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Rome Notes: Art and Patronage, Then and Now; Angelico's Agility

2/27/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Papal and Royal Works Prompt a Recurring Question

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 26, 2004 - Discussion and speculation in the Roman world of art and patronage has resurfaced. At noon on Feb. 12 King Juan Carlos of Spain joined Italy's President Azeglio Ciampi in personally inaugurating an art exhibition at the Scuderie Papali, titled "Velázquez, Bernini and Luca Giordano at the Baroque Courts."

This show illustrates the close ties between the great royal families of the 17th century: Phillip IV and Charles II of Spain, Louis XIV of France and Leopold I of Austria and their commissioning of specific artists to portray the ideals of their respective reigns.

Velázquez formally greets visitors to the exhibition hall with his stiff portraits of Phillip IV and Marianna of Austria. These are astutely balanced on the opposite wall with the lively and piercing images of don Antonio, court dwarf and courtier don Diego de Acedo.

Seemingly outclassed on the billboards as the least known of the three artists, Luca Giordano is the surprise of the show.

This Neapolitan painter's large, bright canvasses rivet the viewer with graphic representations of Apollo flaying Marsyas, and Arachne transformed into a spider. Placed next to the bland, weak-featured portraits of Charles II, the juxtaposition warns those who would challenge their superiors. A stern lesson enlivened by the exuberant drama of southern Italy.

Further along, shimmering silk tapestries shot through with gold thread remind us of Louis XIV's (the Sun King) exemplary use of art as a vehicle of royal propaganda.

But on finishing a walk of the exhibition hall one notes a glaring omission.

The duty of monarchs to beautify their realms started here in Rome, at the papal court. The pontifical court recognized the necessity to use art to communicate not only with the populace of Rome, but with the thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who came to this city. The brilliant mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore, the astounding frescos of the Sistine Chapel, the monumental statues of St. Peter's still inspire the same awe today that the pilgrim of 500 years ago felt.

Papal commissions were, in fact, the training ground for all three of the artists featured in this show. In Rome, Bernini, Velázquez and Luca Giordano developed their distinctive techniques designed to capture viewers' attention. The capital of the Christian world became the exemplar for other aspiring capital cities.

One does encounter a somewhat disjointed representation of the papacy of the 17th century on the upper floor, primarily through the commissions of Popes Innocent X Pamfili (1644-1655) and Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667). Some of the arrangement falls under the heading of the "Bernini spirituality" where several of Bernini's late works are arrayed, including "The Savior" reputed to be Bernini's last work.

An ironic note -- the beautiful exhibition site, "Le scuderie papali," was built under Pope Innocent XIII as stables to the neighboring papal palace on the Quirinal Hill. This was the papal residence from 1580 until 1870 when the victorious Italian state annexed the palace and Pope Pius IX was sent packing back to Vatican City.

King Juan Carlos lent many works from the Spanish royal collection to this show. Bernini's bronze crucifix from the Escorial, the royal monastery, has never left Spain until now. The vision of the King of Spain strolling through an exhibition embellished by his private art works provided perhaps the most intriguing element of the day, sparking thoughts of patrons, proprietors and the responsibility to encourage national culture.

Walking through the crowd at the opening, I overheard some observers remark with delight that most of these great artists featured in the European courts were Italian, as well as speculations of a more economic nature regarding the costs involved in such projects. All were impressed by the organizational effort involved and a few sharpened their wit with unflattering representations of monarchs. Yet the recurring question was "Could this be done today?"

I asked Raffaele Ranucci, president of Pala-expo and one of the principal forces in bringing all these works together, about the long history of art and patronage in Spain and Italy and how these two culturally rich nations were responding to the challenges of patronage today.

Waving back through the hall he responded, "This is modern patronage. Exporting our culture to the rest of the world and finding common points of cultural reference among the countries of Europe."

* * *

A Model Artist

The subject of patronage came up again at the Feb. 18 general audience on the feast of Blessed Fra Angelico.

John Paul II urged young people ...

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