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Reviewed by:
  • The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV (1675-1758)
  • Jennifer Westrick
Conference Review: "The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV (1675-1758)," St. Louis, Missouri, 30 April-2 May 2012

In the past decade, scholars have focused increasing attention on the concept of a Catholic Enlightenment. The term itself contains enough complications and potential contradictions—being, at least in part, a reformist Catholic response to the secularizing and desacralizing trends of Enlightenments elsewhere—to be a topic ripe for research and debate. However, the Catholic Enlightenment also includes the uneasy and potentially fruitful relationships between faith and reason, religion and science; it involves eighteenth-century Italy, until relatively recently a neglected area of Anglophone historiography; and it has as its figurehead Benedict XIV, a formidably learned pope, by most accounts respected and even beloved during his life and papacy.

Born to an old and noble family in Bologna in 1675, Prospero Lambertini was educated in Bologna and Rome, received doctorates in both theology and law at the age of nineteen, and held a series of administrative positions (including Devil's Advocate) before being appointed Bishop of Ancona in 1727. Four years later, he was made Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, and in 1740 Lambertini was elected Pope Benedict XIV. Both before and during his papacy, he wrote prolifically on points of liturgy and ecclesiastical law, clarifying and updating doctrine without necessarily liberalizing Church policy. A tireless patron of the arts and sciences, he repeatedly brought empiricism to bear on spiritual questions—requiring, for example, the use of medical evidence in the evaluation of healing miracles. He founded academies and funded academic chairs, he was a passionate and generous bibliophile, and he commissioned the cataloging of the Vatican manuscripts library. He also revised—but retained—censorship procedures and the Index of Prohibited Books. He removed the ban on Copernican ideas, but Galileo's Dialogue remained on the forbidden list. He was simultaneously reformist and conservative, a believer [End Page 171] in the importance of both tradition and new ideas, personifying the complications of Enlightenment Catholicism.

A welcome focus was brought to bear on both Benedict XIV and the Catholic Enlightenment with "The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV (1675-1758)," an interdisciplinary conference which took place in St. Louis, Missouri, from 30 April to 2 May 2012. The conference was organized by Philip Gavitt (History, Saint Louis University), Christopher Johns (Art History, Vanderbilt University), and Rebecca Messbarger (Romance Languages and Literatures, Washington University in St. Louis). It was hosted jointly by the Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis University, and Washington University in St. Louis; this was the first such collaboration by the three institutions on an academic conference. The speakers invited by the organizers hailed from Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They were asked to present work that linked their own areas of expertise with Benedict XIV's life and papacy, drawing connections in the process between the pope and his wider world. This resulted in topics as widely varied as conventual reform, public anatomy, liturgical treatises, and the plaster casting of Roman antiquities, with Benedict appearing as the main character in some papers and a peripheral presence in others. Papers were presented in sequential panel sessions, allowing participants to attend every session if they wished, and they fell into three main topical groups: Benedict's dealings with women, his intellectual and spiritual context, and the culture of his papacy. Over the two days of panel sessions, clear and related themes emerged from both papers and discussions: the relationships between spiritual authority, institutional power, and intellectual innovation; and, especially, the possibilities and contradictions of "conservative reform."

Rebecca Messbarger opened the conference with introductory remarks on the life and historical importance of Benedict XIV, as the 1954 film Il Cardinale Lambertini was screened silently behind her. In the film—which belongs to what must be a slim cinematic genre, the curial romantic comedy—Lambertini uses his diplomatic and administrative skills not only to navigate the troubled political waters of late-1730s Bologna, but also to bring together two young lovers kept apart by circumstance and social standing. It was an eye-catching start to the conference, evoking Lambertini's lingering local reputation for kindness...


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