By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO May 6, 2013, 5:58 pm
ROME – Vatican officials say they have found what could be the first European images of American Indians in a fresco painted within two years of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the so-called New World.
The lightly sketched group of men — nude save for what appear to be feathered headdresses and posed as if dancing — emerged during the restoration of a fresco of the “Resurrection of Christ” by the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio, painted in one of several rooms he decorated for Pope Alexander VI between 1492 and 1494.
Writing last week in L’ Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, suggested that the figures are consistent with the descriptions that Columbus gave in his letters of the indigenous people he saw upon his arrival in the Americas.
The figures’ appearance in the fresco is in keeping with a practice common during the Renaissance of introducing contemporary elements into historical or sacred scenes, said Franco Ivan Nucciarelli, a Pinturicchio scholar who teaches at the University of Perugia. And in particular, Alexander VI had a great interest “in emphasizing his ties with the New World,” which gave him much power, Mr. Nucciarelli said.
Musei Vaticani—–Detail of a fresco of the “Resurrection of Christ” by Pinturicchio.
Nor would the inclusion of these figures be out of place in frescoes painted for Alexander VI, the former Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Mr. Paolucci noted. “The Borgia pope, elected just a few months before Columbus made landfall, “was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe,” he wrote. “It is hard to believe that the papal court, especially under a Spanish pontiff, would have remained in the dark about what Columbus saw when he arrived at the ends of the earth.”
The figures emerged from under layers of soot and overpainting during a 2006 restoration of the space called Room of the Mysteries, which includes “Resurrection of Christ,” but Vatican experts took a cautious approach to their findings. “We didn’t publicize them because we wanted to carry out further verifications,” said Maria Pustka, who is responsible for restoring the rooms once inhabited by Alexander VI. “Now that further research been carried out, we felt it was opportune to make the finding known.”
Pinturicchio lightly sketched the figures in black and white paint directly onto the dried fresco, an unusual “and interesting” technique, she said, and they were painted over in successive restorations. When wet, the figures disappear altogether, she said.