Rome in the Renaissance

Renaissance symbolizes a rebirth. 

A thousand years after Rome fell, the Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient Greece and Rome’s classical values.

The new Renaissance Man was the shaper of his future and no longer a toy of the supernatural. Life became much more than a preparation for the hereafter.

Of all the Italian cities, Florence became the cradle of the Modern World. From around 1400 to 1600, the Florentines produced something unprecedented. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the middle ages, the city remained a bustling trade center on the Arno River. Florentines from merchants of wool and clothes became bankers who loaned money to nobles and popes. 

The Florentine florin became the monetary standards of Europe and Florence rose.

The Renaissance Generation

Sometimes I think about the people living during the Renaissance.

In 1500 Michelangelo was 25 years old, just a few years older than the young monk in Germany named Martin Luther, who would start the Protestant Reformation. 

In England, you had Henry VIII, in Holland, the humanist writer Erasmus. Christopher Columbus discovered a distant world named after a man from Florence – Amerigo Vespucci.

Many of these famous people hung out together. Michelangelo battled fellow Florentine Leonardo da Vinci in a painting competition. Leonardo spent time with the writer Niccolò Macchiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with political maneuvering. Machiavelli was an advisor to Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo’s son became Pope Leo X, who hired the painter Raphael. Raphael exchanged masterpieces with Albrecht Durer in Germany. Durer was personally converted to Protestantism by Martin Luther, who was excommunicated by Leo X, who had gone to school with Michelangelo. 

There were 100 million people in Europe back then, but it was a small world.

The Renaissance in Rome

Florence saw the first blooming of the Renaissance. 

But when the cultural climate turned cold there, and the Pope in Rome decided to beautify his city, artists headed south. The Renaissance shifted to Rome.

The years in Avignon (1308-77) and the Great Schism that followed it were eventually ended with Martin V’s election.

When Martin arrived in Rome in 1420, he found it decaying and abandoned. Houses had fallen into ruins, churches had collapsed, and whole quarters were abandoned.

During the Quattrocento, the Holy City of Rome had been a dirty, crime-infested place, unfit for the hordes of pilgrims that visited each year. 

The once-glorious Forum was a cow pasture. 

The Pope transformed the abandoned and fragmented place into a showpiece of Renaissance and Baroque art.

Papal Rome had two centers. 

St John in Lateran remained the ancient seat of the papacy. This basilica was the cathedral of Rome, but it had no link to the foundations of Christianity. 

Instead, the Vatican hill was where pilgrims flocked to pray at the shrine over the supposed burial place of St Peter. 

The city’s core remained the Borgo, St Peter’s immediate neighborhood, and the warren of medieval streets covering the former Campus Martius. 

Nicholas V (1447–55) decided to move to the Vatican. He increased the direct relationship of the papacy with St Peter’s. 

Sixtus IV

Rome celebrated each Pope’s election with a grand procession. It started from the Vatican across the Capitoline hill and down past the Colosseum to the Lateran.

The 15th-century popes aimed to create a city that reflected the spiritual and temporal power of the papacy as well as being accessible to the mass of pilgrims. 

The Holy Year of 1450 showed just how inadequate the city was for large crowds. Some 200 pilgrims drowned after a panic on the narrow bridge Ponte Sant’Angelo. 

To relieve the river crossing pressure, Sixtus IV (1471-84) constructed the first bridge since antiquity, the Ponte Sisto (1475), together with a new street, the Via Lungara, connecting it with the Vatican.

Sixtus was compared to Augustus for his quantity of building projects. 

The grand façade of his Santa Maria del Popolo greeted pilgrims as they entered through the Porta del Popolo and saw the First Church in Rome with a dome. Brunelleschi’s elegant dome for Florence cathedral had been completed a few years before.

Sixtus built the Sistine Chapel for his private use and the papal elections, which are still held there. 

Near to the Vatican, he rebuilt Innocent III’s decaying Ospedale di Santo Spirito, transforming it into one of the largest hospital complexes of its day. 

Sixtus also moved a collection of ancient bronzes accumulated around the Lateran Palace to the Capitol, where they formed the Capitoline Museums’ core

Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his decision to allow clergy to pass on any palaces they had built for themselves to their families, even if they had used Church money to make them.

These projects were possible because of the vast wealth of the papacy. They enjoyed the fruits of their territory, which stretched across central Italy, in addition to an enormous income from indulgences, from taxes on foreign churches, from special collections, and the sale of offices. 

The Spanish Inquisition under Sixtus IV

After years of Muslim rule, Christian Spain had a large Jewish and Muslim population. 

Many of these people had converted to Christianity (they weren’t given much choice), but many churchmen suspected that they continued to practice their old religion privately. 

The Queen of Spain, Isabella, invited Pope Sixtus IV to set up an inquisition in Spain to find out exactly what was going on. 

The Spanish Inquisition, under its ruthless Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, didn’t have to bother with bishops as it reported directly to the Crown. 

The Spanish Inquisition did use torture but found that close questioning got better results. 

Those people found guilty of slipping back into their Jewish or Muslim ways were paraded in the streets and made to wear tall paper hats with slogans or pictures on them, rather like those poor people ritually humiliated in communist China. 

Then, the guilty were burned at stake. Without a shred of irony, the whole ceremony was called an auto da fe, an act of faith.

The worldliness of the Popes

Some popes spent money on the city’s glorification.  

Some popes like the Alexander VI Borgia, who had six illegitimate sons and a much-loved daughter, Lucrezia, spent it on their families.

The Borgias were a Spanish family. 

In 1492 Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. Most of his time and energy went on stealing as much money as possible and making a serious attempt at a record for the most significant number of illegitimate children fathered by a pope.

Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia, worked her way through a sequence of political marriages. She had at least one of her husband murdered and ran Rome while her father was away. 

Lucrezia’s brother, Juan, married a Spanish princess and became duke twice. Sadly, Juan’s brother Cesare had him murdered – obviously a bad case of sibling competition.

Alexander was so shocked by the murder of his son that he nearly decided to give up being a pope and become a humble priest. Still, he got over his distress and chose to remain as Pope. 

To show that he bore no hard feeling, Alexander made Cesare a cardinal and set about conquering the whole of central Italy for him. 

“Conquering” meant having leading Romans murdered and then confiscating their land.

In 1503, Alexander and Cesare went to a farewell supper for a cardinal, intending to poison him. Unfortunately, a mix-up occurred at the table, and Alexander and Cesare got the cardinal’s food by mistake. Cesare survived. Alexander didn’t.

The nepotism of the popes

At the opposite extreme, the Venetian envoy complained of the austere Paul IV (1555-9): 

‘Life at court is mean. The clergy have withdrawn from every sort of pleasures the state of things has been the ruin of artisans and merchants’,

a Venetian envoy

a reminder that even though more spiritual Christians may have been shocked by papal excess, it did bring employment.

Judging from the anonymous notes left on the Talking Statue called Pasquino, most of the population showed a good deal of cynicism about their clerical masters. 

“We have done the Carafa, the Medici and the Farnese families,” lamented one comedian on the Borghese Pope Paul V’s accession in 1605, “now we have to enrich the Borghese.”

The Pope had also to show theological and political skills if he was to keep peace in the Church and keep his position among the earthly rulers of Europe. 

A changing world

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and continued Ottoman expansion into central Europe, provided another challenge. 

In 1494 the larger political context within which the papacy operated was transformed when the rising nations of Spain and France began casting their eyes on the weak and widespread Italian city-states. 

In that year, the French king Charles VIII marched down through Italy to claim Naples’ Kingdom. 

He forced his way into the center of Rome while Alexander VI cowered in Castel Sant’Angelo

Julius II

After this humiliation, it was little surprise that Alexander’s successor, Julius II (1503-13), founded his army. 

The Pope guided the brand new Swiss Guard into northern Italy, which crushed Venice and France and even extended the Papal States.

Julius, born Giuliano Della Rovere and nephew of Sixtus IV, was the “papa terrible,” fierce and uncompromising. 

Against the strong opposition of traditionalists, he announced he would tear down and rebuild St Peter. 

His architect was Donato Bramante, who had already led the Renaissance to Rome with his charming Tempietto. 

Michelangelo was engaged for a splendid tomb for Julius and the repainting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Raphael worked in the papal apartments. 

This was an exceptional moment for the history of European art. 

Never before had artists been asked to do so much. Neither were they w given so much money and freedom with which to do it. 

During the Middle Ages, artists were nameless artisans who cranked out generic art that could have been signed with a bar code.

During the Renaissance, the artists could almost dictate their terms and create what they wanted.

Artists of the Renaissance deserved the respect they got. To create realistic paintings and statues, they blended art and science. They studied anatomy like doctors, nature like biologists, and the laws of perspective like mathematicians. 

They were well-rounded Renaissance men. 

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Rafaello were revered as geniuses. 

The Renaissance Art

Everybody of us remembers the beautiful statue of the priest Laocoön and his sons being dragged under by a sea serpent. All twists and turns and agonized biceps!

The unearthing of this famous statue in Rome in 1506 ignited a passion for ancient sculptures. Soon, sites were being quarried. 

What excited Renaissance artists about classical art was how it managed to reproduce the human body’s beauty in 3-D. This sculpture made all those static kings and angels in medieval cathedrals look very dull.

Medieval artists wanted to go beyond the individual into the timeless nature of being, so medieval paintings and sculptures tend to show people with the same faces and poses. 

Renaissance artists were derisive of medieval art. They wanted to recreate creation itself.

The first statue that created excitement was Donatello’s statue of David, holding Goliath’s sword and completely naked apart from a large hat. 

David was a sort of Florentine patron saint. A brave little boy was standing up to the big guy and winning—the perfect mascot for a small Italian state surrounded by more powerful enemies.

Donatello was using the image of the boy David to show the perfection of the human body. 

However, Donatello’s pure motive didn’t stop people from seeing David as a rude statue. Should they drape a coat over him, at least when they have visitors?

Michelangelo’s David showed a much more fully developed David in his full anatomical glory. 

The Italian Renaissance Conquers Europe

By 1500, the enthusiasm and humanism of Italy were spreading all over the Continent. 

Europe’s kings and dukes imported Italian artists to build palaces and paint their portraits. Bishops wanted to build new churches. Cities enjoyed monuments and fountains.

Polish kings renewed their royal palace with an Italian Renaissance flair. Believe it or not, French kings built Renaissance Châteaux of the Loire. Even the Russian tsar imported Italian expertise to remodel Moscow’s Kremlin in the new style.

And all of them wanted Italians.

The warm spirit of the Italian Renaissance blew north toward the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

The Sack of Rome: the day Renaissance ended

The Renaissance produced so many timeless masterpieces that it’s easy to overlook the significant changes happening around Europe.

While Italian culture was triumphantly spreading across Europe, Italy itself was in severe decline. 

Italy’s bankers (such as the Medici in Florence) were bouncing checks.

Italy’s popes had harems of mistresses. 

Her once-great maritime cities were declining.

A weakened Italy was ready for the party. 

France and Spain invaded and ruled vast chunks of the land. 

The papacy’s worldliness finally faced Martin Luther’s objection.

Not over art or luxury but the sale of indulgences. 

Leo X excommunicated the rebel monk in 1521. Still, papal control over medieval Christendom began to fragment as the Reformation caught hold. 

Pope Clement VII (1523-34), from the powerful Florentine Medici family, foolishly became entangled in politics to make things worse. 

His French backing against Emperor Charles V led to Charles sending his troops towards Rome after families such as the Colonna offered him active support. 

Lutherans band joined Charles’s troops, excited to wreak revenge on the anti-Christ, as his enemies now titled the Pope.

Out of the control of their commanders, they stormed into the city in May 1527. 

While Clement took refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo and then had to flee north, the troops ransacked the city. 

Even the sick of the Ospedale di Santo Spirito were slaughtered. One estimate suggests the soldiers took 12,000 lives. The invaders’ commanders only saved the Vatican palace protecting it against his men. 

When Clement, who was blamed for the disaster, finally made his way back, four-fifths of the city was considered unlivable. Trade was at a standstill, and there were still unburied bodies among the streets. 

‘Rome is finished’

Anonimous observer

Michelangelo returned to the city to complete the Sistine Chapel. Even the pessimism of his Last Judgement provided a strong contrast with the energy and vitality of the ceiling he had painted in happier times.

Yet amazingly, Rome was to revive. 

Clement’s successor was the Farnese Paul III (1534-49). He was determined to restore some grandeur in the city, not least in the Palazzo Farnese. He ordered to enlarged it as befitted his family’s new status. 

While Alexander VI and Clement VII had used the Castel Sant’Angelo as a refuge, Paul called new comfortable apartments to be installed there for everyday use. 

In the frescoes with which they were decorated, he wanted to link himself to Alexander the Great. Bizarrely this was a reminder of just how intricate were the interactions between Renaissance and Christian present and Classical past. 

There was a real sense of reconnection of Rome with its ancient roots. 

Alarming news came that Charles V was on his way to Rome from the south (he had been fighting the Turks in Tunisia).

But Paul turned the situation to his advantage by laying on an imperial triumph. 

A route was cut through the city, which echoed that of ancient times. 

The emperor entered along the Via Appia, passed the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla (from which Paul was busily looting statuary for his palace), and then processed through three triumphal arches: 

  1. The Arch of Constantine
  2. The Arch of Titus
  3. The Arch of Septimius Severus

Homage was paid to Trajan’s Column before the imperial procession reached for the Vatican, where Charles dutifully kissed the papal foot. 

Some amendments had been made for the events of 1527.

But for the next two centuries, Italy ceased to be a significant player in Europe. Meanwhile, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Holland, nation-states under the strict central rule, set sail for the future.

In Germany, a form of Protest was rising.

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