Presumably used as Alexander VI’s study, the first of the “secret rooms”, the three rooms created in the wing built by Nicholas V (1447-1455), is known as the Room of the Liberal Arts, corresponding to the “arts” or disciplines that constituted the foundation of medieval scholastic teaching.
These represent a celebration of knowledge in its different specialisations, and are allegorically depicted as attractive women seated on thrones: the names engraved on the base identify the Arts of the Trivium, or rather Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, and those of the Quadrivium – Geometry, Arithmetic, Music and Astronomy – surrounded by those who distinguished themselves in those disciplines, often portraits of eminent contemporary figures. Although the word “Penturichio” inscribed on the base of the throne of Rhetoric is the only signature in the cycle, the frescoes in this room are largely attributed to his workshop.
On the ceiling a number of coats of arms and deeds of Alexander VI are depicted in gilded stucco: through the adoption of the fourteenth century Aragon emblem characterised by a double crown (alluding to the two kingdoms of Aragon and Sicily), with one facing upwards, the other down, with the added option of rays shining towards the ground, the pontiff intends to exalt his own royal lineage and to associate himself with the sun illuminating the earth. As well as the crown, there also appears a crimson flame against a dark background and an ox, a motif that recurs almost obsessively throughout the series.
The median arch that subdivides the richly decorated ceiling is known as that of Justice, for the various biblical episodes and stories that exemplify this virtue: Jacob flees from Laban, the Angels save Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Justice dispenses gifts, and Trajan and the poor widow.