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It is always fascinating reading an older map of the land where you live especially if that map was drawn centuries ago. Then, if your region pops up in front of your eyes while you're strolling inside the Vatican Museums, you feel even prouder finding your own homeland marked on a XVI century map. With the technical instruments and the knowledge of that time, we immediately notice how the shape of Italy, with its rivers, mountains and cities, were perceived differently than today. If the name of your own hometown (which is still a small one today) is shown on that map, is the evidence that not only the town existed but it was considered enough important to deserve to be represented.

Italia antiqua

The Gallery of maps is the largest pictorial geographical cycle in the world located in the 120 meters (394 feet) long corridor where thousands of visitors everyday walk coming from the tapestry room on their way toward Raphael's room and the Sistine chapel.

The Gallery of maps at the Vatican Museums

Pope Gregory XIII

The patron of this important project was Ugo Boncompagni, a cardinal from Bologna, elected Pope in 1572 with the name of Gregory XIII. Following the rigid Counter-Reformation politic of those years, at the time when the Catholic Church was recovering from the wounds of the Protestant schism, Pope Gregory XIII has been probably best remembered for his reform of the calendar, the one that we all used today, named after him "Gregorian calendar". His view was focused on Renaissance universal ambitions and so the support given by the recent improvements of science became the instrument he adopted to identify the supremacy of the spiritual Catholic Church power over the temporal one: the gallery of maps is the example of the efforts to unify the Italian peninsula a long time before the real political unification occurred.

A corridor of wanders where the Pope could easily walk through, coming from its own apartments, having the whole of Italy under his eyes.

The gallery

The construction of the building began around 1578 but the decorations of the interiors only took a couple of years from 1580 until 1581. Such hasty execution meant several works of restoration and retouching that started almost straight away and continued in the 1630s under Pope Urban VIII Barberini who commemorated his intervention sprinkling the heraldic Barberini bees on a marble slab and on many other corners of the gallery. These forty maps are arranged as though divided by the backbone of the Apennines, with the northern regions closer to the southern entrance of the gallery (which it would have normally been used by the Pope) and the southern regions at the end; nowadays visitors enter the gallery from the opposite side so they will first admire southern Italy. Piemonte, like the other Po plain regions and the Adriatic one, are located on the west wall (facing the Vatican gardens).

Alba, Pollenzo, Langhe and Roero hills.

The maker of maps

The maker of maps was Carlo Pellegrini Danti, a Dominican monk known as Egnazio. After working in Florence to the service of Cosimo I, depicting an atlas of the then known world on the doors of the New Wardrobe inside Palazzo Vecchio, he later moved to Bologna and finally to Rome. Danti did a meticulous ground work around the Papal states, Liguria, Tuscany and the Eastern areas of Piemonte, with the result of a more accurate depiction. Much less satisfactory turned to be the Alpine regions and the islands. Some Alpine valleys in Piemonte where only approximate, with some passes and roads more precise than the peaks themselves. The remote areas where the heresy spread-out (in particular the Waldensian faith around Pinerolo) were left behind on purpose by the Vatican. As far as the artists who painted and decorated the entire gallery, Danti was assisted by a large team of painters including the Flemish Mathias and Paul Bril and two other popular names of the Roman scene of that time, Munziano and Nebbia.

The map of Piemonte

The map of Pedemontium and Monferratius covers two separate political entities, each described by an inscription: Piedmont and the sub-Alpine territories of the Duchy of Savoy to the North and the Monferrato, mainly controlled by the Duchy of Mantua, to the South. The southern and eastern borders of Piedmont, marked by a gold line, are those of 1575. The western limits were on the other side of the Alps (today France) and they are not shown on this map.

At the centre of the map is represented the battle of Ceresole, that took place in 1544 near Carmagnola between the French troops of Francis I and the Spanish army of Charles V. After this battle, Piedmont was divided between the two European powers and the Gonzaga family that already controlled the Monferrato.

Battle of Ceresole 1544

The map of Turin is painted in the right bottom corner of Piemonte, and it depicts the town around 1570, after it was declared capital of the Duchy of Savoy. The first peculiarity of Turin is the grid of parallel and perpendicular streets left by the Roman military settlement who first built the east-west oriented decumanus and the north-south oriented cardus. The name Taurinum comes from the original Roman town (Castra Taurinorum, later Augusta Taurinorum) named after the local tribes living in the upper Po river valley, the Taurini.


In the following details of what today is the southern province of Asti, it looks like the name Belbo given to the stream of water going through Nizza Monferrato, Calamandrana and Incisa, was simply called Tanaro. Nowadays the Tanaro is the main river running through Alba, Asti and Alessandria in a much northern position than the Belbo, which is a tributary of the Tanaro itself. It's hard to establish if the name Belbo, was already known back then or if Tanaro has been used to identify the entire hydrological system of this portion of Piedmont.

Episodes on the ceiling

All along the ceiling of the gallery of maps there are fifty-one frescoed episodes linked to the maps represented on the walls: a parallel historical-religious collection of scenes and miracles that took place in different parts of Italy that details the iconographic programme standing behind the entire gallery.

In proximity of the Piedmont map, turning your eyes up, it is possible to recognize the fresco with the Holy Shroud, one of the greatest mystery of the Christian world. The scene represent the arrival of the linen cloth in Turin and its first display in the new capital of the Savoy family, while the population is praying looking at what it is claimed to show the image of Christ. In fact, the Shroud is supposed to be the linen cloth used to wrap the body of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. The blood and marks left on his body by tortures, got printed on the linen. The Shroud was somehow taken first to Turkey, then to France when it arrived in the XIV century and it was donated to the House of Savoy in 1453. It was damaged in 1532 by a fire in the castle of Chambery where it was kept and brought to Turin in 1578. It is still preserved in Turin's cathedral and displayed to the public in special occasions.

The Shroud

References: "The Gallery of maps in the Vatican" edited by Alessandro Vicenzi, Franco Cosimo Panini Editore.

Written by Marco Scaglione.
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