ROME -- The first European renditions of Native Americans, made shortly after Christopher Columbus returned from his first trip to the Americas, may have been discovered under layers of grime on a neglected fresco at the Vatican.
The tiny figures of naked men dancing with feathered headdresses have been discovered in a fresco of the resurrection of Christ in an apartment once used by Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family.
Closed off for centuries by later popes seeking to distance themselves from the notoriously corrupt Borgias, the room stood empty, and the fresco, completed in 1494 by the artist Pinturicchio, was allowed to accumulate dust. But while cleaning the work recently, restorer Maria Pustka was surprised to find the figures dancing in the background -- something that had never been noticed before -- just behind the head of a Roman soldier.
Antonio Paolucci, the head of the Vatican's museums, said the figures were likely drawn from accounts given by Columbus of his meetings with Native Americans, in which he described naked men, their bodies painted red and black, dancing and giving presents of parrots.
“If that is the case, they would be the first figurative representation of Native Americans,” he wrote in the Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
Paolucci said it was known that the fresco was finished by the end of 1494. Columbus set foot for the first time in the New World, in the present day Bahamas, in 1492, on an expedition funded by the Spanish royal family.
Paolucci argued that after Columbus’ return, the papal court would have been informed of what the explorer had seen, particularly because the pope at the time, Rodrigo Borgia, was Spanish.
“The Borgia pope was interested in the New World, just as all the great chancelleries of Europe were,” Paolucci wrote. “It is hard to believe that the papal court, above all one ruled by a Valencian pope, would not have known about what Columbus saw when he arrived at the end of the world.”
Moreover, "a man like the Borgia pope loved numbers, emblems, symbols," Paolucci said. "He was curious about the heraldic, the mythical; he was fascinated by the genealogy of the gods, exotic fables and mystical beliefs. Everything that was strange, eccentric, remote struck his sense of fantasy and excited his imagination.”
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