He collected offices, sycophants and artists. He was the Lord of Bees.

Politicians who dream of combining foreign historical and PR policies could take a leaf out of the pope of four centuries ago.

The popes’ names start off carved in limestone. Then they blur into each other after which we forget them; which palace was built by Paul V and which by Alexander VII. Similarly with their coats or arms but which are clear enough to show, under their tiaras, the glory of their names.

You only have to raise your head and you can see the Pamphilli family doves , the Medici lilies, the lions of the Odescali and the three summits of the Chigi upon which shines the eight pointed star. A church or portico appears too with the donor in company with a menagerie of lions, dragons, bulls, deer , cupids and nymphs.

But one motif is repeated, even though only one member of the dynasty sat on the throne of St Peter- Maffeo or Matthew, the successor to the apostolic throne as Urban VIII, with the bees of the Barberini family.

There is always a dichotomy between the greatness of the office of the bishop of Rome and the earthly powers and interests that come to the fore during a pontificate. But the tension is softened by time. The more it is in the past the more we can evaluate human ambitions and weaknesses. It is difficult to understand all the factors both in Italy and Europe.

Those intolerable Catholic Habsburgs

How can we reconcile support for the Catholic Habsburgs in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 with the reluctance to allow their domination of Italy. Take for example during their war of the Mantuan succession. What do we make of the conflict between two arch-Catholic powers like Portugal and Spain. Or the example of the Fronde civil wars and the Spanish ambassador’s role Cardinal Gaspard de Boria Y Velasco who could order ‘inconvenient’ cardinals to leave Rome.

It's similar to the missions sent to the New World. What of the raising of martyrs (not just those Jesuits crucified in Japan but the Polish Jozafat Kuncewicz). Take too, Galileo's intellectual work or the intrigues between Bernini and Borromini. Maffeo Barberini had to contend with all this in Rome where he presided over 21 years.

“Triumph of Divine Salvation”, fresco by Pietro da Cortona in the Barberini Palace. In the centre we can see three bees from the Barberini family coat of arms, photo authorship I, Sailko, CC BY 2.5,
The Florentine Barberini family was truly magnificent. But not Roman, sono princely titles or hereditary lands. What’s more Matthew was orphaned at the age of three . His uncle took over his education after his father's death. The uncle, Father Francesco Barberini, was an official in the Roman Curia. He brought the ten year old to the banks of the Tiber and sent him to the Collegium Romanum for his education- primary to the university established by Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder. He supported his nephew through legal studies in Pisa and became his patron in his later studies in the Roman Curia.

A official cloak for the chief clerk

Matthew was able to hold his own later on. Thanks to his above-average abilities. He had many exotic sounding offices- the Court Referendary, the Prothonotary, the Clerk of the Chamber. These were wholly understandable jobs of the time. In 1604 he was sent to France as papal legate as a bishop then as a papal nuncio to Paris.

He became enchanted by France itself and this admiration was reciprocated at the French court that supported his nomination for cardinal. After that came more titles. The archbishopric of Spoleto, the prefecture of the Tribunal of Justice, Chamberlain of the College of Cardinals. So we come to the conclave. After the death of Gregory XV they chose on August 6 1623 the poet, lawyer, man of letters and polyglot Cardinal Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII.

The same faction fighting that characterised previous conclaves, together with horrendous heatwaves and malarial heat would have been the material for a book in itself. The disease rose from the swamps that used to be the Forum and the illness, the yellow vapours that claimed Spanish cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese is now a memory, has no resonance within Roman walls. But with the Barberini bees, it’s a different story.

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The new pope luckily broke no records of nepotism that were so shared by the previous Borgia and the della Rovere families. But he maintained the norms for his time. His brother Carlo, without any previous military or administrative experience was appointed as head of the Papal States’ armed forces and of Borgo, one of the traditional districts of Rome. The second brother Antonio, a humble Cappucine up till then received a cardinal’s hat. Franccesco, a nephew, became a cardinal and the superintendent of the Vatican. The youngest, Antonio junior followed suit to ensure a majority in the next conclave. Another nephew was married into the Colonna dynasty which meant landed fortunes and the title of the Prince of Palestrina fell into their lap.

Hereditary on the maternal side

 Later on, like in real life it progressed with mixed fortunes. Cardinal Francesco , despite his quickfire temper, was pious and workmanlike.His younger brother Antonio occupied himself with choosing the best and most luxurious clothes and offices. The purple didn’t go to their uncle’s head. As a cardinal he was pious and had a good work ethic as a Cappuccine and this seemed to suit his temperament. From the millions that the family turned over, he gave away a part to the poor. This wouldn’t arouse great concern today especially in view of the fact that the Barberini clan lacked male heirs a couple of generations later. The title was passed on through the Colonna and Sacchetti lines on the distaff side and their elastic attitude to inheritance.

An equally flexible approach was seen when it came to the division of the goods and collection of Urban VIII and his cardinal-cousins. Much of it ended up in the Palazzo Barberini for the first time in centuries.

In order to mark the four hundred year anniversary of this particular conclave, a political scientist would be hard pushed to describe this open exhibition in today’s language. Perhaps it would be a lot easier for a biographer cum historian of art or intellectual historian of Europe. Propaganda experts too should have their say.

‘L’immagine sovrana’ or ‘The Sovereign Image. Urban VIII and the Barberini’ at Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art is an exhibition that encompasses the entirety of the 17th century achievements of the Barberini family. What in particular though? The image of the head of the dynasty and his protector Urban VIII perhaps? A bust would suffice for the purpose sculpted not just once or twice by Bernini thence sent as gifts to leaders and churchmen

Nail studded model

But the propagation of his image, not in print nor inpainting but in sculpture was only one of a range of options. Even Bernini with his legendary work rate wouldn't have made the grade. In this pontificate the method of reproducing carried out by eye but but but the aid of plaster replicas studded with nails that enabled a three dimensional copy to be made in the pre-scanner age.

It’s not just about the bust itself nor the superb taste or audacity that cause the young apostolic protonotary to commission a bust of himself from the equally young but already famous if controversial Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. It’s the portrait that opens the exhibition. The twenty year old is in a chocolate-coloured cape with crimson trim and draws our eye with his gaze. His right hand delicately grips the pages of a book, but his other hand shows us that this is not the hand of a keeper of the seal nor of a careerist but a leader.

Maffeo didn’t just collect offices and souvenirs from foreign trips and trifles, lest we forget. As a student at the Collegium Romanum he started to accumulate a library. Before the conclave it numbered 40, 000 volumes after which his duties made him curb his bibliophilia and writing poetry. Maybe he didn't deserve the new papal soubriquet of ‘Plutarchus redivivus’ but many reprints of his works were done. The best known was from 1631 in which he posed as a KIng David, a strategist and a harpist.

Supporters can be found anywhere . The pope was dubbed the Christian Apollo by the radical Tommaso Campanella. The secret of the Barberini court was in exhibiting the audacity in the choices made in building up the papal reputation by attracting the plaudits of the greatest of those around. Dozens of illustrious artists were invited not just Bernini but Caravaggio, Poussin, Sacchi and Lorraine. Astronomers, chemists and historians saluted the papal throne. Athanasius Kirchner was to the Baroque as Leonardo da Vinci was to the Renaissance and deserves a book . He was a sinophile, researcher into hieroglyphics, heart valves, theorist on flight, dragons, salamanders, tectonics, hydrology oceanic currents, pyramids, sulphur compounds, grasshoppers, dreams, and mathematical equations. He came to Rome from the lucrative post of a lecturer at Avignon at the invitation of Urban VIII himself.

Right profile, left profile

Who did the pope not invite from France, what contacts did he not make, how did he not network? His nephew was the intermediary with Louis XIII in establishing a factory for tapestries and gobelins the manufacture of which up till that time was a French state secret. In return, he allowed Bernini to sculpt a likeness of Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful minister. It captivated, like all else, just what Bernini could achieve in marble. The Frenchman had petitioned him to render this particular service for years.

We don't just see the bust with the cardinal in her characteristic beard but a true curiosity in the world of art demonstrated also in the exhibition a ‘police identity photo’ of the cardinal by Philippe de Champagne- right profile, full face and left profile.

There were real reasons for this as there was no talk about the cardinal actually leaving France. Nor was Bernini to leave Rome who had the building of the Barberini Palace on his plate, the College of the Propagation of the Faith, a few fountains and finishing the St Peter's basilica in the Vatican as well as his feud with Borromini. The result is electrifying- the omnipotent Richelieu looks as if he is in a police lineup, only a board with his details are missing.

All that happened at the Barberini home resonates with the descriptions provided by Kirchner- lava flows, whirling streams and snail shells echoing Creation. The golden bees are visible on the tapestries, the weaving of which was supervised by Jakob van der Vliete (later Italianised to Giacomo della Riviera). A blue shield bears the motto ‘Hic Domus’ (Here is the [True] House). The princely coronet is also visible that belonged to the dynasty from the moment of acquiring the possessions of Palestrina. The same bees that according to legend appeared in the time of the conclave, swarm surround the head of an allegory of Italy on the canvas by Valentino de Boulogne. They appear in the sketches of Lorraine and around the ears of young Maffeo in the works of the then Academia di Lincei established by the Vatican, the studio ‘Academy of the Lynx-eyed’. The pupils presented the newly-appointed pope the ‘Apiarium’ , a treatise on bees with a painted panel page entitled the ‘Melissographia’.

Bees multiplied in the rather unnatural environment of marble, plaster and limestone- sleepy, pot bellied and giant. Gregorio Leti, satirist and pamphleteer (there were many in the times of Urban VI, maintained that there were more than ten thousand. Possibly he could have peeked under the papal cassock of Bernoini’s sculpture that stands on the Capitoline Museum today. Did he palace a mirror to the miriad ofpalm leaves that cover the ceiling of Borromini’s Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church in their thouands?

What was it all for, the churches, aqueducts, textiles and canvases, fountains, beatifications, ceremonies, architectural digs, operas, the military triumphs and the wells set up in Rome's poorest areas? Was this all about Maffeo’s pride, one who came from a Florentine trading background and landed on the throne of the world? Was it about family hubris who interpolated between the Chigi and Farneses clans rubbing their noses in it. Was it about demonstrating the power of the church, the holy apostolic to convert the world. Was it to humbly glorify the beauty of Creation which itself is the work and reflection of the Lord?

Luckily we are talking about the Baroque era, one that proclaimed the unity of contradictions. The period wasn’t too fussy either about splitting those hairs.

–Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Jan Darasz

Exhibition “L’immagine sovrana. Urbano VIII e i Barberini”, (“ The Sovereign Image” Urban VIII and the Barberini) 18 March -30 July 2023, National Gallery of antique Art, Rome
Main photo: The Museum of National Ancient Art is located in the Barberini Palace in Rome where Urban VIII watches over everything, photo IPA / BACKGRID / Backgrid UK / Forum
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