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Antonio Paolucci

text Francesca Lombardi photo Valentina Stefanelli

February 5, 2024

The Vatican Museums as seen by the great art historian Antonio Paolucci

Our interview with the former director of the National Museum of the Vatican City

Antonio Paolucci, art historian, was Minister for Cultural and Environmental Heritage from 1995 to 1996 in the Dini government, Superintendent for the Polo Museale Fiorentino and Director of the Vatican Museums from 2007 to 2016.
After graduating in art history in 1964 with Roberto Longhi, he began his career in the state administration and in the world of the Superintendencies. On the occasion of his death, we remember him with a beautiful interview in which he takes us through the Vatican Museums: his point of view as Director but also as a refined art expert.

A special, immense place, where beauty blends with Rome’s grandeur, where time seems to stand still in the name of the harmony of art, where even light kneels before the sculptured figures of the great masters of the past: the Vatican Museums. We had the privilege of visiting them with a very special guide, director Antonio Paolucci, a name that needs no more words of introduction.

Why the Vatican Museums?

In the shade of St. Peter’s dome, artifacts by Native Australians  or worship vessels from Central-African countries stand side by side with Raffaello’s and Michelangelo’s masterworks. The Church has always wished for its museums to represent the plurality and variety of artistic cultures, as a reminder of the complexity of mankind as such, of the homo faber...

What cultures among those represented at the Vatican Museums, besides the Italian and European culture, do you find the most intriguing?

As I said, I am intrigued by the universality of the Church: Catholic derives from the ancient Greek word meaning universal. This is the amazing thing about the Vatican Museums. Nobody knows everything about the Museums. I’ve been the director for years, I’ve been coming here since I was a child, and I would be lying if I said that I know everything about the Vatican Museums. One or even several lives are not enough to gain a comprehensive knowledge of these museums, which represent human civilization in its totality.

One of the corridors of the Vatican Museums

The paintings by Beato Angelico in the Niccoline Chapel, which you are so fond of…

I feel quite at home here. If you look around, you will notice that the rhythm, the colors, the proportions are the same as those of Beato Angelico’s frescoes of the St. Mark’s Convent and Museum in Florence. And, what’s more, this Chapel was built at the request of Tomaso Parentucelli, the great intellectual, bibliographer and philosopher thanks to whom, at the Council of Florence in 1439,  the union of  the Eastern Church and the Western Church was made possible for a few years. This Cardinal was a friend of Cosimo de’Medici, the rich banker who had provided financial support for the building of the St. Mark’s Convent. Cosimo de’Medici summoned to Florence Tomaso Parentucelli, the future Pope Nicholas V, to have him set up the Convent’s beautiful trilingual library. The Cardinal spent six months in Florence choosing and cataloguing the books. During his stay in Florence, he surely met Beato Angelico, prior of the Convent. And he was so awestruck by the frescoes that when he became Pope he had Beato Angelico work on his private chapel.  The Chapel was inaugurated the year of the great Jubilee. It was the place where the Pope prayed in private and, thus,  Beato Angelico, as a man of deeply-religious feeling, was most certainly honored to be able to fresco the Pope’s private place of meditation. The Pope himself asked that the chapel be decorated with episodes from the life of the two deacons St. Stephen and St. Laurence. The most striking thing about the chapel is the perspective: in some scenes, Beato Angelico anticipates Piero della Francesca. Stephen and Laurence were both brilliant speakers and they are depicted speaking to the Emperor, to the people, to the Pope. Eloquence was Pope Nicholas V’s gift and Beato Angelico celebrated this gift in one of the Vatican Museums’ most beautiful gems.

The Vatican Museums are also home to Pinturicchio’s masterwork.

In the late 1400s, Pope Alexander VI had a suite of six rooms in the Vatican Palace, the so-called Borgia apartments, renovated and decorated by Italian painter Pinturicchio, who was aided by a large group of assistants. The works were completed in the space of two years, from 1492 to 1494, probably by the time Pinturicchio had left. The six rooms- a sequence of precious and refined decorations, with grotesques alternating with “spiced” paintings loaded with color, whose golden reflections glitter on the walls and ceilings- bear the mark of Pinturicchio, who probably combined the impression the visit to the Domus Aurea had made on him and the Pope’s taste for Hispanic-Moresque decorations.

The paintings and frescoes draw on Christian iconography while recalling the “archaeological style” which was very popular in Rome at the time. Another gem, different from the Niccoline Chapel- a place of meditation and celebration of knowledge and eloquence- but equally fascinating in its magnificence. Today,  most of the rooms house the Collection of Modern Religious Art, an initiative of Pope Paul VI in 1973, to obviate the divorce of art from the Church in the modern age. The collection includes over 1500 works of painting, sculpture and graphics donated by contemporary Italian and foreign artists such as Gauguin, Chagall, Klee, Kandinskij and many more.

Detail of the Niccoline Chapel

A quick tour of the picture gallery…

Three artists and three works of art: the Stefaneschi Triptych by Giotto di Bondone, The Deposition by Caravaggio, The Transfiguration by Raffaello. Raffaello was born on April 6, 1483 and died on April 6, 1520: it is said that he gave his last brushstrokes to the Christ’s face moments before passing away. All the people of Rome mourned at his funeral, at the thought that he- such a handsome man- was dead and his artwork so alive.

The Sistine Chapel: your personal vision of this world-famous masterpiece of art.

Most people visit the Sistine Chapel to see the Ceiling and The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, a great artist and quite uncommon man: quick-tempered and obsessed with money to the point of madness. It is said that he lived on a diet of half a loaf of bread and wore dog-skin trousers that he never took off… But he was a divine artist and the Sistine Chapel is a true masterpiece. After having admired the Ceiling, the Judging Christ and the Virgin, take a look at the walls: works by Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli… just to mention the best-known ones.

The Dome seen from the Vatican Museums

The Raphael Rooms. What is your favorite one?

Visit the Room of Heliodorus with the beautiful golden summer light filtering through at sunset: it is a vision you will hardly forget. The Deliverance of Saint Peter, a nocturne painting of matchless beauty, is a study in light: natural moonlight, man-made torchlight, and God-provided angel light. Raffaello here anticipates Tiziano’s work, without ever having seen it.

What place of the Vatican Museums do you feel the most familiar with?

The Octagonal Courtyard. Not only the Lacoonte, but also the Venus, the Perseus and Hermes feel like familiar presences. When the Museums are closed, I stop here to reflect or simply take in Rome’s grandeur and its Fellinesque soul.


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