Alexander VI Borgia was arguably the most scandalous Pope that the papacy ever had. The Borgia Apartments are now included in the Vatican Museums, which is a highlight of many of our Vatican tours. In this guide, you can find some background information on the private Borgia Apartments and how to visit these exquisite rooms.
The Borgia Apartments
Visiting the Vatican Museums is a unique experience due to its fascinating history. Some of the most powerful people in Western history would have admired the same art pieces that you are going to admire while there.
In certain rooms like the Borgia Apartments, you will walk through Pope’s bedroom and other rooms where scandalous activities such as murder took place. This is why I highly recommend a Vatican guided tour to not only learn about what you see but also what you can’t see.
What did the Borgia Family do & Why were they famous?
If you have watched the Netflix series ” The Borgias”, then you will immediately understand why this family was so famous or infamous. Even if they were slandered by the following generations unfairly, there must have been some truth to the many accusations.
Rodrigo Borgia was a Spaniard from Aragon and was elected pope in 1492. He also happened to be the nephew of a previous pope Callixtus III. The main cause for the rumors was quite simply the Borgia pope had children. Among them were the beautiful Lucrezia Borgia and the sometimes cruel Cesare Borgia.
He was also more of a temporal monarch than a spiritual leader who terrorized the cardinals and princes who didn’t submit to him. As we go through these beautifully decorated rooms, bear in mind that they were the private living quarters of the pope and his immediate family. Due to their reputation and the harm they did on others, future popes refused to live in these apartments.
Never Presume that I will not act on my worst instinctsCesare Borgia- Son of Pope Alexander VI
6. Room of the Sibyls
This is the first room you will see as you descend the stairs from the floor above. According to legend, it was in this room that a horrible crime took place in the year 1500. Cesare Borgia, the firstborn son of the pope killed the 21-year-old husband of his sister Lucrezia. Rumor has it insane jealously led him to commit this crime. It was also in this room, shortly after the death of his father the pope, that Cesare was imprisoned by the new Pope Julius II.
The artist Antonio da Viterbo was the main painter of this room. While observing the frescoes, you might find the year the room was completed (1494) painted on the ceiling. This space is decorated with several different motifs that express the artist’s imagination and personality. There are many mythological characters all over the room and also some amazing reproductions of plants and fruits.
What might surprise you is the fact that the painter chose to include several astrological symbols, specifically the Taurus sign painted several times all over the room. Of course, there’s a reason behind it: the Borgia’s crest in fact used to show a bull in the middle and Antonio da Viterbo decided to pay homage to the family this way.
5. The Room of the Creed
This room was painted mostly by the workshop of Pinturicchio. They decided to follow the usual project, focusing on the ceiling. However, for this area, the painter opted for more classical work and reproduced several apostles and saints. The artists also decorated the room by inserting several fine geometrical figures, not easy to reproduce without some deep art studies.
The Catholic characters portrayed in this space have a very specific role: to express the strong union between the Old Testament and New Testament. According to some art critics, the style adopted by Pinturicchio and his school for this specific space can be considered as a mix between the famous Tuscan style and the Umbrian one.
4. Room of the Liberal Arts
The first thing that pops out at you is the fireplace. It is huge! The Room of the Liberal Arts was the private dining room and study of the Pope. It also happens to be the room where, upon his death, his boy lay in state. When you walk in, you can still feel the presence of such a powerful personality in the room. If only the walls had a mouth to tell us what took place here!
On the ceiling, is the personification of all the Liberal Arts such as geometry, rhetoric, figurative art, and literature. All the characters embodying each art are portrayed while sitting on a throne to emphasize the importance and necessity of all of them.
For example, Cicero expresses the importance of rhetoric and Euclid for geometry. Some experts are still discussing today the character portrayed to represent figurative art. The most credited theory assumes that the man sitting on the throne could be the painter Bramante.
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3. Room of the Saints
“The Room of the Saints” is probably the best known among all the others. This space, in particular, is a clear homage to the reigning Pope, and, specifically, to the divine justice that only this human being can profess. To display this theme, the artist Pinturicchio chose the Egyptian gods, Isis and Osiris, from the story written by the Latin poet Ovid. All of the paintings should express the constant fight between the evil, portrayed as the night itself, and the good, or daylight.
Also, a specific historical character is displayed in these frescos: St. Catherine of Alexandria. I would say this is Pinturicchio’s masterpiece. The abundant use of gold recalls the Medieval world which is so common with Pinturicchio. In this room are some common references to Borgia’s crest, such as the bull.
Without a doubt, The Disputation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is the most beautiful and spectacular fresco in the Borgia apartments. In the painting, Pinturicchio has painted himself at the left angle of the lunetteEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
2. The Room of the Mysteries of the Faith
The Room of the Mysteries of the Faith was the last room that Pinturicchio painted. This room was probably used by the pope to host private functions or visits. The name, the Room of Mysteries, is due to the Virgin Mary’s seven Mysteries, a series of Catholic stories loved by Pope Alexander VI.
The peculiarity of this space is the perfect coincidence between the fresco paintings on the ceiling and the geometrical figures used for the floor. In every corner of the room, the artist decided to portray one of the seven Mysteries.
Of course, you should begin your visit by observing the first one: the Annunciation, and then proceeding with the Shepherds Adoration until you arrive at the Resurrection and Virgin Mary’s final Assumption. Pinturicchio decided to portray the Biblical Prophets in the corners of the room and so you might find, for example, David, Isaiah and Solomon.
1. The Room of the Popes
The Room of the Popes owes its name to the scrolls with the names of popes on them in the room. It is the largest of all the rooms and the pope used it to host official ceremonies, audiences, and solemn banquets. It was also used in recent times as a dining room for Cardinals who were united during the Conclave to elect a new pope.
Unfortunately, Pinturicchio’s series of frescoes for this space didn’t survive. Pope Alexander himself barely survived when the roof fell in on him. He narrowly escaped a sure and painful death! A later pope, Leo X ordered Giovanni da Udine and Perino del Vaga to decorate the room with the signs of the zodiac, constellations and planets.
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