Depicting the Papacy in Late Baroque Rome

/ November 17, 2014
Two works from the permanent collection are on view in West Building for the first time. One, a bronze medallion, is newly reattributed to the great baroque sculptor Bernini.

Recently the Museum unveiled a small exhibition comprising just two works of art: Pier Leone Ghezzi’s monumental painting of a provincial synod (ecclesiastical council) convoked by Pope Benedict XIII Orsini in the cathedral of Rome during the Jubilee of 1725, and a sumptuous bronze medallion with profile portrait of Pope Clement X Altieri (pope 1670–76), newly reattributed to the great baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. These works from the permanent collection are on view in West Building for the first time.

Pier Leone Ghezzi, Benedict XIII Presiding over the Provincial Roman Synod of 1725, Basilica of St. John Lateran, circa 1725, oil on canvas, 95 7/8 x 122 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Where can you find this mini exhibition?

Enter West Building, make a left, amble through the Classical Court to the Rodin Court. Meander to the left, passing between the Burghers of Calais and Balzac; then duck into European Art 17th to 19th Centuries/French and American Impressionism. Pause to look at Mary Cassatt’s alluring Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinée—a recent acquisition—and then proceed to the end of the building, where you will arrive at the focus gallery next to Judaic Art. You cannot miss the installation, dominated by Ghezzi’s enormous canvas. This representation of the 1725 Council reads like a window into pontifical ceremony and politics as well as Catholic hierarchy of the early 18th century. It also provides a glimpse inside Rome’s oldest church, the archbasilica of St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano; founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I around 315) as it appeared after a century of renovations.

Pier Leone Ghezzi was one of Rome’s most distinguished painters of the18th century. His patrons included popes, cardinals, and other members of elite European society, who prized his ability to create lifelike portraits and religious and history paintings. Today he is best known for the thousands of pen-and-ink caricatures he made of Romans and visiting foreigners. While serving as painter for the Apostolic Camera, Ghezzi was commissioned to document the Jubilee-year conference organized by Benedict XIII. In the resulting painting, he created both a narrative scene and a meticulously observed overhead view of a church interior, an early example of the “veduta” genre popularized in Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini and collected by contemporary Grand Tourists.

When the synod opened on the second Sunday after Easter, the pope, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, procurators, abbots, and select priests from the diocese of Rome assembled in the nave of the Lateran along with the ministers of the Council, members of the pontifical court, canons, priests, deacons, theologians, magistrates, and other prelates, according to a prescribed seating arrangement.

Ghezzi’s representation of a meeting in progress corresponds to surviving diary accounts and official histories. These include a floor plan of the nave as it was carpeted, furnished, and festooned for the conference. In the NCMA’s painting, Pope Benedict is shown as a tiny figure at the center of the canvas (you may have to stand on your toes to see him clearly). He is seated between two cardinal-bishop assistants at the presidential table elevated in front of the papal altar. The speaker of the moment seems to be the Council secretary, Francesco Antonio Fini, who stands at a tapestry-draped pulpit halfway up the theater on the right. He was responsible for reading the decrees passed by the Council. Diary accounts indicate that Fini’s speech was difficult to hear; however, in Ghezzi’s narrative, the secretary appears to be communicating directly with some of thecardinals seated behind him, who respond with quizzical looks and gestures.

On the other hand, many of the ecclesiastics seated along the last two pews running parallel to the lower edge of the frame converse with one another or look away from the papal table. What is important is that Ghezzi focuses—somewhat irreverently—on the peripheral characters and actions rather than on the central ones. This is the painter’s way of animating his narrative in order to engage the viewer. Notice the Swiss guard at the far right chasing away two stray dogs with his halberd, and the caricaturesque clergyman in the back row who hangs over thepartition, gabbingwith a group of men outside the enclosure.

Detail: Notice the Swiss guard at the far right chasing away two stray dogs with his halberd, and the caricaturesque clergyman in the back row who hangs over the partition, gabbing with a group of men outside the enclosure.

See also the prelatewearing multiple preaching bands seated at the entrance to the enclosure, who gazes at the viewer. Surely this is a representation of an actual person.

Detail: Ghezzi’s habit of including self-portraits in his large narrative paintings is on display in the immediate foreground: Cavalier Ghezzi, wearing a red court suit à la française, is shown in profile conversing with a prelate.

The artist’s habit of including self-portraits in his large narrative paintings is on display in the immediate foreground, too: Cavalier Ghezzi, wearing a red court suit à la française, is shown in profile conversing with a prelate who has been identified as Niccolo’ Maria Lercari, Benedict’s high chamberlain and later cardinal secretary of state. At the the time of the Council, Lercari supervised all Apostolic-palace and personal papal matters, including the patronage of art, and he was the prelate who engaged Ghezzi to portray the Council.

According to a contemporary source, Lercari commissioned four more canvases to accompany Ghezzi’s work, only one of which can be traced at present, Giovanni Odazzi’s view of the exterior of the Lateran Palace and church, also at the NCMA. In a later post I’ll discuss the fate of the Ghezzi and Odazzi in the two centuries between Benedict’s death (1730) and their acquisition by the NCMA (1952).

Giovanni Odazzi, Benedict XIII in Procession at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on 28 April 1726, circa 1726, oil on canvas, 96 1/8 x 122 5/8 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

The Ghezzi should hold your attention for a while, but don’t forget to look at the adjacent bronze medallion. This single-sided relief merits close examinationbecause of its high artistic quality and material beauty. What is more, it is a rediscovered cast, virtually unknown to scholars, of a famous papal medallion executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The Ghezzi painting was last on view in East Building in 2010, prior to the reinstallation of the European collection in West Building. The medallion, on the other hand, has never before been exhibited on Blue Ridge Road and is largely unknown to scholars. Therefore, we present both works with great excitement and hope that many visitors will have a chance to study and enjoy them.

The focus exhibition runs through April 5, 2015.

See more: Zoom in on a high-resolution image of Ghezzi’s painting hosted by Google Art Project.

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