An illustration in Fazio degli Uberti’s late fourteenth–century poem for the city of Rome
portrays the eternal city as a widow, clothed in rags, exhausted and frail under the weight of her past glories. Formerly the centre
of an imperial power that ruled most of the known western world, then the spiritual centre of the Christian world, she is now shabby,
wan and pathetic. The popes had spent much of the century at the Palais des Papes at Avignon, and with them
(Ms. Ital. 81, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)
went many of the artists, clergy and service staff that had formerly populated the city. Rome was a desert of ruins, piles of rubble interspersed among areas overgrown with weeds. Looters, vandals, thieves and murderers were rampant.
When the papacy eventually returned to Rome, its office holders became aware very quickly that if it was to survive, the
church would have to consolidate and ensure its temporal power as much as its spiritual authority. Martin V, Pope from 1417 to 1431,
began to check the violence and robbery in the city, which stimulated trade. During the fifteenth century, a number of able
administrators and politicians were chosen to wear the red slippers. As shocking and unexpected as their behaviour may seem to us,
Ruins of the Roman Forum
(Wikimedia Commons) Renaissance Popes concentrated more on what needed doing in the flesh, not so much in the spirit.
The Vatican, along with various other churches, monuments, squares, tombs and palaces were built or restored. Numerous statues, manuscripts and other treasures of antiquity were unearthed and preserved. While some attention was paid to preserving imperial ruins, much of the rubble was cleared away and used as building material. The focus of the Renaissance shifted away from Florence and onto Rome.
As in Venice and Florence, such vast projects required vast finances. The papacy was of course one of
the richest of powers, with money pouring in from practically every little church, monastery, convent, and principality in Europe, not
to mention the income from the Papal States. Nonetheless, additional financing was needed for huge projects such as a new Saint Peter’s
Basilica, begun on the site of the old one in 1506, and not completed until 1626. The increased sale of indulgences — payments as
a gratuity for the remission of sin in lieu of penance backed by the infinite gold reserve of Christ’s sacrifice — together
(Wikimedia Commons) with purchases of clerical intercession on behalf of loved ones trying for early release from Purgatory, were able to make up for some of the shortfall.
There was, however, an unfortunate downside to this. Indulgences and intercessive prayer, in fact the entire apparatus of salvation by proxy through Holy Church, became one of the major sticking points among the theses that Martin Luther nailed on his church door in 1517. Like Savonarola, Luther’s radical ideas about personal salvation could have gone up in flames along with him, but political powers outside Rome were astute enough to realize that here was a way to check the Bishop of Rome’s seemingly unrestrained wealth, lands and power. The Reformation succeeded, at least at first, as much through the passivity of German princes as through the actions of Luther and his supporters.
Titian, Pope Paul III
By 1545, Pope Paul III had faced the fact that the threat of Reformation had to be taken seriously, and convened the Council of Trent, formally launching the Counter–Reformation. In a spectacular fit of completely missing the point, Rome invoked its absolute spiritual authority, manifest in the splendour, pageantry and ceremony of the Church. This was precisely what many objectors were against: they saw only empty, meaningless ritual that got in the way of personal, individual salvation extended directly to humans by God. Vicarious mediation through human clergy was the issue, not the solution.
No longer a wheezing old woman, Rome may have regained her position as a wealthy matron enjoying all the good things that Renaissance life had to offer. But in the half century following Trent, she also became serious and humourless, preoccupied with inquisitions and indexes, and turned her back on humanism and the ancient world.