The Vatican Museums. A tour of the soul with its director Barbara Jatta
The first work Barbara Jatta chose to show me, a piece measuring just twenty-four centimeters by eighteen, has the dimensions of an icon. It is so small that it passes almost unnoticed in the vastness of the works conserved in the Vatican Museums, which total approximately one hundred and fifty thousand pieces, and an exhibition route of over seven kilometers. The cork she would like to show me is located in the Vatican Museums’ Pinacoteca, in one of the rooms dating from the fifteenth century. The painting is the Madonna and Child between Sts Dominic and Catherine of Alexandria, attributed to Fra Angelico, dating back to 1435.
Our journey with the Vatican Museums director, who is the first woman to hold the position (she was appointed by Pope Francis in 2017), starts here. We asked her to choose a few works, with a female subject, that she particularly likes. What we could almost consider a map of the soul. We start, therefore, from this little painting by Fra Angelico. “It strikes me”, she explains, “because she is a very sweet woman, as only the Virgin can be, but at the same time she is very determined. We note that the Madonna’s gaze is not directed at the Child, but at the viewer. “It is a small piece of work. Moreover, it was one of the works to which John Paul II was most devoted, so much so that we recently sent it to Warsaw for an exhibition on the occasion of the centenary of his birth and it was chosen as the cover of the catalog. This painting is one of my favorite in all the Museums”.
Barbara Jatta also appears to be sweet, but at the same time determined, even though she has long and intense days, busy as she is between work and family. A husband who is a pediatrician (“I’m lucky because he helped me a lot when the children were small”) and three children, now grown up (the eldest is 30 years old, the second 28, the youngest 19). “I think everyone has to be themselves. It is clear that when you play roles like mine, you have to armor yourself a bit.... Nevertheless, it is essential not to lose your identity. I remember, as soon as I was appointed, a great manager of an American company told me: ‘Always remember who you are, not what you are’”.
Of course, it can’t be easy to work in a largely male environment. “But it’s not all male - she points out - When I joined the Vatican Library, twenty-six years ago, there were just three women, all the others were men. When I left, 50 percent were women. When I arrived at the Museums, five years ago, of the nearly 800 employees, 50 percent were women. As everywhere else, the important thing, regardless of gender, is professionalism. And in this respect, in the Vatican, there is no discrimination”. She indicates the head of the Press Office, standing at her side. “A woman, Lucina Vattuone, for example, takes care of an important service. A man is my delegate for the scientific departments and I chose him because I thought he was the most suitable. When I had to choose a head of the restoration laboratory for the paintings, I chose a woman, because of her professionalism”.
We resume our journey. “Of Fra Angelico we have a wonderful frescoed chapel, in which we are completely enveloped by his painting. Luminous, but at the same time very intimate”. It is located in the heart of the Apostolic Palace. It is the Niccolina Chapel, named after Pope Nicholas V, who ordered its construction. At the moment, it is not included in the normal visiting itinerary, because it is too small to guarantee spacing. After walking along a labyrinthine like path, we find ourselves in front of a small door. As soon as we cross the threshold, we are bathed, literally flooded by golden light. The chapel is dedicated to Saints Stephen and Lawrence. As soon as we enter on the right, in the lunette of the central part, there is a fresco depicting an episode- the Preaching of Saint Stephen and the Dispute in before Sanhedrin. The saint is standing. In front of him, there is a group of women sitting on the ground listening to him. The faces have different expressions from each other. Some look attentive, some distracted. In the background, the men.
“In the twenty years of the Library - says the director – my work was praised by five cardinals and three prefects. I have never felt discriminated against as a woman. This was the same when I arrived here. It is clear that, at times, you realize you are in the minority. Some time ago, we had a meeting of the Governorship and I was the only woman. In addition, the first time I went to the Pope’s greetings, at Christmas, when he said ‘brothers and sisters’, everyone turned to me because I was the only woman. However, in recent years things have changed. After all, the Vatican is a mirror of today’s society”. Actually, at the Governorate, in November, Pope Francis appointed Sister Raffaella Petrini as Secretary General, and she too is the first woman to hold that position.
We go, now, to the Sistine Chapel. However, we won’t be stopping to look of the Last Judgement. Barbara Jatta instructs us to look up at the Sibyls. Majestic figures of women, frescoed by Michelangelo Buonarroti between 1508 and 1512. “They have always struck me because they are heralds of the Word and they are imposing. If you will, they also look masculine. The Delphic, the Libyan, I’ve always found them to be wonderful figures and very incisive. Women who speak and see before others”. We pause, in particular, to observe the Delphic. She has a scroll in her hand, but turns her head away with the rotation of her body. It is as if something or someone has distracted her but intended to read it.
We return to the Pinacoteca. In a room at the back, the eighth, the director of the Vatican Museums shows us a large painting, Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno. “It is a work of artistic maturity, which looks to the Venetian artists, but also to the plasticity of Michelangelo. It has an infinite sweetness. I find it a beautiful work”. Her eyes sparkle. “It is a great privilege of my work, a great blessing, to be surrounded by this beauty. Because it recharges you. As Pope Francis told me a short time ago, art helps us move forward. The difficulties are there, of course; nevertheless, the recompense is there too. This beauty gives you the strength to continue with passion, but also with devotion, with a sense of responsibility for this delicate and important role. A role of preserving and sharing a heritage not only of history and art, but also of faith and Christian devotion”.
We ask her how art and faith are intertwined. “These”, she explains, “are museums where the Christian identity is so strong that attention to the aspect of evangelization is preeminent. I am an art historian, but in this place, the considerations are and must be different. Let me give you an example: I am part of a group of directors of international museums, which include the Louvre, the National Gallery, and so on. However, I strongly feel that I am the bearer of a different identity, which is the Christian one. What is being done here is not only a work of artistic and historical education, but also of evangelization through art. Pius XI had understood this when, in the aftermath of the Lateran Treaties of 1929, he established the building commission that allowed the construction of the entrance ramp and the main door, which allowed visitors to enter directly from Italy. Since 1932, anyone can buy a ticket and enter easily. Before, however, you had to enter through the Palace, and the Museums were only open to diplomats, and academics. As a man of culture and faith, Pius XI understood the extraordinary potential for evangelization contained in these collections”.
In this triumph of beauty, the woman is central. “There is no doubt that female figures are remarkable in all collections. The Virgin is the representation par excellence in Christian art. In some cases, perhaps even more so than Christ. But already in antiquity the female figure is extremely valued in Venuses”. The director shows us two of them in particular, which are in the Museo Pio Clementino, Cabinet of the Mask. The first is a copy of the Aphrodite of Doidalsas. “Look at the face, the sweetness of the movements”. The second, in the same room, is a Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos. Standing, the features soft, the expression serious.
“There are many wonderful Venuses in the Museo Pio Clementino. And there is a beautiful female sculpture in the Museo Gregoriano Profano”. It is the Chiaramonti Niobid. The statue, a copy from the Hadrianic age, depicts one of Niobe’s daughters as she tries to escape from the arrows of Apollo and Artemis. The head is missing; only the body remains. “She is a strong woman, but in motion. And she has splendid drapery, moved by the wind”, she invites us to observe. Indeed, looking at her, this motion of the whole body is striking, as if the sculptor had captured the instant in which she is fleeing. “We placed it in the center of the room. After all, the Niobid is also a divinity”.
There is a continuity “between ancient and Christian art: the woman is the expression of a canon of sweetness, of beauty. With Christianity, then, the female subject has an exponential development, for the role that the Virgin plays in life”.
Our journey is over, so we head for the exit. However, not before we take one last look at the fleeing Niobid.
by Elisa Calessi
BARBARA JATTA was appointed director of the Vatican Museums by Pope Francis on January 1, 2017. She is fifty-nine years old, an art historian, and the first woman to hold this position in the five-hundred-year history of the pontifical collections. About a thousand employees and collaborators work in the Museums every day. (Photo Umberto Pizzi)