The Papacy's Private Papers

FRANCIS X. ROCCA

The cleverest thing about this imaginative exhibition in Rome's Capitoline Museums is how it plays on the darkest stereotypes of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in order to draw visitors in and then points those visitors toward complexity and nuance that the stereotypes obscure.

Courtesy of the Capitoline Museum: A 1530 petition, bearing the seals of more than 80 members of Parliament, urging Pope Clement VII to grant King Henry VIII an annulment of his first marriage.

At "Lux in Arcana," an exhibition celebrating the Vatican Secret Archives' four centuries of service to world culture, the first of approximately 100 historic documents the visitor encounters is a record of the most notorious scandal in Catholic intellectual history: proceedings from the Inquisition's trial of Galileo, which ended with the great astronomer renouncing his belief that the Earth revolves around the sun.  The display case has been placed at the feet of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's majestic marble statue of an enthroned Pope Urban VIII, the very pontiff under whom Galileo was condemned.

The cleverest thing about this imaginative exhibition in Rome's Capitoline Museums is how it plays on the darkest stereotypes of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in order to draw visitors in — and then points those visitors toward complexity and nuance that the stereotypes obscure.

The show's most spectacular display is in a gallery decorated with video monitors showing flames that recall the medieval practice of burning heretics alive.  In the center of the room stands what looks like an enormous playground slide, almost 12 feet tall and 21 feet long, displaying a small section of a 184-foot-long parchment scroll with depositions from the early 14th-century heresy trial of more than 200 Knights Templar.  

Visitors who read the background information on a computer screen at the foot of the case, or on the iPhone app developed for the show, or afterward in the succinct and lively exhibition catalog, will discover that persecution of the Templars was driven not by religious zeal but by royal greed.  France's King Philip the Fair sought to destroy the chivalric order to obtain its financial wealth, while the Knights' strongest defender was Pope Clement V.  The case turns out to be an instance of secular power abusing religion, rather than vice versa.

The papacy's continuing struggle with princes and potentates is amply documented here.  In gold writing on purple parchment, the 10th-century Holy Roman Emperor Otto I asserts his veto power over the election of new pontiffs.  Pope Clement VII's 1530 bull approving the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V might seem an assertion of papal supremacy — until one notes that it followed the 1527 sack of Rome by Charles's mutinous troops, many of them German Lutherans.  In light of such precedents, the 108-acre sovereign territory of Vatican City State, mapped out on a page of the 1929 Lateran Pacts with Italy, seems a modest guarantee of the Holy See's independence (though the signature of Benito Mussolini on the page's lower right-hand corner does lend a sinister touch).

Among the handful of documents here from the period of World War II, a section of the archives still closed to scholars, is a 1942 letter from Jewish inmates of an Italian concentration camp, thanking Pope Pius XII for his support and gifts of clothing.  This will, of course, do nothing to dissuade the many who argue that Pius should have spoken out more clearly during the Nazi genocide.  But assuming there is more evidence of such efforts waiting to emerge from the archives, it will undoubtedly help assuage the strong Catholic-Jewish tensions over that controversial pontificate.


This exhibition, held in a museum and architectural complex endowed, rebuilt and expanded by a series of Renaissance and Early Modern popes, includes many reminders of the papacy's glorious record of patronage of the arts and learning.  In a 1550 letter to a friendly bishop, Michelangelo complains that a long papal conclave has interrupted his work on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, leaving him unable to pay his workmen.  A few steps away from the record of Galileo's 1633 conviction is a printed copy of the 1582 Gregorian calendar, calculated by astronomers and mathematicians appointed by Pope Gregory XIII, and still in use today.  

The historic importance of many of these documents is belied by their nondescript appearance; others are exquisite works of art and craftsmanship, their calligraphy and illumination harking back to a time when the written word was rare and revered.  

Yet the most striking element of these documents to modern eyes is surely their seals.  Some are distinguished by design or material, such as the nearly two pounds of solid gold that King Philip II of Spain attached to his profession of fealty to Pope Paul IV in 1555.  Others are most impressive for their sheer number.  More than 80 red wax seals hang down like an exotic beaded curtain from the bottom of a 1530 petition from English parliamentarians to Pope Clement VII.  The document urges him to grant King Henry VIII an annulment of his first marriage.  (When the pope wouldn't do so, Henry founded the Church of England, which did.) The 1654 deed of abdication of Sweden's Queen Christina, who left her Protestant nation's throne to join the church of Rome, is tied to over 300 round containers, many today empty of wax.

Such appendages betoken an understanding that words alone do not always suffice, especially when a message's purpose is to communicate its author's power and importance.  Seals not only marked their documents as unique; these tangible, three-dimensional objects served as miniature stand-ins for the senders themselves.  Those qualities lend them a special fascination today, when our written messages are instantly and infinitely reproducible, and hence far easier to preserve than the precious documents on display here, yet by the same token immeasurably poorer in personal meaning.

 

 

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Francis X.  Rocca.  "The Papacy's Private Papers." The Wall Street Journal (May 8, 2012).  

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.  

THE AUTHOR

Francis X.  Rocca is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service (RNS) and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.  His writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Forbes, the Chronicle of Higher Education, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe and the Atlantic Monthly.  Rocca is co-author, with Rockwell A.  Schnabel, of The Next Superpower? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).  An associate fellow of Berkeley College, Yale, and a former Fulbright fellow in Spain, he is a graduate of Harvard College (A.B.) and Yale University (Ph.D.).

Copyright © 2012 Wall Street Journal




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