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  • Writer's pictureLaura Sesana

Americans hidden in the Vatican for over 500 years

WASHINGTON—In 2014, a depiction of naked men wearing headdresses was uncovered during the restoration of a 1494 fresco in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace made news around the world. Not noticed in over 500 years, specialists believe that this may be the first known European depiction of Native Americans.

The painting in question, “Resurrection,” by Renaissance master Pinturicchio (1454-1513), depicts the resurrection of Christ. The figures believed to represent Native Americans appear in the background, above the empty open casket, below Jesus’ feet.

Americans hidden in the Vatican for over 500 years
“Resurrection,” by Pinturicchio. Musei Vaticani

“This is the first image of native Americans as described by Columbus,” said Antonio Paolucci, head of the Vatican Museums, to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semiofficial daily newspaper.

Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, commissioned the fresco for his apartments inside the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. All the frescoes were completed by 1494, only one year after Columbus’ return from his first journey. While this may seem like a short time, the figures in the painting are consistent with the descriptions of the natives in Columbus’ journal and letters to the Spanish monarchs.

It is likely that the Papal court would have been aware of Columbus’ discoveries soon after his return in March of 1493, according to Paolucci. Pope Alexander was Spanish and subsequently arbitrated Spain and Portugal’s competing claims to the New World, authoring the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

“It is hard to believe that the Borgia papal court would be unaware of what Columbus saw when he reached the ends of the earth,” said Paolucci. “The Borgia pope was interested in the New World, as were the great chancelleries of Europe.”

The apartments that housed “Resurrection” were sealed after Alexander’s death in 1503 and subsequently abandoned, as later popes declined to use them for fear of being associated with the Borgias and their legacy. Finally reopened in 1889 by Pope Leo XIII, the apartments are now used to display religious art.

Since Columbus did not go near the North American mainland during his first voyage, it is impossible that the painting depicts native North Americans, as several American journalists have suggested from the apparently Mohican-style haircut on one of the figures. Besides, Europeans did not encounter Mohicans until 1609, over 100 years after the painting was completed.

It is more likely that the natives depicted by Pinturicchio were Arawaks, inhabitants of the islands of the Bahamas, described by Columbus as tall, well-built people who were gentle and friendly.

While it is still too early to tell whether the figures are in fact the first European depiction of Native Americans, Paolucci and others are almost convinced that they are. In his L’Osservatore Romano article he asks, “What if the early impression of those naked men, good and even happy, who gave parrots as gifts and painted their bodies black and red, came to life in the small dancing figurines in the background of Pinturicchio’s Resurrection?”

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