Vatican Museums patron chapter making comeback

The iconic double-helix Bramante Staircase of the Vatican Museums. Pilot file photo/Gregory L. Tracy

BRAINTREE -- By hosting regular events in art museums throughout Greater Boston and sponsoring the restoration of valuable artwork, the New England Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums is slowly making a comeback.

"In a year and a half, we have had about a dozen cultural events, all about perpetuating the arts," said Andrea Gabrielle, the chairman of the chapter's board.

Gabrielle, a native of Italy with an interest in art and culture, said art tells a story he and other patrons want to share with future generations.

"We're preserving the history of our faith," he said. "We're restoring beautiful art. We're restoring the past. There is no future without the past."

The Vatican Museums in Rome contain hundreds of priceless works of art collected by popes over more than five centuries. The Vatican Museums consist of more than 25 galleries, chapels and rooms that include the Sistine Chapel, the Borgia Apartments, the Apartment of St. Pius V and the Chapel of Urban VIII.

The Vatican Museums' extensive collection also contains tapestries, frescoes, paintings by Renaissance masters, antiquities from Ancient Egypt, Greece and pre-Christian Rome. The Museums essentially contain and preserve the heritage and patrimony of Western civilization.

But maintaining the collection, and restoring centuries-old art, is not inexpensive. Revenue from ticket sales to the Vatican Museums -- the main generator of funds for Vatican City State -- is only able to cover basic maintenance, insurance, security and staff, leaving little money for restoration and modernization.

With chapters in Italy and all over the world, the Vatican Museum Patrons, founded in 1983, have played a valuable role to preserve the museums' exhibits. The patrons have raised funds to restore artistic treasure such as the Raphael Rooms, the Pauline Chapel and frescoes on the lateral walls of the Sistine Chapel. The California chapter of the patrons raised $2.5 million to fully restore Pope Gregory XIII's 16th century Gallery of Maps.

"This is for the understanding and appreciation of the faith, the arts, and it brings everyone together," said Amy Gallant Sullivan, the co-founder of the Italian and International Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

Sullivan, who splits her time between Boston and Paris, said Gabrielle, because of his cultural and artistic acumen, was hand-picked to lead the New England chapter, which is being revitalized after years of inactivity.

"The last few years were really rough for the chapter, because of issues with our Church, but since we took over here, we're starting to rebuild brand awareness," Gabrielle said.

Gabrielle, joined by other active members such as Joe Gentile, a chapter board member, Peter Fallon Jr., an emeritus board member, and advisors Micah Kurtz and Rich Villiote, the New England Chapter over the last couple of has been revitalized. The chapter now has more than 30 active members, meets monthly and hosts bimonthly events to increase its visibility and attract new members.

"We've done private viewings of different exhibits in Boston and in Cambridge. We hosted a movie of the Vatican Museums at the Harvard Art Museums Theater. Every once in a while, we have a social event to attract people that we hope to convert into members," Gentile said.

Gentile said he joined the Vatican Museum Patrons shortly after Gabrielle, whom he knew through a business relationship, invited him to attend the patrons' 30th anniversary celebration in Rome. For a week, more than 300 patrons from across the world visited the Vatican Museums' exhibits, attended lectures, traveled to basilicas outside the Vatican walls, dined in the Vatican art galleries and saw firsthand the restoration labs that diligently restore centuries-old artwork. The trip culminated in an audience with Pope Francis.

"It was a fantastic trip. We said, 'This is too good to be true,' and we became members," Gentile said.

Locally, the New England Patrons have hosted lectures on Bernini and sponsored tours at local art museums directed by exhibit curators.

"They're high-quality, private tours," Gabrielle said. "The educational level is very profound and very deep."

The local patrons chapter is also sponsoring the $20,000 restoration of a bust sculpted by Antonio Canova, the early 19th century Italian neoclassical sculptor famous for his marble sculptures.

Sullivan added that the New England Patrons are partnering with the Italian chapter to educate Catholic school students in arts and faith. The patrons are sponsoring a pilot program where students at Matignon High School in Cambridge will participate in an essay contest on why it is important for visually-impaired people to be introduced to art.

"Not only do (the students) embrace their faith and their understanding and appreciation of art, but the winners of this essay contest will be invited to the Vatican Museums, have a private tour of the galleries, see and meet a blind patron, and understand why it's important to appreciate art and see faith in a different light," said Sullivan, adding that the patrons hope to eventually expand the contest to Catholic schools across the country.

"It's visibility for Church and a great education for the students," said Sullivan, who also noted that patrons, when they are in Rome, have special access to the Vatican Museums and can learn more about the exhibits on-site.

More information about the New England Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums is available at nevaticanpatrons.org.

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