Rome in the Renaissance

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Rome, the Renaissance and Counter Reformation

The reaction of Pope Paul III (1534 - 1549, Alessandro Farnese) to the Protestant reform was to summon the council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Counter-Reformation. The most vividly remembered result is the Holy Inquisition which had begun in Spain and which the church extended to other countries. The objective of the Counter-Reformation was to use moral persuasion and the Holy Inquisition to minimise the effects of the (northern) reformers in an attempt to maintain unity of faith and of the Catholic church.

Nevertheless the Reformist movement gained the support of many national states of northern Europe which were keen to challenge the political strength and material wealth of the Roman church.

The church employed the newly founded Jesuit order as a tool to stem heresy through moral persuasion and teaching as well as a missionary vehicle aimed at Christianisation of the New World. In a sense the Catholic church was making up for what it was losing to the Reformists in northern Europe by winning "new souls" in the Americas.

All in all the Counter Reformation resulted in a more strict and centralised control of the Catholic faith, meaning that many liberties which had developed to that point were tightened up so as to prevent further reformist movements from developing within.

The Holy Inquisition within Rome itself is remembered by the ominous statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for heresy in the year 1600 in Piazza Campo di Fiori - the only square in Rome with no church. Some thirty years later the astronomer Galileo was tried for suggesting a view which didn't conform with that, adopted by the church, which placed the earth at the centre of an "immutable" the universe. Not surprisingly it wasn't long before all independent and speculative thinkers moved northwards leaving Rome further and further behind as a centre of knowledge.

As far as the city of Rome was concerned, the Counter Reformation movement provided a yet greater impulse for growth: The population continued to increase and the construction and embellishment frenzy reached a higher pitch as the church pronounced and communicated its theological and spiritual rebirth. The Popes, Cardinals and noble families continued to rule the "dominions of St. Peter" and yet more works of art were commissioned to bring yet more splendour to the Eternal City. This "reformed" Catholicism was woven into the very fabric of the city so much so that the architecture of new ecclesiastical buildings and palaces incarnated the new, more centralised, approach.

It can therefore be seen how the Protestant Reform and subsequent Counter Reformation provided a yet stronger impulse for urban transformation of Rome. In this same period Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel as well as heading up the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica and designing St. Peter’s dome.

The wonderful church of Il Gesu’ in Rome, commissioned in 1550 by the Jesuits and designed by the architects Vignola and Giacomo della Porta, is a textbook example of this new vision. This church allows us to see how the Renaissance architecture developed into the new style of the Baroque (coming from a Spanish word for a deformed or elongated pearl). The existing Medieval nave had tended to draw attention and space towards the altar at the far end. The new concept was to fuse this with the Renaissance tendency for centralisation (of space). This was achieved by opening up the sides with the transept and chapels and pulling space upwards with a central dome. The façade of the church also shows a mixture of renaissance and baroque elements.

Under Popes Sixtus V (1585 - 1590), Urabn VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII the transformation of Rome reached its highest pitch. Architects such as Domenico Fontana, Bernini and Borromini changed the face of Rome and left us many of the wonders we can see today. Whereas many cities of the period were characterised by towers Rome was filled with domes; perhaps because towers could hardly compete with the surrounding hills whilst domes would happily complement them.

Bernini restructured the square and colonnade in front of St. Peter’s. At the interior of the basilica he shifted the focus to the tomb of St. Peter by placing an altar and bronze canopy over it - reputedly made from bronze stripped off the Pantheon. Bernini’s name can be ascribed to countless works of art, buildings and fountains throughout the city, such as the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the centre of Piazza Navona. All of this was an earthly manifestation of the church’s power and its will for centralisation.

Bernini’s apprentice Borromini came to compete directly against his master, especially as with subsequent Popes one or the other architect would fall in or out of favour. Although still well within the tenets of the Baroque style Borromini developed a more rhythmic, less sobre accent of his own which avoided straight lines in favour of movement and fusion of volumes. Being Bernini’s most direct competitor, Borromini’s work is also to be found throughout the city in works such as the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’ Agnese in Agone at Piazza Navona. His greatest work is probably St. Ivo alla Sapienza completed in 1662.

Painting also transformed into a Baroque and neo-realist style. Many paintings from the studios of Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and Caravaggio were commissioned to adorn the interior of many churches throughout the city. Here too the church authorities had much to say over what might and might not be painted, and how. For example it wasn’t acceptable to use nude female models in order to paint female figures - male models would have to be used instead and adapted for the purposes of the painting. Caravaggio made particular advances in realism and a number of his works were at first rejected for the excessive realism in portraying details of the poverty of the saints, such as dirty feet for example.

By the middle of the 17th century painting and architecture began to interweave with one another as more and more illusionist three-dimensional effects were developed and put to work. For example short galleries could be made to look longer and deeper by using columns of increasingly short size to give a sense of greater perspective, squares could be designed to look "more square" by countering the effects of perspective. Painters such as Pietro da Cortona, Baciccia and others painted false ceilings, windows and doors or even entire domes which when viewed from the correct viewpoint are almost undistinguishable from "reality" but when viewed from the wrong angle will make you feel quite queasy!

The church of Il Gesu’ can again be used as an example. Rather than painting a false dome the painter Baciccia painted the ceiling with "the triumph of the name of Christ" using a clearly trompe-l’oeil effect to draw the eye up into the sky beyond. Hosts of angels are looking on; and in a very curious meshing of roof and painting several of the clouds, figures and angels are actually painted over the fresco’s edge onto the cornice and "into" the inside of the church itself. The onlooker can sense motion of the blessed souls moving up to the heavens and the condemned falling, almost as a direct witness.

Another great example of this is worth visiting at the church of Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order) complete with false painted cupola and trompe-l’oeil painting in the roof. Here it is as if extra depth had been added to Baciccia’s painting in Il Gesu’ by adding false architectural features within the painting itself.

Food for thought…..

Anyone with a taste for coffee and a minute to spend on philosophy will recognise how this highly developed figurative and illusionist display might prove to be a religious conundrum (referred to as "iconoclasm"). The danger is that the viewer might be distracted from the worship of God or indeed come to worship the image itself rather than what the image is meant to stand for. So what, from this perspective (no pun me ant), is the result of the Counter Reformation? Are the images of Renaissance and Baroque art bringing the thousands of viewers and tourists of Rome closer to God?

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This page about Rome history was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments