Barbara Jatta


Barbara Jatta
Doctor of Arts

Citation written and presented by Melinda Schlitt,
Professor of Art History, William W. Edel Professor of Humanities

Conferring of the degree by John E. Jones III, President

In 1506, Pope Julius II (patron of Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante) established the nucleus of the Vatican Museums with his collection of ancient Greek and Roman statues in what is known as the Belvedere Court, where those works still stand today. In 2017, you, Barbara Jatta, were appointed director of the Vatican Museums by Pope Francis, becoming the first woman to hold this position in the storied, 516-year history of the institution. As director of the Museums of the Vatican City State, your appointment was also a political one, making you the highest-ranking woman ever within the governing structure of the Vatican, which has long been defined by its patriarchal hierarchy. Upon your appointment, you gave dozens of interviews for television, web-based media and magazines, all of which stressed the fact that you were the first woman to shatter a glass ceiling at the Vatican, if not also, perhaps, cracking a frescoed one.  

During the media frenzy, you became an unwitting feminist symbol and took every opportunity to suggest—with diplomacy and poised self-confidence—that you weren’t appointed because you were a woman, but because of your professional accomplishments and scholarship as an art historian, your prior 20-year role as director and curator of prints and drawings at the Vatican Library, and appointments at renowned museums and research institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the British Museum and the Courtauld Institute. But you have also embraced this new role.
As director, you oversee seven distinct collections, 13 departments, 200,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years (from ancient Egypt through ongoing acquisitions of contemporary art), and including iconic works like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. With over 6 million visitors per year, it is the third most visited museum in the world, after the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You have stated that one of your primary goals is to foster “understanding the balance between tradition and innovation,” or, as Renaissance humanists might have put it, “the relationship between past and present as the foundation of reality.” More precisely, you note, “My major goal is to deal with the enormous number of people and have them experience a special visit, an emotional visit, a visit that gives them the sense of where they are and of the incredible context.” These goals have led you, on the one hand, to enact practical changes that improve accessibility and inclusion, such as creating a third entrance, encouraging visits to new areas of the collections, or designing an expansive online digital collection with virtual tours so that those who are unable to experience the collections in person can have the highest quality virtual visit, extending the museums’ global reach. On the other hand, lies a broader conceptual idea: that direct engagement with the works of art you oversee can create an awareness of one’s self—of one’s place within the present and relationship to the past—a spirituality of human identity, for every work of art in the Vatican Museums exists in the here and now. 
President Jones, for her years of contributions as an art historian, innovative leadership as director of the Vatican Museums and her commitment to making the museums’ collections more accessible and inclusive for all audiences, it is my honor to present Barbara Jatta for the honorary degree, Doctor of Arts.