Red Popes and Proto-Internet; a Realm's Greatness

Propaganda Fide Museum Reflects Universality of Revelation

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By Elizabeth Lev 

ROME, JAN. 27, 2011 ( Really, does Rome need another museum? In a town that boasts even a pasta museum, it almost seems redundant to open yet another exhibition space packed with sculptures, paintings or artifacts. 

But museums are more than repositories for arts and crafts; they recount history and they underscore identity. In that light, the new museum of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples fills an important gap in our understanding of the Roman Church and its mission as the Catholic «Caput Mundi.»

The Missionary Museum of Propaganda Fide, housed on the main floor of the headquarters of the congregation, overlooks what is today the pricey shopping district of Piazza di Spagna. Until 1967, what is today known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples was the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). 
The palace itself is a work of art, begun by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1643 and completed by his arch rival, Francesco Borromini in 1664. 

The Propaganda Fide was established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, with the purpose of forming priests to be sent out into the newly explored territories during the Age of Discovery. China, Japan, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas were appearing on European maps, and the Church sought to bring the Gospel to these distant peoples. 

The original 25 missionaries, called together by Cardinal Antonio Barberini in 1637, lived and studied in the palace before being dispatched to the furthest corners of the world to evangelize, form local clergy, and ultimately create new dioceses. The building served as a college until the 19th century. 

These educated, faithful men of the Propaganda Fide went into the world with their eyes, ears and hearts open, sending back narratives, artifacts and testimonies regarding the people and areas they encountered. The massive amount of information collected in the Propaganda Fide rendered the congregation a sort of proto-Internet: Here one could hear the latest scuttlebutt in Japanese politics or discover the medicinal properties of Mexican wildflowers. 

The prefect of the congregation (today Cardinal Ivan Dias) wielded authority over such vast territories and was in possession of so much information that he was once known as the «Red Pope.» 

The first rooms of the museum illustrate the mission of the Propaganda Fide. Two multimedia spaces evoke the global operation of the congregation, long before vaccines, airplanes, bug spray and in-room showers. The Agenzia Fides photographic archive selected over 10,000 pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century to show the diverse locations, conditions and communities of the missions, making an evocative slideshow on monitors all over the room. 

The idea of a missionary museum dates back to one of the congregation’s most celebrated prefects, Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804). A stellar example of the Catholic Enlightenment, Cardinal Borgia dreamed of producing a visual polyphony made up of «the four voices of the world,» the known continents. His collection has been dispersed, but a few pieces remain at the Propaganda Fide for visitors to admire. 

The Propaganda Fide was formed in the post-Tridentine era when education and formation became the gold standard for priests. Cardinal Antonio Barberini conformed to this new spirit by building a grand library for the students of the college. On the broad wooden tables, several fascinating documents testify to the challenges of evangelizing. The astonishing number of languages in which official documents needed to be translated is illustrated in one little manual for typesetting the most exotic of characters. In fact, for many years, this palace operated the only polyglot printing press in Rome. One 18th-century letter from Emperor Leopold of Austria to Abas Has, Shah of Persia, asks the Shah to repeal laws restricting the religious freedom of Christians, while another letter asks the office for a definitive response to the question of Chinese liturgical rites. These documents underscore the many different peoples with their different needs that the Holy Father must care for — a task grown even greater in the modern era. 

Some works startle the complacent museum visitor to attention, such as the three large tempera-on-silk panels from 1930 by a woman artist named Teresa Kimiko Koseki: open windows on domestic life in Japan. 

A memorial of the 22 martyrs of Uganda is a sobering testament of the high price many missionaries have paid to bring the Word of God to the world. It stands next to a video screen with footage of Pope Paul VI’s 1969 trip to Africa, the first pope in history to visit the central region of the continent. 

There is a large picture gallery with many engaging works by painters of the 17th and 18th century, but the jewel in the crown is a tiny chapel where Blessed John Henry Newman celebrated his first Mass after becoming Catholic. Elegant and intimate, the chapel transforms a museum visit into a pilgrimage. 

The other wonderful perk of the new museum is access to an architectural masterpiece by Borromini, the Chapel of the Magi. Once only visible to the elect, this chapel closes the itinerary. Stark coloring was a trademark of Borromini, in contrast to his more flamboyant contemporary, Bernini, and the chapel hues are limited to a warm cream color and white. 

Borromini’s art lay in his design and the curving walls enclose the visitor while the 12 pilasters, intended to represent the Twelve Apostles, shoot up along the walls before intertwining on the vault. 

The chapel is dedicated to the Epiphany, the feast that traditionally in the Church expresses the universality of God’s self-revelation. In art, the three kings are often depicted with the somatic features of Africa, Asia and Europe, the continents known at the time. Could there be a more fitting space for these priests who are preparing to bring the Gospel to the world? 

The Missionary Museum of Propaganda Fide is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. The tickets cost €8 for adults and €6 for students. 

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Star-studded encyclopedia 

Cardinal Ascanio Filomarino, archbishop of Naples, advisor to popes and kings, champion of the riots of Masaniello and art collector extraordinaire, once told the Neapolitan king that while palaces and paintings make a kingdom beautiful, books are what make a realm great. 

The papacy has long been aware of this, as the Vatican Library and Museums demonstrate, but last Monday, the Vatican Museums presented an ambitious amalgamation of art, architecture and literature in the new Encyclopedia of the Vatican Museums. 

The two-volume book, published in conjunction with Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana as part of a series called «I Luoghi dell’Arte,» presents the seemingly overwhelming papal collections in a scientific and orderly way. Seventeen hundred pages and 1,500 images categorize and elucidate the 13 museums of the Vatican collection containing 4,416 ancient statues alone! 

Guiding the reader through this dense artistic patrimony is Professor Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums. The clarity and color of his prose throughout the 120 pages of text is well suited to the state-of-the-art photography that graces the pages. 

The artistry of the pictures reveals new aspects of the art. Laocoön seen from a new angle, the light pouring in on the 1929 Momo entrance, refresh our vision of this oft-travelled space. 

The presentation was as star-studded as the volume. Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State opened the evening. Professor Paolucci, and the editorial director of the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana gave excellent presentations; but the most insightful reflections came from an unexpected quarter, Senator Giuliano Amato. Twice prime minister of Italy
serving the Democratic Party of the Left, Senator Amato is also the president of the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. 

2010 marked the 140th anniversary of the unification of Italy, when Pope Pius IX was stripped of his lands and the art of the Church was claimed by Italy. The mutual respect and fruitful collaboration between the Vatican Museums and a former leader in the Italian Socialist party, demonstrates how left and right can reconcile and move forward through beauty. 

Senator Amato made two very good points in his address, the first noting how progress and tradition can work hand in hand. The new technologies that allow the stunning photography and the excellent conservation of the ancient works complements the wealth of beauty collected and commissioned by centuries of popes, the supreme conservators of tradition. 

Then Senator Amato, successful politician and one of the drafters of the European Constitution, made his second point, one that underscored the necessity, not luxury, which are the Vatican Museums. «In a world where cultures are constantly compared and incorporated with one another, one can’t afford to be ignorant of one’s own culture.»

The billion-plus Catholics out there who are part of the culture that produced the Sistine Chapel, the Divine Comedy, champagne and modern genetics, would do well to take heed. 

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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