As a former New Yorker, I was distraught when I heard in December, 2001 that two of the famous Barberini Tapestries had burned in a consumptive fire at the illustrious Saint John the Divine Cathedral. We New Yorkers, still in shock from 9-11, had our worlds turned upside down that horrible season, and the destruction at the church almost extinguished my hope.
For me, it was personal: I’d first visited the tapestries as a teenager with my aunt Mary Elin, who used to spring me from the stultifying confines of my grandparent’s house upstate and take me into the city for museums and culture. We always visited the cathedral and spent time with the tapestries.
Fast forward to 2001, when conservationists jumped in at the cue of the New York Fire Department’s all-clear.
Sixteen years later, like a phoenix from the ashes, these glorious works will be on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art from September 23, 2017, to January 21, 2018.
These tapestries—meticulous, beautiful, and pious—represent some of the finest examples of their era. And they’re coming here, to Eugene, which is somewhat miraculous itself.
“This is an ambitious exhibition,” says James Harper, professor of art history at the University of Oregon and co-curator of The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome.
“These are the kind of things that nobody gets to display,” Harper says. “But these tapestries once hung in St. Peter’s Basilica! People might say, ‘Oh, Baroque tapestries—weird, obscure, whatever,’ but these are world-class objects.”
Bringing the Barnerini tapestries to Eugene has required the cooperation—and imagination—of experts across the country. Conservationists in New York who painstakingly restored the works have had to sign off on their transfer. Curators at the JSMA have worked diligently to receive them with loving arms. And at the helm, one gleeful art history professor who finally has actual, real-scale objects to fawn over with his students and to offer to the public at large. This is a huge undertaking, literally.
With each piece ranging in scale from nearly 16 feet wide and 12 to19 feet tall, the 12-panel Barberini tapestry series was designed by the Baroque master Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and woven by handpicked weavers for Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII. (“The Art Pope,” Harper calls him.)
Harper has studied these tapestries for 25 years and is author to the exhibition’s accompanying book, The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome. He was early in his academic career—training as a historian in monumental, propagandistic imagery—when inspiration struck. On a visit to the Vatican museums in Rome in the 1990s, Harper says he was taken with the giant tapestries on display there. After realizing that, “because of a long-standing academic bias against the so-called ‘decorative arts,’ no one had yet plumbed these works,” Harper set forth.
“I had to train myself to be a tapestry historian,” Harper says. “And the staff of the lab at the Cathedral were an important part of that process.”
This autumn, thanks to the ongoing efforts of Harper’s co-curator, Marlene Eidelheit, and the Textile Conservation Laboratory at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, these 400-year-old objects have withstood time, and fire, to grace our community for an exquisite, redolent season.
But advanced degrees and a lifetime commitment aren’t necessary to connect with this art. These Baroque tapestries should be accessible to anyone.
“Art is doing a job; it’s communicating ideas,” Harper says. “And Baroque is an art which seeks to convince. It’s legible, with action and emotion; It has verve and movement. This is art that can communicate with clarity, force, and urgency.”
To historian Harper, the tapestries decode political and ecclesiastic messaging. And at the JSMA, unique interactive displays will allow visitors to dive into the details of the work, using wayfinding technology to search for clues hidden within.
The Barberini tapestries display “The Annunciation of Christ,” “The Nativity,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” “Baptism,” “The Consignment of the Keys,” “Transfiguration,” “The Agony in the Garden,” “Crucifixion,” “Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” and “The Holy Land.” The two burned tapestries— “The Last Supper” and The Resurrection”—will also be on display.
“In all of art history, the central question is ‘Why do things look the way they do?’” Harper says. “What were the decisions? Why were they made?”
Four hundred years ago, these prized and portable objects communicated wealth and status, wherever the family traveled. Harper estimates that in their time, each tapestry would have cost an estimated one million dollars. But the tapestries also expressed the piety of this upwardly mobile family.
“Everyone’s house is projecting a set of messages, and a quasi-royal family like the Barberinis made parallel decisions” as royal families, Harper says.
It’s a fun exercise to imagine what the modern equivalent of these tapestries might be. “This would be like having a whole fleet of Rolls-Royce cars parked in your driveway,” Harper says. These one-of-a-kind pieces of art have been displayed in the Vatican, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, and now Eugene.
Bringing these objects to our leafy college town is no small feat. First, the undertaking was
made possible by an $80,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding is just the beginning, however.
Twelve Barberini tapestries will be installed in the Chinese Throne Room at the JSMA, so that permanent exhibition will be temporarily deinstalled.
“Our idea is that we will make an installation that will enfold the viewer,” Harper says. “We’re building a room within a room, so that the viewer will step in and have that total mind-blowing immersion in this wrap-around textile world.”
Joey Capadona, chief preparator at the JSMA, has been working closely with Harper to ensure these works safe passage and display.
“We are working in conjunction with St. John the Divine’s Conservation Lab on this installation,” Capadona says. “They will be working directly with a fine art handling and shipping company in New York designing and fabricating crates for each one of the 10 tapestries traveling to Eugene.”
When large textiles such as these are prepared for shipping, they are generally covered with layers of conservation-grade packing materials and rolled onto rigid tubes made from an inert material. The crates used to ship artifacts such as these will have a moisture barrier applied to the interior of the crates, and the exterior will be coated and sealed, making it as airtight as possible. Crates used to transport rolled textiles are designed in such a manner that the tube is suspended within the crate to allow the object to “float” instead of resting on one of its sides, which could result in damage to the object due to the potential shock and vibration that the crate can endure during shipping.
“I have been investigating methods and materials for displaying tapestries over the past year in anticipation of this installation,” Capadona says. “I have consulted with St. John the Divine’s Conservation Lab and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on methods and techniques for tapestry display.”
At the JSMA, lightweight aluminum panels will be suspended from the ceiling for the display.
Clearly a labor of love, Harper says that the JSMA has seized an extraordinary opportunity. This exhibition represents the only display of the tapestries on the West Coast.
“There’s a scale to this that is possibly unprecedented,” says Harper.
For more exhibit and event information, visit jsma.uoregon.edu/Barberini.