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The Galleria degli Arazzi

Next door to the Galleria dei Candelabri lies the Galleria degli Arazzi (Gallery of Tapestries). This is a deceptively simple room, yet it has treasures within. But the greatest miracle of these 27 tapestries is that they have survived at all.

The tapestries were, for the most part, woven during the 1600s, though some are more recent. The impetus came from Pope Leo X as he considered the practice of popes, with an eye on posterity, making their own mark on the Vatican. These tapestries were intended for the Sistine Chapel. Pope Sixtus had commissioned wall frescoes from masters such as Botticelli and Perugino; his successor, Julius II, commissioned Michelangelo's fabled ceiling painting. The only place left was the lower walls, and Leo decided to cover these with a tapestry cycle.

Leo X commissioned cartoons (drawings) from the painter Raphael in 1515, these to serve as patterns for the tapestries, and Raphael's pictures showed scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. Raphael was a brave choice, as tapestry design was traditionally the province of the Flemish artists (the actual weaving would be done in Brussels). Leo was to marry the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance with the brilliance of the Flemish weavers.

Raphael drew cartoons for ten of the tapestries, with his pupils making a dozen more from their master's sketches. Another five are of more recent vintage. The cartoons themselves were to become collectable, with seven of them being bought by Charles I of England (they now hang in the V&A Museum in London). The cartoons then went to the Brussels workshop of tapestry weaver Pieter van Aelst. These tapestries, woven in gold thread, silk and wool cost the Papacy 16,000 ducats in the early sixteenth century (the equivalent of some €3000 per tapestry). It was an astonishing sum, five times the amount Michelangelo received for the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Copies of the hangings can today be found around Europe, in Paris, Dresden, Loreto and Berlin inter alia. That said, tapestry, which was incredibly labour intensive and requiring expensive materials, was ranked above painting in the hierarchy of arts of the day.

The cartoons took on a life of their own though. Through the 1500s they were passed around the workshops of weavers in Brussels, with new commissions being made from them as their popularity grew. Francois I of France and Henry VIII of England (among others) commissioned tapestries - hence the presence of copies in so many European cities. And these templates themselves grew valuable. Charles I bought seven of the cartoons from a dealer in Genoa in 1623, paying the extraordinary fee of £300. They stayed in the Royal Collection, eventually being donated to what became the Victoria and Albert Museum by Queen Victoria.

On the left of the Galleria degli Arazzi, as you enter, are Raphael's Brussels tapestries. On the right are a series woven at the Rome workshops of Barberini, these depicting scenes from the life of Maffeo Barberini, who was to become Pope Urban VIII. It's only good fortune that they survive. Having originally hung in the Sistine Chapel, the tapestries were stolen during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Pope Julius III negotiated their return during the 1540s but, when Rome was occupied by the French in 1798, the tapestries were again stolen. Pius VII has to buy them back from a Genoese dealer in 1808. Battered, weakened but not destroyed, the 'arazzi' returned to their new home ... where they have hung ever since.

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