The Vatican’s Superwoman

Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums. Photo Courtesy of Paloma Garcia Ovejero, Vice Director of the Holy See Press Office

Dear Blog Readers,

Over the years I have been known to complain once in a while about being a working mother of three, juggling the demands of my job and the needs of my kids.  Well, no more.  Now that I have heard about the demands on Barbara, I will be quiet.

Think about this: she is responsible for 200,000 priceless works of art visited by some 25,000 people a day. She has 600 people working under her, and 1000 collaborators.  She is responsible for seven kilometers of exposition space.

Any idea who I might be talking about?

Barbara Jatta.  Director of the Vatican Museums.

Jatta was appointed just over a year ago on December 20, 2016 by Pope Francis to run the Vatican Museums as the first female director.

Recently she visited the Foreign Press Association in Rome to chat with journalists about her job.  I rushed over there to hear what she had to say.  As I neared the entrance of the Association a small car pulled up and the front door on the passenger’s side swung open in front of me.  I quickly sidestepped the car door and slipped into the entrance way.  A beautiful woman climbed out apologizing profusely.  “I’m sorry, I nearly hit you. I don’t know why I didn’t see you. Are you ok?”

She had long light brown hair and a friendly smile.  She was wearing a simple loose green dress with a black jacket on top.   Her aides emerged behind her and urged her inside.

For over an hour she spoke to a group of us about her job and some of the unexpected challenges.

Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums, meets with journalists at the Foreign Press Association in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, January, 2018

When she was asked about being probably the most powerful woman at the Vatican, Jatta brushed off the question.  Her priority is getting the job done and done well.  She explained that she has chosen to go with the Italian “Direttore dei Musei Vaticani” rather than “Direttrice” because the letterhead already had “Direttore” on it, and the term “Direttrice” reminded her of the nun who run her Catholic high school.  So “Direttore” it is, she declared with a smile.

What is the biggest challenge for the Director of the Vatican Museums…low cost tourism.

In an era when a flight from London to Rome on Ryan Air can cost 35 euros, running one of the world’s most famous museums is not what is used to be. On an average day, Jatta explained, 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums. For starters, that is a hefty income for the Vatican.  A ticket costs 17 euros (20 dollars), so that makes on average 425,000 euros (523,000 dollars) per day.  At the moment there are no plans to try to limit that.  Given that they are closed about 48 days of the year, that would be an annual income of over 165 million dollars according to my calculations.

Every day the ticket office closes at 4:15 and they send a number up to the director with the figures on entrances for the day.  Her peak over the last year was 31,000 on All Soul’s Day, November 2nd, a holiday in Italy.

Once inside, thousands of tourists head straight down what Jatta calls the Magnificent Mile, plowing past precious art works eager to get to the Sistine Chapel.

There are thousands of other prominent works in the Vatican Museums Rafael’s “Transfiguration”, and his “School of Athens”, Caravaggio’s “The Entombment of Christ”, fabulous Greek and Roman Sculptures – the Belvedere Apollo, Laoccon and his Sons, the map gallery and the tapestry gallery, the Egyptian collection and a collection of old Papal carriages and Popemobiles.  But not many people bother to see those works.

Vatican, Rome, Italy, 23 December, 2009 – A deserted Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums. Photograph by Chris Warde-Jones.

Jatta says it did not used to be that way.  The Museums were known for the ancient Greek and Roman art collections, the spectacular Loggias.  Then in the 1980s, a Japanese group sponsored the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and over 20 years, a team of restorers brought the magnificent frescos, which had become grey, dreary and dark over the years, back to their original splendor.  By the end of the 1990s all the frescos had been fully restored and the Sistine Chapel became the main destination for visitors to the Vatican Museums.

The Sistine Chapel has a team of guards that control the number of people who enter and exit making sure that there is a limited number of people at any time.  Visitors are encouraged to be quiet while they take in Michelangelo’s  “The Last Judgement”, the spectacular ceiling and the frescoes along the side.  Jatta laughed as she said that there have been complaints from visitors that some of the guards repeatedly yelling “SILENZIO” and “SILENCE” is disturbing.  She says she is working on getting them to be more discreet.

Vatican, Rome, Italy, 23 December, 2009 – Visitors take advantage of a deserted Sistine Chapel on a night tour of the Vatican Museums. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones

Every year a team of restorers spends a month working to clean the Sistine Chapel in the evenings.  After closing hours, from mid-January to mid-February they go up on a portable elevator that Jatta called a “spider” and wipe off particles that stick to the surface…little hairs, bacteria, particles of paper or cloth.  She called it a yearly “medical check-up”.

It is not only the Sistine Chapel that needs maintenance.  Every evening when the Museum closes a team of ten people go through checking the works of art, the floors the tapestries for damage.  With thousands of people streaming past, strollers can scratch a wall, or things can get knocked over.

Vatican, Rome, Italy, 23 December, 2009 – A visitor rests in the gallery of Maps on a night tour of the Vatican Museums. Photograph by Chris Warde-Jones

For Jatta, a top priority is finding a way to funnel visitors off the Magnificent Mile and get them to spend time in the other collections: La Pinacoteca, with works by Italian greats like Titian, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Guido Reni, Caravaggio and Leonardo Da Vinci; the Egyptian Museum with sarcophagi and mummies; the tapestry gallery and the map gallery. So Jatta is working with a team of museum guides to train them to encourage people to explore some of these other areas before heading to the Sistine Chapel.

Then there are the security questions.  On most days, the line for people waiting to get into the Vatican Museums starts at the entrance on Viale Vaticano and snakes down the wall of the Vatican around the corner of Piazza Risorgimento, and towards the Sant’Anna gate.

Rome, 28 January 2007 – Tourists and locals brave a cold Sunday morning to join a mile-long queue which will gain them access to the ever-popular Vatican museums. Photograph by Chris Warde-Jones

Once inside they have a row of metal detectors through which 25,000 people have to pass before they can see all the marvels in the Museums. Jatta’s goal is to keep this system streamlined so people are not standing outside too long and don’t feel like they are at an airport once inside.

Jatta said that as Director of the Vatican Museums she has become more anxious about the treasures inside and the visitors than before she was given the position. On August 24th, 2016, when a major earthquake hit central Italy  and jolted Romans out of bed in the middle of the night, Jatta was immediately on the phone to the guards at the Vatican Museums to check if any of the art works had been damaged.

Jatta started her Vatican career back in 1996 in the Vatican library when she was 34 years old.  “There was a rigor in the organization of the Vatican library that has been useful to me in dealing with the museum,” she said. In fact, one of her projects at the Museums is to have a complete on-line catalogue of all the works on display at the Vatican museums, a total of 20,000 works.

The Vatican is a man’s world where it is impossible for a woman to reach the highest level, the Papacy, or even powerful positions, which are held by Cardinals, Bishops and priests.  Even among the Vatican laity, it is rare to see a woman in a top position.   And yet Barbara Jatta managed with grace and aplomb quietly working her way through the ranks.  According to Greg Burke, Director of Holy See Press Office, “Barbara is smart, savvy, classy and cool with a wonderful mix of authority and affability.”

So, she is my age and, like me, has three children, about the same ages as mine and manages an incredible juggling act in a place not exactly open to women.  In my opinion, that makes her the Vatican’s Superwoman.  I am not sure she can leap to the top of the Sistine Chapel in a single bound, but she can get some one to give her a ride up on the “spider” so she can check out the restorer’s work.

At the end of her talk, one journalist asked her what her daily schedule is like and what takes up most of her time.  She said she is up by 6:50 am, leaves her youngest child at school at 8am, and is at her desk at 8:25am.  From then, her day unfolds with meetings with collaborators and visitors, visits to laboratories where restorers are working, and training guides.  But her biggest challenge is ploughing through the emails.  (That sounds familiar).  She said she does not want to kill trees, but finally has decided that she needs to have aides print out all her emails so she can look at them carefully.

When she got to the end of her talk one journalist asked her why the Vatican does not limit the number of visitors.  The logical answer might be, the Vatican needs the income.  But her answer was more personal, “The Vatican Museums are so marvelous and as an art historian it breaks my heart if everyone cannot be given this beautiful, emotional and captivating experience.”

(A big thanks to my photographer friend Chris Warde-Jones for giving me the photos of the Vatican Museums for this post)

19 thoughts on “The Vatican’s Superwoman”

  1. Beautiful post Trisha, but you are still my Superwoman. Lugging all those cameras and equipment around, getting stories, writing interesting (always interesting!) posts??? You have my vote.

  2. Hi Trisha,
    Certainly enjoyed reading this. I agree that there are great treasures to be seen in the Museums besides the Sistine Chapel. That is why I always take two days to visit the wonderful place. The first day I head to many of the “other” treasures, arrive at the Sistine, and immediately move through the mob to the door down to the church. If the guard there says groups only, I just “join” a group.
    The second day I do the “Miracle Mile” starting at 9 a.m. (reservations made before I leave home). This way I arrive at the Sistine with maybe 20 to 50 other people and enjoy this beautiful place peacefully. Then I head through the other areas to the Pinacoteca and enjoy that.
    Your blog made me a bit sad this time too. The nasty flu I picked up in Florence (though I did manage to get back to Rome) sent me home over two weeks early without my second day “Miracle Mile” trip to the museum. Maybe I will have another chance.
    A presto,

    1. Joan —
      It sounds like you have a system nailed down to fully enjoy the museums. I should learn from you! I am sorry though that the terrible, awful flu forced you to cut short your last visit. What is with the flu this year? Wreaking havoc on everyone!

  3. Enjoyed reading this, both for the focus and the details contained therein. :) I’m always more interested in the behind-the-scenes information, the stuff that others might find boring or off topic. As mentioned by Ms. Jatta, I’d rather spend hours in the Hall of Maps or the Egyptian Museum rather than rushing through/bypassing so many treasures to see the Chapel. I’ve been to the Vatican twice since she become Director and had NO idea that she was in charge. I did recently read about the Director’s efforts to catalog everything, but again, no idea a woman was behind it. I can always count on your posts to look past the marquee and tell me the story of the light bulbs!

    1. Thank you Jo…I am so glad I was able to give you some background that you did not know about. Actually, a lot of news organizations have reported on her already so I thought all my blog readers might already know about her, but I still wanted to do the post. She definitely deserves it.

  4. Wonderful post, Trisha! Having been there, and having used many Vatican art pictures over the years, I was thrilled to read about the woman who heads this up. I have loved the Vatican Art Museum for not charging us, all over the world, to use images of this art. It is so in keeping with the gospel to share these images with people everywhere, to say they are ‘ours’ they are ‘for us’, they are part of the ministry of the Word to which all are called. And especially when it is such an arduous headache to get permissions elsewhere, and expensive, too. I am glad to read that a priority is keeping the cost low for entry. My tour was privileged because it was a Harvard tour, and the marvelous guide got our ticketing done in advance, so all we had to do was walk in. But on that cool and rainy day the line was so long I could not see the end of it, people huddled under umbrellas, hugging their raincoats to them for a bit of warmth, and waiting, waiting, waiting. By the time they got in, most of them must have been exhausted. And inside it is a huge distance to cover, such a treasury awaits. So good to know about this woman! Still, she does not race off, as you must, to earthquakes and crises, and does not type her reports in fields and cars. You juggle more, with few helpers, and are amazing!

    1. Oh Gosh, you were lucky to get in with a special guide and no line. The lines can really stretch a long way. There is just so much to see in there. I must get back and explore some of the areas that I have not seen properly. Wish I could have been on your Harvard tour with you!

  5. Annie Dauberman

    What Kathleen just said!

    It’s just so exciting to hear of any woman who reached seemingly impossible heights, when they’ve been there ..super qualified all the time! Good for her, good for us….lucky Vatican and art world. Gives me chicken skin..and lots of hope. Thank you, just love these stories. Keep ’em coming:).

    just after I read your wonderful news for all of us., a email came in featuring a profile on her too, by Hamish Bowls. . You were first..but it s so thrilling that THE Vatican even thought to choose her..and did. Some day soon it may not even be newsworthy that she is woman!

    THank you for this great news..and all the detail. You are brilliant

    All Best,
    PS…I’m sending you a quick email now with some news regarding.earlier email that I hope you might find helpful.

    1. Annie, it is so wonderful to hear how positive you are about Jatta’s appointment. It is sort of a goose-bumpy thing if you think about it. And how interesting that Vogue Magazine chose to do a story on her at the same time. Funny.
      I am going to go check out your email now…must be about that Clooney thing.

  6. Wow, It is daunting to think she has responsibility for all that artwork. Brava to her. But your job is harder, schlepping all your equipment, thinking on your feet with snap decisions, and traveling for work too. At least she gets to be home at a reasonable hour. I haven’t been to the Sistine Chapel in years, but once upon a time, you could go straight there and pass everyone else, then backtrack to the rooms you missed. Are you still permitted to do that?

    1. Hi Linda —
      I think I made a big impression with all my blog readers with my post describing schlepping my equipment all around Venice. Well, last week I was schlepping it all around Scampia — I should probably do a post on it. We spent two days in the Scampia area near Naples preparing a report on how people in the poor south are going to vote in the March 4th national elections. Scampia was for over a decade the center of Camorra Mafia drug dealing. Now it is a better but most people in the area do not have jobs. Very sad. Anyway, we could not leave any of our equipment in our car because it would have probably been stolen so we spent 2 days dragging around camera, tripod, computers, and even our personal effects on our backs. And then it rained the whole time so we had to carry umbrellas too do keep the equipment dry. But it was a real eye-opening trip. If I can find the time this weekend, I will do a blog post.

    1. Yes, there are a lot of superwomen around us. This week I have been impressed by a super-girl — Emma Gonzales. Wow! Yes, we should all write more about all of them, whenever we can.

  7. There are not that many female museum directors so it is doubly impressive that she is a female director at the Vatican. I work for a museum (in fundraising, not curatorial) and would love to meet her and hear the history of her career at the Vatican and just what roles she was in.

    You’re brave to go to Scampia. I would love to hear more about that. I’ve been to Naples many times and that is one neighborhood I have not explored because of the mafia ties.

  8. There are not that many female museum directors so it is doubly impressive that she is a female director at the Vatican. I work for a museum (in fundraising, not curatorial) and would love to meet her and hear the history of her career at the Vatican and just what roles she was in.

    You’re brave to go to Scampia. I would love to hear more about that. I’ve been to Naples many times and that is one neighborhood I have not explored because of the mafia ties.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thanks Kelly. I think Barbara Jatta is a fascinating woman and her career in the Vatican has been interesting. I just got in a brief discussion with a female colleague yesterday who said she thought Barbara is an intellectual weakling and culturally unprepared compared to her two predecessors. I was blown away. Needless to say, I totally disagree. I also feel that women are always judged by a different yardstick.

      On Scampia, I was not nervous at all there because we had a local guy taking us around. I wish I had had time to do a post on it, but things are just getting away from me.

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