The popes have been collecting art for centuries, and from at least the 16th c. visitors to Rome made a special point of stopping at the Vatican to see the collections of ancient and contemporary art. One important area of collecting has been ancient Roman and Etruscan art, including jewelry.
Why would the center of the Roman Catholic world have such a focus on these areas? In part because 1) this is Rome, 2) the papacy is in Rome, and 3) Early Christian art developed in the Late Antique period, from around 200 to around 400 CE. Jesus was born sometime around the year 1 BCE/CE, but there was no “Christian art” to speak of until Christians gained a political presence in the major cities of the Roman empire, including Rome. Christian artists and patrons relied on established symbols and iconography when creating “Christian” art. For example, you will see many winged figures in ancient Roman art; these are sometimes cupids, sometimes a genius (spirit) figure that Christians developed into angels.
So why would the popes be so interested in collecting objects from ancient Rome? And from the even more ancient Etruscan civilization? (The Etruscans were a powerful people who lived in the center of the Italian peninsula between ca. 800 and 100 BCE, and co-existed with the Romans once the Romans conquered Etruscan cities after the sixth century BCE.)
Collecting Roman and Etruscan objects is one way Renaissance popes demonstrated their sincere interests in understanding Christian history. It was also a way to demonstrate that Christianity conquered Rome, as Rome had conquered the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were among the finest goldsmiths in the ancient world. Indeed, their exquisite gold jewelry has seldom been equaled. The Vatican Museum is fortunate in having some of the most important Etruscan objects in stone, bronze, and gold. Here, you can see how they exhibit gold earrings next to what survives from a stone sculpture of a woman’s face…the woman is wearing the type of earring in the collection. All of these objects were found in tombs.
I’ll have a second post on the Vatican’s Etruscan collection. I’d like for you to think about how these objects can be exhibited.
How do we exhibit objects from an ancient culture that demonstrates both respect for that culture and teaches the public about that culture?