A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Clement XIII
By LIZ HAGER
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)
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).
Anton Raphael Mengs, The Penitent Magdalen
1752, oil on canvas, 48 x 64 cm
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).
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.
Anton 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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
Anton 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.
Marriage Veil (detail) of Queen Elena, 1896, Punto di Burano lace.
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