Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Douglass Visits the Vatican and is Unimpressed

Although the cost of a ticket and the size of the crowds today causes a visitor to cram a visit to the Vatican into a single day, leaving her overwhelmed and fatigued by closing time, the Douglasses spread their visit out over three days. Art seems not to have been something that moved him to great effusion except when the subject offended him (of course, I'm now going to have to go back and search for his writing on art a little more methodically, but he did not strike me as a great art aficionado, leaving that to Helen). Usually, the offense was in the depiction of people of African descent, such as his tirade against the crouching emancipated slave at Lincoln's feet in a statue erected in Washington, D.C. near his home on Capitol Hill.  In the Vatican, the work that awakened his criticism was this:

"Saw among other great pictures a modern one proclaiming the new dogma of the emasculate conception of the Virgin, the Mother of Jesus. "

To be perfectly honest, I did not expect to actually see this painting, thinking that it was much smaller and would not be highlighted amid the works of Rafael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and the anonymous artists of antiquity. How little did I know! As Douglass wrote, "The announcement of this fresh tax upon the credulity of the faithful in this picture is well calculated to impress favorably the devout Catholic[.]" Indeed, this picture three walls of an entire room, with a statue of the virgin in the center. The photo above is the typical tourist photo: walk into the room, say "oh, wow!" and snap a picture. This one below is on the wall to the left of the main image.:

 This one is on the right side of the main image:

Douglass then describes his impression of the figures in the painting: "The face of Pope Pius was given by the artist a celestial expression surpassing any modern attempts in that direction I have seen."

"Some of the faces of the Cardinal's seemed to be a little doubtful and have been brought to consent to the new dogma under external pressure rather than internal conviction."

Well, is he wrong? Some of those officials seem less than enthusiastic. This doctrine had been declared in 1854, followed by papal infallibility in the 1870s, all of which took place against a backdrop of Italian nationalism and unification that reduced the political power of the church in Italy. Douglass's detection of political expediency rather than faith probably did not miss the mark.
Douglass, secular and devoted to republicanism, had a difficult time refraining from mocking such ideas. I wonder if he held back around his hosts. He and Helen had been able to see parts of the Vatican through the influence of Gertrude Putnam's connections with one of the Cardinals (although I'm not certain if she knew him personally of if this was a matter of simply writing and asking for permission). That and her lodgings so close to the Vatican might suggest that she was sympathetic to Catholicism if not a believer herself (I would have to research this a little further).

Douglass, of course, never shied from expressing his opinion, and loved lively debate, including and perhaps especially with intelligent women. The Remond sisters were well aware of his propensity for debate and probably warned Putnam. Certainly, the lunch afterward with Gertrude, Edmund, and Caroline Putnam along with Maricha Redmond, Dr. Sarah Pinter, and Christine Sargent, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, must have been lively and fascinating. After all, as he looked around at the Remond sisters, Caroline, Maricha, and Sarah, he thought "in all of them I saw much of the fire of their eloquent Brother Charles;" and Charles had helped Douglass stoke his own flame so many decades earlier.

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