Vatican Museum: The Pinacoteca

We walk toward the west to cross the Tiber at the Bridge of Angels and enter the Via della Conciliazione. Next we turn right before we reach Bernini’s arcade and walk along the Vatican’s ramparts to arrive at the museum’s entrance.

Entrance   Vatican Museum

photo: Lorenzo Ventura

Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
Vatican Museum aerial

Vatican City (map): including, among others an overview of the museums:  A. Main entrance museums B. Porta S. Anne (service entrance) C. Portone di bronzo (official entrance) D. Arco delle Campane (to the catacombs)

Vatican museums (see overview of museums above):

  1. Pio Clementino
  2. Egyptian Museum (1st floor) Etruscan (2nd floor)
  3. New Museum (formerly Lateran Museum) Gregoriano Profano, Pio Cristiano
  4. Pinacoteca
  5. Library, Museo Cristiano (1st floor), The Gallery of Maps (2nd floor)
  6. Galleria Lapidaria
  7. Museo Chiaramonti
  8. Braccio Nuovo
  9. Sistine Chapel Vatican palaces (see overview of museums above)
  10. Casino Pio IV
  11. Stanze (rooms) of Raphael (also see below)
  12. Loggia’s by RaphaelSt Damasus Courtyard
  13. Sistine Chapel
  14. Scala Regia
Pinacotheek entrance
Youtube Musei Vaticani Pinacoteca (2.14 minutes)
entrance Pinacotheek Vatican

picture: Catherine_Holt

As you will understand, this museum is so big and contains so many works of art that we have no choice but to make a selection. We will first visit the Pinacoteca (see number 4 and the Pinacoteca’s floorplan). A good site for the Vatican Museums.

Pinacoteca Vatican
Pinacoteca Vatican aerial

picture: bvrolijk

Pinacoteca floorplan:

  12th century panels by Baronzio, Cavalli and others
Works by late Gothic painters such as Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, Gentile da Fabriano, Daddi and Giotto
Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Gozzoli
Melozzo da Forli, Marco Palmezzano
15th century painters including Lucas Cranach the elder
Polyptychs by Crivelli, Antonio Vivarini and others
15th century Umbrian school including Pietro Vannucci
Three works by Raphaël and carpets
16th century; Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Bellini
16th century Venetian; Titian, Paris Bordone and Caliari
late 16th century; for example, Giorgio Vasari
Baroque, Guido Reni, Poussin, Caravaggio
17th and 18th century; Van Dyck, Ribera
Various objects
Temporary exhibitions
Original models by Bernini
Byzantine icons

Walking through the rooms of the Pinacoteca means walking through the history of painting. In rooms 1 and 2 you can see quite well that the art of painting is still in the first stages of a long development. Room 2 allows us to make a proper comparison between the painters in the first room and a painter like Giotto. The latter is characterised by Giorgio Vasari as the ‘father of painting’, and with reason. He broke free of the Byzantine style, which did not realistically reflect the natural world, in fact it did quite the opposite. Vasari describes how he saw a young shepherd carving the image of a sheep into a rock. Cimabue was astonished and asked the young shepherd to become his apprentice. Vasari then continues to say:

Once there, assisted by nature and instructed by Cimabue, the boy quickly not just came up to his master’s style, but became such a good student of nature that he put an end to the awkward Greek style [teg: Byzantine style] and brought good modern painting back to life, by being the first to create accurate representations of existing people, painting his subjects true to life, a style that had fallen into disuse for more than 200 years, and even if someone had tried to revive it, they would not, as I have related above, have been very successful or as quick as Giotto.

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, part 1 [original edition 1568] 1992, page 69.

We will look at a Giotto triptych, the Stefaneschi altar from 1313, to see to what extent Vasari’s judgment was correct.

Giotto ‘Front of the Stefaneschi triptych     Large size


Giotto back of the Stefaneschi triptych large size      Stefaneschi offers the Altarpiece
 Giotto achterzijde van de Stefaneschi triptiek Vaticaan museum Pinacotheek

What is it about this work by Giotto that is so modern compared to what we saw in room 1? Standing in front of the big panel – 220 x 245 cm, – we take a look at the robe of Christ, who is seated on his throne. Here you can see how innovative and modern this shepherd’s boy was as a painter. Particularly when you compare the robe of Christ with another robe that his master Cimabue painted on the Virgin Mary. Also in the two side panels, the painter depicts his story in a human way; indeed, quite different from the awkward Greeks or Byzantines that Vasari writes about.

In rooms 3 and 4 you can see how great Giotto’s influence on painting really was. We will look at the paintings of two monks: Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. The latter painted a triptych in 1460 showing the coronation of the Virgin Mary in the middle panel.

Fra Filippo Lippi ‘The coronation of the Virgin Mary’
Fra Filippo Lippi Kroning van Maria Pinacotheek Vaticaan museum

Lucrezia Buti reportedly modelled for the lady in the middle panel who kneels down to be crowned. Lippi was painting an altarpiece at the Santa Margherita convent in Prato, when he saw a beautiful young woman who had been sent there by her father Francesco. Filippo persuaded the nuns to allow Lucrezia to sit for the figure of the Virgin Mary. However, this led to quite a bit more than just sitting and painting. Lippi engaged in sexual relations with Lucrezia and abducted her to his house under the pretext that they wanted to see the relic of ‘St Mary’s belt’. Francesco and the nuns were furious. Fortunately, the rich and influential Medici family interceded. They managed to persuade the parties involved not to bring charges against Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti. She gave her husband a son, Filippino who also became a successful painter. The story goes that his wife invariably sat for her husband whenever he painted a Virgin Mary.

Room 8 (unfortunately, we cannot see every room) features three paintings by Raphael; ‘The Crowning of the Virgin’, ‘The Madonna of Foligno’ and the superlative ‘The Transfiguration.’

Raphael room 8 
Pinacotheek Vaticaans Museum Zaal acht Raphaël 

picture mouseover: Shall_

Raphael ‘The Crowning of the Virgin’ large size   Raphael ‘The Madonna of Foligno’ large size
Raphael The Crowning of the Virgin Vatican museum   Raphael The Madonna of Foligno Vatican Museum
Raphael ‘The Transfiguration’ large size
Raphael The Transfiguration Vatican museum

These works belong to the High Renaissance. The main difference with the works that we saw in the other rooms lies in, among others:

1. the naturalism that began with Giotto is now much improved.
2 the utilization of precious materials such as gold and lapis was no longer important.

The first point is immediately clear when we look around this room. The second point is a little more complicated. The altarpieces painted by Giotto, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi had a lot of gold in them, both in the frames and in the background, but there’s no longer any gold visible in Raphael’s work. Something you probably failed to notice in the triptychs we looked at earlier are the blue cloaks worn by Christ and the Virgin Mary. This blue pigment that was used by Giotto and Fra Angelico, is much more expensive than gold leaf. We will briefly revisit the previous rooms to compare Raphael’s ‘The Crowing of the Virgin’ to those painted by 14th century artists.

Where the 14th century painters made extensive use of gold leaf and ultramarine (made from lapis), Raphael’s work does not place any emphasis on costly materials, but instead focuses on a realistic representation of figures and a convincing composition. This is also reflected in the contracts that were concluded with the painters. In the contracts dating from the 13th century up to and including the first half of the 15th century, the patron often compelled the painter to use gold leaf and lapis blue.

In the second half of the 15th century and especially in the 16th century the most important condition is that the painting must be painted by the master himself. In this case that means that the painting had to be done by Raphael, not one of his assistants. The most recent major restoration of Raphael’s painting ‘The Transfiguration’ showed that he actually did all the work, contrary to what the experts thought, and quite the opposite of what Von Sandrart alleged in 1675.

According to this author, Raphael’s assistant Giulio Romano had just finished the face of the possessed young man, who at that precise moment is cured of his affliction (in the bottom right corner of the image). When Raphael, who just then walked into his studio saw this, he takes the brush and the palette from Giulio’s hand and with a few precise brush strokes changes the young man’s mouth and eyes. Romano had painted him too tamely, he forgot to give him a soul, according to the master’s own comments.

And here’s a recipe from ‘Il libro dell’ arte’ by Cennino Cennini about a very expensive colour, the shade of blue called ultramarine. Cennini wrote a book entitled ‘Il libro dell’ arte’ which includes a recipe for making ultramarine, more specifically in chapter LXII entitled ‘On the Nature of Ultramarine Blue and how to make it.’

Ultramarine is a noble colour, beautiful and the most perfect of all colours […] First one obtains some lapis. And to recognize the good stone, one must choose the one that is richest in blue colour, because they have all been mixed with ashes. […] Crush it [semi-precious stone] in a covered bronze mortar (see the boy in the background in Ostade’s painting), so the dust cannot escape. Then put this on your porphyry stone and crush it further without water. Next take a covered sieve as used by the pharmacist to sift herbs and sift it. And pound it again if you think it necessary. And remember the finer the powder, the finer the blue, but not so beautifully violet in colour. The finer powder is used primarily by miniaturists and for making draperies with highlights. When this powder is ready, take six oncias of spruce resin from the pharmacist’s, three oncias of mastic and three oncias of new wax for each pound (1 pound = 12 oncias) of lapis. Put all the ingredients in a new, small earthenware pot and let it melt together. Take a piece of white linen and sift the mixture into a glazed washing bowl. Take a pound of lapis powder and thoroughly blend it into a well kneaded dough. […] To take out the blue [out of the dough], use the following method: cut two small rods from a sturdy stick […] Then take the dough you have kept in the glazed washing bowl and add one soup plate full of fairly warm lye, and with the two rods, one in each hand, turn and squeeze the dough, and knead it first in one direction, then in the other, like you would knead bread with your hands. […] When the lye has turned quite blue, pour it into another glazed bowl […] But bear in mind, that when the lapis is of good quality, the blue of the first and second extractions is worth eight ducats per ounce, and that the last two extractions are worse than ashes. […] Every day, pour the lye from the soup plates so that the blues can dry out. When they are perfectly dry, store them in leather, either in a bladder or a pouch.

From: Cennino Cennini, ‘The Artist’s Manual’, Contact, Amsterdam/Antwerp, 2001 (originally published late 14th century), page 94-97.

Blue made from lapis is zo precious that it is no longer being made. Ultramarine was primarily used in painting important figures such as the Virgin Mary. We know from surviving contracts that patrons often demanded the artist use ultramarine, specifically demanding the blue had to come from ‘first extractions’. Michelangelo used ultramarine for his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel – which we will look at before we leave the Vatican – and quite a lot of it too. It is only fortunate that he did, because you will be surprised how well the back wall of the Sistine Chapel has withstood the ravages of time.

When we compare these three paintings by Raphael on the long wall across from the entrance, we can see the enormous progress this artist made in a short period of time. Pay close attention to the separation in all three works between what is depicted in the top half and the bottom half of the image plane. In the ‘Crowning of the Virgin’ (1502-1503) the scene in the lower half is completely isolated from what is happening in the top half. In the ‘Madonna of Foligno’ (1511-1512) you can see that there is at least some interaction between the two worlds. Look at the lower angel in the middle holding up a plate. He is looking at the baby Jesus held by the Virgin Mary, who in turn is looking at the angel below. In the ‘Transfiguration’ (1517) Raphael convincingly joins the upper and lower scenes into a strong union.

We turn around and walk to room 9, which has a work by Leonardo da Vinci and a Pietà by Giovanni Bellini. Leonardo never completed the work, a representation of St Jerome.

Giovanni Bellini ‘Pietà’ large size
Giovanni Bellini Pietà Vatican Museum
Leonardo da Vinci ‘Saint Jerome in the Wilderness’ large size
Leonardo da Vinci Saint Jerome in the Wilderness Vatican museum

This holds true for many paintings by this famous artist. In this case at least we can gain insight into how artists got started on a new painting. Leonardo, and this was standard in his day, first made a drawing that was later coloured in with paint. Looking at this painting, one can see that he had only barely started colouring it in.

The other paintings in this room (10) include two works by Titian.

Titian ‘Madonna and Child in Glory with SS. Catherine, Nicholas, Peter, Anthony of Padua, Francis and Sebastian’ large size
Titian Madonna and Child in Glory with SS. Catherine, Nicholas, Peter, Anthony of Padua, Francis and Sebastian Vatican Museum

Like Giovanni Bellini, he was a Venetian painter. When we are standing in front of these paintings, we will see what a world of difference there is between the Venetian school and the rest of Italy. Venetians painted directly onto the canvas without concerning themselves with an underdrawing like the one we saw in Leonardo’s unfinished painting. A portrait that Titian did of the Doge Marcello, which also hangs in this room, is a fine example of the Venetian approach.

When Michelangelo visited Titian in Rome one day when the latter was finishing his ‘Danaë’, he commented that he really liked the style and the colouring but that unfortunately the Venetians had never learned to make proper drawings. A good example of which we saw just now in Leonardo’s unfinished painting. Also, the paint had to be applied finely and smoothly so no brushstrokes would be visible. The paint surface had to shine like a mirror. Titian did not comply with these standards that were taught by every studio across Italy. Titian occasionally used thick layers of paint, which he applied crudely, so that the brush strokes and rough surface could still be seen. One of his apprentices described his technique as follows:

For the final touches he [Teg: Titian] he created the transition from the highlights to the half tones with his fingers to blend one shade with the other, or applied a dark smudge in one corner or another for added emphasis, or enlivened the surface with a touch of red like a drop of blood […] In the final phase, he used his fingers more often than a brush.

James H. Beck, ‘Italian Renaissance Painting’, Könemann, Cologne, 1999 page 393.

We proceed to room 12 to see, what choice do we have on this day, a painting by Caravaggio entitled: ‘The Entombment’. This work originally hung in the Chiesa Nuova, also known as the Santa Maria in Vallicella. Unfortunately, it has been replaced with a replica, while the original has been put up here in this room. Unfortunately, because The Entombment is difficult to understand without knowing the context that it was painted for. With this altarpiece, Caravaggio deliberately created an interaction with its surroundings and with the priest standing in front of the altarpiece. Caravaggio also created a continuation of the altarpieces in the adjoining chapels. You will hear this story in programme 4, when you are standing before the replica of The Entombment in the Chiesa Nuova. (Click here if you want to read this story).

We will now leave the Pinacoteca, but before we do, we pay a brief visit to room 15 to look at a number of Bernini’s bozzetti. You will see a plaster angel of which one section near its wing is broken, allowing us to see what these life-sized models were made of: paper, thread, all kinds of rags and other material used to fill up the iron frame, and then plaster as the final layer.

Bozzetti angels Pinacoteca room  15
Vatican museum Pinacoteca  room  15 bozzetti angels Bernini

foto: Jos Saris

Bernini model angels Vatican

pictures: Lois

We will walk to the Museo Pio Clementino.

Museo Pio Clementino
Museo Pio Clementino Vatican M useum

foto: edk7

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