The Spanish Rodrigo de Borja y Doms (Italianised as “Borgia”), elected as pope following the death of Innocent VIII with the name Alexander VI, lends his name to part of the residence used during his papacy, which lasted from 1492 to 1503 and was marked by events of great importance such as the discovery of America and the great jubilee of 1500.
The Borgia Apartment consists of six monumental spaces, renovated and decorated at Pope Alexander VI’s behest, which now house part of the Vatican Museums’ Collection of Contemporary Art inaugurated by Paul VI (1973): the Sala delle Sibille (Room of the Sibyls) and the Sala del Credo (Room of the Creed) are in the Borgia Tower, whereas those of the Liberal Arts, the Saints and the Mysteries are all aligned in the wing built by Nicholas V (1447-1455) and defined as “secret rooms” in the Diary of Johannes Burckhard, Pope Alexander’s master of ceremonies; finally, the Sala dei Pontifici (Room of the Pontiffs) is in the oldest wing, built by Nicholas III (1277-1280). The papal residence occupied all of the first floor of the Apostolic Palace, still including two small rooms accessible from the Room of Liberal Arts, probably used as a cubiculum (bedroom) and a stufetta (bathroom), as well as the present-day Sale dei Paramenti, Galleriola or Audience Room, Sala della Falda and the cubiculum of Nicholas V, which are not accessible to the public.
Following the death of Alexander VI the apartment was abandoned by Julius II (1503-1513), who did not wish to be surrounded by the memory of his despised predecessor; he decided to move to the corresponding rooms on the floor above, now known as the Raphael Rooms, whose decoration marked Sanzio’s unstoppable rise. Although the popes continued to change residence, the Borgia Apartment housed some of the “nephew Cardinals”, such as the renowned St. Charles Borromeo, nephew of Pius VI, followed by the Pinacoteca of Pius VII (1816) and Cardinal Mai’s library. Only at the end of the 1800s did Leo XIII decide to open it to the public following radical restoration.
The pictorial decoration of the “secret rooms” – those reserved for private use by the Pontiff – was entrusted to the Umbrian painter Bernardino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio or Pintoricchio (“little pintor", alluding to his diminutive stature), a name he repeatedly and frequently used to sign documents. Following his debut in the Vatican, within Perugino’s workshop at work in the Sistine Chapel (1481 to 1483), the artist soon managed to distinguish himself on account of his originality, attaining autonomous affirmation and widespread support for the duration of five pontificates: Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII (who commissioned the decoration of the Palazzetto del Belvedere, of which there remain a few City Views and lunettes containing cupids in the Gallery of Statues in the Pio Clementino Museum), Alexander VI, Pius III and Julius II. Trained as a skilled miniaturist, Pinturicchio later matured remarkable artistic qualities both in panel and fresco painting, to the extent that he was authoritatively recognised as one of the leading exponents of the Umbrian school towards the end of the fifteenth century.
“In the Pope’s palace, Alexander VI had him paint all the rooms where he lived, and all of the Borgia tower […] and he reworked all the vaults with stucco and gold”; although there is no contract or citation in Alexander VI’s accounts, Vasari’s statement may be proven by a letter dated 29 March 1493, in which the Pontiff informs the inhabitants of Orvieto of the interruption to the decoration works of the Duomo, entrusted to Pinturicchio, due the painter’s new engagement in the papal apartment in the Vatican.
The lavish decoration of the Borgia Apartment, inspired perhaps by the theologian and palace master Annio da Viterbo, constitutes the apex of the brilliant career of the Umbrian painter, who established himself as the central figure in the pontificate of Alexander VI. This latter, after the invasion of Charles VIII, commissioned a vast cycle of frescoes in Castel Sant’Angelo (1497), unfortunately lost. This great undertaking was rapidly completed between the autumn of 1492 and the beginning of 1494, confirming the speed that was praised as a distinctive quality of the painter. He was supported by a well-guided team of artists, including Piermatteo d’Amelia, Benedetto Bonfigli, Pietro d’Andrea and Antonio da Viterbo (“il Pastura”) – critics have recently added Bartolomeo di Giovanni and Raffaellino del Garbo to the list – and the use of specific technical aspects. Indeed, the painter made only partial use of fresco techniques, alternating it with a particular mixed painting technique, as demonstrated by recent restoration work, which was more rapid and similar to dry panel work, thus enabling the use of a broader range of pigments and lacquers able to confer to the paintings that chromatic splendour that is most exalted in the intense profusion of stucco and gold wax tablets.