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Italian Art Critic on Vatican Nativity Figures: “Don’t Look At Them…The Religious World Has Been Betrayed”

Editor’s Note: by way of a colleague and friend in Italy, we received the following translation for publication. It is a commentary on the much-discussed 2020 Vatican Nativity Scene

Translator’s Note: Vittorio Sgarbi is a very well-known figure in Italian public life, who has served in several political offices, including the ministry in charge of state-owned properties of cultural significance. He is also an art historian and critic who is frequently interviewed for programs about the country’s vast and diverse artistic patrimony. Here he weighs in on the controversial Vatican Nativity scene, deeming it a work without art or faith, and states his opinion that its presence in the Piazza San Pietro demonstrates a culpable lack of attention to the matter on the part of the Pope. I have tried to give as exact as a translation as possible, but he is speaking off the cuff, and the thread of his thoughts wanders a bit. I suspect that when he says that the religious world “had its consecration in art,” he meant to say something more on the lines that it was the religious world (not only the Christian religious world, of course) that elevated that art to the level of something sacred. It should also be noted that Mr Sgarbi, who very often speaks with great ardor and eloquence about the importance of the Church’s role in art, is not a theologian, and is very inexact in what he says here about papal infallibility; this should not, I think, color our perception of what he says about the Pope’s duties.

(The original videos of Sgarbi’s commentary, in Italian, can be viewed at

Translation of Vittorio Sgarbi’s remarks: 

I am looking once again at the crèche in Piazza San Pietro. Don’t look at the Magi. Don’t look at the Magi. Don’t look at Baby Jesus. Don’t look at the Virgin. Don’t look at St Joseph. Don’t look at the sheep, the donkey, the ox, and don’t even look at the turkeys and the various animals wandering pointlessly around this space. Don’t look at them, because you wouldn’t know what you are seeing. You wouldn’t recognize any of the figures I have named. Don’t look at them. Don’t look at them. I don’t know what the Pope’s expression will be when he sees them, or if he has (already) seen them, but if he does see them, he will think that he belongs to different religion (i.e. than the one represented by them), that these things have nothing to do with the Christian world. They are a caricature, a falsehood, a thing you cannot look at without the painful thought of how the religious world has been betrayed, which in art had its consecration. This is an act of humiliation; these figures have been humiliated, turned into something other than themselves. Don’t look at them, don’t look at them, don’t go there. Stay home.

We can believe that the Pope doesn’t know anything about this. But perhaps this is not a justification, but another fault (on his part). And then, (even before speaking about these sculptures, or statues, or ceramics, whatever they are,) it needs to be said that there is no place where there is more beauty than the Vatican – the Vatican painting gallery, the Raphael rooms (both parts of the Vatican Museums) – and therefore, it would have been sufficient to indicate one of the many crèches, or (images of) the birth of Christ, the adoration of the magi, the adoration of the shepherds, which are in those places, and perhaps display it somewhere more connected to the sacred moment, the moment of Christmas night. Instead, no: out in the open, under a horrible roof (“pensilina” can also mean a bus shelter), a roof as ugly as the sculptures, which look like caricatures, like Martians, like (thought breaks off), certainly, they come from an important place.

We should respect the person who designed them, because we are talking about artisans from Castelli, which is one of the most important places in Italy for the production of ceramics. But even there, there are ceramics, and then there are ceramics. There is a tradition, a tradition of the Grue (a family from Castelli who were famous for the production of beautiful ceramics in the 16th to 18th century) who made ceramic tiles in the style of Castelli, in the 18th century, and then they continued in that tradition. And so we can guess that in this very beautiful city in the Abruzzi, something may have been designed according to tradition, but these images (I don’t know if you’ll be able to see them) which are in these photographs I have received, which have outraged many commentators, seem like a mockery.

The Pope, in any case, should not even think about (placing) in the Vatican sculptures that look like falsehoods, caricatures, that have nothing to do with the sacred. I don’t know what to say. Every time, it happened even when he spoke (the Pope, I mean) in the piazza in front of St Peter’s, alone, there was certainly something very noble in that solitude, (but perhaps it might have been better if he was alone in his chapel, not in a piazza (for an) Urbi et Orbi where there wasn’t even a priest, and no one to listen to him, this speaking into the air), after that moment, which was important for some people, this is, I believe, on a universal level, a debacle – the idea of having no awareness of beauty, no respect for a grand tradition, (the tradition) which has made western art and Italian art so important, and especially for the values of Christianity.

So, before the wonder of so much art, to arrive at humiliating those spiritual values in these sculptures (with all due respect to the artisan who made them) seems like a culpable lack of attention, or a lack of sensibility on the part of a man who is perhaps sensitive to aesthetic values, but here evidently was distracted, he was somewhere else. (But) the Pope simply cannot be distracted. Lack of attention is a fault. We speak about Papal infallibility; the Pope has to be infallible not by saying things which are (previously) unknown, or miracles of a Pope’s (personal) vision, but by avoiding errors. The infallibility of the Pope lies in not making mistakes like this. This Pope has condemned himself through this crèche, by doing something which has toppled, mocked, and overturned the very spirit of Christ’s birth. This is unacceptable. The Pope, if he is not infallible because he doesn’t make mistakes, must at least to avoid doing things like this. There is a grave lack of attention here, and a lack of respect of the great artistic tradition that coincides with the Christian tradition.

Art and faith have coincided for a long time; here there is neither art nor faith.

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