Renaissance Art in Rome Under the Popes
Rome and the Pope
During the Dark Ages (c.500-1100), Europe stagnated and the Western Pope in Rome was overshadowed by his Eastern Byzantine counterpart in Constantinople. Even when Europe began to recover from about 800 onwards, the Western Papacy was heavily dependent upon the secular power of the French Emperor Charlemagne and later the Emperors in Germany. It wasn't until an ecumenical council elected Pope Martin V pontiff in 1417, in the early years of the Renaissance, that he and subsequent popes were able to turn their attention towards regaining and fortifying the papal prestige of Rome.
At this point (1417), the pope was not only the spiritual but also the temporal ruler of millions, and this dual authority was to result in many conflicts as the fifteenth century wore on. The pope was not only the steward of the Roman Church, but the ruler of numerous territories as well. Bologna, Perugia, Urbino, Ferrara, and Siena are but a few of the Italian cities that fell under papal jurisdiction. Some were governed in the pope's name by archbishops, some by the local nobility, and not a few by the current pope's relatives.
The flowering of Renaissance art in Florence during the 15th century (quattrocento) was a matter of concern and envy to many other Italian cities, especially Rome. The Florentine leadership of the early Renaissance lent the city an indisputable aura of authority. As the century wore on, it became clear to Martin and his successors that one way to re-establish the prestige of the papacy, was to make Rome the new centre of the Renaissance by beautifying it with great architecture, sculpture and painting. This is exactly what they did.
The building was originally conceived to house official religious conclaves and as a place of refuge for the pope. In our century, the Sistine Chapel recently witnessed a historic meeting between Pope Paul and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In addition to the frescoes by Perugino, the chapel contains works by the most significant fifteenth-century Florentine painters, including Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Luca Signorelli (1450-1523), and Botticelli (1445-1510).
Artistic activity in Rome increased significantly
during the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-84). His patronage of Christian
art attracted not only painters, sculptors, and architects, but many
poets and classical scholars, as well. Determined to make the city a cultural
and artistic showplace that would rival Lorenzo de' Medici's Florence,
Sixtus encouraged artists like the Florentine Melozzo da Forli to leave
their native city and work in the churches of Rome. In one of the many
works Melozzo produced in Rome, "The Founding of the Vatican Library
by Sixtus IV", he celebrated a major achievement of Sixtus' patronage.
Pope Julius II
Unlike many of his predecessors Julius seldom spread the fortune and prestige of the Papacy among the members of his family; what he acquired he proudly and grandly gave to the Church. His character, even more strikingly than that of Sixtus, combined the seemingly opposite characteristics of brutality and refinement. His wars and intrigues were counterbalanced by his cultivation of learning and his founding of the Vatican Museums. Julius was another model of the well-rounded Renaissance man, a figure at home both on horseback and seated in a book-lined study. More than any other pope, he was responsible for the restoration of Rome to her ancient splendor and prestige. He had a master plan to unify the Italian peninsula and to make Rome not only the political center of Italy, but of all Europe. In his time, this was not an idle dream, for the European continent was still united by a single religious faith, and the multinational character of the "universal Church" made the pope a logical candidate for political leadership.
In working to make Rome the cultural capital
of the world, Julius demanded and received the dedicated assistance of
the most gifted artists and architects of his day. One by one, they journeyed
from distant Italian cities to Rome. Raphael - probably the greatest exponent
of High Renaissance painting
- came to decorate the papal apartments in the Vatican with frescoes celebrating
the theological and humanistic interests of the Pope. (See Raphael
Rooms: Vatican). Michelangelo was the unwilling guest of Julius while
he spent four years of agonizing labor creating the Genesis
fresco (featuring the iconic image The Creation
of Adam) - part of the majestic Sistine
Chapel frescoes - and working on a grandiose marble tomb to ensure
the Pope's memory. Donato
Bramante (c.1444-1514), the leading architect of the day, was called
from Milan to create a plan for the rebuilding of the crumbling old basilica
of St. Peter's, which had stood since early Christian times. See: Renaissance
Only thirty-seven years old when he became Christ's vicar, Leo X is said to have remarked about his election, "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." This he certainly did in the eight active years of his reign (1513-21). Julius II had set high standards for the patronage of the arts, but the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent was not to be over-shadowed. He supported poets, philosophers, classical scholars, and musicians.
Carrying on the family tradition inaugurated by his great-grand-father Cosimo, and the papal tradition set by Sixtus IV, Leo sent scholars all over the world to buy and borrow ancient manuscripts for the growing Vatican collections. Like Sixtus and Julius, he supported building programs. These were needed in increasing number to accommodate the many people who flocked to a booming Rome from the provincial cities.
Leo's favourite artist was Raphael, who - in addition to his divine Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15, Louvre) - has given us a wonderful portrait of this fascinating Pope. In the painting Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi (1518, Pitti Palace, Florence), we see the Pope as he was in 1518, in the forty-third year of his life. A corpulent man who enjoyed good food and drink as much as he enjoyed his manuscripts, Leo is seated at a table on top of which is an illuminated book that he has been reading. The painting is remarkable for its definition of various textures and surfaces in clear detail. It also provides subtle insights into the personal relationships of those portrayed. Particularly fascinating is the way in whim Raphael underlines the watchfulness of all three figures, especially Cardinal Giulio at the right, who was shortly to become Pope Clement VII. He and the other cardinal seem almost to guard the Pope. Although the Medici cardinal is characterized as the Pope's "right hand" and is indeed placed in close proximity to him, Raphael does not allow either figure to become more than a secondary shadow, while the picture is dominated by Leo's hulking presence. In the same year, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici commissioned Raphael to paint an altarpiece on The Transfiguration for the French cathedral of Narbonne.
In reviving the grandeur and prestige of Rome, Julius II and Leo X spent astronomical sums of money. The building of St. Peter's Basilica alone precipitated a financial crisis. There developed in the Church a revolt against papal excess that had powerful consequences throughout Europe, especially in Germany. One of the methods of obtaining money to fill the rapidly draining Vatican treasury was the sale of indulgences, for remission of purgatorial punishment for sins. It was in Germany that an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, first cried out against this old custom. For details of this revolt and the art it spawned, see: the Protestant Reformation Art of countries in Northern Europe and the Catholic Counter-Reformation Art of Italy and Spain.
by Papal Overspending
This sack of Rome had a sobering effect on the Papacy, and the consequences for Roman Renaissance art were significant. When the foreigners invaded, painters, sculptors, and architects fled the city along with the rest of its inhabitants. Many of these artists sought employment with the Renaissance in Venice or elsewhere; some left Italy altogether and travelled to the courts of France or Austria*, carrying with them the achievements of early sixteenth-century Italian art.
Despite the turmoil in Rome, the new pontiff, Pope Paul III (1534-49) quickly came to terms with Charles V and re-installed Michelangelo as the 'Chief Architect, Sculptor and Painter of the Apostolic Palace' and commissioned him to repaint a wall of the Sistine Chapel with a fresco illustrating The Last Judgement. This magnificent example of Mannerist painting took Michelangelo five years to complete (1536-41), and includes some of the most eloquent figure painting in Western art. In contrast with the relative calmness and assuredness of his Genesis ceiling fresco, The Last Judgement is far more strained, reflecting the uncertainty of the times, and was the first major work in Rome associated with the Mannerism style of art, which endured until the Baroque era at the end of the 16th century. (The Council of Trent 1545 later ordered Michelangelo's pupil Daniele da Volterra to conceal the nudity of the figures.) Michelangelo was given a number of further architectural commissions, notably to develop St. Peter's and rebuild the Capitol. His design for the dome of St. Peter's (largely realized after his death) was intended to rival Brunelleschi's design for the cupola above the Cathedral in Florence. For late Renaissance Mannerist sculpture, see: Stefano Maderno (1576-1636).