Peeking behind the locked door

Another sede vacante has come and gone. With the wall-to-wall coverage of contemporary media, this one made witnesses of us all. Or at least, the coverage let us witness the events outside the conclave and to share our speculation about what was happening behind the locked doors.

For the Folger Institute, the recent happenings in St. Peter’s Square in Rome also sparked fond memories of our NEH Institute on Ritual and Ceremony, Late-Medieval Europe to Early America, directed by Claire Sponsler in 2010.  It was there that we were introduced to the concept of the sede vacante and other aspects of Rome’s festive culture. Most intriguingly, and to the point here, we studied examples of conclave maps—a remarkable genre of maps that laid out in precise detail the exclusive work of the conclave. Early modern Church-watchers were just as curious as we are today about what was happening, and these maps not only purported to let viewers peek inside the conclave, but they may well have been taken home as souvenirs by pilgrims to Rome. 

Giovanni Falda's Nuova et essatta pianta del conclave (c1670)

Giovanni Falda’s Nuova et essatta pianta del conclave

This example from around 1670 was likely to have been closely studied by its original purchaser, and it is just as carefully analysed (and translated!) by John Hunt, one of the college faculty participants in that NEH Institute (now an Assistant Professor of History at Utah Valley University). Hunt’s essay on “The Ceremonies of the Conclave and Print Culture in Baroque Rome” walks us around the map and its moment-by-moment account of choosing a new pope. His essay, and the others on the institute website, give us insight into what we can learn about the rituals and ceremonies of early modern Europe by studying the materials objects they left behind.1

The fact that our collection could support such a study of the conclave was a delightful surprise to us all. The discoveries began months before the summer institute, in conversation with Erin Blake (Curator of Art and Special Collections at the Folger) and Barbara Wisch (Professor of Art History, SUNY Cortland). Professor Wisch was the member of the faculty who introduced us to an early modern Rome that was the center of pilgrimage, the primary locus of relics, and purveyor of indulgences. With her, we surveyed rituals (from Carnival season to Easter) as well as Holy Year ceremonies that created sacred and civic topographies evoking Rome as Caput Mundi, Eternal City, New Jerusalem, and even the New Babylon. Participants also got a preview of her work on confraternities, undertaken with Nerida Newbigin and now published by Saint Joseph’s University Press as Acting on Faith: The Confraternity of the Gonfalone in Renaissance Rome.

As we do while planning all Institute courses, we explored Folger holdings for relevant examples. What we found was a little known, and less examined, trove of more than 30 engravings and other graphics in Art Box R763. At the time (just three years ago), this set of engravings was not cataloged in Hamnet, and neither were digital images captured in Luna. Instead, the only information any of us had to go on was the vaguely promising description in the art card file: Collection of pamphlets and engravings relating to Rome and the papacy. Weeks of conversations between Erin Blake and Barbara Wisch ensued, resulting in a selection of a dozen or so of these engravings to be incorporated into her presentation. And this work led to these images being cataloged and digitized, so that you can now view them in Luna and find them in Hamnet.

These engravings from the Folger collection allowed us to explore how printed images of papal power—especially conclaves and coronation processions—reshaped ritual events in local and international memory. We examined how contestations over urban space, religious authority, political power, and social identities were refashioned and endowed with the allure of providential stability via the printed image and permanent art and architecture.

Our days working with the Roman materials were just one of a series of examinations of local and national traditions as they evolved over several centuries from a common liturgical conceptual framework. Our goal was to look beyond narrowly defined disciplinary and national boundaries to reconstruct the social roles of rituals and ceremonies, asking, among other questions, what it meant to participate in public or domestic performances of this sort, even as a spectator—questions that remain vital today.

  1. The website includes not only essays from the participants but the syllabus for the institute and bibliographies for further study. []

Author: Kathleen Lynch

KATHLEEN LYNCH is Executive Director of the Folger Institute, a position that puts her in charge of organizing formal programs for scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library. With her Folger colleague, Betsy Walsh, she curated the Folger's summer 2012 exhibition, "Open City: London, 1500-1700." Her book, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World, is now available from Oxford University Press.

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