Artistic Revisionism; Augustine Finally Arrives

Exhibit Hints at a Split Between Beauty and the Sacred

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 18, 2004 ( What kind of art historian walks into a room filled with paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio and Titian and walks out dissatisfied? I was asking myself this question as I left the new Rome art show at the Scuderie al Quirinale, «From Giotto to Malevic: The Reciprocal Wonder.»

Much touted by my friends and colleagues, this show compares the history of Italian and Russian art, showing moments of similarity and periods of (seemingly) complete divergence. Dozens of painting brought from the Puskin Museum and the State Gallery Tret’jakov in Moscow and prestigious loans from the finest Italian museums make this a thrilling environment for art lovers.

Nonetheless, for some reason I was left with a bitter aftertaste. The best ingredients were there: Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo, but the recipe was faulty.

The selection of works favored almost exclusively secular subjects by these artists, whereas these men were all known as primarily religious painters. If the overwhelming majority of art commissions throughout the Renaissance dealt with religious subjects, then why present three-quarters of the Italian works as representing secular subjects?

The first room of the exhibit puts East and West on equal footing. Thirteenth-century art in both Russia and Italy was heavily influenced by the artistic output from Constantinople. The same heavy outlines of Florentine Coppa di Marcovaldo’s «Madonna and Child» can be found in the Russian «Deesis: Redeemer, Virgin and John the Baptist.» The works are hung side by side, mixing easily.

But in the next room, the paths part. The Italians, represented by the best artists of the Florentine and Venetian Renaissance, line the left wall while the Russians, presenting Andrei Rublev and the celebrated school of Novgorod, are arrayed on the right.

Botticelli’s «Calumny,» the artists’ exercise in re-creating an ancient Greek painting known only by descriptions, and Titian’s genre painting of «The Concert» with its remarkable rendering of faces look across at the stylized «Dormition of the Virgin.»

The exhibit’s didactic information explains that Italian art evolved as part of the «humanistic exaltation of Man as center and measure of all things,» while in Russia the «Byzantine legacy was translated into rigorous categories that established the canons of religious art.»

What the viewer is not told concerns Russia’s role as Christianity’s defender in the East. By the 15th century all the Christian territories in the East had fallen to the Turkish Empire and Russia protected its traditional art for fear that it would be completely lost.

Meanwhile, the Italians were developing a new style based on a renewed interest in Classical antiquity. This interest did not, however, exclude religious subject matter. On the contrary, the point of studying the works of antiquity was to confer a greater monumentality on sacred Christian imagery.

Visually, the exhibit expresses this development through a series of varied styles and subjects on the Western side and a somewhat static vision of art on the Eastern side.

By the 17th century, the show proclaims a «Copernican revolution» in the figurative art of Italy with the introduction of science. Guido Reni, Annibale Caracci and Caravaggio are all represented, but these artists, who were at the forefront of Counter-Reformation painting, are shown as depicting subjects such as Atlanta, Venus and Pan, and Boy with Lizard. The Russian side maintains the same style and same subject matter of saints and holy stories. Thus the West’s artistic élan is shown to coincide with an embrace of humanism and a near abandonment of religious topics.

Russian art is shown to catch up with Italian art under Peter the Great during the 18th century in what the show describes as the «Age of Lights.» The viewer is led to understand that under Peter’s enlightened rule, a fresh, new current pervaded the art of Russia. In the room, the paintings start to intermingle again on the walls. The portrait genre is featured here. Artists and czars, Russians and Italians — all the paintings look alike. The two cultures rejoin in an overweening interest in self.

Upstairs, all religious subject matter disappears as the two cultures come into open contact. Landscapes, domestic scenes and portraits are paired side by side and it becomes difficult to tell which is Russian and which is Italian. Gradually, the show proceeds through to abstract and expressionist art in which the Russians end up leading the Italians.

Proclaiming a popular theory in history that art flourished when Renaissance artists managed to free themselves from the yoke of sacred subject matter, this show is ultimately dissatisfying, like a Caravaggio still life. Dazzling at first glance, but upon further study showing signs of decay.

* * *

Sweet 1650

Rome welcomed an extraordinary visitor last week. Topping the 25 European Union leaders of last month wasn’t easy, but on Nov. 7, the Italian Air Force flew in the urn containing the relics of St. Augustine from Pavia to Rome, where it was met by city dignitaries and brought under police escort to the Church of Sant’Agostino, the only church dedicated to him in the municipality.

The occasion bringing these relics to Rome for the first time was the 1,650th anniversary of Augustine’s birth. To celebrate, the city pulled out all the stops.

The Augustinianum university and the La Sapienza university held conferences to discuss the works of this eminent doctor of the Church, and there were public readings of the saint’s writings. Among Augustine’s well-wishers, politicians, ambassadors and all the members of the Augustinian order in Rome turned out to pay their respects. Every day a different cardinal celebrated Mass near the reliquary.

On Nov. 11, the urn was brought to the private chapel of John Paul II, where the Pope spent time in prayer before St. Augustine’s mortal remains. The relics were also received in several other places around the city.

Perhaps the most joyous homage was offered by the youth of Rome. Last Thursday evening, 500 young people gathered for a candlelight procession from Piazza Navona to the Church of Sant’Agostino. There they gathered in the chapel dedicated to the saint, praying and singing around the eighth-century silver casket until midnight.

With the voices of the next generation praising him, near the relics of his mother, St. Monica, which are contained in the Church of Sant’Agostino, who can doubt that St. Augustine had the best birthday ever?

* * *

Storied Sarcophagi

The Vatican Museums celebrated another anniversary as Nov. 9 marked the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Pio Cristiano Museum. While the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms are well-known attractions of the museums, fewer people are acquainted with the collection of early Christian antiquities opened by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Originally a gallery of 70 Christian sarcophagi housed in the papal palace at St. John Lateran, the collection grew and eventually was transferred to the Vatican Museums in 1970 under the auspices of Pope Paul VI, in a wing built specially to house the collection.

I spoke with Cristina Gennaccari of the Vatican Museums, an expert in Paleo-Christian sarcophagi, about the history and significance of the collection.

She told me that this museum is fundamental to the understanding of early Christian archaeology and art. Whereas many historians consider early Christian art as the same as late ancient pagan art, «in thi
s collection one sees that while the Christians do borrow some imagery from the pagans in the beginning, by the third and fourth centuries, the Christians have a sentiment and understanding of their own style.»

Walking through the collection together, Gennaccari pointed out a few essential pieces.

The «Dogmatic Sarcophagus» provides an excellent example. The huge marble coffin must have been purchased by a wealthy patron, and the stories from the Old and New Testaments are represented in interesting ways.

«This isn’t some workshop carver blindly copying,» explains Gennaccari. «These are collaborations between patron and artist to convey a deep and complex religious sentiment.»

Also in the collection is the famous statuette of the «Good Shepherd,» one of the earliest images symbolizing Christ saving the straying soul.

Gennaccari also pointed out a fragment of an inscription from the second century and known as the «Cippo di Albericio.» It is a poem written by the bishop of Hieratolis in Phrygia (in modern Turkey) exalting the Eucharist. He writes about his travels and how «Faith offered always her friends to eat and to mix with the wine she offered bread.» This phrase is interpreted as a reference to holy Communion. A fitting exhibit for the Year of the Eucharist.

The museum has been revamped somewhat to make it a more effective teaching environment. Copies of catacomb paintings have been added so that visitors can see examples of early Christian sculpture, mosaic and painting, all side by side.

A special gift arrived two days before the inauguration. The Museum of Krakow sent several casts of sarcophagi fragments that matched perfectly with the pieces in the collection. The originals had been purchased by a Polish collector in the 19th century. The two museums recognized each other’s pieces and for the first time, the sarcophagi can now be seen in their entirety.

The collection will be open regularly from now on with additional renovations in the planning stages. Perhaps future visitors to the Vatican Museums will take a moment to visit the first stirrings of Christian art before racing to their culmination in the Sistine Chapel.

* * *

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

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