Meet the most powerful woman in the Vatican – she runs the museum

  • Family
  • Thursday, 12 Apr 2018

The interior view of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes on the ceiling were painted by Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Photo: EPA

When Pope Francis gave his traditional Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the audience was typically lots of old churchmen. But far in the back there was also one single woman – Barbara Jatta.

She heads the Vatican Museums, and is the first woman ever in that position at the more than 500-year-old institution, one that includes the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's masterpiece ceiling paintings.

Jatta, 55, an art historian by training, is often referred to as the most powerful woman in the Vatican, and not just because a sizeable portion of the religious city states's revenues are derived from the museums.

Her office, its window now open, looks out directly at the dome of the St Peter's Basilica. It makes it clear whom she serves.

Next to her desk are family pictures of a husband and three children. She apologises for the disorderly spread of paper atop the desk.

“It is a very intensive task,” Jatta says of her duties. She has dark-blonde hair, her smile a natural one, her eyes are shining.

“In my thoughts I spend the entire day here.”

But the most powerful woman in the Vatican?

“I wouldn't say that. There are so many women here who work well,” she says, answering for probably the thousandth time questions about women's issues.

She understands that people are interested in how it is to be a woman in the world's most famous male institution. Jatta says she has never experienced any obstruction and had been warmly welcomed.

It was a “beautiful message” when Pope Francis named her to the position a year ago. Before that, the Rome native had headed the Graphic Prints Cabinet in the Vatican Library for 20 years.

Jatta's work day begins at 6.30am and often goes on until 8pm. There is just so much work to do. Each day, up to 30,000 visitors stream through the several kilometres of corridors in the museum, crowd into the Sistine Chapel or hold the flow up by standing outside the Raphael Rooms waiting to get in. Each year, the visitors number six million, a tour of the Vatican museums being a must for many a tourist to Rome.

The interior view of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes on the ceiling were painted by Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Photo: EPA

Many people find the long queues outside the Vatican Museums to be unacceptable, and the enjoyment factor diminished by being herded through the tightly-packed corridors. Jatta is aware of this, and can only recommend trying to show up very early in the morning, or else in the evening. Also to try out special guided tours held outside the normal hours. But restricting the visitor numbers is not a suitable means to control the crowds.

But then there is the issue that some visitors have poor manners. Every day she receives an update on the latest damage – a broken piece of a wall, a damaged exhibit item, wads of chewing gum stuck beneath the wooden pews of the Sistine Chapel; she admits to being upset by the “lack of culture” of some visitors.

And she is equally upset about rumours that the museum is considering renting out the Sistine Chapel for parties for corporations, such as the German sports car company Porsche.

“There will never be banquets for companies in the Sistine Chapel. That is a categorical ‘no,’” she says.

“The pope would hang us from the obelisk in St Peter's Square.”

What could be considered, she adds, is that within the framework of guided tours of the museum that a “light evening dinner” could be additionally booked.

The Vatican above all is interested in seeing that its message is also transported via art. And so the Vatican Museums are promoting “cultural diplomacy”, Jatta says.

For example with China – The Vatican has no diplomatic ties with Beijing, but recently the two sides announced their first cooperation on an exhibition.

Some 40 works of art from each side are being “exchanged” and are to be shown in China and the Vatican. The exhibitions are seen as a vehicle for the first political contacts between the two sides. Pope Francis is also trying to see to it that the motto of his papacy – “a poor church for the poor” – is reflected in the museums as well. And so he once invited 150 homeless people to the museums, and then 50 prisoners to be his congregation when he said the Angelus prayer in the Sistine Chapel.

Jatta also has had the privilege of standing in the place where traditionally a new pope is elected.

So far, however, Francis has not yet personally visited her in the museum; but she hopes that he might stop by soon. – dpa

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