A tiny bathing chamber in the Vatican’s Papal Apartments was painted in 1516 by Raphael for one Cardinal Bibbiena, a good friend of the pope and apparently, a fan of the erotic decorative arts.
Bibbiena, known in his pre-Cardinal life as Bernardo Dovizi, was a writer, lover of the arts, and something of a libertine. When he moved into the Vatican, he sought out Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as just “Raphael”. Generally known for more sanctified images, Raphael produced some of the most magnificent religious paintings and portraits of the Rennaisance. But apparently, he was willing to do a little side work.
Located within the private papal apartments, the murals imitate many of the frescos uncovered in classical era Roman building throughout the empire, featuring frolicsome nymphs and satyrs.
The pope at the time of the painting was Pope Leo X, formerly known as Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, and a close friend of the Cardinal. The Medici pope was known for his support of the arts, and indeed sponsored other Vatican works by Raphael and other notable Renaissance artists. Purportedly, upon his being named as Pope, he commented to his brother, “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”
Stufetta della Bibbiena means, roughly, Bibbiena’s warm room, and once served as a bathroom. Over the years the erotic wall coverings have been ignored, covered, and the room variously converted to different uses.
To be fair, the images are more playful nudes and suggestive mythological beasts than raunch, but there are some titillating exceptions. There is an image that depicts Pan, the goat god of nature, moving away from some bushes somewhat aroused. This was decided to be a little too offensive for the church and efforts were made to censor it, however this only made it appear larger and more noticeable.
In 2011, writer Tony Perrottet wrote about his coup: he successfully finagled himself into the normally off limits room, and personally explored the tiny room. He described the details of the panels:
“Raphael had designed his frescoed panels like a graphic novel, recounting the adventures of Venus, the goddess of love, and Cupid, the god of erotic desire, for Cardinal Bibbiena to admire as he lounged in his hot tub. At knee level, the original silver faucet was crafted into the face of a leering satyr. One panel showed the naked goddess stepping daintily into her foam-fringed shell. In others, she admires herself in a mirror, lounges between Adonis’ legs and swims in sensual abandon. A couple of the frames, even more risqué, have been destroyed. One, recorded by an early visitor, showed Vulcan attempting to rape Minerva.”
Raphael painted a portrait of the cardinal the same year. It now hangs at Palazzo Pitti in Florence.