The Global Patronage of Pius IX

Author: Stefano Cracolici

The Global Patronage of Pius IX

Stefano Cracolici*

Pope Mastai Ferretti started a massive program of restorations and commission that was not limited to the Vatican and the Church of Rome but reached the most remote regions of the worldAt the 1867 World Exposition in Paris the Papal State brought back the age-old charm of the Christan catacombs

With the end of 2011 fast approaching, the year of celebration for the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy comes to a close (1861). A unique case among European nations, commemorating the birth of a united Italy is rather an un-united commemoration: we shall have to wait until 2021, for the anniversary of Rome as the capital of the Italian nation (1871), in fact, to add to the series of events that have just occurred.

Rome 150 years ago — it is worth mentioning — was not part of the Kingdom of Italy; it was still the political and spiritual center of the Holy See. In the brief decade that awaits us, reversing the perspective of the winner and the loser can help us, at least heuristically, to water down the bitter climate of recent polemics and to evaluate more astutely the historical and cultural impact that the upcoming celebrations might have. One aspect deserves to be addressed with particular care: the end of the Church's 1,000-year-old temporal power in 1870 which coincided with the end of Rome as the internationally acclaimed universal capital of the arts.

Rome was known for centuries as caput mundi (head of the world). The enduring temporal, spiritual and cultural power of the city transformed this title into a timeless paradigm. In the 19th century, however, the rise of modernity, the secularisation of society and the formation of nation states threatened to divest the eternal city of this power. Pius IX (1846-1878), the last pope to exercise both temporal and spiritual power, initiated a comprehensive reform of the Catholic Church destined to revamp the universal role of the city, strengthen its sacred mission in the world and lay the foundations of Catholic heritage. The arts were the most powerful allies of his communicative strategy. Between 1850 and 1870, at the acme of its political isolation, Rome exported to the world a new form of sacred art, reaching territories previously unconquered. It is a chapter that has been removed from the narrative of art history, a chapter that recounts the story of works of art found miles away from Rome, in Brazil, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cuba, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, England, France, Ireland, Israel, Malta, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Turkey and the United States of America.

What is especially relevant in this context is the "Esposizione romana di tutte le arti eseguite pel culto cattolico" (Roman exhibition of all the arts for Catholic worship) that Pius IX opened to the public in 1870, on the occasion of the First Vatican Council (December 1869 — July, 1870), in Michelangelo 's Santa Maria degli Angeli, on the ancient ruins of the great baths of Diocletian, a noted persecutor of Christians. Despite the threatening presence of Italian infantry soldiers, already camped out on the hills surrounding Rome, priests from all over the world, gathered in Rome for the decree of the dogma of papal infallibility, could admire over 1,000 works of art, carefully arranged by the architect Virginio Vespignani. The banners introducing the various sections illustrated the overall message: "Religion inspires and guides the Arts, Honour feeds and enhances the Arts, Rome rewards the Arts" and "favoured Religion spreads and preserves the greatness of virtue" could be read on the banner for writing; and "Colours are the great ministers of God" on the banner for painting. The age-old Roman association between art and religion could not have been more reaffirmed with such force.

It was a well-tested strategy. Three years earlier, at the Great Exhibition in Paris (1867), the Holy See, despite the heavy losses of its territory, challenged the new Kingdom of Italy on the thorny terrain of cultural identity. Just a few feet from one another, Italy welcomed its visitors to Antonio Cipolla's neo-Renaissance pavilion, intended as a tribute to Florence, the capital of the new nation; the Papal State presented to the world a replica of the Catacombs of St Callisto, faithfully reproduced by the most acclaimed Christian archaeologist of the time, Giovanni Battista de Rossi. The comparison could not have been more crushing. While Italy, by exploiting the international prestige of the Florentine Renaissance, promoted the principles of the Risorgimento, the Holy See revealed the arguments for its counter-Risorgimento, by symbolically evoking the archaic lure of the Christian catacombs. In the "phantasmagorical microcosm of capitalist culture" — as Walter Benjamin famously dubbed the 1867 exhibition — Rome presented itself to the world as the martyr of modernity.

This was the climate of the time. To become a nation and construct its future in the European political arena, Italy needed Rome. But Rome, faithful to its universal identity, could only reject the secular premises of the envisioned liberal state and the social transformations inherent in building a modern nation. Rome set itself outside Europe and outside history, to become a holy shrine. Its future was not in Italy but in the underground world of its catacombs. "The glory of Rome does not consist in the beauty of the modern city", maintained Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster and acclaimed author of Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs (1854), "for me it lies in beholding the remains of the old colossal empire lying prostrate in homage before the Cross". History discovered in Rome its timeless and other worldly dimension. The present and past coalesced in an anachronistic oxymoron that openly defied modernity, the faith in progress, and the historical legitimacy of national identities.

The message was additionally enhanced in Rome. That same year, 1867, in concomitance to the Great Exhibition in Paris, Pius IX organised a spectacular event to celebrate the 18th centennial anniversary of the martyrdom of St Peter and St Paul: a grand event that would bring to Rome, instead of Paris, a surprisingly high number of faithful Catholics. It suffices to admire the powerful manifesto with which Alexander Maximilian Seitz, a pupil of Peter Cornelius, celebrated the 18th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Peter. Pius IX is reflected in the triumphant image of the
saint, while the monster of modernity falls under the swords of three angels, protecting the procession of Catholic believers to wards the Basilica of St Peter. Once again, the arts were at the service of religion. Two years later, Pius IX installed a modern "Galleria dei Santi e dei Beati" ("Gallery of the Saints and Blessed") in the Vatican, in which a renewed sacred art was glorified in all styles of its long tradition. Through a selection of works by Pietro Gagliardi, Cesare Fracassini, Francesco Podesti, Luigi Cochetti, Guido Guidi, Franz von Rohden — all "Painters of Pius IX," as Luigi Huetter called them in a previous issue of this newspaper (1955) — the gallery exhibited an eloquent series of the new iconographies destined to be diffused throughout the world.

The study of this artistic flourishing still constitutes a blind-spot of academic inquiry. The most recent book by Giovanna Capitelli (University of Calabria), Mecenatismo pontcio e borbonico alla vigilia dell'Unità (Rome: Fondazione Roma — Viviani Editori, 2011, pp. 320) , from which the events mentioned in this article are explored in detail, provides us with the most reliable roadmap for exploring this neglected phenomenon from a rigorous historical perspective. Far from any ideological or aesthetic preconception, the book critically adopts the innovative and comparative approach pioneered by the late Stefano Susinno in the memorable Roman exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale ("Maestà di Roma, Universale ed Eterna: Capitale delle Arti", 2003). In Capitelli's book sacred art is illustrated as one of the most compelling laboratories for experimenting in new interdisciplinary synergies and evaluating the role of religion in current debates on cultural heritage and the process of nation-building across the globe.

This was not only true in Rome, but also in Naples. Capitelli explores the social and political implications of religious and historical art by comparing two forms of patronage: that of the "throne", relating to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies under the regime of Ferdinand II and Francis II of the House of Bourbon, and that of the "altar", represented by the long Pontificate of Pius IX. Two distinct political realities: both crushed by the Unification of Italy but whose cultural matrices influence each other, starting with the Pope's exile to Gaeta and Naples, during the years of the Roman Republic (1849). This visit was to remain firmly impressed in Pius IX's memory and would
find a vivid artistic testimony in the monumental church of St Francis in Gaeta, Ferdinand's gift
to the Roman Pontiff. The book focuses on two perspectives: that of Rome (Part I: "The Pontifical State") and that of Naples (Part II: "The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies"), each of which is comprised of three chapters; the fifth chapter of the book being on Ferdinand II and the promotion of art in Naples is by Ilaria Sgarbozza. The volume is additionally composed of two documentary appendices by Maria Saveria Ruga and Alba Irollo.

In an astonishing and comprehensive iconographic portfolio, the paintings that the artists working for Pius IX sent to Chile and Malta are particularly striking (see Chapter 3: Le esportazioni di opere d'arte. Dalla Città Eterna al Nuovo Mondo). Setting aside Malta, already studied in part by Mario Buhagiar and Keith Sciberras, it is the Chilean case that strikes the reader with the quantity and quality of the illustrated works of art relating to it. The attentive reader will also find detailed references to other important pieces in the puzzle still waiting to be explored in Turkey, Ireland, Croatia, Israel, Argentina, Mexico, Greece and Canada as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom (Ushaw College). The phenomenon of the exportation of sacred art to the world under Pius IX — works of art not only promoted and commissioned but also personally blessed by the Pontiff before being sent abroad — is a phenomenon responding to a systematic rationale. On this subject, Liliana Barroero, Giovanna Capitelli, Fernando Mazzocca and Stefano Grandesso have recently organised an international conference at the British School at Rome ("Rome Outside Rome: The Exportation of Modern Art from Pius VI to Pius IX: 1775-1870"), whose interesting results will soon be published.

*University of Durham

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 Decamber 2011, page 12

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