Avatar photo

Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

21st April 2015

Britain and the Vatican Art Collection

Entrance, Pavilion of the Holy See at 2013 Venice Biennial. Image: Pontifical Council for Culture, all rights reserved

The Holy See’s decision to take part in the Venice Biennale, after its inaugural participation in 2013, reminds us of the extraordinary role played by the Popes in the history and production of art.

For much of its history, the Holy See was an undoubted centre of connoisseurship, patronage and artistic endeavour. It is impossible for example, to think of the great artists and architects of the 16th and 17th centuries – Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Bernini, Caravaggio – without considering the milieu of Church connoisseurship and patronage in which they flourished. Millions of people flock to Rome each year to see their masterpieces, many still in the palaces and churches for which they were made. The Vatican’s artistic collections, put together over centuries, are unrivalled, and British museums regularly apply to the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Library and the Vatican Secret Archive to borrow artistic treasures as key elements in temporary exhibitions.

Many of the treasures now in the Vatican were almost lost, and it was in large part thanks to the United Kingdom that they are in Rome to be enjoyed today. At the Treaty of Tolentino, signed in 1797 under duress by Pope Pius VI, Napoleon appropriated hundreds of works of art as a form of protection money against invasion of the Papal States. The invasion happened anyway not long afterwards, and it was not until 1815 that the Holy See was in a position to seek the restoration of its collections. Cardinal Consalvi, Pope Pius VII’s right hand man, received a sympathetic hearing in London, and the British government and the Royal Navy assisted in transporting the most famous Vatican art treasures back to Rome.

Consalvi had been the first Cardinal to visit London since the reign of Queen Mary in the 16th century, and his portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, alongside that of Pius VII, now hangs in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. It’s a reminder that even before the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1914, Britain and the Holy See maintained close contact. The many British visitors to the Holy See pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the Vatican Museums this summer will be following in a great tradition of artistic exchange, scholarship and patronage that continues to this day.

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

Follow Nigel