Giovanni Gasparro, the Catholic Church, and Antisemitism (Part 2)


Giovanni Gasparro has for the past decade been the favorite painter of Catholic clerics in Italy, who have commissioned him to produce works for a half-dozen churches and the restored Basilica of San Giovanni Artigiano in L’Aquila.

Ben Cohen at describes his success with Church patrons:

Gasparro has exhibited his work in Italy and other countries for more than 10 years. His career highlights have included solo exhibitions in Paris in 2009 and at the Venice Biennale in 2011.

Also in 2011, Gasparro was commissioned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Italy’s L’Aquila region to restore a medieval basilica that had been badly damaged in an earthquake. In 2013, he was awarded Italy’s prestigious Pio Alferano prize for “young and talented artists.”

Gasparro received from the Archdiocese of L’Aquila in 2011 the commission to restore a medieval basilica in the town that had been damaged in an earthquake in 2009. He painted 19 works of art between the altar and the altarpiece for that damaged Basilica of San Giovanni Artigiano (XIII sec.), which constitute the largest painting cycle of sacred art made in recent years. In 2012 he painted the Anomalia with the Largillière’s hat for the Costa Fascinosa, Europe’s largest cruise ship, in the Costa Crociere fleet. In 2013 he won the Bioethics Art Competition of UNESCO’s Bioethics and Human Rights Chair with Casti connubii, against abortion, inspired by Pope Pius XI’s (1930) encyclical, exhibiting in Hong Kong, Houston and Mexico City. The following year, with Quum memoranda – a portrait of Pope Pius VII, he won the Pio Alferano Prize and the Excellent Painters – Brazzale Prize. He exhibited at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and at the National Gallery of Cosenza juxtaposed with Mattia Preti, the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna, the Real Basilica of Superga in Turin, Palazzo Venezia in Rome , the Alinari Museum and Villa Bardini of Florence, Castel Sismondo and the Museum of the City of Rimini, the Aurora Casino of Guido Reni at Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, the Pinacoteca of San Severino Marche juxtaposed with a Pinturicchio, Pinacoteca Corrado Giaquinto of Bari, the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa, the Labyrinth of Franco Maria Ricci in Fontanellato, the Napoleonic Museum and Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome, the Grand Palais of Paris, MART of Rovereto and Stadtgalerie in Kiel (Germany). His works are exhibited in important European and American public and private collections as well as in several Italian churches and basilicas including Siena, Trani, Rome, and L’Aquila and Malta, Switzerland and Greece.

The list of achievements isn’t as lofty as it sounds, given that practically every city and town in Italy has exhibitions and prizes galore for art; according to my Italian informants, his participation in many of these exhibitions is far less impressive than it might appear to non-Italians. But clearly Gasparro has his admirers: those whose taste runs to a very derivative mannerist style, and saints, lots of saints, hands clasped, eyes turned heaven-ward. And among those admirers have been prelates who commissioned him to produce paintings for the Basilica of San Giovanni Artigiano in L’Aquila and churches in a half-dozen cities.

One wonders if Gasparro managed to hide – or even bothered to try to hide — his antisemitism from those in the Church who commissioned many of his pieces. It seems unlikely, given that antisemitism at this level of virulence is hard to hide; it’s a pathological mental condition. But if all those priests and prelates really “had no idea” about Gasparro, they certainly have an idea now of the obsessive antisemite who is Giovanni Gasparro. And what do they think should now be done?

Which brings us to the Catholic Church, its past failures to denounce antisemitism, and its responsibilities today. The Church, as all educated people know, has a lot to answer for when it comes to how it has treated Jews. Centuries of Jew-hatred and persecution, charges of ritual murders followed by the roundup, torture, and murder of Jews (one example of “ritual murder” being the subject of Gasparro’s painting — the story of two-year-old Simon of Trent), Jews locked in barns, houses, synagogues, and then burned alive. From St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century, all the way to Father Coughlin in 20th-century America, there is an unbroken thread of Jew-hatred. Malcolm Hay, a Roman Catholic Scot, wrote in a white-hot fury just after World War II what remains the most eloquent (and impassioned) study of the subject, Europe and the Jews: The Pressure of Christendom on the People of Israel For 1,900 Years.

We know, too, that in the last century, just before World War II, Pope Pius XII refused to publish the encyclical left by his predecessor Pope Pius XI, Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race). Although he privately gave shelter to a few Jews, he did not do what would have made a real difference. Not once, between 1939 and 1945, did he ever publicly utter the word “Jew,” not once did he denounce the antisemitism of the Nazis. He never spoke out, either, about Mussolini’s “racial laws” except insofar as they applied to people of “mixed race” or to Jews who had converted to Christianity; many Italian Catholics, would have been deeply affected had the Pope denounced those laws. He said nothing after Kristallnacht in November, 1938, though he was fully informed about what had happened, and never said anything about the death camps, though he was fully informed about what was happening to the Jews in those camps as early as 1941. It was said that he could see, right under his windows at the Vatican, the Jews of Rome being taken off to be murdered. And he said not a word.

The Church’s role after World War II in helping Nazi murderers escape, and seeking clemency for convicted Nazi criminals, is well-documented. Thousands were aided by prelates, including bishops and priests, to make their way either to Arab countries or, more often, to South America. One example can stand for many. In 1948, just three years after the end of World War II, a leading Nazi war criminal managed to escape from a prison in Linz, Austria. Franz Stangl, a former SS-Hauptsturmführer and commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, was responsible for the deaths of almost 1 million Jews. He made his way to Rome and most importantly for him, to the Vatican. In Rome, Bishop Alois Hudal, a fellow Austrian, greeted him with the words: “You must be Franz Stangl — I’ve been expecting you.” He then handed Stangl forged documents that allowed the Nazi war criminal to travel to Syria, where his family eventually joined him. In 1951, the Stangl family emigrated to Brazil, where he found work in a Volkswagen plant.

Many others were similarly helped by Catholic clergy to escape to South America or to Arab countries on one of the many “ratlines.” Adolf Eichmann was so grateful to his Catholic helpers that he converted to Catholicism. Other war criminals—among the thousands who were helped by the Church– were Walther Rauff, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke, and Alois Brunner. A formerly top secret State Department report, dated 1947 and never officially made public, called the Vatican ”the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants,” including Nazis.

This shameful history should be kept in mind, as we return to the subject of the Italian painter and virulent antisemite, Giovanni Gasparro. Now that his painting of the so-called “ritual murder” of little Simon of Trento (Simonino da Trento) – irrefutable visual evidence of that antisemitism – has been displayed on-line (Gasparro, naturally proud of his work, had posted it on his Facebook page), and widely condemned by many, what, if anything, will the Catholic Church do?

The Vatican must not remain silent. It has to take a firm stand, lest anyone misconstrue its attitude as one of indifference, or even support, for this monstrous painting and its creator. It must declare that this painting by Giovanni Gasparro violates what the Church believes and that it deplores the murderous hatred it expresses. It should make clear that no prelate or priest should from now on commission works by Gasparro; Catholic laymen true to the teachings of the Church should not buy his paintings, no matter what their subject. As for those paintings that were commissioned previously by prelates, and now are hanging in churches, including the nineteen works of art in the Basilica of San Giovanni Artigiano in L’Aquila, the Vatican will appoint a commission to discuss their fate: whether those paintings should remain in place, or be removed and returned to the deplorable Giovanni Gasparro.

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