“I think I’m becoming a god,” the Emperor Vespasian is said to have quipped during his final illness, correctly predicting that the Roman state would deify him upon his death. For all the differences between deification and canonisation, a recent one-liner from Pope Francis had a Vespasianic ring to it. Discussing his plan to canonise Pope Paul VI, Francis joked: “Benedict and I are on the waiting list.”

In a Rome collection renowned for its busts and bronzes of the Roman emperors, a temporary exhibition on the pontiffs stands out. Timed to coincide with Paul VI’s canonisation in October, The Popes of the Councils of the Modern Era is showing at the Capitoline Museums. With 30 objects on display, the small exhibition pays homage to the popes who shepherded the Church through its most recent ecumenical councils: Trent (1545-1563), Vatican I (1869-1870), and Vatican II (1962-1965).

The exhibition spans three rooms, organised chronologically. The Tridentine portion of the exhibit mainly consists of five papal portraits, only three of which were painted by contemporaries. To represent Counter-Reformation sacred art, the curators added a fine 17th-century painting of a saint, but superior examples can be found up the stairs in the Capitoline Pinacoteca or down the street at the Chiesa del Gesù.

The second room, dedicated to Pope Pius IX and his First Vatican Council, contains the exhibit’s most impressive artworks: two oil paintings of events from Pius’s pontificate. The first, by Francesco Podesti, served as the basis for that painter’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sala dell’Immacolata. From heaven above, where the Triune God exalts the Immaculate Virgin, light streams down to the Vatican Basilica, where Pius IX declares dogmatically that Mary was conceived without Original Sin. Beside this hangs a painting of Pius IX’s visit to the Forum. Here, Pius addresses the faithful who have come to witness his installation of a crucifix at the site of St Peter’s imprisonment. This painting pairs well with video footage shown at the exhibition entrance of Paul VI greeting the crowds during his 1966 visit to the Capitoline – the first such visit since 1870, when Risorgimento troops took Rome and brought Vatican I to a premature end.

The last room displays objects connected with St John XXIII, who opened Vatican II, and Paul VI, who closed it. The crown jewel of the exhibition, literally, is the tiara made for Gregory XVI, altered for Pius IX, and worn by John XXIII. Next to it is John XXIII’s ring, its emerald as large as a royal engagement stone.

Finally, there is Paul VI’s chalice. One expects to see the emblem of Rome’s legendary founding just about everywhere at the Capitoline, but Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf can still shock when they show up on a sacred vessel, and a papal one at that. This third room, along with the second, makes a visit well worth the time.

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