Lateran Museums; Debunking "The Da Vinci Code"

1929 Pacts Opened the Way to a Favorite Tourist Destination

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 12, 2004 ( Dozens of people who walked up Viale Vaticano toward the entrance to the Vatican Museums on Wednesday were taken aback to find the big bronze doors closed.

Many undoubtedly made a mental calendar check in an attempt to explain the situation. Was it the feast of the Ascension? the Assumption? Wasn’t the Immaculate Conception two months ago? Those familiar with Italian idiosyncrasies wondered whether there was a strike or a «union meeting.»

If the hapless tourist queried long enough, eventually he would find someone who knew the answer: the Vatican Museums are always closed on Feb. 11 to commemorate the signing of the Lateran Pacts. It is a sort of Independence Day for the Vatican. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the pacts.

The Lateran Pacts were signed on Feb. 11, 1929. On behalf of Pope Pius XI, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri met Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister acting for King Victor Emanuel III, at the Lateran Palace and signed a treaty declaring the sovereignty of the Holy See and creating the Vatican City State.

The Lateran Pacts established the territory of Vatican City, returned the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, stipulated that Italy would pay an indemnity for the loss of the Papal States, and assured adequate water, telephone and postal services to Vatican City. The Italian government also promised to construct a railway station for the new state.

The pacts also signaled the beginning of the Vatican Museums as we know it. Article 18 of the Lateran treaty stated that the «artistic and scientific treasures existing within the Vatican City and the Lateran Palace shall remain open to scholars and visitors, although the Holy See shall be free to regulate the admission of the public thereto.»

Giuseppe Momo, personal architect of Pius XI, prepared a new entrance to the Vatican Museums to facilitate the arrival of numerous expected visitors. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, as he had to dig 70 feet down to create the space for this new entry.

The sumptuous hall, inaugurated on Dec. 7, 1932, culminated with two bronze ramps in the form of a double helix. One was to take visitors up and one was for them to descend indicating an expected increase in the number of pilgrims. There were also two large wood-paneled elevators with seats for the less hardy. Visitors today get a glimpse of Momo’s creation as they exit the museum, though many are too tired to notice.

I was curious to know what a ticket to the Vatican Museums cost back in 1932. I had to leaf through every copy of L’Osservatore Romano for 1932 to find the answer. The public was admitted through the new entrance for the first time on Jan. 2, 1933, and the admission fee was a scant 5 lire (less than a penny at today’s exchange rates).

Today’s visitor enters through the newer, larger entrance inaugurated on Feb. 7, 2000. It is a grand and luminous space reminiscent of IM Pei’s Louvre Pyramid with three stories, modern security devices, and a conference center. A nod to Momo in the spiral ramp leading to the upper level where the art collections are found, but also a nod to the reality of energy levels in the form of an escalator.

As of January, visitors have another surprise. The admission fee for the Vatican Museums has gone up to 12 euros ($15) this year. The higher fee does provide one little known extra benefit, however: The same ticket can be used within five days to visit the Historical Museum at the Lateran Palace as well. Ten rooms and the private chapel of the apartments of Sixtus V (never lived in!) have just been restored and reopened to the public.

The Lateran museum contains a splendid collection of tapestries from the finest manufacturers in Paris, Antwerp and Brussels — some first-class specimens are woven with silk and gold threads. For weaponry buffs there are arms and armor of the various papal guards from the Swiss Guards, who are still the Pope’s personal protectors today, to the Palatine Guards who were disbanded in 1970.

The large Hall of the Popes provides more modern historical testimony. This room was damaged when a Mafia bomb exploded in front of St. John Lateran on July 28, 1993. This terrorist act came in retaliation to Pope John Paul II’s forceful protests against Mafia activities. The windows were blown out and shrapnel stuck in the floors and walls. After much effort the rooms have returned to their former splendor although a few pockmarks on the marble floors attest to this act of violence.

It is fitting that the Hall of the Popes was restored in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its most celebrated event. It was here that Cardinal Gasparri and Mussolini signed the Lateran treaty. These famous signatures can still be seen at the museum although not on the treaty itself. After the ceremony, the Prime Minister and the secretary of state both signed a register … to visit the museum!

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Leonardo’s Real Intention

Truth be told, Leonardo da Vinci is not one of the 10 historical figures I would most like to invite to dinner. Perhaps the historical rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo was so fierce that one starts to take sides. Nonetheless, after 46 weeks of «The Da Vinci Code» ensconced at the top of the best-seller lists, I felt obliged to come to the defense of his work.

A little background for the remnant still unsullied by the reading of this book: Author Dan Brown makes the incredible claim that the individual seated at the right hand of Jesus in da Vinci’s «Last Supper» is not, as commonly understood, the Apostle John, but rather … Mary Magdalene, who would be Jesus’ wife.

Although the work presents itself as fiction, it is written in such a way as to cause doubt. I have heard countless Rome visitors make comments like the following: «I know it is fiction, of course, but it brings up some interesting questions …»

The acute nature of the problem set in when my American students, instead of asking where the outlet stores in Florence were, began inquiring where they could see «The Last Supper.» Then one day in the classroom, the bomb was dropped: «Professor Lev, isn’t that Mary Magdalene sitting next to Jesus?»

Now, there is a positive side to all this. The students are taking an interest in Leonardo and many are learning the names of the apostles for the first time. Unfortunately, the author stimulating these first impressions has no idea what he is talking about. The major religious and historical gaffes aside, a word must be said about Leonardo’s «Last Supper.»

Amid Leonardo’s copious writings, very little reveals his personal thoughts and feelings. Artists generally do not look to be remembered through their diaries, notebooks or doodling pads. One thing for sure, nothing in Leonardo’s writings suggests that the person next to Jesus is anyone other than John.

Brown capitalizes on Leonardo’s soft-featured, beardless depiction of John to offer his fantastic claim that we are dealing with a woman. Of course, if St. John were really Mary Magdalene, we may well ask which of the apostles excused himself at the critical moment.

But the real problem stems from our lack of familiarity with «types.» In his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo explains that each figure should be painted according to his station and age. A wise man has certain characteristics, an old woman others, and children others still.

A classic type, common to many Renaissance paintings, is the «student.» A favored follower, a protégé or disciple, is always portrayed as very youthful, long-haired and clean-shaven; the idea being that he has not yet matured to the point where he must find his own way.

Throughout the Renaissance, artists portray St. John in this fashion. He is the «disciple Jesus loved» — the only one who will be at the foot of the cross. He is the ideal student. To the Renaissa
nce artist the only way to show St. John was as a beardless youth, with none of the hard, determined physiognomy of men. The «Last Supper» of Ghirlandaio and Andrea del Castagno show a similarly soft, young John.

Leonardo’s innovation lies not in his depiction of John, but rather in the dynamism of his composition. Unlike his predecessors who showed a group of men talking around a table, Leonardo selects the most dramatic moment of the meal. Jesus has just made the announcement, «One of you will betray me.» The composition accordingly registers the shockwave that emanates from this statement.

Instead of the typical 11 apostles on the far side of the table and Judas on the side closest the viewer, Leonardo places them all on the same side, so there is a ripple effect from the isolated Christ framed by a window out toward the apostles who are grouped into threes. The most important set comprises Peter, John and Judas. Impetuous Peter thrusts himself toward John, asking him to inquire of Jesus who the betrayer will be; in doing so, he pushes Judas outward toward the viewer.

The original image (it has been heavily repainted) had Judas’ head turned directly toward John, whose serene countenance manifests the assurance of his own innocence. The low forehead, and dark, brutish features of the traitor Judas stand in sharp contrast to the luminous delicacy of John. The viewer is forced to think about where he or she stands (or sits) in this picture. Are we calm in certainty of fidelity, do we protest too much, or do we hide in the shadows?

Unfortunately, all these truly important questions are overshadowed by the silly speculations of Dan Brown.

One thing is clear, during the real Last Supper, Mary Magdalene was elsewhere.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches art history at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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