- Papacy and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Rome: Pius VI and the Arts
The blockbuster exhibition "The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome," held in Philadelphia and Houston in 2000, and its impressive catalogue Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (London: Merrell Holberton, 2000) did much to synthesize a generation of scholarship in what was until then an emerging field in art history while simultaneously indicating the most fruitful avenues of future research and publication. Jeffrey Collins's monographic study of the cultural politics of Pope Pius VI Braschi (reigned 1775–99) is an important contribution to the visual-historical reconstruction of this now canonical field of eighteenth-century studies.
Pius VI was the first pope elected after the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773. He faced enormous problems in the political sphere, attempting to counter the established pattern of erosion of ecclesiastical (and especially pontifical) privileges, exemptions and prerogatives by Catholic rulers, while in the sacred arena he was confronted with attempts to diminish his authority from a broad current of enlightened Catholicism often designated "Jansenism." Collins argues that Pius's extraordinarily ambitious program of art patronage—above all the construction of a huge new sacristy for Saint Peter's, the establishment of the Pio-Clementino Museum in the Vatican palace complex, and the erection of an impressive family palace near the Piazza Navona—are more or less calculated responses to these challenges. Handsome, vain, and culturally conservative, Pius attempted to appropriate earlier centuries of pontifical grandeur and political influence in his building programs, a phenomenon seen in its most striking form in the staggeringly expensive new sacristy erected next to Saint Peter's. The primary architect Carlo Marchionni, [End Page 561] under great pressure from Pius VI, designed a monumental edifice that is decidedly retrospective in its architectural form and ornamental articulation. It combines elements from Michelangelo, Maderno, Bernini, Borromini, and Fontana, among others, to draw particular attention to earlier periods of papal history, supposedly happier times, and was severely criticized. Collins correctly maintains that the building should not be isolated from its context or from the patron's agenda. Far from being a retardataire bricolage of incoherent styles, the sacristy is a statement about papal authority and tradition. Thus, the Pope's agenda for his arts programs is wholly misunderstood if analysis is limited simply to the formal qualities of the works commissioned.
Papacy and Politics consists of six substantial chapters bracketed by a thoughtful introduction and a forward-thinking conclusion that posits the provocative idea that the art patronage of Pius VI was an early form of modern personality cult construction. Chapter One, "Politics and Possibilities," provides biographical information about Gianangelo Braschi and describes his education and cultural formation. In addition, Collins addresses the problematic economic situation in the Papal States that Pius would attempt to improve, albeit with little success. The chapter also includes a highly useful synthesis of the way the pontifical government actually functioned in the eighteenth century, enumerating the various congregations, their responsibilities, and the way in which their business was conducted (17–18). This chapter concludes with a description of the last chaotic years of the pontificate and the Pope's dethronement and incarceration by the French revolutionary armies.
Chapter Two, "Images of Sovereignty," is a sophisticated and engaging reading of Pius's portraits in several media, from formal state portraits by Pompeo Batoni and Giovanni Domenico Porta to inexpensive prints. Several of these show Pius performing ecclesiastical rites, such as his central participation in the Corpus Christi procession or saying Christmas Mass in Saint Peter's. All reveal Pius's keen awareness of the propagandistic possibilities of such images. Collins also recognizes how such works embrace tradition while infusing it with a modern sensibility, as in the case of the painted porcelain Louis XV clock, replete with Rococo shepherds and shepherdesses, that sits conspicuously on the Pope's desk in the fine portrait by Batoni. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Pius's patronage of...