Baroque in the Vatican

Art and Culture in the Rome of the Popes

12 April to 10 July 2006

Poster of the exhibition “Baroque in the Vatican – Art and Culture in the Rome of the Popes“

Poster of the exhibition “Baroque in the Vatican – Art and Culture in the Rome of the Popes“

Some 300 works of art will be on display at the exhibition Baroque in the Vatican. Art and Culture in the Rome of the Popes. On loan – many of them for the first time –from the exhibition’s partners in the Vatican, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Fabbrica di San Pietro and the Musei Vaticani, they will be supplemented by artworks from numerous European collections.

The history of the construction and interior decoration of St. Peter’s in Rome is a consistent theme in all the sections of the exhibition. The foremost artists of the Baroque period, among them Michelangelo, Bernini, Borromini, Sacchi, Guercino and Reni, were involved in the building of the cathedral. Gianlorenzo Bernini and his major projects for St. Peter’s – the baldachin, the chair, the popes’ graves and the piazza – are reflected in the exhibition in the form of drawings, models, bozzetti (sketch models) and sculptures. Since the altarpieces of St. Peter’s have now been replaced by mosaic copies, little attention has been paid to them. In Berlin, the originals can be ‘rediscovered’, among them Poussin’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus from the Pinacoteca Vaticana and Sacchi’s Series of Paintings for the Altars in the Crossing owned by the Masons’ Lodge of St. Peter.

In the late 16th and 17th centuries, papal Rome became the focal point of the prevailing religious, artistic and scientific movements. As the Venetian ambassador remarked in 1623, “Rome with its ancient relics and modern sights, which attract almost equal attention among visitors, is like a global market place”. In this ‘global market place’ art and the latest intellectual and scientific achievements found an eager audience. Hence the popes and their cardinals, the major religious orders and the Roman nobility consistently and successfully used art and science to glorify a revived Catholic Church and its worldly and other-worldly representatives.

That art should have played such a crucial role in Rome as a means of legitimising power and reputation was due to the unique political structure of the Papal States as an elective monarchy, which has not changed to this day. Each election changed the balance of power between the Pope, the cardinals, the Roman nobility and the mighty religious orders. Sponsoring the arts and the sciences was an accepted way of publicly documenting one’s own position in the tussle for spiritual and political power and safeguarding it for posterity.

Baroque art achieves its impact from the interaction between architecture, painting and sculpture, from the balanced interplay of light, material and colour. The exhibition seeks to reflect this and make it palpable to the visitor by displaying various objects, such as paintings, sculptures, tapestries, paraments, books, etchings and drawings. It also illustrates the major works of papal patronage as well as the commissions awarded by the cardinals and religious orders, concentrating on the most important (and finest) among them. These include the construction and equipping of family palaces and villas, the building of family chapels and, most importantly, the building and furnishing of the large churches belonging to the religious orders. Pageantry in Baroque Rome incorporated many extravagant religious and worldly festivals in which the leading artists of the time were involved. Large-format copper etchings transported the images of splendour and refinement to be found in the refurbished city throughout Europe.

A CD produced especially for the exhibition recalls the musical culture of the Vatican in the Baroque period. Giorgio Allegri’s Miserere, written in 1638 for Pope Urban VIII, was regarded as the most famous composition of the time and could only be performed in the Papal Chapel; making copies of it was a punishable offence.

But it was not only Roman art that was held in esteem all over Europe. Thanks not least to the international connections that the missionary orders had built up, Rome and the Vatican enjoyed a reputation as a major centre of science.

The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the circle around Cardinal Caesar Baronius exerted a decisive influence on the development of a critical history of the Church and on the emergence of Christian archaeology. The new research carried out into the demolition of the old Church of St. Peter was a valuable source of information in the establishment of a modern history of art.

The Roman Accademia dei Lincei played a pioneering role in the formation of our modern world view and it became the model for all other modern academies of sciences. Named after the sharp-sighted lynx (lince in Italian), the Accademia had no lesser goal than the study of the theatrum totius naturae, the creation of images of all natural phenomena. The recently rediscovered drawings of the Lincei are among the finest and most detailed studies of nature to have been made at the time. It is to “those with the eyes of a lynx” that we owe the first image created with the help of a microscope: typically, it is one of bees, Pope Urban VIII’s heraldic animals.

The exhibition documents the active role played by the popes and the religious orders, first and foremost the Jesuits, in the establishment of the modern astronomic view of the world. The most famous scientist of the period, Galileo Galilei, who was a member of the Lincei from 1611 and a personal friend of Pope Urban VIII, named more than 30 of the moon’s craters after Jesuits. Adam Schall von Bell, a Jesuit, was the first and only European to be appointed court astronomer to the emperor of China.

The exhibition also documents the problems that arose from attempts to bring the findings that had been obtained with the help of new instruments, such as the telescope and microscope, and from the consistent application of the leading science of the century, mathematics, into line with the Bible, prevailing tradition and, in particular, the Pope’s sovereignty in matters of interpretation. The exhibition section dealing with these problems, which was designed in cooperation with the Hermann von Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Technique at the Humboldt University in Berlin, shows contemporary documents, instruments and ‘miraculous machines’. Replicas of the most important instruments can be handled under supervision, thus providing visitors with unusual and often astonishing insights into the knowledge culture of Baroque Rome – an approach fully in line with the spirit of the times. The Baroque theory of art saw art and science in a similar vein: both were intended to induce stupore, astonishment, and meraviglia, wonder. In this way the observer’s curiosity was to be aroused, thus triggering the cognitive process whilst preserving a sense of enjoyment. That is precisely the goal to which the Baroque in the Vatican exhibition aspires.

Organizer: Berliner Festspiele
An exhibition of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, in cooperation with the Musei Vaticani, the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Berliner Festspiele, Berlin
Patronage: S.E. Angelo Kardinal Sodano, Staatssekretär seiner Heiligkeit, Dr. Norbert Lammert, Präsident des Deutschen Bundestages
Curator: Arnold Nesselrath (Rome)
Venues: Bonn: Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Berlin: Martin-Gropius-Bau