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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)