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‘Beauty can lead to faith’ – an interview with the director of the Vatican Museums

Jatta: ‘I worried about becoming director, but my children said: “You’ll manage”’ (press office, vatican museumsaitiin ddl)

Barbara Jatta, the first female director of the Vatican Museums, is determined they should contain more than just ‘musty memories’

Barbara Jatta, the first woman to direct the Vatican Museums in their 512-year history, says that she grew up amid the smells of solvent. Her father was a lawyer but, she pointed out when I met her at the Vatican, “it’s more important to my career that my mother is a painter – as was my Russian grandmother – and art restorer, as is my sister.”

Jatta seemed destined for the world of art. One grandfather, Andrea Busiri Vici, was a renowned Roman architect with Vatican connections. Her uncle Antonio Jatta filled his mansion in Ruvo di Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot, with Greek vases found on his property. He was a lecturer in architecture and a parliamentarian, and his descendants still live in his mansion which has become a state museum.

Barbara Jatta, 56, who has a pleasant manner and a ready smile, worked in the Vatican Museums for only six months before becoming their director in January 2017. Her predecessor Antonio Paolucci, who had renovated the museums during his 10 years as director, was, in Jatta’s words, looking for “someone different but not too different” to succeed him. In fact he found her just down the corridor, because for the previous 20 years she had worked in the Vatican Library, ultimately as curator of graphic arts, a sector which includes drawings, engravings, maps and photographs.

Prints are her speciality: she graduated from Rome’s La Sapienza University after a thesis on prints and engravings and she later took a course in art history. She lectured at a university in Naples, wrote books on art history and worked in the Italian National Graphics Institute, first as a restorer then as a cataloguer, before moving to the Vatican Library.

DESMOND O’GRADY What are your aims as director of the Vatican’s 14 Museums?

BARBARA JATTA To preserve what has been handed down and present it in a way that enables visitors to have a memorable experience here. They may make only one visit in their lifetime.

DO’G Paul VI said that artists need contact with the Church but that the Church needs artists. Do you feel any need for contact with contemporary art and artists?

BJ Yes, but the Vatican Museums do not hold one-man exhibits of living artists.

DO’G Paul VI founded your museum of contemporary art with gifts of works from contemporaries …

BJ True, and still there’s rarely a week in which we are not offered works by contemporaries, but we have rigorous acceptance standards. We’ve just accepted a series of works from the 94-year-old Italian engraver and painter Guido Strazza.

DO’G Your exhibition rules seem to limit contact with contemporary artists.

BJ We chose nine photographers [eight men – four of them Italian – and one woman, the Japanese Rinko Kawauchi] and commissioned them to photograph any aspect of the museums. Their subjects ranged from visitors to new perspectives on the architecture. Their photos, nearly 200 in all, were exhibited in Milan at the Palazzo Reale. They’ll be shown in the future in our contemporary arts museum. I’m pleased to have taken this initiative.

DO’G What are your other innovations?

BJ Our new website (, and putting online what is on display, which amounts to 25 per cent of our holdings. We have started taking tourists on cultural tours to the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo.

And renovation of the space at the basilica end of the left colonnade in St Peter’s Square, called the Charlemagne Wing, has been completed so that Bernini’s architecture is wholly visible – imagine that, a gallery designed by Bernini! Temporary exhibitions, for which entry is free, are staged there.

We’ve just opened a fine exhibition of 54 Russian works of art which are an exchange for an exhibition we held in Moscow, called Masterpieces from the Pinacoteca Vaticana: Bellini, Raphael, Caravaggio. They’ve sent us 54 splendid works from icons to futurist paintings which will be on display until February. I’m very taken with Russian art and literature. My painter grandma was Russian and I speak it a little. [Her other languages are English and French.]

DO’G How do you respond to those who say that all the museums’ holdings should be sold and the money used to help the poor?

BJ My response is that we have a duty to preserve what has been handed down to us and present it in the best manner possible. It’s a cultural duty undertaken with a conviction that beauty can lead to faith.

DO’G Visitors often use guides but how can you ensure they are adequate?

BJ We hold lessons for our guides, the 350 who collaborate with us.

DO’G Don’t many tourist operators have their own guides?

BJ Yes, but we want to persuade the guides to go beyond the one kilometre of the most renowned exhibits and visit the other six kilometres.

DO’G Inevitably visitors want to see the most renowned things.

BJ However, there are exhibits which are just as beautiful but are less known. For instance, on the second floor, the Gregorian Etruscan Museum has an incredible collection of Etruscan art. Varying the itineraries reduces crowding. We average over 20,000 visitors a day.

DO’G That’s over six million visitors a year with their dusty shoes and heavy breaths. There must be a limit, otherwise you’ll be ruined by your success.

BJ There’s a limit but we don’t know what it is yet. The lighting, air conditioning and cleaning have improved in the Sistine Chapel and in other parts of the museum, enabling us to safely accommodate more visitors than a few years ago.

DO’G Do you collaborate closely with the Secretariat of State’s diplomacy, arranging, for instance, exchange exhibitions with China and Russia?

BJ Diplomacy is employed mainly with other museums and institutions arranging exchanges and collaborative initiatives. For instance, we had a joint exhibition with the Rome Jewish community about the menorah and collaborated with the Australian National University’s Aboriginal Institute to publish the catalogue on our Australian aboriginal holdings. But I’ve introduced stricter standards about loans because there is too much danger of damage.

DO’G How many laboratories do you have?

BJ Seven. We have a good standing in this field. The study seminar we held on conservation in October was attended by directors from the major museums.
It’s said that Italian is the language of art conservation. I discovered this decades ago when I did internships in the USA, London and Portugal.

I was welcomed at the Cleveland Art Gallery where many of the staff knew Italian. With them I organised an exhibition of Roman Views which was shown also at the American Academy here. Then in Rome I organised an exhibition of King George III’s engraver, the Italian Francesco Bartoletti. While in Lisbon, where I worked at both the National Museum and in the university library, I put together an exhibition on Rome and Portugal.

DO’G What exhibitions are being prepared for the Museums?

BJ Da Vinci, Raphael –the restoral of his Stanze has been completed with new lighting and air conditioning – and Piranesi.

DO’G Do you always write the forewords to the museums’ catalogues, and the other books the Museums publish, and speak to open the press conferences and study days you hold?

BJ Yes, there are about 35 such occasions yearly and about 10 exhibitions. Some are held outside Italy but I go only to the major ones, such as that which opened in Chile last year and a recent exhibition in Mexico.

DO’G It’s a heavy workload when there is much to do running the museums day to day. What did your children think about you becoming director?

BJ I’ve three children: Marco, 28, who works in finance in Milan, Fabiola, 25, an anthropologist in London who is all for the poor and immigrants, and Giorgio, 16, at high school in Rome. I was worried that I wouldn’t be up to being director but they all reassured me: “You’ll manage, Mum.”

Pope Francis has visited part of the Museums but not all. Once he said that museums should not become musty memories of the past. The then director, Antonio Paolucci, responded that the Vatican Museums are not dusty and those who work there are very aware of what interests people. Barbara Jatta seems to prove his claim.

Desmond O’Grady is a journalist, author and playwright living in Rome