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Art for Whose Sake?

The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 255 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Manet and Modern Paris

by Theodore Reff
National Gallery of Art/University of Chicago Press, 280 pp., $18.50 (paper)

Raphael and America

by David Alan Brown
National Gallery of Art, 208 pp., $15.95 (paper)

John Paul II is probably the most conservative theologian and the most effective politician to serve as bishop of Rome since Pius IX (1846-1878). His skill at public relations has been constantly evident, and so it was no great surprise to experienced Vatican observers when he announced plans for a blockbuster exhibition subtitled “The Papacy and Art.” To the cynical military question, How many divisions does the Pope have? a new answer might be: he has a couple of million Americans who will be admiring the Vatican treasures.

Good public relations are fully as important to great museums, and nothing seems more promising than a show so expensive and so notorious as to command cover stories in national magazines. Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met, has said that he is offering Americans who cannot afford a trip to Rome a chance to see the Vatican in the Met. No one can doubt that such a populist argument helps to generate support for maintaining the museum. To explain the $3 million donation from Philip Morris, a company spokesman said, “We know we have a winner.”

This public-relations mentality easily feeds upon itself. Blockbuster exhibitions are self-justifying. But this one has drawn considerable protest from disinterested curators and scholars, particularly in Italy, and after a wave of favorable advance publicity in The New York Times and elsewhere, both critics and the general public have been less enthusiastic than expected. This exhibition may not be much of a winner after all. Clearly it is time to reconsider the blockbuster phenomenon in general, to examine other kinds of exhibitions that museums are organizing with excellent results. If doubts about the Vatican show are beginning to emerge in board rooms, perhaps critics will now get a more attentive hearing.

The most serious objection in Italy, which is supported by Irving Lavin of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, concerns the safety of the objects subjected to so much handling and distant travel. No doubt all the museums involved are taking every possible precaution, and for most of the objects there need be no special concern. It has also been argued that by using part of the money raised for the show the Vatican was able to undertake necessary cleaning and restoration, with spectacular results in some cases, as with the Apollo Belvedere and the Raphael tapestry.

But such gains for artistic patrimony must be balanced against the risks of travel. Some works are more fragile than others; some have unique importance; and one must always reckon with the possibility of catastrophe when deciding which objects can reasonably be lent. Particularly for the most precious and fragile works one must weigh carefully the real need for the object in the particular exhibition.

The Apollo Belvedere, one of the principal features of the Vatican exhibition, was already broken into several pieces when it was repaired and set up in the Vatican at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Now it has been cleaned and the pieces more accurately fitted together, but if it were to break again from sudden shock or the cumulative effect of serious vibration, presumably it would first break along the old joins, and no significant loss would occur. Furthermore, while the Apollo is a fine example of Roman imitations of classical Greek sculpture, scholars and connoisseurs today are not likely to include it among the most profound works of classical culture. Its importance, instead, comes precisely from its history in the Vatican, first as a focal point in the humanist decorative program of Julius II, then as the object of extravagant admiration during the era of Winckelmann and Canova. Therefore from all points of view it was appropriate to send the Apollo Belvedere for this exhibition.

But including the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta raises more serious objections. It was excavated 120 years ago in excellent condition, almost completely preserved. There are a few breaks, including one in the middle of the extended right arm, and one would not like to see another break caused by travel. More to the point, this statue will be on every specialist’s list of the supreme masterpieces of Roman art. We know it was set up in Livia’s villa after the emperor’s death in AD 14. But its only connection with the papacy is that the Vatican acquired it after it was discovered in 1863. It makes no significant contribution to the theme of “the Papacy and Art.” It should be allowed to travel only to an extraordinary exhibition of classical art, where its presence for comparison with similar works would be particularly important.

Paintings on wooden panels are notoriously bad candidates for travel because of the dangers of expansion and contraction from changes in temperature and humidity. The larger the panel the greater the danger. Protests by Italian conservators over shipping Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome are justified, especially since its first connection with the papacy was its purchase on the art market around 1850.

The Vatican exhibition should have been subjected to a more sober review of needs and risks, including the possibility of a major catastrophe, such as an air crash, no matter how remote that possibility may be. When an electrical fault caused a fire in the Museum of Modern Art in 1958, quick action by the staff minimized the damage, but a newly acquired Monet Nymphéas was destroyed by firemen breaking through a wall. Fortunately the fire was confined to one floor, but if it had spread it could have destroyed the special exhibition on another floor, a blockbuster of the time, which included almost all the major works of Seurat. If that exhibition had been destroyed future generations would know Seurat only through reproductions and a very few paintings not available for loan. Prudent planning requires even the most ambitious promoters to limit the number of masterpieces they request. The outer packing case of the Augustus from Prima Porta was bashed as it entered the Met, but the inner case held and the statue is undamaged. So far.

How effective is the Vatican show? It has a full catalogue that was made available on schedule, at a reasonable price, and contains excellent scholarship, particularly in the contributions of Georg Daltrop of the Vatican and Margaret Frazer of the Met. But it is uneven and unfocused. In some entries distinguished scholars seem to be talking only to themselves, failing even to take note of the theme of the papacy and art.

That would be reasonable if this show were a selection of the greatest masterpieces in the Vatican, something like the original blockbuster, the Berlin exhibition that traveled throughout the country thirty-five years ago, an event that was an acceptable kind of war booty, but a horrible example of ill-advised risks. Now everyone is more cautious. The loan exhibition from the Dresden museum five years ago was splendid, but it deliberately omitted some of the most precious and fragile masterpieces, such as, the Giorgione Sleeping Venus. For the Vatican show it would be hard to count more than a dozen masterpieces of the highest standing, and perhaps two dozen less famous but very interesting examples. To reach the formidable total of 237 objects very feeble stuff had to be included.

The nine works from the Collection of Modern Religious Art may be the best of that interminable and depressing series of recently opened galleries, but they make Huntington Hartford’s former museum at Columbus Circle in New York look adventurous by comparison. Some fine examples of decorative art will hold the attention of only the most devoted specialist, and scarcely half the antiquities were worth the freight. The half-length mosaic portrait of John VII (705-707) is entirely modern except for the battered forehead and part of the left eye. There can be no doubt that this show would be far more effective if cut to one third and selectively upgraded in quality.

But the theme of the papacy and art suggests another approach, a survey of papal patronage in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, and of papal collecting in modern times. A strong argument can be made that works of art should be seen in the broader setting of cultural history, and works of modest quality should be examined as characteristic examples of taste. This is an attractive proposition, often heard in academic circles today. It is implicit in some of the advance publicity for the Vatican show, but it is not what the general public expects from a blockbuster, and the installation does not make it effective in this case. The wall labels and supplementary material, such as old engravings, are insufficient to keep the visitor fully informed on the cultural history of the objects; some catalogue entries ignore the question of provenience entirely; and the selections of some objects flout the proposition.

Bernini’s work for Urban VIII (1623-1644) is one of the great episodes of papal patronage, but it is represented here by a bronze bust of the pope that is only a contemporary replica, which reached the Vatican in 1902, and by two small terra-cotta sketches for the figure of Charity on the pope’s tomb, which were acquired in 1923. Other Bernini sketches that have always belonged to the Fabbrica di San Pietro, such as those for two Church Fathers flanking the Cathedra Petri, which were exhibited two years ago in the Bernini show at the Vatican, would have been more appropriate to illustrate the theme of patronage, and could have been complemented by color photographs of the finished monument.

On the theme of collecting and its relation to taste, the catalogue presents clearly the history of the formation of a museum in the modern sense by Clement XIV and Pius VI during the 1770s. The significance of this collecting for the evolution of contemporary art, however, will not be clear to the visitor because the only work by Canova is a workshop replica of his bust of Pius VII. Yet Canova’s development of neoclassical style in the two papal tombs he made beginning in 1783 is central to the taste of the period, and Pius VII bought his Perseus in 1802 specifically as a replacement for the Apollo Belvedere, which the French had taken to Paris. True, the Met owns the second version of Canova’s Perseus, but it is not in the exhibition itself; and the visitor is not asked to compare it with the Apollo Belvedere or the Eros from Centocelle. From such a comparison the visitor would have understood in historical perspective the apparent clash between the lingering rococo taste of the three animal groups created by Francesco Franzoni from small ancient fragments around 1780 and the stiff classicizing restorations of 1775 that exaggerate even the Hadrianic style of the Apollo Musagetes and Muses. The Apollo Belvedere and the Eros were two key examples that led Canova to eliminate the rococo strain in his own youthful work, and to breathe life into the deadly mechanical style of the ordinary restorers.

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