Building a Bridge in Rome; Master of Color

Benedict XVI Lives Up to the 1st Meaning of His Title

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ROME, JAN. 21, 2010 ( When Benedict XVI crossed the Tiber last Sunday to visit the Synagogue of Rome, it wasn’t to make a political sally or glean a little attention from the world press. He was living up to the age-old priestly title of Pontifex Maximus, meaning the great bridge builder. Unfortunately, this Roman nuance was lost on many during the visit.

In the ancient city, dominated by the powerful Tiber river, the bridges linking the two halves of Rome had a sacred character and were attended to by priests. The Roman Pontifex Maximus grew to be the highest religious authority in the pagan city, linking man and gods as well as the heterogeneous citizens under a common worship.

Although the first use of the term applied to the popes is unclear, (some say Tertullian used it for Pope Callistus in 220, while others claim it was first assumed by Leo the Great), the role of the pope as bridge builder has been clear from the beginning. The papacy bridged the Imperial transition from polytheism to monotheism, as well as the fall of the Empire to the birth of the European nation states. One of Christianity’s watershed moments took place on a bridge, when Constantine defeated Maxentius on the Milvian bridge in 312, bringing peace between the Pope and the Roman emperor.

Pope Benedict XVI’s many qualities include a strong historical memory, often not shared by his interlocutors. His visit to the synagogue is best viewed through the lens of history and tradition rather than the distorted prism of scandal and controversy.

Pope John Paul II made history when he became the first Pope to visit the great synagogue of Rome in April of 1986. Now Benedict XVI, with this visit, has formed a tradition to be followed by future Popes.

Chief Rabbi Di Segni laid solid planks of dialogue by inviting Benedict in 2006. For his part, Pope Benedict extended an unprecedented invitation to Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen of Haifa to speak at the October 2008 synod on the Word of God. Increasing frequency of invitations and visits is as concrete a bridge building process as laying bricks and cement.

In the four years of his pontificate, Benedict has visited three synagogues, the Holy Land as well as the concentration camp of Auschwitz in 2006. Constantly critiqued for “not criticizing anti-Semitism enough” at Auschwitz and “not looking sad enough” at Vad Yashem, Pope Benedict nevertheless keeps reaching across the divide.

Last Sunday, the Bishop of Rome found the denizens of the Eternal City ready to thank him for his efforts as thousands lined the Tiber embankments cheering for him as he entered the synagogue. Italian political leaders and the mayor of Rome turned out to participate in the historic event.

The Jewish community has been in Rome longer than the Christians. They first arrived in the second century B.C. in the era of the Maccabee’s war against the Persians. The destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 by the Emperor Titus brought more Jews to Rome as slaves, although many were purchased and freed by Rome’s Jewish citizens.

The rich history of the Jews is Rome is portrayed in the renovated Jewish Museum of the Synagogue, one of the stops during the Pope’s visit last Sunday. As the first pope to visit a Jewish Museum, Benedict’s interest in the cultural history of the Roman Jews invites others to do the same.

Respect for tradition, culture and history are important stepping stones on the path to sustainable dialogue; and in his visit to the Rome Synagogue, Pope Benedict again showed himself to be a true Pontifex Maximus.

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Restoring a reputation

Art history has long made the claim that the Counter-Reformation almost caused the death of art. It champions the view that the doctrinal emphasis demanded by the Council of Trent, Jesuits and the papacy itself brought about a stagnant period in art, broken only by the ‘maverick’ Caravaggio, who defied the stale triteness of ‘official’ artistic output and brought about a revolution.

Utter nonsense of course, but the standard definition of late 16th century art in Rome.

In picturesque Siena, an interesting exhibition presented a barrage of works to shatter that theory: "Federico Barocci; The Enchantment of Color" highlighted the paintings of the man considered by specialists to be the first painter of the Catholic Restoration.

Barocci was born Federico Fiore in 1535 in the northern town of Urbino, the same birthplace as Raphael. As a young artist, he came to Rome to seek his fortune and earned the praise of the then-aged Michelangelo. After a bout of illness, believed by Barocci to be caused by poison, he went back to Urbino, never to return to Rome. Despite his rejection of the Eternal City, popes and prelates vied for his services, willing to accept the complications and delays of distance.

As a result there are many extant letters between Barocci and his patrons, including Pope Clement VIII, for whom Barocci painted the stunning “Institution of the Eucharist” housed in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The letters reveal the Pope’s concern for theological emphasis in the work, while Barocci’s finished product demonstrates his elegant handling of the dogmatic theme.

The Siena exhibition opened with a spectacular altarpiece painted for the Cathedral of Perugia of the “Deposition of Christ” from 1568. Recently restored, the work displays Barocci’s winning card at the artistic table, his use of color.

The Florentines had mastered line and drawing in art, creating imaginary space and increasingly complex poses in an intellectual game of painterly one-upmanship. The era of the Catholic Restoration called for art to stimulate people toward piety, and just as music can directly affect the emotional state of the listener, so can color. Barocci unveiled a new type of color, called “cangiante” or changing, by his contemporaries that both dazzled and delighted the eye. Barocci’s mesmerizing color, however was given order by his excellent draftsmanship, as the many drawings in the show attest. Most importantly, his compositions unfailingly led the viewer’s eye to the most essential meaning of the work.

In the case of the author’s favorite work in the show, “The Visitation”, painted for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome in 1586, Barocci’s composition links the altar with the sacred event. One figure on the left leans down to fetch a sack of bread and a jug of wine, seeming to lift the offering from the altar into the painting. Mary on a lower step reaches up from her space, defined by bright pinks, red and yellow, toward Elizabeth’s area which is colored in a dismal grayish tone. As Mary grasps the arm of her cousin, the first spot of color appears on Elizabeth’s sleeve, representing the entry of grace into the world. The bright splotch of yellow seems to express John the Baptist’s jump for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

This work was a particular favorite of St. Phillip Neri and he experienced one of his visions while contemplating it. Caravaggio, for his part, would paint his “Deposition” across the nave from Barocci’s “Visitation” and would utilize Barocci’s incorporation of the physical altar in his own work. Barocci’s signature orange/red combination seems to have also been the inspiration for the Caravaggio’s treatment of St. Paul in his “Conversion of St. Paul” in Santa Maria del Popolo.

The exhibit is part of a renewed interest in the painter who was considered by contemporaries as one of the greatest artists of his age. Two recent books have finally dedicated serious study to this artist who blended faith and beauty, Nicholas Turner did groundbreaking work in his 2001 monograph on the artist, while Stuart Lingo’s “Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting,” published last year, brought new information to light.

The Siena exhibit has taken another step toward returning this artist to the public recognition he enjoyed during his lifetime.

Unfortunately set in a smaller town, the show did not receive the attention and attendance that one might hope. Hopefully Barocci will soon make the leap to a major museum where his works can testify before a larger audience to the splendid beauty of art enlivened by faith.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at