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Is the Pope an art fan?

3 May 2024

Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world, takes a rakish look at art and museum stories.

It is so easy, these days, to think that someone should be locked up for doing something you disapprove of. While Rakewell is all for a strict approach to aesthetic standards, we would never insist upon the removal of an artist to a prison cell merely on account of art. Yet as Pope-watchers will know, the Pontiff made a flying visit to Venice this week (literally, as he landed on Giudecca in the Papal helicopter) to visit the women’s prison in the floating city. This was less to see artists who had wound up in prison and more to see prisoners who had wound up as artists.

Traditionally, the Vatican has had quite a good line in artworks by artists who had committed crimes – Entombment of Christ (1603–04) by the convicted murderer Caravaggio springs to mind. But this year, the Holy See has taken a pavilion as part of the Venice Biennale and it has chosen the women’s prison in Venice to be its site.

Suddenly, artists such as Maurizio Cattelan – who, let’s not forget, has made a sculpture of Pope John Paul II being struck down by a meteorite – and Corita Kent have found themselves behind bars. It’s far from being a mere provocation. Simone Fattal has painted slabs of stone with lines from poems written by the prisoners. Rakewell is particularly interested to know what the Pope made of a film, shown in the Vatican’s pavilion, made by Marco Perego-Saldaña and starring his wife, who happens to be the Hollywood superstar Zoe Saldaña. But we fear this will have to remain as secret as the confessional.

This is the first trip any pope has made to the Venice Biennale, but then the Republic of Venice has hardly welcomed Papal interference before, so perhaps this isn’t surprising. It is reported that the Pope admired the city’s ‘enchanting beauty’. Perhaps the Biennale dream is true, and art really can lead the world to understanding and peace?

Pope Francis meets with artists of the Venice Biennale in the Church of La Maddalena in the Giudecca’s women’s prison facility. Photo: Vatican Pool/Getty Images

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