Art and Patronage, Then and Now; Angelico's Agility

Papal and Royal Works Prompt a Recurring Question

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 26, 2004 ( Discussion and speculation in the Roman world of art and patronage has resurfaced. At noon on Feb. 12 King Juan Carlos of Spain joined Italy’s President Azeglio Ciampi in personally inaugurating an art exhibition at the Scuderie Papali, titled «Velázquez, Bernini and Luca Giordano at the Baroque Courts.»

This show illustrates the close ties between the great royal families of the 17th century: Phillip IV and Charles II of Spain, Louis XIV of France and Leopold I of Austria and their commissioning of specific artists to portray the ideals of their respective reigns.

Velázquez formally greets visitors to the exhibition hall with his stiff portraits of Phillip IV and Marianna of Austria. These are astutely balanced on the opposite wall with the lively and piercing images of don Antonio, court dwarf and courtier don Diego de Acedo.

Seemingly outclassed on the billboards as the least known of the three artists, Luca Giordano is the surprise of the show.

This Neapolitan painter’s large, bright canvasses rivet the viewer with graphic representations of Apollo flaying Marsyas, and Arachne transformed into a spider. Placed next to the bland, weak-featured portraits of Charles II, the juxtaposition warns those who would challenge their superiors. A stern lesson enlivened by the exuberant drama of southern Italy.

Further along, shimmering silk tapestries shot through with gold thread remind us of Louis XIV’s (the Sun King) exemplary use of art as a vehicle of royal propaganda.

But on finishing a walk of the exhibition hall one notes a glaring omission.

The duty of monarchs to beautify their realms started here in Rome, at the papal court. The pontifical court recognized the necessity to use art to communicate not only with the populace of Rome, but with the thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who came to this city. The brilliant mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore, the astounding frescos of the Sistine Chapel, the monumental statues of St. Peter’s still inspire the same awe today that the pilgrim of 500 years ago felt.

Papal commissions were, in fact, the training ground for all three of the artists featured in this show. In Rome, Bernini, Velázquez and Luca Giordano developed their distinctive techniques designed to capture viewers’ attention. The capital of the Christian world became the exemplar for other aspiring capital cities.

One does encounter a somewhat disjointed representation of the papacy of the 17th century on the upper floor, primarily through the commissions of Popes Innocent X Pamfili (1644-1655) and Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667). Some of the arrangement falls under the heading of the «Bernini spirituality» where several of Bernini’s late works are arrayed, including «The Savior» reputed to be Bernini’s last work.

An ironic note — the beautiful exhibition site, «Le scuderie papali,» was built under Pope Innocent XIII as stables to the neighboring papal palace on the Quirinal Hill. This was the papal residence from 1580 until 1870 when the victorious Italian state annexed the palace and Pope Pius IX was sent packing back to Vatican City.

King Juan Carlos lent many works from the Spanish royal collection to this show. Bernini’s bronze crucifix from the Escorial, the royal monastery, has never left Spain until now. The vision of the King of Spain strolling through an exhibition embellished by his private art works provided perhaps the most intriguing element of the day, sparking thoughts of patrons, proprietors and the responsibility to encourage national culture.

Walking through the crowd at the opening, I overheard some observers remark with delight that most of these great artists featured in the European courts were Italian, as well as speculations of a more economic nature regarding the costs involved in such projects. All were impressed by the organizational effort involved and a few sharpened their wit with unflattering representations of monarchs. Yet the recurring question was «Could this be done today?»

I asked Raffaele Ranucci, president of Pala-expo and one of the principal forces in bringing all these works together, about the long history of art and patronage in Spain and Italy and how these two culturally rich nations were responding to the challenges of patronage today.

Waving back through the hall he responded, «This is modern patronage. Exporting our culture to the rest of the world and finding common points of cultural reference among the countries of Europe.»

* * *

A Model Artist

The subject of patronage came up again at the Feb. 18 general audience on the feast of Blessed Fra Angelico.

John Paul II urged young people to look to the example of Fra Angelico, patron of artists, as «encouragement to live faithfully your Christian vocation.»

Blessed Angelico was born in Vicchio around 1387. He joined the Dominican Order in 1408 and eventually moved to Florence in 1438. A gifted fresco artist, he decorated all the monks’ cells in the convent of San Marco. His painting was marked by an intense spirituality and a buoyant view of Christianity.

During the early Renaissance, while other artists were reviving pagan antiquity in art, Fra Angelico was using similar voluminous masses and perspective views, but in his hands, these tools re-created the jubilant spirit of early Christians singing on their way to their deaths in the Roman amphitheaters.

Fra Angelico died in 1454 while carrying out a commission for Pope Nicholas V, the tiny private chapel dedicated to Sts. Lawrence and Stephen in the tower of Innocent III. Today, Raphael’s fresco tour de force in the neighboring apartments of Julius II eclipses these works, so that many Vatican visitors walk by without even a peek, but John Paul II described the room in his letter of beatification «authentic prayer expressed in colors.»

A century after Angelico’s death, Giorgio Vasari, in his «Lives of the Artists,» remarked on the holiness of Fra Angelico, holding him up as an example to other artists. «Those who devote themselves to [art] work of a religious or holy kind ought themselves to be genuinely holy and religious.»

On Feb. 18, 1984, in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva where the friar is buried, John Paul II declared Blessed Angelico the patron of artists.

In his homily, the Holy Father lauded Fra Angelico as «a model of life in which art is revealed as a path which can lead to Christian perfection: He was an exemplary religious and a great artist.»

* * *

John Paul II’s Contributions

All this brings me to one of the questions I hear most often throughout the halls of the Vatican Museums.

After viewing the splendid Sistine Chapel and the astonishing St. Peter’s Basilica, a visitor with a puzzled frown might ask: «Has John Paul II commissioned any art?» «Is he even interested in art?»

The quick answer is, of course, yes. The patronage of John Paul II has been as interesting and innovative as his pontificate.

Among other things, he commissioned the small Redemptoris Mater chapel near his own apartments. This personal commission shows a turn of mind more in keeping with the subtle Nicholas V than the grand designs of Julius II.

The private chapel is decorated in mosaic, the earliest medium of Christian art in Rome. The chapel was begun by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a Slovenian mosaic artist who used a color scheme and design evoking the tradition of icons.

After this artist’s departure, the chapel was completed by the Vatican Mosaic laboratory, the studio founded by Pope Gregory XIII to perpetuate this great art form. They used a strikingly modern technique: different sized tiles, dramatic color contrasts and contemp
orary imagery.

Whether intentional or not, there is a reflection of John Paul’s own papacy in the completed chapel. The contrast of the stability of the past with the thrill of the present, Eastern tradition and Western progression, soft contemplative color and vivid, active slashes of scarlet provides a fascinating insight to a many-faceted pontificate.

The pontificate has also witnessed — and encouraged — the rise of an extraordinary artist. Natalia Tsarkova, a young Russian Orthodox painter from Moscow, has received several important commissions from John Paul II. She painted the only official portrait of the present Pope, today visible in the Lateran Museum, as well as an enthralling version of the Last Supper. Gazing up at Natalia’s small, fifth-floor studio near Piazza Barberini evokes images of Romans of centuries past pointing at Bernini’s workshop and commenting: «That’s where the Pope’s artist works.»

These remarkable commissions have gone all but unnoticed, bringing into question the ability of painting and sculpture to work the same magic on the contemporary world as they did during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In many ways, the cleaning of the entire Sistine Chapel undertaken under the auspices of John Paul II from 1981- 1999 has done more to renew people’s interest in art than any new commission could. The Vatican Web site, too, elegant and efficient, allows millions of people to approach, explore and study the Church than ever before.

Finally, John Paul II, himself actor and poet, has a broader vision of art than many of his Renaissance predecessors.

Reaching beyond the ability to imitate life in stone or pigment, this pontificate has underscored the artistic element in each and every human life. Where the painter makes choices to add here, to emphasize there, each person shapes his or her life through choices.

This almost Baroque view of life as theater offers the greatest commission of all — a unique, personally crafted work of art for us to present before our Creator.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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