ROME – When Director Barbara Jatta takes someone around the Vatican Museums, whether it’s a titan of the earth or a group of local schoolkids, she knows she’s not preaching in the strict sense. She’s there to explain the art, not to deliver a sermon.
Still, she says, just explaining the art is actually a lesson in the faith – and she wants it to stick.
“The idea is showing [visitors] beauty, history, art … what happens is that these three things come together with the most important element, which is faith,” Jatta said.
“I hope I can pass these important values to the people, including key people such as President [Donald] Trump who took a tour with his wife, or Angela Merkel, who came to see a show we organized,” Jatta told Crux in an August 6 interview.
“It’s something that makes you feel privileged, in a sense, because you can pass these values of the past, of history, to people who are making history today,” she said. “Hopefully, they can be inspired by these values for their own contemporary political work.”
“I do think it’s very important … this is a part of my job, and I feel the responsibility of it,” Jatta said.
Born and raised in Rome, the 55-year-old Jatta literally has art in her blood. Her grandmother was a painter, and both her mother and sister work in art restoration. She joined the staff of the Vatican Library in 1996 and became Deputy Director of the Vatican Museums in 2006.
Although her promotion to director in 2016 by Pope Francis seemed natural enough given her background, it was nevertheless something of a thunderclap in the traditionally male-dominated world of the Vatican. Depending on how one handicaps varying levels of authority and influence, she could well be the Vatican’s highest-ranking woman.
In any event, there’s no doubt she’s got a massive job. The Vatican Museums contain 200,000 individual works of art, some 24,000 of which are on display at any given time, and employs 640 people, making it the fourth most-visited museum in the world.
Jatta says that slowly, she’s made peace with the enormity of her new role.
“I’m less scared than I was 18 months ago, and I’m more focused now on the job, the work,” she said. “I’m sleeping at night!”
One thing that helps, she says, is the experience of being a wife and the mother of three children: “I’m used to dealing with a lot of things at once,” she joked.
“That’s what this work is like … on the same day, I may be dealing with the personal problems of an employee, to very important restorations to decide together with the curators and historians, to receiving a VIP who’s very official in some way, to some stupid thing related to the normal running of the office,” she said.
Part of what gets her through it, she said, is a sense of mission.
“I do think that what happens here is important, of course, and it’s a challenging job,” Jatta said.
Blessed Pope Paul VI, soon to be named a saint in October, once said that the Catholic Church is an “expert in humanity,” and the Vatican Museums are on the front lines of that broader relationship with culture. This year Jatta and her team worked to set up exhibits in Portugal, Mexico City and Chile, and just this week she showed Sting around the Sistine Chapel after the famed singer/songwriter composed the musical score for the museums’ “Universal Judgment” show.
Despite talk that the next encounter with culture might come in the form of an Andy Warhol exhibit at the Vatican Museums, Jatta said she’s not yet in a position to confirm it’ll happen.
“We had a collaboration between our contemporary art department and the Pittsburgh Museum, and we would like to have it,” she said. “But in 2019 and 2020, we’ll be having the celebration of Leonardo, and there are many projects in the museums, so for the moment I cannot confirm that.”
“We have many, many other issues and things like that happening, and with international museums sometimes their schedules just don’t fit,” Jatta said.
Despite the fact that she’s often called upon to give tours to celebrities and politicians, Jatta said there have only been three times in her life when she was truly “star-struck.”
“What I can tell you is that I’ve been much more moved when I met popes … John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis,” she said. “I felt the sanctity of these people.”
“It’s probably a matter of my character, but I’ve never had the same feeling with a VIP or a politician or famous person,” Jatta said. “It’s a question of who I am.”
At the moment, the Vatican Museums are hoping to open a third entrance, to better accommodate the overflow of visitors who arrive every year. Doing so, however, turns out to be not so simple.
“We are a UNESCO site, so there are questions about this,” Jatta said. “In 1999, when we opened the second door, we had just become part of the UNESCO system, so it was less complicated. Hopefully we will do it, but of course we have to do it properly.”
Despite the fact that Jatta insists she’s not really a tour guide, she did offer one solid tip for the ordinary visitor to the museums this summer, as Europe copes with a record heat wave.
“We’re working very hard to expand air conditioning in the museums,” she said. “Right now, only the Sistine Chapel and a few other places have it. Next year, the Raphael Rooms and the Borgia Apartments will have a climate control system, so it will be more available during the summer.”
“What I can suggest is that it’s best to come either early in the morning, since we open at 9:00 a.m. and sometimes even before that for a special rate, or to come on Friday evenings when we’re open,” Jatta advised.
“We are pushing that strongly, because it’s a way to see the museum without the heat and without the masses of visitors, that can be not as nice as a visit to the Vatican Museums ought to be.”
Beyond that, she says, the trick is to take one’s time in each section of the vast collection.
“There are so many places in this system of museums, because it’s a system of museums, not just one,” Jatta said. “Each one has its own sensibility and its own identity, and each visitor will find his or her favorite place.”
Despite her intimate familiarity with the museums, Jatta said she still hasn’t lost her sense of wonder.
“It’s such a special place,” she said. “Sometimes early in the morning I make a tour, and it’s such a privilege.”
“Also, when I go out in the evenings because I have to see some restoration project, or there are some small problems in the Sala Raffaele or in the Borgia Apartment, and it’s such a privilege to do it at 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m.,” she said.
Acknowledging the demands of her role, Jatta said it came along at the right time in her life.
“Ten years ago, this would have been impossible for me, because the children were still little and their need for my presence was much greater,” she said. “I had to stay at home certain afternoons and evenings, and it would have been impossible.”
“I’m convinced that the kind of job I’m doing now needs energy. I’m not young, I’m 55, but you need to be strong … Of course, I have a wonderful team, and delegation is the first thing you have to do if you want to survive. Otherwise, you’ll have a stroke,” she said.
Despite the burdens, Jatta said she wouldn’t trade her position for anything.
“I don’t really see this as a job,” she said. “Even when I worked in the Vatican Library, I always said I’m doing what I like. They wouldn’t even have to pay me!”
“I feel like this is a wonderful occasion and a privilege that Pope Francis and the President of the Governatorato, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, have given me, and I feel all the responsibility of it. Can you imagine how privileged I feel?”
“I try to do it with all my effort,” she said.