Get to know the woman behind the exhibits

There is a sector of the Vatican that shows great initiative, is not afflicted by press reports of its internal squabbles and attracts continually growing interest. It is also the only important Vatican sector that is run by a woman: Barbara Jatta, 55, who is married to a medical doctor and has three children.

Since the beginning of 2017, she has been in charge of the Vatican Museums, which range from its painting and sculpture collections to a display of the automobiles used by the popes. They add to the Vatican’s cultural prestige, attract more than 6 million visitors annually — which, with a range in entrance fees from 4 to 21 euro, means they contribute substantially to the Vatican budget — and even collaborate with Vatican diplomacy, as shown by an upcoming exchange of exhibits with China. The statistics are impressive: an average 25,000 visitors daily; 20,000 works on display; 200 events annually and 20 books published, many of them lavish catalogues; 600 employees plus some external restorers who work full time in the Vatican.

Family roots

Barbara Jatta seemed destined for a career in museums and the arts. She is related to Antonio Jatta, who was a 19th-century parliamentary deputy and landowner in Ruvo di Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot, who divided up his land among his peasants. With the findings on his property, mainly from the Hellenistic period, he established an archeological museum in his mansion. Since 1991, the private museum has been a state archeological museum in which, uniquely, his descendants’ family still have their residence. Barbara Jatta’s maternal grandfather was well-known Roman architect Andrea Busiri Vici.

Born in Rome, Jatta studied the restoration and conservation of archives and books before graduating from the State University in Rome with a thesis on the history of design, engraving and graphics. After post-graduate studies in Portugal, London and three years in the United States, where she worked in the Cleveland Museum graphics section, she lectured at a Naples university and wrote several books on artists and art history. She was employed in the State Graphics Institute for 15 years until 1996 when she transferred to the Vatican Library, working in the section that is called Prints but has also photographs, maps and other visual material. She became its head.

In 2007 a renowned Italian art historian, Antonio Paolucci, became director of the Vatican Museums and initiated extensive renovations. Before he retired at the end of 2016, he ensured Jatta was his successor; with this in mind she had moved from the library to the museums, as deputy director, only six months before. She is the first woman director in the museums’ 512-year history.

A woman in charge

Asked to explain her appointment, she has said that the museums sought someone from outside but not too far outside. In fact, it is only a walk along corridors from the museum to the library.

At a Rome news conference in late January, she was asked if being a woman had been an advantage in her appointment. She said she hoped she was appointed because of her professional skills but added that the appointment of a woman reflected an evolution.

“When I started working in the Vatican 21 years ago, I was only the third woman in the library, but now they constitute 50 percent of the library staff,” she said.

“I have been well accepted by those who work in the museums — I had collaborated with some of them previously and, moreover, Antonio Paolucci ensured that I got to know all the staff before he left.”

During her first year, the web service has been expanded, and 15 additional curators have been employed. The museums organize cultural tours to the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo. The lectures on various aspects of museology have increased, as has the use of a new exhibition area where the left-hand colonnade around St. Peter’s Square joins the basilica’s façade. Here a free exhibition on the Church in Korea was held and also a free exhibition on the Jewish religious symbol, the menorah. The latter was mounted in collaboration with the Rome synagogue, which held another part of the menorah exhibition.

Jatta’s day begins at 6:50 a.m. at her house just outside Rome. She drives her youngest child to school and is in the office by 8 a.m. Her work consists of briefings from those responsible for the various museums and meeting outsiders involved in the museum’s work. On Wednesday, she visits the museums herself. She also gives talks at the opening of exhibitions and usually attends and sometimes gives addresses at the scientific conferences on museum themes presented in the Vatican. She returns home in the evening and sometimes there reads the letters, which arrive at her office in quantities that surprise her, welcoming the appointment of a woman director.

“Some of our visitors will see the museums only once in their lives,” she said. “I‘d like it to be a moving, significant experience for each of them.”

She wants to improve the status of the guides authorized to take groups through the museums and also ensure a smooth visitor flow, which is constantly monitored. Cleaners go to work after closure every day; in the Sistine Chapel, even strands of hair are removed.

Universal scope

The museums’ activities are not confined to Rome. A Vatican Museum exhibition on Rome — which included nearly 150 statues telling the story of the city’s founding in 753 B.C. through the diffusion of Christianity there — recently concluded in Santiago, Chile. Usually there are museum exhibits being dispatched or returned every week of the year. Its renovated Ethnological Museum aims to collaborate with the peoples whose artifacts it displays, for instance. In December, the hefty catalogue of its Australian aboriginal collection was published in Canberra jointly by the Vatican Museums and the Institute for Aboriginal Studies.

A major exhibition will be held in Mexico City from May 24 to Sept. 30 called “de San Pedro to Francisco” (From Peter to Francis), while from November 2018 to February 2019, in the St. Peter’s colonnade exhibition space, there will be a display of “Masterpieces of Russian Religious Art” from icons to the 20th century.

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That sounds as if it may be designed also to foster good diplomatic relations, but Jatta wants excellent museums that will “show the richness of the Faith.”

Pope Francis has not visited the museums and once said that museums should not be dusty memories of the past. 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 bear out his claim.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.