Rome and the Renaissance became synonymous, but Rome was not the centre of the Renaissance from the very beginning: Flourishing commerce, particularly with the East, went hand in hand with cultural progress particularly around cities such as Venice and Florence. Increased contact with the East coupled with the fall of Costantinople, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire of the East, meant that much of the wealth and ancient learning which had been lost to the West was now making a return. The “West” was finally out of the Middle Ages and was now able to rediscover the heights of Classical culture which had been safeguarded through the ages by Constantinople. Hence the name “Renaissance” – rebirth.
In order to understand this period a little better it is important to remember that the Renaissance movement was principally one of science, thought and knowledge; an age of discovery which found a direct and most tangible expression in Roman art and Roman architecture but expressed itself in all aspects of culture.
With the end to French captivity of the Popes in 1377, the healing of the schism in 1417 and the return to Rome of the Papacy; Pope Martin the fifth (1417-1431, Odone Colonna) and his successors undertook a programme of spiritual and political renovation of the church. Martin V and his successors also set to strengthening the churches’ claim on earthly power. Their claim to earthly power was based on the bequeathment reputedly left by emperor Constantine on his death bed and later consolidated by the Frankish kings Pepin and Charlemagne during the Dark Ages of the eighth and ninth centuries.
By now, the whole of central Italy had become subject to the rule of the ecclesiastical bureaucratic system & militia, under the direct control of the Pope and his Cardinals. Nepotism was common and positions of prestige were often granted to members of the Pope’s and Cardinals’ own families. The race for power set the various noble families of Rome into direct competition as each attempted to outdo the next in terms of magnificence.
This soon allowed Rome to compete with any of the other European cities in terms of wealth, beauty and art and indeed to overtake those cities that hitherto had exhibited a far greater cultural and economic development, such as Florence for example. The financing of all this artistic and architectural work, as well as continuous wars and even an aborted crusade, came from taxes, auctioning of ecclesiastical positions of importance and an increasing traffic in indulgences. The population of the city at this time must have been in the region of some 55,000 souls and it is calculated by some that professional prostitutes numbered as many as 5000 of the total.
It was Martin’s successor Nicholas V (1447-1455) who really began much of the urban development of the renaissance in Rome. His election was somewhat of a surprise given that the bet lay on the rich and influential Cardinal Prospero Colonna rather than this rather humble son of a surgeon who had begun his career as a school teacher in a provincial town. His ascension to power was based on the recognition of him as a man of erudition and great learning, particularly in the humanist field. It was said of him that there wasn’t anything in the world of sciences he didn’t know and remember. He was a bibliophile (lover of books) and it was thanks to him that the Vatican library was founded and compiled to rival those of Florence and Venice. He also promoted men of learning to positions of prominence in an effort to ensure that the church might retain a leading position in matters of learning and science. In so doing he created a receptacle of learning capable to receive and build upon the learning which it was inheriting from the collapsing Constantinople (1453).
Nicholas was also a builder and restorer of Rome and it was under his orders that ancient Roman acqueducts and water conduits were restored, repaired and extended throughout the city according to its current needs. He also saw to the city’s defences including amongst other things. Castel St. Angelo was fortified further and the Vatican buildings and apartments were improved.
In this manner Rome became the centre of the Renaissance movement in Europe, attracting many if not all of the greatest and most gifted artists and architects of the age. Men such as Bramante, Michaelangelo and Rafael were given one commission after another to complete and beautify the city of God. The Popes and Cardinals spent lavish sums of money on the construction of new churches and palaces as well as the assembly of works of art and antiquities. The pace of construction and embellishment was so frenetic that not even the terrible looting of Rome by Charles V in 1527, which was comparable in terms of violence to the barbarian looting of Rome in the fifth century, managed to put a temporary stop to it all.
Rome’s Renaissance, knowledge and the world’s first modern museum
The first museum, as we know them today, saw its birth in that period on the Capitoline hill and can still be visited. The Capitoline Museum was founded in 1471 with the art collection of Pope Sixtus IV in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The building was restored and remodelled according to plans laid out by Michaelangelo. The collection is wonderful.
This reminds us how the renaissance was a period of science and knowledge as much as one of art and architecture. The problem was the danger which such science and knowledge might mean for the church. Hitherto, all knowledge and “science” had been the domain of the clergy who, it should be remembered, safeguarded it from the chaos of Medieval Europe. But now the monopoly was being lost and many new ideas threatened to undermine faith. Nicolas V had gone some way to ensuring that the church might keep pace with the new learning but little could be done to prevent others outside the church’s sphere of influence from making their own potentially damaging contributions (Galileo is a well known example).
Given the all the above we can understand how many Catholics, particularly those suffering famine and poverty in northern Europe, might nurture the idea that the church of Rome, its Cardinals and Popes had lost site of spiritual concerns and become excessively focussed on material wealth and personal prestige. This led to struggle, a new schism and the birth of the Protestant reform in 1517 led by the German Martin Luther; whom Pope Leo X (1513-1521, Giovanni de Medici) excommunicated.
At this point it is worth remembering Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503, Rodrigo Borgia) a Spaniard, who succeeded Nicolas V and Sixtus IV (but preceded Julius II – Michelangelo’s great sponsor, and Leo X, who called the Counter Reformation). More than anything he is worth mentioning as a colourful figure in modern imagination and has become, perhaps unjustly, an infamous symbol of all that was pernicious and contradictory within the Papacy and the catholic church of the time. He had several children amongst whom we particularly remember Cesare and Lucrezia. Cesare amongst many dark adventures and intrigues is said to have murdered his own brother whilst Lucretia Borgia is remembered for her many husbands and reputed skills with poison. It is also said that Rodrigo fathered a son with Lucretia. A more modern view is that Lucretia was a pawn within her father and brother’s political plans. All of this within the political environment of the French and Spanish quarrel for power in Europe.
Part II of this article about Rome and the Renaissance focuses on the Counter Reformation