A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Clement XIII


Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholaes Tulp, Louis XIV, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in the series.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico,
1758, oil on canvas, 54 3/16 x 38 11/16″
(Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice)

The Pope

Born Carlo della Torre di Rezzonico into a prominent Venetian family, Pope Clement XIII (1693-1769) was a modest man, who may be best remembered for covering the Vatican sculptural nudes with fig leaves. Though apparently much loved, Clement was a reluctant pope, who by all accounts was nearly wholly  unsuccessful at combating the forces that preyed on the Vatican. His papacy was marked by the struggle between the traditions of the Catholic Church and the ideas of the Enlightenment, whose proponents believed reason could could fashion a better world by combatting ignorance, superstition, and tyranny (and with them the Catholic Church).

Mengs Penitent MagdalenAnton Raphael Mengs, The Penitent Magdalen
1752, oil on canvas, 48 x 64 cm
(Gemäldegalerie, Dresden)

Further, during Clement’s decade as Pope the Vatican came under siege from the Bourbon kings (France, Spain, The Two Sicilities, Parma), who successfully suppressed the Jesuits (Clement’s own order) from all their dominions and subsequently outright appropriated Vatican lands. Concurrently, this anti-Roman movement received further impetus from the spread of Febronianism, a German doctrine claiming to restrict papal power (known in France as Gallicism).

The Painter

Widely regarded in his day as Europe’s greatest living painter, Bohemian-born Anton Rafael Mengs was a highly-paid court painter (first for Augustus III of Saxony and later for Charles III of Spain), whose artistic strength lay in an ability to capture the striking likeness of the celebrities of 18th-century Europe—royalty, potentates, and aristocrats. After an early career in Dresden as a pastel portraitist, the artist returned to Rome (where he had studied art) in the early 1750s.

Mengs self portraitAnton Raphael Mengs, Self-Portrait
1774, oil on panel, 73.5 x 56.5cm
(National Museums, Liverpool)

There he became a close friend and probable lover of the German archaeologist and ancient art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Mengs shared Winckelmann’s enthusiasm for classical antiquity; he became the primary channel through which Winckelman’s ideas on Neoclassicism were spread to artists like Jacques-Louis David, Robert Adam and Josiah Wedgwood. Winckelmann, by 1758 the Controller of Antiquities at the Vatican, must have arranged the introduction to Clement. One wonders whether Mengs, as a man of the Enlightenment, paused over the proposition of painting his intellectual nemesis.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann
after 1755,
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mengs’ portrait commemorates Clement’s election as Pope; it is one of at least three versions. In comparison to other portraits of Clement , the exceptional quality of Mengs’ representation is clear. Clement was 65 at the time, plagued by physical illness and pain. Mengs has captured for posterity the emotional weariness that must have been Clement’s constant companion in these years; his expression seems to anticipate the magnitude of the struggle ahead. In this achievement Mengs, the enlightened man, may have received his satisfaction. (Clement endured for 10 more years; mercifully, on the eve of an important summit on the Bourbon problem in 1769, he suffered a stroke and died.)

after Domenico Zapieri, Portrait of Clement XIII, 1762
engraving, from Picturae Dominici Zampierii, (New York Public Library)

Clement’s demeanor may detract from the potency of the portrait, but Mengs restores authority through the extraordinary rendering of the pope’s rich vestments. Sheathed in a traditional costume of royal carmine chasuble and white alb, Clement assumes the commanding presence befitting a pope, who at the time was invested with both spiritual and secular power. Mengs undoubtedly did not have a choice in the color iconography; still, it’s a masterful use of the available color palette. (Note how the red garments echo the cross shape.) Each of the many textiles in the painting displays its own luxury—the velvet glows, the silk shines.Not surprisely, Mengs was reputed to have a taste for expensive clothes.

Further, at the edges of the alb Mengs has masterfully captured in detail some of the most beautiful punto di Burano lace of the 18th century.

The Punto

By 1758 the traditions of ecclesiastical lace had been well-established. The Catholic Church was the first patron of lace-making—the skill was taught in its convents, while coveted lace pattern books were kept in monasteries. (Not until the 16th century did lace-making became a lay industry.)

Alb of Venetian Rose-Point Lace 17th c.Alb of Venetian Rose-Point Lace, 17th century

All high ecclesiastical dignitaries were expected to (and still are) possess complete sets of lace garments.  Not only the costume of the clergy—predominantly the dalmatic, surplice and alb—but also sacred items, such as altar fronts, were adorned with lace. The congregation eventually followed suit, dressing in lace for the milestone celebrations in life—christening, death, and later marriage.

Mengs—clement detailAnton Rafael Mengs, Pope Clement XIII (detail showing Punto di Burano cuff)
1759, oil on canvas, 54 3/16 x 38 11/16″
(Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Along with Flanders, Italy was the birthplace of true lace making. Strictly speaking, most Venetian laces are some variety of the punto in aria (literally “stitch in air”), or needlework (as opposed to bobbin) lace made without any netting foundation. Punto di Burano was made for two centuries on the small island in the Venetian lagoon. By the sixteenth century, the lace was renowned across Europe for rivaling the quality of Flemish lace. By the end of the eighteenth century, Burano lace came perilously close to extinction. (The tradition was revived in the 20th century.)  In particular, it is distinguished by robust floral ornamentation, as opposed to the geometric designs of its more famous cousin, reticella.

Queen Elena of Italy's lace wedding veil, punto di Burano, 1896Marriage Veil (detail) of Queen Elena, 1896, Punto di Burano lace.

Lace makersVenetian Lace Makers, mid-20th century.

Wider Connections

Doris Campbell Preston—Needle-Made Laces and Net Embroideries: Reticella Work, Carrickmacross Lace, Princess Lace and Other Traditional Techniques
Suppression of the Jesuits
Mengs—Reflections on Beauty and Taste in Painting (1762)
Antonio Canova’s Monument to Clement, St. Peter’s
Museo del Merletto, Burano, Venice
Burano lacemakers at work
Mengs in museums

10 Responses to “A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Clement XIII”

  1. This really is an amazing series – you could send this as an article to one of the more upscale art magazines.

  2. Joanne Mattera Art Blog Says:

    Thanks for the link to Il Museo del Merletto in Burano. I visited there for the first times some 20 years ago having “discovered” it on a walk through the town/island. The exhibition I remember best was on dowry lace. Whatever negative feelings I might have about the idea of dowries–you know, your daughter for a cow–I was able to set aside to simply enjoy the beauty of the handmade laces. There are a lot of lace curtains on the island, but an elderly resident admitted to me that much of what they use there is machine made. Still, you see some elderly women make lace out in the opening with their bobbins and pins, working against the round cushion.

    • Joanne
      Burano and the Museum will most definitely be on my agenda the next time I visit Venice. I suppose I had shied away from really studying and appreciating lace, because it was linked in my mind to craft and women, not to mention ornament—tertiary subjects at best, it seems to me, in a fine art world dominated by the male perspective. By chance, I happened to find Mrs. Jackson’s 19th-c history on lace and the book opened up this beautiful world to me. By researching and writing about lace for this series, I have come to appreciate the intricate aesthetic of this labor-intensive art form. Further, it’s been inspirational to me in my own work.

  3. Liz,
    Re the link between craft and women, and art dominated by the male perspective: Visually sophisticated Navaho “Eye Dazzlers” and Amish quilts existed long before Pop Art and Minimalism.
    We all need to overcome “tertiary” thinking. Give me a Gees’s Bend quilt over a Hans Hoffman painting any day! (And I say this as a painter.)

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Joanne, I couldn’t agree more. In the fall of 1972 I saw an exhibit of Navajo blankets at the Brooklyn Museum. The blankets were glorious, and astounding in their visual impact. At first I was taken aback and a bit confused, the similarities to op and minimalist art I was seeing in New York galleries were clearly apparent. Then I noticed that some of the blankets were owned by Georgia O’Keeffe, Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns, and I had one of those “Aha!” moments. I have always been grateful that I had that experience as a very young artist, it changed the way I looked at “women’s work” and decorative art in general, and encouraged me to happily, without self-censure, move back and forth between painting and textile design throughout my career…

    • Joanne—I had that very notion as I rounded first bend of Gee’s Bend quilts show when it was at the de Young last year. What an exquisite revelation! Those pieces serve to dispell last remaining vestiges of the Minimalist aura for me. (OK, I still love Sol LeWitt…)

      PS Always wondered Sean Scully’s had been influenced somewhere along the line by the quilt/textile form, although would be mightily surprised if he had said so publicly.

      You might enjoy these two VR posts on Gee’s Bend and Scully

  4. Christine,
    I saw that show at the Brooklyn Museum, too. And, yes, I had that same “aha” moment. I owned the catalog for a long time, but in one of my moves we parted ways.

    Thanks for the links. You say you wonder if Sully’s painting has been influenced by the textile form. When you look at creative expression through the cultures, from ancient times to now, you can see that geometry is a universal visual language–the Esperanto of art–no doubt ingrained from the first warp and weft and the the rectininear format of most hardware-constructed architecture.

    • Yes, geometry embedded deeply in our human psyche from that first gaze across the landscape of the savannah no doubt. Scully and weaving got me to thinking though why some artists choose as their proprietary form squares, while others chose lines, still others circles and spirals. . . How does a form speak differently to different individuals?

      And that got me to thinking about perhaps a more troubling conundrum—why fine artists receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for their depiction of rectangles, while “craftspeople” receive the equivalent of less than a living wage in a 1st-world country for their just as intrinsically-pleasing depiction of rectangles.

      A complicated subject for another post, perhaps. . .

    • Joanne,
      I still have my copy of that catalog—a bit worn and browning at the edges, but…

  5. I remember my first visit through Amish country. It was my first year in college and I was must “discovering” modern art and feminism (although I didn’t call it that at the time). I remember wondering why all those gorgeous quilts weren’t considered art and being told (probably by one of the male art teachers) that the quilts were decorative and “women’s work,” i.e., not important enough to be considered art. I thought that the explanation was B-S then and even more so now but we all know that if men had created these quilts, they would have been enshrined in MOMA a long time ago. Alas, the disparaging evaluation of women’s art (whether quilts, textiles or paintings) is not a distant memory.

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