By Sylvia Poggioli
For close to 400 years, the painting was closed off to the world. For the past 124 years, millions of visitors walked by without noticing an intriguing scene covered with centuries of grime.
Only now, the Vatican says a detail in a newly cleaned 15th century fresco shows what may be one of the first European depictions of Native Americans.
The fresco, The Resurrection, was painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio in 1494 — just two years after Christopher Columbus first set foot in what came to be called the New World.
Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, told the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that after the soot and grime were removed, in the background, just above the open coffin from where Christ has risen, “we see nude men, decorated with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing.” One of them seems to sport a Mohican cut.
The image dovetails with Columbus’ description of having been greeted by dancing nude men painted black or red.
Commissioned By The Pope
The painting was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI. Anyone who has followed the TV seriesThe Borgias knows he was the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard who fathered several children and became a symbol of church corruption.
Alexander VI became pope in 1492, only a few months before Columbus made landfall.
Art historian Paolucci is convinced the entire Pinturicchio fresco cycle for the Borgia Apartments inside the Vatican had been completed by the end of 1494.
“The Borgia pope was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe,” Paolucci told L’Osservatore Romano.
Columbus’ four trips to the New World were financed by the Spanish royals Ferdinand and Isabella.
On his return to Spain in March 1493 from his first journey, Columbus handed over his travel journal to the sovereigns who, according to Paolucci, had every interest in keeping it secret.
A Secret That Spread Quickly
But word of Columbus’ sensational discovery soon spread throughout Europe.
“It is hard to believe,” Paolucci said, “that the Borgia papal court would be unaware of what Columbus saw when he reached the ends of the earth.”
Hence, the art historian believes, the dancing figures in Pinturicchio’s Resurrection could be “the first depiction of Native Americans.”
The Borgia pope’s links to the New World do not end there.
Alexander VI played a key role in determining how history would play out in what would become The Americas and who would reap the benefits: While Pinturicchio was painting his cycle, Alexander was busy drafting the Tordesillas treaty of June 1494 that divided up the newly discovered territories between the two major naval powers of the time, Spain and Portugal.
One can’t help but imagine Alexander pondering the implications of Columbus’ discovery while Pinturicchio was concentrating on his brush strokes on the fresh plaster of the Vatican walls.
Pope Alexander has a prominent position in the painting — he’s the large figure in ornate robes kneeling on the left, his hands clasped in prayer.
But it’s not clear whether he’s more transfixed by the image of the risen Christ or by the potential spoils of the New World, represented by the nude dancing figures.
Until now, it was believed that the first known European depictions of Native Americans were those of the British artist John White, who was governor of the colony at Roanoke Island.
But he wasn’t even born until nearly half a century after the discovery of the New World.
Pinturicchio’s nude figures remained forgotten because the Borgia Apartments were sealed off after Pope Alexander’s death in 1503. His successor, Julius II, said he would never live in the rooms of the pope who had so tainted the church’s reputation. And Julius ordered that all paintings made for the Borgias be covered in black crepe.
It was not until 1889 that the Borgia Apartments were reopened and dedicated to the display of religious art.