A Mao painting in the Vatican

The story of a peculiar incident of mistaken identity.

The painting-turned-poster Mao goes to Anyuan "became perhaps the most important painting of the Cultural Revolution period." From Chinese Posters
The painting-turned-poster ‘Mao goes to Anyuan’. From Chinese Posters

The New York Times reported on a odd case of mistaken identity: Vatican officials had, in November that year, hung a painting of a man in a tunic who looked like a priest “a few yards from a portrait of John Paul VI in the Vatican’s press room.” However, someone had noticed that the painting was a copy of one of the most important propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution: Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (pictured above).

After the case of mistaken identity went public, Fausto Vallaine, the Vatican press secretary at the time, told reporters, “What can I say? The painting was sent to us as a gift. We hung it up. That’s all.” The Vatican said that the painting would not be taken down, as you can see from the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper article from December 24 pictured above. But about a week later, the painting was removed.

It’s not clear how the painting ended up at the communications office of the Catholic Church. Many newspapers at the time reported that the painter was Luigi Carnevali, an 86-year-old resident of Rome. According to The New York Times, Carnevali’s son, Lanfranco, said he had no explanation for how his father’s painting had gotten to the Vatican. He said that he had loaned it to a friend, whom he did not identify, and that he had been “trying to reach him for an explanation.” The elder Carnevali himself was not available for comment, apparently sick in bed “with influenza.”


Eugene Register Guard: Painting of Mao stays in Vatican
New York Times: Picture of priest in Vatican is Mao (paywall)