Pope Clement IX


In consideration of Pope Francis’ electrifying visits to Cuba and the United States, and with millions of Americans still savoring his message of peace, forgiveness, inclusiveness, and human dignity, it might be instructive, perhaps even inspirational, to consider an earlier pontiff whose forthrightness and simplicity during a time of turmoil transcended a brief reign.

Pope Clement IX, born Giulio Rospigliosi in 1600 to a Tuscan noble family, would serve the Church during a century that, along with the fourteenth and twentieth, would count among the bloodiest in history.

Favored by Urban VIII, a scholar, for his gentleness and erudition, Rospigliosi was made Archbishop of Tarsus, but was forced into retirement by the succeeding pope. In 1655 he was recalled by Alexander VII, who elevated him to the cardinalate. With Alexander’s death in 1667 he was elected unanimously to the papacy.

Taking the name Clement IX, the new pope endeared himself to the people through his actions, among them –

“His extreme charity and affability towards great and small.”

By visiting the sick often, and giving “lavishly” to the poor

By personally conducting Confession two days a week in St. Peter’s

For issuing decrees for financial relief in the name of his predecessor

For beatifying Rose of Lima in 1667, who would become the first saint born in the Americas.

For admonishing Louis XIV for his increasing military aggression, while at the same time brokering peace between France and Spain

And for his patronage of the arts both before and during his pontificate

For instance, it was Clement who established the first public opera house in Rome, in 1668. And during his reign Bernini completed the embracing colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. Noteworthy also is that during the high-water mark of the Italian Baroque, the pope refused to place his name on any building, fountain, or public sculpture. And it was only when sick that he agreed to sit for Maratta, for a beautiful portrait known for its color, conveyance of personality, and classical restraint.

Clement died in December, 1669. He had been pope for two-and-a-half years. He stated that he wished to be buried under the floor of Santa Maria Maggiore, with a simple inscription: Clement IX, Ashes. (This was too much for his successor, Clement X, who erected the magnificent tomb in the Basilica’s nave.) Indeed, the words of Pope Francis could apply to Clement: Everybody, according to his or her particular abilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.


A Brief Audience with the Deified Augustus

Screen shot 2015-08-01 at 10.20.22 AMLast Wednesday, following my weekly Rotary meeting, I had some time to spare.  Feeling in the mood for a bit of ancient history, I made the short walk to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.  This is one of the oldest museums in the University of Michigan cultural pantheon, and like other University departments, it is a teaching facility.  Founded in the 1920s by Latin professor Francis W. Kelsey, the museum, a stunning example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, houses thousands of artifacts recovered by UM archaeological expeditions.  I have had the pleasure of welcoming the Kelsey’s directors and curators many times on Speaking of Art, usually to highlight a new exhibition.  In this case there wasn’t a new exhibition to see.  In fact, the recent Death Dogs of the Nile show was being dismantled.

I knew where I was going.  Up the staircase to the second floor, to the Greco-Roman galleries, and into the hushed presence of Rome’s first emperor, who reigned from 27 BC (now BCE: Before the Common Era) to 14 AD (now CE).  Born of the late Roman Republic’s political shift from senatorial oligarchy to rule by popular strongmen — dictators — the Empire was a compromise between the traditional landed aristocracy and the reality of a Rome that had grown far beyond its Italian homeland.  The army, bloated from the civil wars of Marius, Sulla, and Julius Caesar, was now professional, permanent, and expensive.  Simply put, an oligarchy scrounging for money to keep the legions and their ambitious generals from running amok would no longer work.  The compromise — legitimized dictatorship cloaked in Republican formalities.  Augustus’ legerdemain would establish an empire more or less at peace for 200 years.

The marble portrait is a formidable one.  Augustus maintains a youthful blush, but the hardening of the practical politician has begun to set.  By the time the anonymous sculptor carved this image, the features of the monarch had been generalized into a formula: youthful, confident face in the Grecian manner (which Augustus himself preferred); locks of wavy hair forming a kind of part, or cleft, above the right eye; the face broad at the forehead, then gently tapering to the chin; the ears small and slightly flared.  The overall effect is one of magisterial dignity and calm, with practically no glimpse of personality.  It is an iconic image, devoid of stress; the face of a man-god.  Later emperors would refine this placid detachment into an almost Eastern abstraction, culminating in Constantine’s upward gaze, no longer leveled at his troops or subjects; in communion with no one but God.

What makes the Kelsey’s Augustus so interesting, however, is how it deviates from the orthodoxy.  It is not a mere facsimile of the intact Prima Porta statue in The Vatican Collections, usually cited as the standard image of the emperor.  Using the movie Toy Story II as analogy, it’s as if Buzz Lightyear, in the scene when he confronts the reality of his own duplication — hundreds of Buzzes in boxes on the toy store’s shelves — were to notice one that is markedly distinct.  For the Kelsey’s Augustus is not the personality-scrubbed Imperator, reconciling the civil wars with Rome’s new glory, but a prince in the Machiavellian mold, an author of proscription lists, a man capable of exiling his own daughter and grandson to the barren Pontine Islands.

After his sudden death at 76 in 14 CE, Augustus was deified by his adopted son and successor, Tiberius, thus securing both the dynasty and the Empire for the foreseeable future. Temples were erected from the cities to the frontier, and, according to Robert Graves, even beyond.  As to the face of kingship?  The Kelsey Augustus evokes a majestic image of Imperial Rome’s founding father, but one that chillingly heralds the totalitarian despots of more recent times.