For one week only, Raphael’s Sistine Chapel tapestries go on show in Rome

Priceless tapestries created by the artist Raphael for the Sistine Chapel are on display in their original location this week for the first time in centuries.

For one week only, Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries go on show in Rome
Raphael's tapestries were designed to adorn the Sistine Chapel's walls. File photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Visitors can see all ten tapestries designed by Raphael hanging in the Sistine Chapel until 23rd February, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the artist's death.

Designed in the early 1500s and woven in precious silk, wool and gold and silver thread, the tapestries have not been united in their original location since the 16th century, according to the Vatican's art experts.

When the hangings were carefully returned to the chapel walls on Sunday, it marked the first time in nearly half a millennium that they have been on show as originally intended.

A few of the wall hangings are usually visible in the Vatican Museums, while the larger ones have returned to the Sistine Chapel on special occasions for a day or even just hours at a time.

Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, Raphael drew full-size designs for the tapestries depicting the lives of St Peter, Paul and other Apostles in the last years before his death in 1520. His sketches were turned into hangings as large as 6 metres by 5 metres by a master Flemish weaver.

The tapestries were intended to compliment Michelangelo's famous ceiling, completed a few years earlier. The dazzling combination prompted the papal master of ceremonies at the time to claim that “It was universally agreed the world had never seen anything more beautiful.” 

Originally hung almost at ground level on the Sistine Chapel's walls (the parts now painted to look like curtains), Raphael's tapestries remained in place for just a few years before the collection was split up, some hangings sold to settle debts, others stolen by invading troops.

The Vatican Museums eventually reunited the set and has spent several years restoring the delicate cloth, which is too fragile to remain on permanent display. 

Some of the tapestries will be loaned to other European museums this year as part of the celebrations of Raphael's 500th anniversary.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.