Rumors that the Vatican is filled with perverse artworks are as old as the palace itself. Most of the stories are fabrications. But one is not: In 1516, the Renaissance master Raphael decorated a bathroom within the Papal Apartments with erotic frescos. Today, the wicked gallery is called the Stufetta della Bibbiena, the “small heated room of Cardinal Bibbiena”, after the worldly official who commissioned the work. It was, of course, a different era, when Bibbiena, like most papal officials, was a patron of the arts more than a servant of God. He was also the author of risqué plays and an erudite man-about-town. Like his peers, Bibbiena was entranced by the ribald pagan imagery that was being unearthed in Imperial Roman ruins. He asked his friend Raphael to decorate his lodgings in the fashionable classical style, complete with naked nymphs being spied upon by lusting satyrs, with no anatomical detail hidden.
Subsequent residents of the Vatican Palace were unimpressed. The Stufetta has been defaced, whitewashed over, and even turned into a kitchen before a Catholic art expert rediscovered it in the mid-19th century. But access remained limited, to say the least—largely because, after 1870, this section of the palace was turned into the pope’s own residence, and Cardinal Bibbiena’s ancient bedroom was used for official diplomatic meetings with visiting heads of state. Stories of the restored bathroom filtered out amongst the cognoscenti, but only the rarest visitor was permitted a viewing.
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