How Messina 'captured' a Pope for posterity
THE ART WORKS of the Vatican will be in the news again soon with the publication early next month of a stupendous volume from the Bodley Head The Vatican and its Treasures. It is to be a pictorial history and guide edited by Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco.
Looking through its numerous and, in many cases, stunning illustrations, it is hard not to let the eye stray back to the remarkable bronze statue of Pope Pius XII by Francesco Messina.
It makes that Pope seem a rather towering figure which of course he was, at least metaphorically speaking.
In real life he was much slighter and shorter than one might have imagined as I once had the opportunity of discovering in exciting but surprising circumstances.
I was still at Oxford when I made my first trip to Rome and had happened to mention to Mgr David Cashman that my
mother and I were shortly off Mgr Cashman was the secretary of the then Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Godfrey, a close friend who kindly wrote a letter for presentation to the Papal Ante-Chamber in connection with what we had naturally supposed would be a general audience with the Pope.
To cut a long story short, we eventually found ourselves, ignorant almost until the last breath-taking second of what was about to happen, sitting alone with Pope Pius XII in his study at Castel Gandolfo.
It was an unforgettable moment, the most lingering memory being that of looking, from a few feet away, into the large, almost hollowly luminous eyes of this awe-inspiring man.
They burned out from his slight and fragile frame and to stare into them was to stare into infinity. Messina seems to me to have captured this phenomenon in a striking way.
Back on the treasure trail
WILL we yet see this and/or other of the Vatican Treasures on exhibition in our own country? I have already reported on an attempt that failed, but there is another in the offing that might yet succeed.
Dr Michael Straiton has been kind enough to give me the latest information about the society of which he is Hon Secretary, namely the Friends of the Holy Father. If any organisation could ever succeed in bringing some of the Vatican Treasures to Britain it would surely be this one.
The society was founded only in 1980 and enquiries were immediately made into the possibilities of a British exhibition.
Apart from money, there are, of course, endless difficulties in mounting grandiose projects such as this.
For many years in the past, for example, there was total opposition to any treasures at all leaving the Vatican because of the Lateran Treaty stipulation that the public (on the spot) were entitled to he able permanently to view whatever was available at any given time.
Nor could any object be sold
to ease budget difficulties. Many of the items however, were in urgent need of repair, and it was in this respect that the United States was lucky in getting its own exhibition.
Cardinal Cooke of New York approached the Vatican and the arrangements were ratified at the end of 1980.
The key to the agreement was a. deal made between the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Vatican, for all the items selected for the current tour were, in one way or another, in need of renovation.
The Apollo Belvedere, for example, had a broken leg, badly repaired in the eighteenth century. The leg was bent and extremely ugly.
Funds were made available with an initial £3 million from the William Morris organisation — to allow the requisite highly sophisticated equipment and knowhow to be made available to the Vatican restoration studios.
The rusty old pin in this particular statue was drilled out. A replacement was inserted and perfection achieved.
The Friends of the Holy Father have been very active in their enquiries and plans. The dream of an exhibition here is no longer a hopeless illusion.
The expense would,
admittedly, be large, but some
of the appeals operating are asking for (and getting) useful sums.
Nor need it be forgotten that a very interesting exhibition on the Holy See and its relationships with Scotland was arranged last year — at quite short notice and was successfully put on at the Edinburgh City Arts Centre.
But some people in England got quite a shock when they realised who had organised it: the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission.
Only then did it dawn on many people that we, in England and Wales, have no such comparable body. So the first step, it would seem, towards achieving a Vatican exhibition, or anything remotely like it, would be to form a Catholic Heritage Commission for England and Wales.
Towards a happy family
ONE POSSIBLE kind of Exhibition immediately strikes one as being feasible and of great potential interest, ecumenical and other. And this would concern the relationships between the British Royal Family and the Vatican which have improved so greatly over recent years.
Thanks to the good work of the Friends of the Holy Father, the Curator of the Royal Library at Windsor is favourably disposed to some such an idea.
And having myself spent many long and interesting hours researching among the Royal Archives at Windsor I am well aware of the amazing collection of pictures and letters so expertly looked after, many of which concern meetings and
communications between Vatican and British royal
personages. There have, moreover, been some notable exhanges of gifts between the two.
The policy of the Vatican itself is now more outgoing than ever in this area. Its chief concern, quite rightly, is that art objects should be put under no risk from travel, humidity or any other adverse factor.
Given plenty of warning, there would be a large choice 01 possible venues in London. Given the known generosity of certain particularly quixotic individuals, surely a sponsor could be found for a project such as this.
Now is the time for him, or her, to come forward!
South west in the news
MOST PARTS of the United Kingdom now have their own local Catholic History journal, but up until recently the south-west has been rather neglected.
But the first number of an excellent new publication has
now appreared, to cover the needs of the south-western dioceses of Clifton, Plymouth and Portsmouth.
It is edited by Dom Dominic Bellenger of Downside Abbey (Stratton-on-the Fosse, Bath) to whom enquiries may be sent.
Neither is there at present any Catholic History Society in the south-west, but it is hoped that the nucleus of such a group will be formed within the next few months.
Welcome, meanwhile, to the first number of South Western Catholic History.
It is packed with items of local interest and is highly topical as well as historical in a lively and by no means pedantic fashion.
In order, for example, to save his historic home, Ugbrookc Park, in Devon, from being lost to posterity by tax, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh has had to decide to become a "tax-exile," but in purely self-sacrificing and
far from luxurious circumstances.
His introductory description of Ugbrooke Park is accompanied by a piece by Dr Sellman, the Ugbrooke archivist, on the diary of Fr Darbyshire, an eighteenth century Dominican chaplain at the Park.
Miss Judith Close, of the Bristol Record Office, provides a very good introduction to the archives of the Clifton Diocese, a collection which includes material from all parts of the old Western District.
As I love Wells, and everything to do with it, 1 was fascinated by some examples of recusancy there "Under the Dean's Nose" in Stuart times. It is contributed by Mr John Guy. Archivist at the Marsh-Jackson Postgraduate Medical Centre at Yeovil Hospital.
Dominic Bellenger describes how 18 priest fugitives from the French Revolution found refuge at Eastbury, near Blandford, in Dorset.
This is an astonishing house, third only in size, when originally built, to those other Vanburgh colossi, Blenheim and Castle Howard.
Ugbrooke, incidentally, is open to the public every day except Friday and Saturday from now until the end of September. Its Capability Brown landscape is one of the most compactly beautiful to he seen anywhere.