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Beauty beyond Price

Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga (1740) by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Located in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

On first examination, many Catholics will find this image, full of color and multiplied images, to be the perfect illustration of vain attachment to the things of this world, the epitome of gaudy Rococo excess, and the antithesis of monastic austerity. What spiritually sensitive person could be at peace here?

But isn’t that a cardinal standing in the midst of it all? In fact, it is his gallery and collection. Scandalous: “Why was not this art sold for a large sum and the money given to the poor?” Surely we have here one of those corrupt and grasping ecclesiastics by whom the Church has been sadly embarrassed.

It is easy to see art collectors (including the Church) as having a host of vices: acquisitiveness and materialism, for example. But behind the opulence, there can be philanthropy; moreover, their activity allows artists to practice their craft.

But, you might argue, the whole business, for artist and collector alike, revolves around things that are useless. Art does nothing practical to keep body and soul together, yet it is onerous to produce, costly to procure, and a potential distraction from more otherworldly pursuits. Who but an intemperate lover of the world would devote themselves to it as unreservedly as this painting shows?

Portrait of Humility

As it happens, the cardinal depicted in the piece, Silvio Valenti Gonzaga (1690-1756), conspicuous in his scarlet clerical garb, was a hard-working man by any measure. Besides administering the Academy of Saint Luke (the artist’s guild in Rome), founding the Pinacoteca Capitolina, and establishing a life-drawing academy for young artists, he was papal secretary of state, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church under Pope Benedict XIV.

He was also a great collector and learned patron of the arts and sciences. He was instrumental in preserving important Italian art collections from being sold or exported, and in rescuing Roman antiquities from destruction. His personal collection numbered more than 800 paintings (of which only about a quarter are depicted here). Many actual works are identifiable: the Cardinal gestures toward Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair (enlarged and unaccountably rectangular; the original is a tondo), and behind him in the far left corner is Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael’s The Great Oak (now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), along with works by Titian, Caravaggio, and Frans Hals, among many others.

Such an accomplished individual might have every right to be proud of himself, but is this really a portrait of a great ego?

The cardinal is clearly the focal point of the composition, yet his otherwise ample figure is well-nigh overwhelmed by the splendid clutter and implied scale of the pictorial space around him. Measured by surface area, he is insignificant. And while it is true that it is thanks to his efforts that the artworks were obtained (and this painting commissioned), the cardinal himself is not responsible for creating a single one of them. He is surrounded by the artistic triumphs of others. “Those who can’t, collect.” The patron of the arts has all the inducements to humility anyone could ask for.

Indeed, in open acknowledgment of his essentially curatorial role, Silvio has instructed his worthy portraitist, Giovanni Panini (1691-1765), to include himself in the composition: The painter stands with palette and brushes in hand alongside the cardinal, equal in dignity, making the portrait simultaneously a self-portrait.

Perhaps most telling of all, the cardinal points not just to an important work of art by a famous artist, but to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, inviting us to regard them also. He quite literally diverts attention from himself so as to bear witness both to his pastoral duty and to the place of art in the life of the spirit.

Of course, this could be contrivance, an 18th-century exercise in image management, but as far as we can tell, the cardinal was a man of principle, openly humble, deferential, and mindful of the things that really matter. If the saints are known in art by their attributes, Silvio’s character is well described by the array of artifacts he has gathered about him.

Ornamental Excess?

On the face of it, Panini’s canvas is more a portrait of these objects than it is a portrait of any particular person. The “painting of paintings” genre was one of many pioneered by the Dutch in the century before Panini’s time, and although this was his first essay in the style, he nevertheless produced a substantial work (more than eight feet across) that surpasses almost every earlier example in scale and complexity.

“Meta-art,” or art about art, was perhaps inevitable after artists became “self-aware” in the Renaissance, and private art collectors appeared to encourage them. Connoisseurs are as interested in the objects of their passion as their creators are. The pace of this development accelerated through the centuries until the modern era, with the unfortunate result that a large percentage of recent art has become so self-referential as to be irrelevant to viewers who expect it to be reflective of a world outside of itself.

Though not as extreme, Panini has fittingly allowed almost nothing natural to enter the field of view. Except for a glimpse of sky at the far end of the gallery, a few flowers, and those portions of human bodies not hidden by clothes, every visible form is artificial, whether it is a copy of an existing work of art, or a fantastic creation of Panini’s own, like the gallery itself, with its elaborate arches and columns and decorative sculptures. (But of course, even the “natural” forms are painted reproductions.) The whole ensemble acclaims art as an integral, indeed inescapable, ornament of life.

Joy for Beautiful Things

But at what cost? Isn’t it all too much, and more than a little claustrophobic? Does anyone really need that much art? Or need art that much? And how can it be reconciled with the religious vocation? History suggests that Silvio was motivated by a genuine desire to serve artists and the Church, not possessiveness. The successor of his original gallery, the present Gallery Museum Valenti Gonzaga in Mantua, has for its motto the marvelous (though faintly defensive?) formula: “Joy for beautiful things, which is independent from their possession.”

Not every collector is so high-minded, by any means. Surely there are sinful expenditures, purchases too absurdly expensive to be contemplated. But where does the line get drawn? A car for a million dollars? A house for 50 million? Some dirt mixed with oil on a piece of canvas for 100 million? Paintings have sold for more than that.

The monetary value assigned to any work of art is a subjective calculation, to be sure. In practical terms, artists have every right to request a return on their labors. Art may be useless, but it is not accordingly worthless. Its ultimate value, though, is founded on its being a reflection of the beauty of God, and that is incommensurable with any finite sum. This makes a “useless” commodity a “priceless” treasure, which ought to be conserved, shared, and celebrated.

Periodically, the Vatican is called upon to sell off its collections for the sake of feeding the poor or some other pressing concern. In the short term, there would undoubtedly be some material benefit, but eventually the money would run out, and what then? The art would have been dispersed and perhaps hidden away, depriving the world of a different kind of nourishment. And lest we forget, “the poor you always have with you”: 10, 50, or 500 years later, there would be no art for the Church to sell. Besides, who exactly would buy these treasures? The same wealthy individuals who had sufficient funds on hand and weren’t already assisting the needy?

The Scandal of Art

The scandal of art is that it is both useless and absolutely necessary. Once the basics of survival are taken care of, what remains to ensure that our lives are enjoyable and meaningful? Certainly we could subsist, like animals, without art of any kind, but all the evidence of human history suggests that we would find an eked-out natural existence like that unsatisfactory. Before long we would want to improve our circumstances artificially with fabricated shelter and clothing. Nor would we be content with wearing drab grey and inhabiting bare boxes. We crave color, pattern, and variety—so much so that we like to collect around ourselves these fruits of our own creation. Art-making and collecting began long ago in caves, the first art galleries.

What this suggests is that our appetite for visual stimulation is not appeased by the simple act of opening our eyes and casting them on whatever natural forms happen to be in the vicinity. However much we might like to feast on the beauties of nature, we hunger for more and different kinds of visual fare. Panini’s offering may be richer than most, but it, and the gallery it illustrates, serve up a gourmet feast for the eyes.

And through the eyes, the soul. Contemporary biology presumes to explain the human predilection for art in evolutionary terms. That’s fair enough, given that science knows nothing of the soul, but its difficulty will be to account for the delight we take in such biological irrelevancies as sunsets and flowers, let alone paintings like Panini’s—or sculptures, or music, or any of the other artistic productions of mankind, which hardly seem advantageous for adaptation or genetic fitness.

In the great struggle for existence, art has no purely biological function, having its origin and end in the nonphysical realm of truth and beauty. The aesthetic imperative reminds us that we are more than our bodies, just as a work of art is more than the stuff of which it is made.

There is a time and a season for everything, of course. Sometimes we need a break from art to savor the forms and colors of nature. For some people, art will remain something of a distraction, perhaps even a stumbling-block. But the glorious clutter of Silvio’s gallery and Panini’s painting bespeak the abounding grace that God extends to every soul. Like grace, art is a gratuitous and unmerited gift, given to assist our weakness. The physical being could survive without either, but the soul would shrivel, and finally die.

We can thank artists and collectors for making the one available to us, and the Church for having been the mediator of both.


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