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)

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…

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