Vatican: First known depiction of Native Americans may be in 1494 painting

A Resurrection scene painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio was restored to reveal a small depiction of naked men with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing. A man on horseback is also visible. (Courtesy of Vatican Museums)
May 10, 2013

Preservationists working on a Renaissance fresco in the Vatican have uncovered what experts believe is the first European representation of Native Americans, from 1494.

Writing on April 27 in the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the director of the Vatican Museum, Antonio Paolucci, said the previously unnoticed detail was discovered in a Resurrection scene painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio.

The restoration of the painting, which had been covered by centuries of soot, revealed a small depiction of naked men with feathered headdresses, and the men appear to be dancing. A man on horseback is also visible.

According to Paolucci, Pinturicchio’s fresco dates to 1494, just two years after Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas.

The fresco is in the so-called Borgia Apartment within the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, three rooms that were used by Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, as his personal living space.

The depiction is consistent with Columbus’s account of being greeted by naked men who painted themselves black or red and danced for the European explorers on the coast of what he believed to be East Asia.

Paolucci points out that Alexander VI, a Spaniard, was in close contact with the Spanish monarchy, which had financed Columbus’s voyage.

Alexander VI, elected pope in 1492, showed a keen interest in Columbus’s discovery. In 1493, he published the document dividing the uncharted New World between Spain and Portugal, the world’s major naval powers at the time.

In his L’Osservatore Romano article, Paolucci writes that he can’t say for sure that the men in Pinturicchio’s fresco are Native Americans.

But he says that it is hard to believe the Borgia papal court would be unaware of Columbus’s discovery and account, even if they were very recent.

“What if the early impression of those naked men, good and even happy, who gave parrots as gifts and painted their bodies black and red, came to life in the small dancing figurines in the background of Pinturicchio’s Resurrection?” Paolucci wrote.

— Religion News Service

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