Thursday, 22 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Sala delle Arti Liberali

IV.   Sala delle Arti Liberali (Hall of the Liberal Arts, third “private” apartment) (JB 69)

Length: 10,55 m; width: 8,34 m (SV 20).
Above: A mistake – Geometry and Rhetoric must be transposed
The floor is a span lower than the floors in the other rooms. The imposts and arch of the entrance doorway are painted in coloured marble panels (SV 20).

The window recess is decorated with two candelabra. The arch has three square panels with Alexander VI’s armorial devices. The flanking ones have octagonal rosettes. “To the right of the entrance is a door frame in rectangular form, in simply sculptured marble” (SV 20).

A very large 15th-century fireplace opposite the window has Bacchic themes on the front and images of Mars on the sides. It has a large canopy “painted in damask imitation upon the wall, draping the chimney [mantlepiece]” (SV 20).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
 Above: The front of the mantelpiece with Bacchic themes

 However, Sladen cautions, “But the great old fifteenth-century mantelpiece which decorates them [with reference to the wall decorations] did not originally belong to this room; it came from the Castle of Sant Angelo, and was executed by Simon Mosca, although it was designed by the great Sansovino” (DBWS 445).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: The right side of the mantelpiece (the left side is decorated with a male sphinx)

As in the Sala dei Misteri, the walls in the Sala dei Arti Liberali bore enough traces of their initial decoration to allow restoration according to the original designs (DBWS 432-33). The walls are painted to resemble marble panels with borders of tracery and flowers in white chiaroscuro.  In the centres, the Borgia arms appear in rhombuses, and the flaming crown in ovals. There are candelabrum designs in the four corners. The arch has a pilaster below it on either side. The pilaster near the entrance has designs matching those on the walls, whereas the one opposite is decorated with a candelabrum design in white chiaroscuro on a yellow ground, which has images of putti, sphinxes, birds and boys playing lutes (SV 21).

To the right of the fireplace a door has been walled up: this used to lead to the private rooms behind (SV 21). Sladen comments that “the blocked-up door in the corner beside it [the mantelpiece] is said to lead to the room in which Alexander VI died and which is now [1907] occupied by the Noble Guard (DBWS 445).

Redig de Campos describes the Sala delle Arti Liberali as Pope Alexander's study, in which his body was laid out after his death and where his secret treasure was discovered (DRC(b) 102).

It seems that even cardinals are not averse to graffiti: somewhere on the walls, Sladen relates, there is an incision that, in translation, wishes “Viva Long Life” to Paul III, the Farnese pope. This incision was probably made during the conclave that elected him in October 1534 (DBWS 446). (Incidentally, Alessandro Farnese was 25 years old when he received the red hat from Pope Alexander VI. For a while he was ridiculed as the “petticoat cardinal” since his sister, Giulia the Beautiful, was the pope’s mistress.)

As in the other rooms, hooks for draperies have remained in the walls. Above the marble cornice “of peculiar design” [rich stucco, Sladen says] are six lunettes (SV 21) in which the foundation subjects of learning in the Middle Ages are symbolically illustrated: those of the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics) and Quadrivium (Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music) (DBWS 446). Redig de Campos considers the frescoes in the lunettes to have been preponderantly the work of Antonio da Viterbo (DRC(b) 103).

1.  Geometry.
2.  Rhetoric.
3.  Arithmetic.
4.  Music.
5.  Astronomy.
6.  Grammar.
7.  Dialectics.

The lunette opposite the window shows, to the right, Rhetoric with a drawn sword and globe. To her right stands a cupid, and near his left foot the name “Pentorichio” can be seen. Geometry is depicted to the left with Bramante drawing a geometrical figure at a small table (SV 21). (See the images available at:

The triangle between the pictures bears Pope Alexander’s arms, supported by three angels (SV 21).

After this follow Arithmetic, Music (the smith hammering on the anvil an allusion to the way in which Pythagoras learned about beating time), Astronomy [lunette over the window], Grammar and Dialectics (Logic) (SV 21-22).

The arch dividing the vault of this room is called the "Arch of Justice" in which the major cardinal virtues (DRC(b) 104) or feats of Justice are portrayed in scenes in five octagons: 1) in the apex, Justice enthroned; 2) towards the entrance, Lot told to flee from Sodom so that the just should not perish too; 3) on the same side, Jacob settling his accounts with Laban before leaving him; 4) on the other side, first the widow demanding justice from emperor Trajan on account of her slain son; 5) at the other end, Justice dispensing offices and honours. This work may have been retouched (SV 22). Redig de Campos considers this art not to be by Pinturicchio and his assistants, and detects a 16th-century style in it (DRC(b) 104).

The ceiling on both sides of the arch is blue, embellished with Alexander’s arms, rays, putti teasing the bull or blowing trumpets, cornucopias with fruit and flaming coronets in gilt stucco (SV 22).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
 Above: One side of the ceiling vault

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: Detail of the stucco work on the ceiling vault

The rhombic floor tiles, copied after original fragments, are arranged in squares and right angles (SV 22).

SV:           Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.
DBWS:    Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.

DRC(b):    D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.

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