The Middle Ages were a dark period of Roman history. The city’s influence was severely hindered by the shift of political and economic power towards the north. Rome was also in continual struggles: Within the city the different noble families resorted to true Machiavellian politics in order to gain the seat of power whilst on the international front the church was in continual dispute with the different emperors and rulers of Europe.
Throughout this period and into the future Rome continued to hold its prestige as “eternal city” – something symbolising everlasting greatness and grandiosity. This was positive but also continued to attract the interest of invaders and looters such as the Saracens in the ninth century, the Normans in the eleventh century (rather like the Norman invasions of England around that same period) and the most memorable of all: Charles V’s invasion of 1527 know as Il sacco di Roma, the looting of Rome.
Economic development in Europe had moved north and so Rome, being removed from the routes of commerce was at a disadvantage with respect to cities such as Florence, Pisa, Milan and Venice.
The failing economy and the unstable system of internal rule governed by local feuds, warlords and clergy brought the population of Rome to exasperation and resulted in more than one revolt. In a couple of occasions the revolutionaries actually managed to set up democratic republican systems which were doomed to last no longer than a handful of years at best. Arnaldo da Brescia in 1143 managed to set up a republic which lasted a whole year and Cola di Rienzo two centuries later in 1347.
As testimony of this dark period the landscape of Rome is littered with the remains of medieval fortifications which were used to defend local baronies. A good example of this is the theatre of Marcellus begun by Julius Caesar and completed by emperor Augustus by the Tiber. In the 13th century the Savelli family used the theatre as a fortress which they later transformed into a palace. The two floors of living quarters built directly on top of the arches and columns of the ancient roman theatre are easily noted.
In 1300 the Pope proclaimed the first holy year which, similarly to Gregory the Great’s missions some 800 years earlier, brought a great influx of pilgrims to the city of Rome and a much needed, although temporary, injection of life.
This happy event was followed by yet more infighting amongst the local noble families, all of which desired the wealth and power afforded by the seat of St. Peter. An unusually vicious squabble for supremacy (“Papal hegemony”) between Pope Boniface VIII and the French king ended up in tears for the Papacy. The Pope was deposed and replaced by Clement V – the first French Pope (1305-1314). The Papal seat was then removed from Rome to Avignon in France. This period is known as the “Babilonian captivity” in reference to a similar captivity of the Jews in Babilon and lasted almost a century.
The removal of the Pope left Rome without a political or spiritual leader for the first time since its foundation by Romulus “Ab Urbe Condita” back in 753BC. This period was perhaps the worst eclipse the city has ever known: Rome was by now geographically removed from commercial routes which developed to the north, it was left with little if any political strength and was now divorced from its spiritual importance. This loss of power is also visible by the distinct lack of works of art during this period.
Not surprisingly this sudden vacuum in power brought about a series of internal struggles. Cola di Rienzo has already been mentioned as having attempted to lead a popular republic in 1347. The failure of his policies lead to his being thrown out by the same people who had elected him, he was then excommunicated, arrested as a heretic and taken to Avignon in chains. He was subsequently charged with going back to Rome in order to restore Papal command. He entered Rome in great pomp, made himself unpopular and was finally killed whilst trying to flee during riots at the Capitoline hill. Apparently he tried to hide amongst the crowd and flee but someone recognised the ring on his finger.
On the Papal front it is not surprising that the Roman nobility and Catholicism in general was unhappy to have been subjected to French rule and to have had power removed from Rome. It wasn’t long before an anti-Pope was elected. In 1377 Gregory XI returned to Rome but by now the great schism had generated various claimants to the Papal throne. The wound was only healed through a council (1414-1418) which in 1417 elected Martin V of the Colonna family as sole heir of St.Peter. During this period short period art, commerce, the number of inhabitants and palaces touched its lowest ebb as roads and other civil infrastructure were left abandoned and in disrepair.
In spite of these the Machiavellian intrigues the Middle Ages did in fact leave the city with some prestigious works of art and architecture, such as frescos and the famous “Cosmateque”mosaics which decorate several churches of that period.
Martin V (1417 – 1431) not only heralded the end to a great division in the church but also the beginning of Rome’s rebirth, its renaissance.