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ROME — In Rome, the boundary between art and propaganda is a porous membrane, and the prevalent Baroque style of the 17th and 18th centuries mixes the two almost inextricably.
One of the battlefields between the two 17th-century geniuses Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini was the missionary college that occupies one end of piazza di Spagna. The façade overlooking the piazza went to Bernini, the favorite architect of Pope Urban VIII Barberini, in 1644. This was the prize façade, hierarchically more important because it overlooks the end of a long piazza, but it is extraordinarily disappointing, a boring, flat series of squares and rectangles easily overshadowed by Borromini’s later façade placed along the street delineating the western edge of the college block. This was commissioned under Urban’s successor, Pope Innocent X Pamphilj, who tended to disapprove of all the artists preferred by his predecessor. Borromini, immediately upon receiving the commission from Innocent X in 1647, sought permission to buy a house across the street and take over an adjacent unbuilt space, and in drawings he made between 1648 and 1652 he proposed to turn the space into a piazza that would give prominence to his own façade. The house belonged to Bernini and the “unbuilt space” was the house’s garden, so this proposal was tantamount to an act of war. But Borromini ran out of time. In 1655 his sponsor Innocent X died and was replaced by Alexander VII Chigi, a personal friend of Bernini’s. Borromini’s project not only failed, but Bernini got permission to build another house on the site of his garden and even stick it a few inches into the road, stripping the college’s Borrominian corner of any prominence.
The college had, and has, a missionary vocation, and as a result the building is known by its Latin name, the Propaganda Fide, the Propagation of the Faith. The street with Borromini’s marvelous façade is called via di Propaganda. And walking along Propaganda Street, I couldn’t help but think about the complex relationship between art and propaganda.
Propaganda, or specifically the use of art to convey a political or religious message, hardly began with the Baroque. Until the modern age and the emancipation of the artist from the patron, it could be argued that all art was to some extent propaganda, in that it was an expression of the beliefs or ideals of a ruling class that was prepared to pay for decoration and claimed the right to decide what it looked like. The religious wars of the 17th century infused the Baroque with a kind of dramatic argumentative urgency that is quite different from the even lighting and graceful realism of the High Renaissance, or the acid colors and withdrawal from naturalism that distinguishes Mannerist art. Its message was initially and profoundly religious, a defense of Catholicism against all comers, with an emphasis on the miraculous. It offered visions of heaven replacing the architectural elements of a church ceiling, as if the ceiling had disappeared to reveal the divine universe, tangible and proximate, pushing in from above.
The Baroque is probably the most immediately identifiable propagandistic style of early modernity. Its turbulent draperies and gesticulative language urge, exhort, and even berate the viewer. Baroque art does not passively let itself be looked at, but tries to direct the viewer toward a point of view and a conclusion. That conclusion could be secular — look at the decoration of Versailles and you will immediately recognize the awe-inspiring power of the French kings — or it could be religious, and not only Catholic, or even Christian, as the existence of Baroque yeshivas in Venice show. The Baroque was an effective medium of conveying an authoritarian message, religious or secular. It was useful in a 200-year-long period that saw the development of absolutism and the hardening of religious borders. Not only that, but it was polymorphous: The Baroque could express itself in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and the decorative arts, all the way down to a book-binding. It was not engineered, unlike subsequent propaganda movements like the Nazi or the Soviet. It was organic, but it all grew from the same spring: wealthy patronage from monarchs and popes, aristocrats and religious orders, even craft guilds and merchants.
Until late in the early modern period artists were seen as craftsmen, there to do a job and execute the wishes of the patron, well above the level of a shoemaker or a tailor, but on the same spectrum. A nobleman would tell an artist, “I want an altarpiece for my family chapel and it needs to have Christ on the Cross plus St Nicholas on one side because my name is Niccolò and St Lucy on the other side because my wife’s name is Lucia.” The canons of the church where the noble had his family chapel also had the right to express an opinion or even veto works of art they didn’t like, and they would give their own indications: “doctrine says that you must depict St Nicholas with three golden balls and St Lucy with her eyes on a plate.” Under such circumstances, the interests and preoccupations of the artist, today a deep source of creative inspiration, barely got a look in. Of course, there was still plenty of room for individuality in style, without changing the basic message.
Our putative altarpiece is an expression of Catholic doctrine, but is it propaganda? In the sense that it propagates the faith, yes, it is; but it is also propagating a particular image of piety and patrons, to their social advantage. Secular painting could be equally propagandistic, particularly portraiture. Tomb monuments were explicit small-scale works of propaganda, because they expressed how the sponsor wished to be seen for eternity. When someone criticized Michelangelo because his portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici didn’t at all resemble the deceased, the artist replied “In a thousand years, who will know the difference?”
Almost all art is trying to convey a message, and perhaps what distinguishes pure art from propaganda is who decides what the message will be. If it’s the artist, it’s less likely to be propaganda, but if it’s an authority, whether a single patron or a religious body, it probably has a political or theological axe to grind. It took the 20th century, with its means of mass publication and its inclination towards totalitarianism, to institute what we think of as propaganda: selling a Big Lie on a grand scale. And the blurry line between art and propaganda blurs even more once the regime that produced the propaganda has lost its intellectual monopoly. An art collector can buy a statue of Augustus without needing to react to it as a figure of authority, or a Baroque altarpiece without being remotely affected by its religious message. The propagandistic message recedes to become a kind of patina of meaning, just one of several ways of looking at a piece of art. On quite a different scale, before going to Russia years ago I read about a Soviet poster of a child sitting on Stalin’s lap, saying “Thank you for my happy childhood”. In St Petersburg, I searched for that poster in all the shops on Nevsky Prospekt, as a hilarious present for my father, but to no avail. A stroll down Propaganda Street doesn’t mean you find what you were supposed to. Or what you expect.