It hasn’t drawn much attention yet, but the Vatican has quietly announced the discovery of what it believes is the first artistic representation of native Americans.
A detail of a fresco by the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio, discovered during restoration work in the Vatican Museums, depicts men dressed only in feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing, and another on horseback.
The painting was completed in 1494, shortly after Christopher Columbus returned from the New World with a detailed description of natives who painted themselves, danced and gave gifts of parrots.
For hundreds of years, the frescoed figures were hiding in plain sight – sort of. They are part of the background in a lunette fresco titled “The Resurrection,” noted for its depiction of Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected in 1492.
The detail was obscured by centuries of soot and grime, and came to life only recently when the fresco underwent a careful cleaning by Museum experts.
Vatican Museum director Antonio Paolucci announced the discovery in an article published April 27 by the Vatican newspaper. He stopped short of saying definitively that the figures depicted American Indians, but the newspaper headline was less cautious, proclaiming: “Here is the first image of the native Americans described by Columbus.”
It’s always interesting when the Vatican makes a discovery like this, and it happens more often than you’d think. But usually the finds are made in obscure manuscripts or objects stored away on boxes – not in frescoes seen annually by millions of museum visitors.