Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II; drawing by David Levine

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.


Critics have welcomed the presence of the Belvedere torso, a magnificent but terribly battered fragment. It continues to baffle classical archaeologists, who cannot agree on the subject, and who often dismiss it as too late and too derivative to be a significant example of Hellenistic art. But for Michelangelo’s own development it was probably the most important work of antiquity he ever studied. It is another of those works whose presence in the papal collection made it a crucial factor in the subsequent development of European art. One need only compare Rodin’s Thinker to see its enduring influence. Couldn’t the Met have helped the visitor understand this aspect of the papacy and art by offering a little more information and some comparative illustrations?

As the visitor goes through galleries representing different museums within the Vatican, the distinction between patronage and collecting can become badly confused. The Museo Sacro of the Vatican Library is represented by two very important reliquaries of the True Cross commissioned by Paschal I (817-824), though not by the enameled cross that belongs inside one of them. These were kept in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran until 1906. Therefore their presence illustrates both medieval patronage and the change of attitude in modern times that now considers such objects as works of art belonging in a museum. But with them is a smaller and earlier silver reliquary excavated in Algeria in 1884, and only accidentally a part of the Vatican collections.

One of the finest known examples of goldglass comes also from the Museo Sacro, but it is a purely secular object, originally the bottom of a luxurious drinking glass. This is in the Vatican only because it was excavated by the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in 1926. The glass has a beautifully lettered toast in Latin, but although the catalogue does not say so, it was found decorating an ordinary tomb crudely lettered in Greek. It is an exquisite object, but its inclusion here confuses all the issues implicit in the theme of the papacy and art. The didactic purpose of the exhibition actually suffers from the curator’s natural desire to display beautiful works of art.

The installation is very uneven. Newly cleaned and amply lit, the Apollo Belvedere can now be seen better than at any other time since about AD 140. The remarkable vestments of Clement VIII are as well lit as one can expect, in view of their fragility, and the gallery for the Pinacoteca is adequate. But the galleries showing nineteenth-century collections of Etruscan and Roman sculpture are examples of the Met’s worst style of spot lighting. When harsh shadows cross a statue from opposed directions it loses coherent plasticity. The Augustus from Prima Porta should have stayed at home. Cardinal Farnese’s gilt altar setting dissolves into the kind of glitter one expects in an unscrupulous dealer’s shop. The visitor will have a hard time seeing such pieces as outstanding miniature examples of mannerist sculpture; they will have to be content with gaping at the gold and rock crystal.

For anyone disappointed in the Met exhibition, a trip to Washington proves salutary. Among the seven exhibitions displayed at the National Gallery when the Vatican show opened in New York, two were remarkably successful in presenting a cultural setting and raising the issue of collecting, and both were presented in catalogues of enduring value. They also included masterpieces by Manet and Raphael that everyone would want to see. True, many of the paintings had the advantage of familiarity, but they were shown and explained in ways that supplemented our pleasure and deepened our understanding.

In “Manet and Modern Paris” the life of the city is documented by prints, photographs, and paintings, some of admittedly secondary quality. Skillfully arranged and accompanied by ample wall labels, this material established in our own visual experience themes such as the railroad station, the race track, and the café-concert, all central to Manet’s iconography. The arbitrariness and the originality of spatial composition in Manet’s Gare Saint-Lazare emerge with new clarity when we can study other views of the site, particularly of the vast Pont de l’Europe. As we took account of the various iconographic themes Manet remains the focus, but we could also study excellent examples of work by Daumier, Degas, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. If Manet’s great Old Musician of 1862 remains a conundrum, many of its components were better understood through the documentation shown here. Manet was an intensely thoughtful painter, constructing his compositions deliberately, reluctant to reveal his purposes too openly. We learn more about his art from this kind of exhibition than we do from a conventional exhibition confined to Manet’s pictures.

This exhibition was organized by Theodore Reff of Columbia University, in collaboration with the staff of the National Gallery. His accompanying catalogue is a fully illustrated book of permanent value, with further comparative material thoughtfully discussed. Admittedly, this subject was easier to present and more accessible to the general public than the early periods surveyed in the Vatican show, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that one works while the other disappoints.

Another Washington exhibition that could be compared to the Vatican show is “Raphael in America,” organized by David Alan Brown of the National Gallery staff. The first part dramatized Raphael’s prestige in the United States by assembling paintings by Benjamin West and others, nineteenth-century copies after Raphael, photographs, and even newspaper clippings. From this one could learn much about prevailing artistic taste at the end of the nineteenth century and the personalities of the American collectors who were then desperate to buy an authentic Raphael. Brown here succeeded in a task similar to the one of presenting the history of neoclassical taste and collecting that is implicit in the Vatican catalogue but is not carried out in the Vatican show itself.

In the second part Brown exhibited the Raphaels that American collectors actually acquired; by juxtaposing them with works by Raphael’s contemporaries, he helped us to comprehend the painter’s genius. Since the exhibition included the Alba Madonna and drawings from Windsor Castle, the British Museum, and the Louvre, there was no lack of masterpieces, but there were also copies and works by followers. Raphael emerged stronger than ever when we had this opportunity to study the evolution of his visual ideas and the failures of his imitators to achieve the same subtlety. Brown’s catalogue in itself is valuable, going beyond what could actually be exhibited. His extensive account of the history of American taste and collecting in this field is a pioneering contribution, and his discussion of the actual paintings associated with Raphael includes much new information from cleaning and technical examination, as well as new arguments on disputed attributions.

Clearly the National Gallery has emerged as the leader in thoughtful exhibitions aimed to instruct the visitor. The staff has found ways to display comparative material with ample labels, without its appearing messy or drawing excessive attention. The comparative material can be fascinating in itself, for example André Disdéri’s famous photograph of dead Communards in their coffins, used to establish one aspect of the ambiance of Manet’s Paris. But the display never gets cluttered, and the labels set in clear type are kept short and to the point. The wall labels and the installation for King Tut in 1976 were already perfectly coordinated to inform the visitor and to keep him moving effortlessly through the galleries. The extraordinarily rich Piranesi exhibition that helped to open the new East Wing five years ago already gave promise of the Gallery’s skill at displaying specialized scholarship. Not only the various states of the plates, but even different inkings of the same state, were identified. Unfortunately that exhibition was accompanied by an inadequate pamphlet instead of a fully illustrated catalogue; the current practice gives us fine catalogues for all such exhibitions.

Another National Gallery exhibition, however, failed to provide the kind of explanatory material that would be truly helpful. “Paintings in Naples from Caravaggio to Giordano” was a reduced version of an enormous exhibition organized in Naples for the Royal Academy in London. These are splendid works, unfamiliar to most Americans. The substantial catalogue entries, prepared mostly by Italian specialists, tend to be discursive and to emphasize such issues as evidence for provenience, the history of a disputed attribution, and connections with related paintings, while failing to clarify essential facts such as the subject matter or the date of the painting. A short wall label appeared in each gallery, but these tended toward generality and abstraction and also failed to give the dates of individual paintings. The National Gallery made a handsome taped slide show to go with the exhibition. But with its accompanying baroque music and sparse commentary, the slide show was little more than an entertainment. Educational material in such exhibitions takes time to prepare and it seems more successful when the National Gallery can work on it from the start.

Of course the Gallery mounts more conventional kinds of exhibitions also. To consider only those displayed at the time the Vatican show opened in New York, the sculpture of David Smith seemed so at home in the new East Wing that it needed no labels. An exhibition on Smith of a more didactic kind had been organized simultaneously at the Hirshhorn Museum across the Mall. The important Alfred Stieglitz exhibition was accompanied by an elegant book, and such material is so easily appreciated as not to need an educational supplement in the galleries. The still-life paintings of John F. Peto are also exhibited to speak for themselves, but there is a substantial catalogue by John Wilmerding of the National Gallery staff. The scholarly exhibition of drawings from the Holy Roman Empire, organized at Princeton by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and his students, had an authoritative catalogue, but it would have been impractical to distill so much material for wall labels. In short, the National Gallery has been dealing with different needs and opportunities in appropriate ways.

Such leadership is all the more impressive for those who knew the Washington gallery twenty or thirty years ago. The museum had a superb collection of master paintings that were beautifully lit in John Russell Pope’s stately galleries, but there was very little creative scholarship. The Met was far more respected in those years. But since 1969 J. Carter Brown has expanded his staff and encouraged his curators to pursue scholarly work. When the Renaissance art historian Sydney Freedberg joins the curatorial staff upon his retirement from Harvard this summer, the intellectual quality of the staff will be further strengthened. Meanwhile the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, directed by Henry Millon, also opens possibilities for collaboration between curators and scholars and strengthens the connections between the museum and the universities. It is all very impressive.

By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum’s concerns seem distressingly clear to any visitor to the Vatican show. Passing through the turnstile you are greeted by a saleswoman with an open catalogue assuring you that every object is illustrated and discussed. As you turn the corner you find a second bookstall, in case the first is busy. Around the corner, opposite a poster of the director himself, five young assistants are ready to rent you a tape recorder to listen to his comments on the show. Just before entering the actual exhibition, there is a third bookstall, in case you failed to take advantage of the first two. Emerging from the show, you pass an expensive espresso bar and a vast gift shop overlooking the Temple of Dendur. Featured is a cast of part of the head of the Virgin from Michelangelo’s Pietà, which looks like tinted Ivory soap. It costs $150, optional stand $49.50 extra.

The National Gallery has excellent bookshops, and remarkably good inexpensive color slides and reproductions, but it does not sell kitsch. Of course, the National Gallery has the advantage of the generous and farsighted support of the Mellon family, and part of its operating budget is regularly voted by Congress. But these special exhibitions and publications require outside financing. Gifts and grants are essential to the health of any museum. What matters, both in the purpose and in the techniques of fund raising, is the scale of values implicit in the activities of the museum. Tone is important, and a record of distinguished accomplishment like that now developing at the National Gallery is bound to attract support. There are excellent scholars on the staff of the Met, there are marvelous riches in its collections, and there have been some fine exhibitions in recent years; but beginning with the embarrassing “Harlem on My Mind” in 1969 there have also been too many questionable activities. The management of the museum has, in my view, tended to become opportunistic and commercial.

Financial matters in Washington have been handled both effectively and discreetly. The people who run the National Gallery are clearly committed to excellence in art exhibitions. But excellence need not exclude popularity, for the El Greco exhibition last summer had more than 6,000 visitors a day in Washington, not many fewer than the planned capacity of 7,000 a day for the Vatican show. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Cézanne: The Late Work” attracted half a million visitors and 7,000 new members in 1977, while the great Picasso show of 1980 attracted 1,100,000 visitors (a daily average of 7,400) and 14,000 new members. Artistic excellence, thoughtfully presented and accompanied by serious publications, will attract an audience without requiring a circus atmosphere.

One more point about the National Gallery’s achievement should be mentioned: the Raphael exhibition was relatively small, while the Manet exhibition was no larger than medium size; both were centered on famous masterpieces in the permanent collection. Each also contained important loans, but neither exhibition required superhuman effort from the museum staff. Yet the Manet exhibition was so popular as to be uncomfortably crowded at peak hours and the Raphael exhibition had good popular reviews. A large and sensitive audience for art certainly exists without needing to be patronized. A variety of stimulating smaller exhibitions like the seven described in Washington offers something for almost every taste, and alerts all of us to different ranges of art.

Blockbusters can do more harm than good. For the general public the accompanying promotion can raise false expectations; it seems many visitors to the Vatican show are coming away puzzled and vaguely dissatisfied. The circus atmosphere not only distracts public attention from the riches of the permanent collection and from less glamorous events, it absorbs far too much in museum resources and staff time. The small, stimulating exhibition on a less popular theme is likely to be the first casualty. The effect is even worse when a packaged blockbuster comes to a small museum, dominating all public relations and swamping the local staff.

There have been some excellent smaller exhibitions at the Met with good educational content, not always sufficiently recognized. “The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis” at the Cloisters two years ago was exemplary in the scholarly presentation of twenty-eight objects, and was accompanied by a very substantial catalogue. Last year Weston Naef organized a group of newly acquired photographs not as a normal historical survey, but as provocatively juxtaposed pairs and trios, forcing us to reconsider our assumptions about photographs that may be intriguingly similar but profoundly different. This exhibition has been traveling around the country and much of it is published as the book Counterparts: Form and Emotion in Photographs. To provoke comparison of these pairs and trios short wall labels were needed, but the results are uneven; some of those derived from the book are helpful, while some others are only tangentially relevant. Other small exhibitions have embodied good scholarship but have lacked a separate catalogue, like the current selection of the Metropolitan’s Italian drawings, which has languished in the shadow of the Vatican show.

Perhaps there are just too many rings in the circus at the Metropolitan, too many separate units competing for exhibition and publication money, too many resources going into the various campaigns of rebuilding and expansion. The Met has a distinguished curatorial staff and splendid permanent collections, and in the long run it can gain the funds to undertake the kind of stimulating educational program that has developed in Washington. What is needed is more consistent and imaginative direction.

This Issue

June 2, 1983