriptions by Volpini and Sladen relate to their appearance at the turn of the 19th century. Only the Sala dei Misteri seems to have been kept in the same condition after the restoration of 1897; the other apartments have all been redone in a peachy flesh tint, it appears. Images of the interiors, whether old or current, are difficult to find. However, see the following site for recent photos:

I.  Sala dei Pontefici (Hall of the Popes, a ceremonial anteroom) (JB 69)

Length: 18,06 m; width: 11,72 m (SV 5)
Sladen notes that the Borgia Apartments had suffered damage and neglect as early as the year 1559 after the popes (from Julius II onward) had moved into the Raphael Stanze. The Borgia Apartments had been occupied by the Cardinal Nephews then. After his election in that year, Pius IV “rescued” the rooms because they had been “terribly knocked about” (DBWS 429). If you mistake Sladen’s meaning and blame rambunctious Cardinal Nephews for damage to Vatican property, you need to remember that the Sack of Rome had also occurred in 1529, when “the mercenaries of Charles de Bourbon having taken quarters in them [the apartments], the walls have been most barbarously disfigured, some marks of it remaining yet in names, scrawled upon them with nails” (SV 4). When the new apartments of Sixtus V (who died in 1590) had been completed on the eastern side of the Vatican, the Borgia rooms were used only for “emergencies” and for accommodating conclavists in the 17th and 18th centuries. They also served as dining rooms for officials. Pope Pius VII is accused of hammering nails into the walls to hang pictures in 1816, and it appears that the marble Guelph crosses in the windows were replaced in this period. Later the apartments served as a statuary gallery with damaging brackets (1821), and then as a library with damaging shelving (under Pius IX, pope from 1846-70). It was his successor, Leo XIII, who decided that the time was ripe for restoration (DBWS 429-32).

Throughout Volpini ‘s description, the viewer enters the Borgia Apartments from the east end (Sala dei Pontefici), facing west,  with the windows to the right (north, of course). 

This hall is called the Popes’ Room because, originally, the [ten] lunettes of the arched ceiling contained pictures of various popes. The most important events of their reign were recorded in inscriptions above them. These inscriptions have remained, but the pictures have been painted over in designs of scallop shells (not visible at present, but see the Letarouilly illustration below). The room is not strictly speaking considered part of the Borgia Apartments (SV 5).

The Sala dei Pontifici dates from the 13th century and at first had a wooden ceiling, which collapsed on 29 June 1500, nearly killing Pope Alexander VI. The present vaulted ceiling was installed during his reign, but the decoration with astrological motifs was undertaken under Leo X (1513-1521). The walls used to be decorated with architectural and landscape scenes. The original papal portraits were done by Giotto, according to Vasari, and may have been destroyed during the collapse of the ceiling. Other experts are of the opinion that the remaining inscriptions (referring to Stephen II, Hadrian I, Leo III, Sergius II, Leo IV, Urban II, Nicholas III, Gregory XI, Boniface IX and Martin VI) were actually intended for tapestries that were to be hung below them – a project that never came to be realised (MDB 70-71).

Scala Archives ( have a good photo of the interior of the room if you search for "Borgia Apartments". There also several other excellent Borgia Apartments images (and thanks to Mrs Elvira Allocati for responding to my enquiries so promptly and kindly).

An illustration of the ceiling of the Hall of the Popes, showing the "inscriptions" above the lunettes and the scallop patterns that replaced the paintings of the popes in the lunettes (Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882).


JB:            Johann Burchard: At the Court of the Borgia: Being an Account of the Reign of Pope Alexander VI written by his Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard edited and translated by Geoffrey Parker. London: The Folio Society. 1963.
DBWS:     Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.
KMS:        Kenneth M Setton: The Papacy and the Levant (1204—1571), Volume II, The Fifteenth Century. The American Philosophical Society: Independence Square, Philadelphia. 1978. (Reprinted 1997.)
MDB:       Maria Donati Barcellona: “The Borgia Apartments” in Art Treasures of the Vatican: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture. Edited by D Redig de Campos (Trsl. J Gerber). 1st American Edition. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975.
SV:           Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.
TCE:         The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vatican,

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