Native Americans at the Vatican

Remember the ditty, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” Two years after Christopher Columbus’s  voyage, in the year 1494, the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio apparently added images of the Native Americans described by Columbus to a fresco in the Vatican.

Detail of fresco showing Native Americans

Detail of fresco showing Native Americans

News reports vary.  Either the images were more or less overlooked for the past 500 years, or they were uncovered in a recent cleaning of the fresco. The images are difficult to see.  They appear at the top of the open tomb.

Pinturicchio "Resurrection of Christ"

Pinturicchio “Resurrection of Christ”

The fresco, titled “Resurrection of Christ,” was commissioned for the rooms to be occupied by the newly-elected Pope Alexander VI.  This Pope was the former Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, so his rooms came to be called the “Borgia Apartments.” All the great powers in Europe at the time were much interested in the so-called “New World.” Of course, we now know that a big part of the interest in “the New World” was in exploiting the people and the riches to be found there.  But seeing this fresco gives us a little insight into the excitement in Europe over the new discoveries.

I first read about this discovery in The New York Times, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/early-images-of-american-indians-found-in-a-vatican-fresco/. I have to thank Kathy Schiffer, in her blog “Seasons of Grace,” for coming up with the full image of the fresco.  Her article is at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2013/04/first-ever-painting-of-native-americans-discovered-in-the-vatican/.

The year before last, I was lucky enough to be in Rome just when the Vatican Museums were first open on Friday evenings from 7 to 11 pm.  All the daytime tourists leave, another long line forms, and at 7pm the doors open again.  The museums do fill up, of course, but things are much less crowded than during the day.  This program has been expanded; it now runs from May 3 to July 26, and again from September 6 to October 25.  I hope to be there again on a Friday night before too long!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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