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Lawrence, Sir Thomas (1769-1830)
Pope Pius VIIDate: 1819
Technique: Oil on canvas
Museum: Royal Collection
Size: 269 x 178 cm
Pius VII (1742-1823) was the most famous Pope of the nineteenth century; he was also the most widely recognised man in that century, apart from Napoleon I. Born Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonti, he was elected Pope in 1800. Although he was present at Napoleon's coronation in Paris in 1801, Pius VII later excommunicated him and was captured by the French three years later and held at Fontainebleau until 1814. He is noted for his essentially passive resistance to the French emperor, epitomised by the Concordat of 1801 between France and the Papacy, but it was nonetheless a policy that was tenaciously and effectively pursued. After the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Pius VII was identified with the emerging nationalist movement in Italy - the Risorgimento - and the renewal of Catholicism in Europe. By concentrating on restoring the buildings of Rome and by consolidating the famous collections in the city so recently pillaged by Napoleon, Pius VII enabled Rome to become the spiritual and cultural capital of Europe.
Lawrence was commissioned to paint the Pope by George IV, when still Prince Regent, as part of a series of portraits of those European heads of state, soldiers and diplomats associated with the downfall of Napoleon. The project was begun by Lawrence in 1814, but the twenty-five or so portraits preoccupied him for the rest of his life and, indeed, some remained unfinished at his death.
Lawrence travelled extensively in Europe - to Aix-la- Chapelle, Vienna and Rome - in order to obtain sittings for the portraits. He was in Rome from May to December 1819, staying in the Quirinal Palace, and between 18 May and 21 September he painted Pius VII and his personal adviser, Ercole, Cardinal Consalvi.
Pope Pius VII has every reason to be called Lawrence's masterpiece and it was recognised as such during the artist's lifetime. Lawrence wrote on 25 June 1819, 'No picture that I have painted has been more popular with the friends of its subject, and the public . . . and, according to my scale of ability, I have executed my intention: having given him that expression of unaffected benevolence and worth, which lights up his countenance with a freshness and spirit, entirely free (except in the characteristic paleness of his complexion) from that appearance of illness and decay that he generally has when enduring the fatigue of his public functions.'
Pius VII is shown on the papal throne, or sedia gestatoria, on which he was carried in procession. His coat-of-arms with his motto PAX are visible on the finials of the throne. He holds a paper in his left hand marked Per/Anto. Canova, who was appointed Prefect of the Fine Arts in Rome by Pius VII and created Marchese d'lschia. In the background on the left is a view of the unfinished Braccio Nuovo, built to house some of the finest antiquities in the Vatican collections - the Apollo Belvedere, the LaocoÃ¶n and the Torso Belvedere are visible. The setting is, therefore, as important as the characterisation, but above all there is the sheer brilliance of Lawrence's sense of colour and brushwork, as, for example, in the depiction of the pope's hands or his slippers raised on the stool.
The significance of this portrait of Pius VII is only fully grasped if it is appreciated that Lawrence was working in a well-established tradition extending from the portraits of Julius II by Raphael (London, National Gallery), Paul III by Titian (Naples, Capodimonte) and Innocent X by VelÃ¡zquez (Rome, Doria-Pamphili). Lawrence was not overwhelmed by these inevitable comparisons and his achievement is such that he can be accorded a prominent place alongside these outstanding portrait painters.
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