How the Reformation changed Rome forever

In the early 1500s, thanks to Renaissance ideas, Europe was entering the modern age. 

Before the Renaissance, the Christian Church was Europe’s wealthiest, most influential, and best-organized institution and its most significant landowner. 

But as the church’s worldliness led to corruption, a reforming spirit grew. Europe became divided between Protestants and Catholics. Because religion and politics were intertwined, the religious split led to political explosion and war. These violent 100-plus years of reform, division, and warfare are called the Reformation.

The Causes of the Reformation 

The Church certainly needed reform.

Many priests were illiterate and corrupt. Bishops ruled like small-minded despots. The clergy even sold important Church offices to the highest bidder. The celebration of the mass was in Latin, a language spoken only by the educated elite. The church had also lost touch with its roots, showing not a suggestion of the early Christians’ humble poverty.

The Pope had lost influence among both kings and civilians. During their medieval bloom, popes could make or break kings. But after the popes moved to Avignon(1309–1377), they were seen as servants of the French king, and their international influence suffered. 

And the world was changing. Science, capitalism, overseas exploration, and Renaissance ideas from Italy brought a new vision. After Nicholas Copernicus (in 1543) and Galileo Galilei (in 1632) disproved the church’s traditional explanation of the earth-centered universe, nothing was accepted blindly. Gutenberg’s printing press played a crucial role. Reformers risked death to print local-language versions of one especially radical book: the Bible.

Kings jumped on the Reformation bandwagon out of political greed. They saw the church as a rival power within their borders. The Church was Europe’s largest landowner. Tithes sent to Rome were lost taxes. The clergy was exempt from paying taxes and could ignore secular laws. Many kings wanted not only to reform the church but to break with it for good. 

Martin Luther

The charismatic monk from Germany, Martin Luther (1483–1546), sparked a century of European wars by speaking out against Rome’s Church.

In early adulthood, the newly ordained priest suffered a severe personal crisis of faith before finally emerging “born again.” He moved to the town of Wittenberg. The benches were packed as Luther gave engaging sermons, quoting directly from the Bible. It became clear to everyone that there were discrepancies between the Scriptures and Church practices.

At that time, a friar arrived in Wittenberg to raise money for the church. The fundraising ambition was to pay for the city of Rome’s Renaissance face-lift. Michelangelo and Raphael didn’t come cheap.

The friar was selling “indulgences,” which were letters from the Pope promising forgiveness for all the sins, transgressions, and excesses.

You could even buy an indulgence for a dead relative.

Luther was outraged. 

At first, he tried to reform Church abuses from within, not create a new church. 

He believed that the word of God lay not in the doctrine of the Church but the Bible. And the Bible said nothing about buying forgiveness. Only that God’s grace was a gift to believers.

Luther proposed that the subject should be debated openly. On October 31, 1517, Luther approached Wittenberg’s Castle Church. He nailed 95 “theses”-or topics for discussion—to the door. Luther’s positions, mass-produced by the new printing presses, quickly became a hot topic.

Not interested in answering, Pope Leo X called Luther a heretic and sent him a papal bull of ex-communication. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V stepped in to arbitrate, calling an Imperial Diet (or congress) at Worms’ town in 1521. 

Disgusted by this Diet of Worms, Luther refused to swallow his beliefs. Now a criminal as well as a heretic, Luther lived on the run as an outlaw. He was protected by sympathetic German princes who saw this as a chance to grab power from the church. Luther’s ideas spread like a gasoline fire. 

Peasants felt empowered by Luther. Scholars welcomed the free movement of ideas. Local princes embraced the opportunity to confiscate Church lands and establish their state churches. 

All of Europe was splitting into two camps: “Catholic” (meaning “universal,” which the Church in Rome claimed to be) and “Protestant” (not from “protest” but from one who “professes” certain beliefs).

The Reformation raged across Europe. The Pope started to lose all his power.

The Counter-Reformation

The Vatican responded to the Protestant revolution with the Counter-Reformation, which attempted to put the universal Catholic Church back together using a carrot-and-stick approach. 

On the one hand, the church worked diligently to weed out corruption from within, reach out to alienated members, do missionary work, and inspire the faithful with beautiful Church art. 

On the other hand, the church resorted to propaganda, intimidation, and outright force-doled out by the dreaded Inquisition.

The church invited Catholics from all over to the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a series of conferences that addressed Protestant concerns, defined Church doctrine and encouraged more careful training and clergy supervision. 

Defending the Council’s decisions was a dedicated group of believers known as the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. These “soldiers of God” fought heretic ideas with words and razor-sharp minds. 

Many went abroad as missionaries to newly discovered lands, dedicated to educating the natives. 

At the same time, the Catholic Church was losing members in Europe, and it was gaining recruits in the Americas. Thanks mainly to zealous Jesuits, Catholicism became a genuinely worldwide religion.

Counter-Reformation in Rome

In Rome, Paul III consolidated papal control over rebels by setting up the Inquisition and founding the Society of Jesus (1540). Under the rigorous Ignatius Loyola, Paul created an intellectual battering ram for the church. The new and great Jesuit church of the Gesù (1568-75), rich in decoration, shows how the uncontrollable emotional impact was central to the Counter-Reformation fightback. The Council of Trent went so far as to insist that religious art should play on the believer’s emotions.

The most obsessive of the Counter-Reformation popes was the austere Paul IV (1555-9). Conservative and impetuous, he made a disastrous alliance with France against Spain, which led to papal troops’ defeat. It was only a great peace that preserved the Papal States. He set up the Index of Prohibited Books. His own family, boldly abused by nepotism. Rome’s citizens liked money to be spent on them and their city rather than on the worthless hangers-on of the papal family of the day. They showed their true feelings at Paul’s death by sacking the Inquisition buildings and releasing their prisoners. Paul’s successor, Pius IV (1559-65), took note and began spending on the city again.

Renaissance Rome was brought to fruition by five years of intense activity by Sixtus V (1585-90). Sixtus, who had spent his early years as a swineherd, looked so sick at the papal conclave that he won election as a temporary pope. Once elected, he emerged with a will of iron and a fixed plan to transform Rome, especially by supporting settlement in the city’s sparsely populated east. It was his idea of re-erecting the Egyptian obelisks, most of which had been brought to Rome by Augustus sixteen hundred years before. He used them as focal points in the city, especially to help pilgrims find their way around the streets. 

Sixtus’ favorite Church was Santa Maria Maggiore. It acted as a hub for a new set of broad radiating streets. They were well received because coaches were coming into fashion and needed space to move. More welcome to citizens’ mass must have been Sixtus’ restoration of a 3rd-century CE aqueduct (known as the Acqua Felice after Sixtus Christian name). It now supplied freshwater to 27 fountains in the city.

By the time Sixtus died in 1590, the scholar Pompeo Ugonio had written that Rome is 

“permeated with the light of peace, augmented with wider streets, adorned with buildings, refreshed by fountains, implanted with massive obelisks reaching to the highest heavens. Wheresoever Rome turns, she sees herself restored to a new golden age abounding with justice, fortitude, vigilance, liberality, magnificence.”

Pompeo Ugonio

This was certainly an overstatement. Behind the façade of glamour, Rome, now with a population of 110,000, was still a city of total contrast and boiling turbulence. Sixtus had launched campaigns against the mass of prostitutes and beggars who thronged the streets; in 1604, starvation led to rioting against the unpopular Aldobrandini pope Clement VIII (1592-1605). Old tensions between the French and Spanish communities were another focus of conflict. It seems a fitting backdrop to the painter Caravaggio’s turbulent life, who arrived in the city for the first time in 1592. 

Yet, the trouble below the surface was efficiently hidden by a new building outbreak about transforming central Rome into the city we recognize today.

100 Years of War

In total, the religious wars lasted for more than 100 years (1527– 1648). When they finally ended, Europe was devastated. A third of Germany was dead, and Western civilization realized what it should have known from the start: Catholics and Protestants would have to live together.

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) decreed that each country’s leader would decide his people’s religion. Generally, the countries of the north went Protestant. The southern ones — Spain, Portugal, Italy, and southern Germany – remained loyal to Rome. The line dividing Protestant from Catholic Europe was (and remains) almost the same line that separated barbarian Europe from Roman Europe.

The Art of the Counter-Reformation

The Reformation split Europe into two subcultures, Protestants and Catholics, with their two distinct art styles.

Protestants took the Bible’s warning against worshipping “graven images” as false idols very seriously. They stripped their churches of Catholic statues of saints and the Virgin Mary. Protestant churches are often relatively bare inside, without the ornate art that fills Catholic churches. Protestant services are more straightforward as well—they lack the fancy robes, icons, incense, and processions of the mass. But Protestants didn’t hold back when it came to music. They loved significant organs and orchestras. Choirmasters, composers, and organists (such as J. S. Bach, 1685-1750, who did it all) enjoyed a new, loftier status.

Protestant artists had to manage without the rich and powerful Catholic Church’s patronage. Religious art fell out of favor, and Protestant art is entirely different from the flashy art that fills churches and palaces of the Catholic world. Protestant artists painted a few Madonnas, saints, and angels dancing in heaven; their subjects were more likely to be milkmaids, merchants, and farmers working the earth. Painters used more subdued colors and smaller canvases. Sculptors stuck to less-flamboyant poses. 

On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation’s Catholic art was overpowering, designed to inspire the masses. Churches were plastered, spackled, painted, and drenched in gold, offering a glimpse of the heaven that awaited those who remained faithful.

Catholic artists favored the Baroque style, using art as propaganda in the battle for Europe’s Christians’ hearts and minds. Pretty pictures brought abstract doctrines to the level of the common man. The Virgin Mary was depicted as a pristine, pink-cheeked young woman—the -the very image of an “Immaculate” Conception. And at the other end of the carrot-and-stick, worshippers saw images of serpents with the face of Luther and heretics dangling literally by a rosary above the fires of hell.

The Architecture of the Counter-Reformation

In addition to flashy, elaborate artwork, Counter-Reformation-era Catholics built huge and imposing buildings intended to impress and humble visitors. 

St. Peter’s Basilica is the most significant church in Christendom. It represents the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter, this is where the importance of ancient Rome became the importance of Christianity.

By 1506, the original old St. Peter’s Church was falling apart, and the new, larger church we see today was begun. Several architects worked on the church during its 120 years of construction. Although it started during the Renaissance, St. Peter’s was a symbol of Baroque grandeur, ornamentation, and Counter-Reformation propaganda by the time it was completed.

Entering the church, you’re greeted with one of Europe’s “wow” experiences. It’s huge. The atrium itself is more significant than most churches. The altar stands two football fields away. The church covers six acres. Statues of babies that decorate the pillars are adult-size. The church can hold 60,000 standing worshippers.

The interior was decorated mainly by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the Baroque era’s Michelangelo. It’s a riot of corkscrew columns, striking statues, golden mosaic, striped marble, chapels, altarpieces, stained glass, and shrines. Bernini’s crowning touch was the seven-story bronze canopy that arches over the main altar.

Catholics of the Counter-Reformation era strolled through here as if they were in heaven itself.

The Reformation and religious wars had split Europe into two camps: the Protestant north and the Catholic south, with their respective art styles. The future belonged to a power that bridged north and south, democracy and monarchy. That nation was France.

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