Vatican Borgia Apartments

The Vatican's Appartamento Borgia (Borgia Apartments) were the private chambers of Borgia Pope Alexander VI, frescoed by early Renaissance master Pinturicchio

The Sala delle Sibille in teh Borgia Apartmments of the Vatican
The Sala delle Sibille in the Borgia Apartmments.
The Borgia Apartments downstairs from the Raphael Rooms were painted by Pinturicchio and occupied by the infamous Spanish Borgia pope Alexander VI (you know: that devilish guy played by Jeremy Irons in the Borgias TV series).

This apartment suite was closed off by Julius II—who refused to live in rooms sullied by his venal predecessor—and its frescoes covered with black crepe.

Things remained that way for 386 years, when the apartments were reopened in 1889 to serve as display rooms for the Vatican's collection of (frankly largely bland) modern religious art.

They also finally uncovered the walls and ceilings that retain their rich frescoes, painted by Pinturicchio with wacky early-Renaissance Umbrian fantasy.

Pinturicchio's frescoes in the Borgia apartments

Music in the Sala della Arti Liberali of the Vatican's Borgia Apartments.
Music in the Sala della Arti Liberali of the Vatican's Borgia Apartments.
A co-pupil of Raphael’s under master Perugino, Pinturicchio had a penchant for embedding fake jewels and things like metal saddle studs in his frescoes rather than painting these details in for an intriguing effect—call it Renassiance 3D.

While Pinturrichio's art is not necessarily at its top form in these rooms, they're worth a run-through.

A major moment in world history captured in fresco—then lost for 519 years

Detail from Resurrection (1494) by Pinturiccio in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican
Detail of American Indians (?) dancing in The Resurrection (1494) by Pinturiccio in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican. (Photo courtesy of the Vatican Museums).
The frescoes have been (finally) getting restored over the past several years, and the cleaning revealed something amazing: the first European depiction of Native Americans.

In the scene of The Risen Christ(a.k.a. The Ressurection)—just above the casket and to the left of the head of the long-haired man in red robes gazing up at Jesus—is a tiny scene of naked men in feathered headresses dancing around a pole. One even appears to be styling a mohawk hairdo.

What makes this even more remarkable is that these frescoes were finished by 1494—just two years after Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean and a mere 18 months of so after he treturned from that voyage and handed over his journals to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Resurrection (1494) by Pinturiccio in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican
Resurrection (1494) by Pinturiccio in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican.
More intriguing: While this scene was being painted, the crowned heads of Europe were still desperately trying to keep discovery of the New World a secret while they divvied up the rights to any future discoveries.

So while Columbus' discovery was something of a state secret at the time, Alexander VI apparently just couldn't resist a little bragging via fresco. He must have shared Columbus' description of the natives with Pinturicchio so he could slip them in there.

And that balding, pius-looking fellow kneeling in rich gold robes on the left side of the scene? It's Rodrigo Borgia himself: Pope Alexander VI.

Aside: Alexander VI had something to do with why they speak Portuguese in Brazil

Alexander VI spent the 1480s and early 90s issuing papal bulls atempting to control how the new discoveries being made by Spain and Portugal be divided up.

Map showing the Treaty of Tordesillas line
Map showing the various lines, first the one established by Alexander VI's 1493 papal bull (in dotted purple) and the final one from the 1494 Treatry of Tordesillas (in solid purple). The green line denotes a similar dividing from the 1529 Treaty of Sargasso. (Map courtesy of Lencer)
Eventually, all the powers involved sat at the table to negotiate the "Treaty of Tordesillas."

The goal of this treaty was to demarcate a north-south meridian that sliced the globe halfway between the Cape Verde islands (then held by Portugal) and the new "West Indies" that Columbus had discovered for Spain (modern-day Hispanola—a.k.a. Haiti & the Dominican Republic—and Cuba).

Spain could lay claim to any new lands discovered west of that line; Portugal to anything east of it.

Keep in mind that, at the time, only those few Caribbean islands had been discovered—and, if the monarchs truly bought Columbus' theory, everyone still thought these were offshore islands of Asia. No one had any idea that there were two giant continents just beyond.

However, a case has been made the Portuguese already knew at least a bit about the eastern coast of South America—but had kept it a secret. This would explain why they kept insisting on nudging the Tordesillas line farther and farther to the west.

This theory holds that their goal was to make sure the line would pass right through the eastern bulge of South America. Why? So that in 1500, en route to India, Captain Pedro Álvarez Cabral could casually swing by—through unknown seas, and way, way out of his way—and claim this land for Portugal.

Whatever the case, this Tordesillas line is why, to this day, they speak Portguese in Brazil but Spanish just about everywhere else in the Americas.

Moving on in the Vatican Museums

Once you are done with the Borgia Apartments, you can climb back up and head straight to the Sistine Chapel, or continue downstairs to visit more (slightly better) Modern Art first.

Vatican Tips

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in May 2013. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett