ROME – Elbowing though the crowds visiting the Vatican Museums on Tuesday, a group of art researchers and historians scurried across imposing halls and dramatic stairways to attend a conference focusing on art’s most underappreciated cousins: Carpets, furniture and fashion.
Fashion at the Vatican has made a bit of a comeback recently, in the afterglow of New York’s Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibit on Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which included a selection of 40 liturgical vestments on loan from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy.
Conversations taking place among the art lovers in the small conference room at the Vatican Museums revealed a bemused interest in the exhibit across the Atlantic, and especially toward the May 7 inaugural ceremony featuring movie stars and pop musicians interpreting the theme of the event in how they dressed, generating both scorn and appreciation.
A former director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, provoked snickering among the attendees by referring to the Met exhibit as the subject of “journalistic curiosity,” which in his opinion was responsible for the “questionable” attention the exhibit garnered across the globe.
According to Barbara Jatta, the current president of the museums, “Despite the polemical climate surrounding the Met Gala, which for the most part focused on the outfits on display on the red carpet, the exhibit itself is actually very serious.”
Even with contrasting views on the Met hoopla, all speakers at the conference strongly opposed those who criticize the opulence, sometimes even lavish excess, which the Church has inspired in art throughout the centuries.
Jatta described the “magnificence” as a “phenomenon with fluid and changing borders, which unravels in a complex journey including, and encompassing, articulate artistic expressions in different epochs.” She said that “the concept of magnificence takes us far away in time,” from St. Thomas Aquinas’s ideal of “God’s virtue” to the poet Dante Alighieri’s “gift of a noble soul.”
All these interpretations of magnificence, she added, reached their peak in the Baroque artistic period between the 1600s and the 1700s.
Yet, according to Paolucci, the concept of magnificence goes beyond a historic definition and can only be read though its expressions. He cited a bust of Francesco I d’Este made by sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century – which, at the time, cost the staggering fortune of 3,000 scudi, the same sum Pope Pius X shelled out to Bernini for the famed “Fountain of Four Rivers” in Rome’s Piazza Navona – as well as the gold details of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and the purpura silk garments of kings and bishops.
“However, if magnificence is emotion, stupor, excess, hyperbole, and, at the same time, a visible metaphor of rank, then it’s fair to say that nothing can allow us to understand [it] more or better than a Church or a Roman palace at the time of the Ancien Règime,” Paolucci said.
The conference presented three volumes, which Jatta described as addressing “everything that concerns magnificence” and as “pleasing to the eyes, but also to the spirit.”
The Pope and his Vestments is a book written by Italian Professor Marzia Cataldi Gallo, an art historian specializing in costume, who was also among those contacted by the Metropolitan Museum to offer insight and suggestions for their exhibit on Catholic imagination.
Jatta called Gallo an “archive hound,” having gone through the pontifical sacristy to look at hundreds of religious and regular clothing belonging to up to 32 pontiffs, which represent “the perfect cross between sacredness and beauty.”
In the preface of the book, Monsignor Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies, said that the volume “allows us to follow the history of the Church, through the history of the pontiffs, the history of devotions, the history of the religious men and women through the centuries.”
All that, Marini said, is “without forgetting the history of beauty.”
The book also includes some interesting tidbits of papal folklore. For example, not even popes are exempt from hand-me-downs, and would often embellish or personalize liturgical vestments belonging to previous popes to fulfill their individual needs.
When times were economically rough, popes would also resort to burning the clothes of their predecessors to extract the gold thread. The tailored, trimmed and sometimes tortured history of papal vestments is therefore not very easy to date, and many garments in official indexes no longer exist.
The other two books, Dressing the Palaces and Pleasing the Sight, were written as part of a series called “Inside the Palace,” born from the collaboration of the Vatican Museums, Rome’s Sapienza University and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
The volumes include a “very deep and broad analysis” of some never-before-seen artifacts, Jatta said, from pearl and obsidian boudoirs to intricate and rare jewelry, which she defined as the “mobile scenography” of its time.