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“The Basilica of Saint Peter is the product of genius artistic personalities and architects like Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini,” says Maria Cristina Carlo-Stella ’82 MA.  As head of the Office of the Fabbrica di San Pietro in the Vatican City, Carlo-Stella oversees the preservation, maintenance and enhancement of the Basilica, as well as the sight of the tomb of the Apostle Peter.

“It is a great challenge to manage the many art historical, architectural and archeological projects, but we must also ensure the safety of the 25,000 – 30,000 pilgrims and visitors who enter the Basilica every day.”

A graduate student in the art history program at UMass Amherst, Carlo-Stella’s principal major was ancient art with a minor in medieval art, specifically Christian iconography.

“My years at UMass were really the best years of my life. I have great memories of the fantastic department and faculty there, especially Professor Walter Denny and Professor Kristine Haney,” shares Carlo-Stella. “I keep in touch with them even after 35 years.”

Carlo-Stella will reunite with the College of Humanities and Fine Arts to lead a special tour of the Basilica of Saint Peter during an alumni trip in June 2016. Learn more!

Carlo-Stella continued her studies in Rome, Italy in the early 90s specializing in Etruscology, the study of the Etruscan civilization. 

During this time, Pope John Paul ll instituted a new government office, the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. “There was an opening for an English-speaking art historian,” she recalls, “and I was hired almost immediately.”

As one of the few women in a high-level managerial role within the Holy See, Carlo-Stella established guidelines and an international network of support for bishops in English-speaking countries to ensure the protection of sacred art. The Commission also encouraged the conservation, preservation and enhancement of quality standards and measures for churches, museum structures, archives and library collections belonging to their diocesan communities.

“This network actually connected art historians, archivists, museum curators and librarians with a focus on the specificity of ecclesial cultural heritage,” notes Carlo-Stella. “That is, a diocesan museum must have slightly a different approach than an ordinary museum collection because of the cultural history of the church and the aspects of religious piety and devotion. The immaterial meaning of that material asset has to be enhanced as well, so it’s a whole different kind of approach that the Commission recommended.”

Carlo-Stella also represented the Holy See for over a decade at the Council of Europe in Strasburg at its Cultural Heritage Committee. She participated in international meetings between representatives of different religions in Europe to steady an approach for the protection and conservation of religious heritage in general.

In 2004, she became the head of the Office of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, a department of the Vatican that has overseen the Basilica of Saint Peter since 1500.

“In this new role, I had to apply pragmatically the standards that we had been preaching to others [through the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church] to this magnificent Basilica structure that marks the cornerstone of the universal Catholic Church,” Carlo-Stella tells the Alumni Association.

With a staff of 110 carpenters, electricians, marble workers, security and office personnel, Carlo-Stella set about a series of major restoration and preservation projects.

One of the most extensive projects is the cleaning and restoration of the exterior travertine wall surface of the Basilica, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016. The façade was cleaned on the occasion of the Great Jubilee Year in 2000, but the rest of the Basilica exterior must be cleaned of the pollution prevalent in the city of Rome.  Other large projects have included the restoration of the interior counter façade wall surface with its gilded stucco work and a number of ancient Roman imperial chambers inside the Vatican Necropolis.

As a result of her vast expertise, Carlo-Stella was nominated secretary of the Permanent Commission for the Protection of Art Historical Monuments of the Holy See. This commission convenes only to analyze problematic issues concerning the preservation of some art historical monument or site of the Holy See and to provide advice to the Cardinal Secretary of State.

“I’m very lucky and honored as a laywoman to be able to carry out these roles,” shares Carlo-Stella, “but it hasn’t always been easy. Here in Italy, women are still struggling to take a hold of certain positions.  I’ve seen a growing awareness since Pope John Paul ll first nominated laywomen to managerial positions and now Pope Francis has expressed his sincere interest in further developing areas of responsibility. I really do feel that women are a great resource and can contribute a great deal to the action of the church, whether it’s in the art historical field or charitable work.”

Plans for Carlo-Stella’s tour during the HFA alumni trip from June 2-11, 2016 are still being developed. But don’t wait – this trip will reach capacity!

“The Vatican is a fascinating place,” asserts Carlo-Stella. “I would love to share its treasures and history with my UMass family.”


By Elena Lamontagne