The Pope Gives His Blessing—and a High-Interest Loan—to Met Director Philippe De Montebello

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Philippe de Montebello was named director of New York's gargantuan Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978, there was muttering in the art world. Some felt that, without a Ph.D., he was academically unqualified for such an exalted position. Inevitably, people compared him to his predecessor, the flamboyant Thomas Hoving. The latter was a headline grabber, a P.T. Barnum in a three-piece suit whose flashy exhibitions (the King Tut extravaganza) and sometimes controversial acquisitions helped transform the once stuffy Met into one of New York's top tourist attractions (3.5 million visitors last year opted for art; 2 million went to see the Yankees).

De Montebello's style is a bit more aristocratic—perhaps because he is, as he will tell you himself, the Count of Montebello, a small town in Italy. The problem, said his early detractors, was that he carried himself like nobility. Indeed, he opened his first staff meeting at the Met with a lecture on the correct pronunciation of his name. "It's French, not Italian," he emphasized. De Montebello, not dl Montebello. Turns out Napoleon Bonaparte awarded his family its title in 1808.

But these days the naysayers are few and far between. In fact, with one swift stroke de Montebello has stunned his critics into silence and emerged from Hoving's sizable shadow by organizing the first large-scale exhibition of papal art ever allowed to leave the confines of the Vatican.

Just as singular as the show's being staged at all is the quality of the art. "In every instance," de Montebello has said, "it is the crest." The exhibition contains priceless works by Leonardo, Giotto, Raphael, Bernini and Caravaggio. There are 237 pieces in all, perhaps the most celebrated being the Apollo Belvedere—a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture. The show will run 12 months, tour Chicago and San Francisco, and at a cost of $8 million is the most expensive art exhibition ever mounted in the U.S. (see page 25).

How did the 46-year-old de Montebello bring it off? A combination of superb timing, impeccable connections and just plain chutzpah. He conceived the exhibition in 1979, inspired by the travels of Pope John Paul II. De Montebello felt that "if the Pope himself can travel maybe, just maybe..."

New York Archbishop Terence Cardinal Cooke, a trustee of the Met, was the first to hear the idea, and Cardinal Cooke advised him to write a letter outlining his plans. De Montebello did so and the Cardinal rejected it as "too strictly" art historical. The second draft had an appropriately spiritual tone, stressing the "value of art in uplifting the human soul." It was this letter which Cardinal Cooke delivered to Pope John Paul II.

Then the shuttle diplomacy began. De Montebello made six trips to the Vatican. The breakthrough in negotiations came when de Montebello's bad back began to act up at one of the critical sessions. Suddenly he got up from the bargaining table, lay down flat on the floor, and brought his knees to his chest to relieve the pain. "There was absolute consternation in the room," he recalls, a glint of delight in his blue eyes. A Vatican official asked if there was anything he could do to help. De Montebello calmly replied, "I want the Apollo Belvedere." The answer was yes, de Montebello says. "How could they say no?"

De Montebello's artistic bent comes naturally—his mother was a concert pianist and his father, a scientist, is also a noted painter. The family left Paris and settled in New York when Philippe was 15. While studying at Harvard, he met his wife, the former Edith Bradford Myles. Explaining what some people see as her husband's hauteur, Edith says, "There is a reserve which I gather from his family has always been part of him. But at the same time he has this wonderful sense of humor. I think some people don't know how to deal with that combination." In her own way, she's every bit as blue-blooded as he: Her family roots reach back to the Mayflower, and her great-grandfather and her uncle were both justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

De Montebello's first job at the Met was as a $5,000 curatorial assistant. After four and a half years as director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, he returned to New York in 1974 to become Thomas Hoving's second-in-command.

Whatever de Montebello's early problems at the Met, they now seem largely solved. He has just returned from India after arranging a major exhibition scheduled for 1985. "Philippe has met the challenge of his position well," says Douglas Dillon, chairman of the museum's board of trustees. "He gives the promise of becoming one of America's truly great museum directors."

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