Back in the 1940s, Donald Duck, quoted in a GI instructional manual, declared “Propaganda” revolved around ideas of communications control. These notions were put forth by master media manipulator (the Karl Rove of his day) Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment: “I think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play” and “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
The precepts of modern propaganda date back to the early 20th century, when the “public mind” was scrutinized by democratic institutions. Edward Bernays, the father of American public relations (and nephew of Sigmund Freud), wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
But propaganda is even more deeply embedded in Western church culture. It begins with the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, a religious order established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 (later renamed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II). The purpose was to spread Catholicism and its values by missionaries the world over.
There is now a museum dedicated to it on its own street in Rome. The Museo Missionario di Propaganda Fide, a new institution documents four centuries of the Catholic Church’s missionary work and resides in a portion of the 17th-century, Baroque Palazzo di Propaganda Fide. It was designed by Francesco Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini and sits only a few hundred yards from the Spanish steps.
For those who follow milestones of propaganda, visiting the source of the word, if not the deed, may be sobering.
The Museo Missionario (Via di Propaganda 1C; 39-06-698-80266; www.museopropagandafide.it) narrates the history of Roman Catholic missions through documents, photographs, sculptures and models. The collection draws from the art cache and archives of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, a religious order established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622; it was later renamed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II. The Palazzo served as the headquarters of the Congregation, the purpose of which was to spread Catholicism and to protect missionaries from persecution.
One of the museum’s highlights is the intricately carved wooden library designed by Bernini for Pope Urban VIII, whose signature bumble bee symbol embellishes the painted coffered ceiling. Further on, visitors can peer down into Borromini’s magnificent Chapel of the Magi through the second floor galleries. The chapel’s subject, the wanderings of the three wise men and their epiphany, is an allegory for converts to Catholicism who find salvation through Christ. Visitors can enter the chapel on the ground level of the palace following a trip through the museum.