With Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the White House, protocol demands an exchange of gifts between the Pontiff and the President. This made me recall an earlier, odd presidential gift I had seen in the Vatican Museum. The year was 1969, the president was Richard Nixon (visiting Vatican City), the pope was Paul VI, the gift a porcelain figurine of a daffodil and a robin, with a tiny snail at the robin’s feet. You can see it here on the right.
If you’ve visited the Vatican Museum, you’ve probably walked right by it. It’s in the hall of maps, which is really the exit out of the museum after you’ve seen the Sistine Chapel (and likely hankering for some gelato). Missing it is understandable, as it’s in a display case located unobtrusively beneath a window.
A closer inspection of the photo also reveals a little Vatican flag mounted on a wooden plaque that includes a tiny moon rock. That flag was one of the objects taken to the moon (back when our nation did such things).
Naturally, after seeing the Sistine Chapel, and the countless other artworks of the Vatican, my encounter with the robin/daffodil/snail was puzzling. Displaying the flag that had been to the moon and back plus the moon rock bit was understandable, but the figurine? Surely the Vatican has warehouses full of such gifts, including President Jerry Ford’s 1975 gift of a bald eagle figurine to Pope Paul VI.
Perhaps a curator in the Vatican Museum has a sense of humor?
Turning to the robin figurine itself, as someone who’s worked both as a Hill staffer and in the White House complex, I wonder who chose this particular item as a worthy papal gift. Was it First Lady Pat Nixon? Daughters Julie and/or Tricia? A State Department flunkey? Or Bebe Rebozo?
President Nixon’s archives might hold the key to this mystery, but I suspect we will never know.
If you’re a conspiracy theorist, here’s a couple of things you should be aware of. First, the base of the figurine does not contain the missing 18 ½ minutes of Nixon’s tapes. The gap occurred in 1972 or 1973; the figurine had been in the Vatican for several years by then.
Incidentally, Boehm also produced President Ford’s eagle gift – it appears for a while Boehm was the go-to choice for official gifts. The company continues to produce its figurines in New Jersey – and harkens back to the days when the saying “Trenton Makes the World Takes” was true.
What will President Obama give Pope Francis? Last year, when the President visited Vatican City, he gave the Pope a seed chest. The chest was made from reclaimed leather and wood from the first Catholic cathedral in the United States and contained seeds from the White House garden. I doubt the President will give a figurine of a robin with a daffodil and a snail – the Vatican’s got one of those already. Ditto for the eagle figurine.
Considering the President’s roots in the 50th state, he might present the Pontiff with a special Hawaiian shirt – in the Vatican’s colors of yellow and white. Why not? Even a pope needs to relax sometimes. Aloha Pope Francis!