The overwhelming fact about architecture—the built, manmade environment—is that it tends to be the first thing you see in cities. It gives them their character. It is a thing in the world, irrefutably present, not an illusion like painting. So when we mention the word “Renaissance,” it is the architecture that comes to mind as the most potent symbol of that spirit of rebirth that swept European culture starting in the fourteenth century. Architecture refers, first and foremost, to large manmade things which afford shelter and gathering places to social groups and have a clear-cut political intent behind them. At the same time, the origin of these things, their roots, are often deeply buried and obscure. No single person “invented” Gothic architecture, and we will never know who was the first to lay a horizontal tree trunk across the tops of two vertical ones. But there has never been much dispute about who was the “father” of Renaissance architecture. He was Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the son of a Florentine notary, who was (in Vasari’s words) “sent by Heaven to invest architecture with new forms, after it had wandered astray for many centuries.”
The new forms, of course, were old forms: those of ancient Rome. This picture of Brunelleschi as a savior sent from on high to redeem the art of building and rescue it from the barbarous, pointy-arched Gothic squalor into which it had fallen may seem, to put it mildly, a little simplified today—but, as far as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were concerned, it was the plain and only truth. Everything Brunelleschi designed and built, from the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Pazzi Chapel to the immense octagonal dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral that dominates the city, was done in his native Florence. But many of their prototypes, the structures and remnants by which his architectural thought was stimulated, were in Rome. Brunelleschi was no copyist, but he was wide open to inspiration from the remote past. The great dome of ancient Rome, the Pantheon, is not like Brunelleschi’s dome on Santa Maria del Fiore. It is a structure that relies entirely on mass, whereas Brunelleschi’s dome is a highly sophisticated framework covered with a membrane. Nevertheless, Brunelleschi derived his language of building all’antica from Rome, and part of the excitement his buildings still transmit comes from the rapturous sense of making the old new which accompanied his discovery of ancient architecture in Rome.
Curiously, although early humanists had talked quite a lot about the physical antiquities of Rome, none of them seem to have made a concentrated effort to examine and record the ruins before Brunelleschi. Ancient Roman texts, inscriptions, and manuscripts, eagerly sought and examined by literary humanists, were of course a different matter.
Little is known about Brunelleschi’s early life, but certainly he did not begin as an apprentice architect. Though his father expected him to be a civil servant like himself, the son showed early artistic ambitions, enrolling in the Arte della Seta, the Silkworkers’ Guild, among whose members were goldsmiths and bronze workers. He had a vocation for work in gold and semi-precious metals, diligently turning himself (wrote his first biographer, Antonio Manetti, 1423–97) into “a perfect master of niello, enamel, and colored or gilded ornaments in relief, as well as the cutting, splitting, and setting of precious stones. Thus in any work to which he applied himself … he always had wonderful success.” In 1398, he was recognized as a master goldsmith. His first important building, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, or Foundlings’ Hospital, in Florence, was paid for and commissioned by the goldsmiths’ guild in 1419 and finished around 1445. With its long portico of round arcades carried on eight-meter-high Corinthian columns, it was the first clear echo of classical Roman architecture in Florence. It had resulted from a study trip Brunelleschi had made with his friend the sculptor Donatello to Rome, after they had both been narrowly defeated by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the competition for the design of the east doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral. Manetti has the disappointed Brunelleschi reflecting, “It would be a good thing to go and study where sculpture is really good,” and so, around 1402–4:
He went to Rome, for at that time there were plenty of good things that could be seen in public places. Some of the things are still there, though few. Many have since been stolen … by various pontiffs and cardinals, Romans and men of other nations. While looking at the sculpture, as he had a good eye and an alert mind, he saw the way the ancients built and their proportions.… He seemed to recognize quite clearly a certain order in their members and structural parts.… It looked very different from what was usual in those times. He proposed, while he was looking at the statues of the ancients, to devote no less attention to the order and method of building.
It must have been one of the great dramas of discovery in art’s history, a Quattrocento buddy movie: Brunelleschi and Donatello, one at each end of the measuring string, flushed with effort and determination, clambering over the ruins, chopping aside the entangling bushes and creepers, measuring heights, widths, and spacings, tirelessly noting inscriptions, discovering a lost Rome. It requires a real effort of imagination to envisage what Rome looked like in those far-off days. The Forum was a kind of wilderness with ruins, commonly referred to as the Campo Vaccino—the Cow Pasture—which it actually was, with animals grazing about. Shops, restaurants, workplaces—forget them. One traversed the place by stumbling hither and thither. Nothing was self-evident, as Roman ruins are today. The city was a jumble of fallen old columns and ruinous early walls, collapsed vaults, broken arches. The Roman natives who saw them at work on their quest for “the excellent and highly ingenious building methods of the ancients and their harmonious proportions” thought they were nothing more than crazy treasure-hunters—which in a sense they were. “Neither was bothered with family cares because neither had a wife or children.… Neither was much concerned with how he ate, drank, lived, or dressed himself, provided he could satisfy himself with these things to see and measure.”
In this way, the bones of the Eternal City surrendered their secrets to Brunelleschi and Donatello, even though the latter, wrote Manetti, was not much interested in architecture as such: “Together they made rough drawings of almost all the buildings in Rome.… They had excavations done in order to see the joinings of the parts of the buildings, and whether those parts were square, polygonal, or perfectly round, circular or oval.… From these observations, with his keen vision, [Brunelleschi] began to distinguish the characteristics of each style, such as Ionic, Doric, Tuscan, Corinthian, and Attic, and he used these styles … as one may still see in his buildings.”
A powerful aid to doing this was the new system Brunelleschi was working out for representing solid objects in depth, known as linear perspective, which relies upon the fact that objects seem to get smaller the farther they are from the viewer’s eye. If a reliable way could be found to create this illusion by constructing it on a flat plane, such as the surface of a panel or a sheet of paper, then it would be possible to represent the world and its contents, such as buildings, in a coherent and perceptually accurate manner. Brunelleschi’s systematic researches were taken up by another architect—though he was much more than that—Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72). Showing the world in this way enabled the artist to give his scenes a new credibility, with what seemed to be real people moving in real space, and even, startlingly enough, showing real emotions to one another. Wrote Alberti in a 1435 treatise on painting:
I like to see someone who tells the spectators what is happening there; or beckons with his hand; or menaces with an angry face and with flashing eyes so that no one should come near; or points to some danger or marvelous thing there and invites us to weep or laugh together with them.
In Alberti’s eyes, perspective was not merely a means toward illusion—it was a tool of empathy. It helped give painting, and its representation of architecture, the dignity of a “liberal art” and raised both above the domain of mere craft.
Truth of representation, allied with a scientific and pragmatic fascination with the forms of antiquity—such was the beginning of Renaissance architecture. Its canonical early buildings were raised not in Rome but in Florence; yet they would not have existed without the examples of Roman antiquity, as interpreted by Brunelleschi and Alberti.
Alberti’s likeness was cast in a bronze medal in 1454–56 by the sculptor Matteo de’ Pasti. On one side is a profile portrait of Alberti, a strikingly handsome man of fifty. The reverse shows his impresa or heraldic device, a flying eye with flames bursting from its corners, carried on wings, like Jove’s thunderbolt—speed and acuity of perception. Around it is a laurel wreath, declaring his certainty of success. And below, the motto QUID TUM, “What next?” It is a declaration of man’s faith in the future, in the power of human invention. Nobody could have deserved it more than Leon Battista Alberti, for, if anyone gave meaning to the term “Renaissance man,” it was he. He was architect, theorist, sculptor, painter, archaeologist, and writer; his subjects included such matters as cryptography and family ethics, as befitted someone used to the close-knit and often secretive world of Renaissance courts. He contributed much to the use of vernacular Italian, as distinct from Latin, in prose writing. He composed the first Italian grammar. He wrote treatises—the first since Vitruvius in antiquity—on architecture, painting, and sculpture. Moreover, he is said to have been an outstanding athlete, and he even wrote a treatise on horses, De equo animante. He designed some of the most beautiful and visionary buildings of the fifteenth century: in Florence, Palazzo Rucellai (c. 1453) and Santa Maria Novella (1470); the Tempio Malatestiano (1450) in Rimini; commissioned by Lodovico Gonzaga, the churches of San Sebastiano (1460) and Sant’Andrea (1470) in Mantua. But in Rome itself, he did nothing except restoration. His literary masterpiece was the ten books of De re aedificatoria, the first comprehensive treatment of Renaissance architecture ever published, and the first treatise written on classical architecture since antiquity. Its effect on architects—at least on those who had Latin, since Alberti did not write it in vernacular Italian—was as wide and fundamental as Vitruvius’ had been. Indeed, it has a serious claim to be the most influential text on architecture ever written.
Although he did not build in Rome, Alberti had great influence there, and his medium for it was the pope, Nicholas V (1397–1455). Born Tommaso Parentucelli, this new pope, who ascended the papal throne in 1447, four short years after Alberti had settled in Rome as a member of the court of Pope Eugenius IV, was a humanist like Alberti, and had been his friend since their university days in Bologna. Both men in earlier years had served the Florentine grandee Palla Strozzi as a tutor. Vasari affirmed that Nicholas had “a great, resolute spirit, and knew so much that he was able to guide and direct his artists as much as they did him.”
Just how this translated into practice is not certain. Without doubt, Nicholas V and Alberti talked often and long about architecture and town planning—so long and so often that the pope became the natural person to whom Alberti would dedicate and present De re aedificatoria. “By God!” Alberti wrote at one point. “I cannot but rebel sometimes when I see monuments, which even the wild barbarians spared for their beauty and splendor, or even time itself, that tenacious destroyer, would willingly let stand forever, falling into ruin because of the neglect (I might have said the avarice) of certain men.” And to mitigate this constant erosion of Rome’s historical fabric, he began to collect all the knowable facts about the city’s monuments and to present them in a way that made preservation possible, if not easy. His friend the pope was all in favor of that work of memory.
Unlike many of his predecessors—all of whom were of course literate, but some not much more than that—Nicholas V was a ravenous bibliophile. “He searched for Latin and Greek books in all places where they might be found, never regarding the price,” wroteVespasiano da Bisticci (1421–98), who would have known, being the principal bookseller of Florence.
He collected many of the best scribes and employed them. He brought together a number of learned men and set them to produce new books, and also to translate others not in the libraries, rewarding them liberally.… Since the time of Ptolemy there had never been collected such a store of books.
Nicholas’s book-collecting enthusiasm formed the basis of the Vatican Library, and cost a fortune. Thus he became “the ornament and the light of literature and of learned men, and if after him there had appeared another Pope following in his footsteps, letters would have achieved a position worthy of them.” This did not happen, because later popes did not entirely share Nicholas’s bibliomania. But even his library building was quite modest compared with his architectural enterprises. Vespasiano da Bisticci remembered how Nicholas “used to say that he would like to do two things, if ever he had the money: form a library and build, and he did both during his pontificate.”
The formation of the library was quite gradual. In the mid-fifteenth century, it consisted of only 340 volumes, two in Greek. Modern scholars point out that Nicholas V was the first pope to give the formation of the papal library a high priority, but by 1455 its collection amounted to no more than 1,160 books; there were others in Italy the same size or bigger. The honor of being the true founder of the Vatican Library as an institution, therefore, goes to a later pope, Sixtus IV, who was lucky enough to have the scholarBartolomeo Platina as his librarian (1475–81). Later expansions, particularly that of Leo X in the sixteenth century, would far surpass that. Yet Nicholas certainly had the vision of a library for the Vatican, “for the common convenience of the learned,” and nobody could accuse him of stinginess. He even carried a bag with hundreds of florins in it, which he would give away by the handful to people he thought deserving.
Leon Battista Alberti he thought particularly deserving. Alberti stood out for two reasons.
First because, in addition to his other writings, he composed a Descriptio Urbis Romae, a Description of the City of Rome, which covered the main buildings of antiquity and the principal churches built during the Christian Era, along with the city walls and gateways, the course of the Tiber, and other matters. This was a huge step up from what had been the only guidebook to the antiquities of Rome, the legend-infested Mirabilia, or Marvels, of the Eternal City, a text infested with hearsay and extreme inaccuracies. Alberti’s guide became a much-needed prelude to the Jubilee year of 1450 which Nicholas had just announced. “There was not the least remain of any ancient structure,“ Alberti would write with pardonable pride, “that had any merit in it, but what I went and examined, to see if anything was to be learned from it. Thus I was continually searching, considering, measuring, and making draughts of everything I could hear of, until such time as I had made myself perfect master of every contrivance or invention that had been used in those ancient remains.” It is probably no exaggeration to say that Alberti ended up knowing more about ancient Roman building than most ancient Romans had.
The second reason lay in the pope’s own archaeological interests. In addition to all his other talents, Alberti had the novel distinction of being the world’s first underwater archaeologist. The object of his search was an ancient Roman galley from the time of Trajan, which 1,300 years before had sunk, presumably during a naumachia, a mock naval battle, to the muddy floor of Lake Nemi. Its location was known because it kept fouling fishermen’s nets. But nobody had figured out a way to raise it, and without underwater goggles divers could not see more than a vague bulk looming in dark water. Commissioned to do so by Cardinal Prospero Colonna, Alberti brought it up with grappling hooks, cables, floating barrels, and winches. Only the prow came clear of the water before the hull broke in half and sank again, and Alberti was able to observe—the first account of ancient Roman naval construction—that it was built of pine and cypress “in an excellent state of preservation” and covered with tar-soaked linen, which was then sheathed in lead secured by bronze nails.
Although this feat must have caused a good deal of buzz and flutter in court circles, what most cemented Alberti’s position as Nicholas V’s adviser on building was his large and ever-growing knowledge of architecture, its theory, practice, and history. In addition, he had no illusions about whom he was designing and, if possible, building for. “Do everything possible,” he exhorts the reader,
to obtain commissions only from the most important people, who are generous and true lovers of the arts. For your work loses its value when done for persons of low social rank. Can’t you see the advantages to be had in the furthering of your reputation if you have the support of the most influential people?
Moreover, “the safety, authority, and decorum of the state depend to a great extent on the work of the architect.” With the patronage and encouragement of Nicholas V, Alberti became the successor to Brunelleschi, with the difference that he was also the first architect of the Renaissance papacy. (Brunelleschi, despite his great influence on other architects, did not design for popes.) Certainly, though Alberti believed in the supremacy of Roman norms and forms, he also believed strongly in individual taste and would never have considered imposing a strict, formulaic canon of beauty. A building might well have the proportions of a human being, but what kind of human?
Some admire a woman for being extremely slender and fine shaped; the young gentlemen in Terence preferred a girl that was plump and fleshy; you perhaps are for a medium between these two extremes, and would neither have her so thin as to seem wasted with sickness, nor so strong and robust as if she were a Ploughman in disguise, and were fit for boxing: in short, you would like her such a beauty as might be formed by taking for the first what the second might spare. But then, because one pleases you more than the other, would you therefore affirm the other to be not at all handsome or graceful? By no means…
It seems fairly certain that Alberti had the strong hand in crucial restorations of a dilapidated Rome, although we do not know how many. Nicholas had ambitious plans for the city’s renovation. One of the keys to it was the aqueduct of the Acqua Vergine, which had been so important to the water supply of the ancient city. Now tracts of it had fallen in, and much of the rest was blocked by sinter or accumulated lime deposits. Those who lived in districts once served by the Acqua Vergine were obliged to drink the filthy water of the Tiber, teeming with bacteria. Prompted by Alberti, Nicholas V ordered a complete rerouting of the aqueduct, entering Rome near the Porta Pinciana and finishing at the Campo Marzio in three outlets called the Fontana di Trevi, designed by Alberti but later to be demolished and replaced by Nicola Salvi’s enormous stone festivity, into which Anita Ekberg waded for Fellini’s camera and generations of tourists threw their coins.
Alberti oversaw the restoration of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which brought traffic across the Tiber to the Castel Sant’Angelo, formerly Hadrian’s Tomb. He was also busy restoring ancient and infirm churches for Nicholas V, such as Santo Stefano Rotondo, the circular church with its majestic ring of internal columns erected in early Christian times.
Nicholas V had no doubts about the importance of architecture—a new architecture, one which would center and stabilize the faith of Christians. In 1455, he declared:
To create solid and stable convictions in the minds of the uncultured masses there must be something that appeals to the eye.… A popular faith sustained only on doctrines will never be anything but feeble and vacillating. But if the authority of the Holy See were visibly displayed in majestic buildings, imperishable memorials … belief would grow and strengthen like a tradition from one generation to another, and all the world would accept and revere it.
But the great work on which Nicholas V and Alberti hoped to embark was the replanning and construction of Saint Peter’s, the navel of Christianity. By the fifteenth century, Constantine’s original basilica was in poor repair, and Alberti saw that whole sections of it had to be rebuilt. “A very long, big wall,” he noted, “has, very unadvisedly, been built over a number of large voids,” with the result that the buffeting of north winds over the centuries had pushed it six feet out of plumb—so that any extra pressure or subsidence could bring it crashing down. Alberti recommended that the whole wall be bound in with new masonry, and Nicholas ordered that more than two thousand cartloads of building stone be quarried from the Colosseum and brought to the site of Saint Peter’s. But the gigantic task of rebuilding the old Constantinian basilica was not achieved; the pope died, and the responsibility for the great church passed into other and even more ambitious papal and architectural hands.
The architectural ones were those of Donato d’Angelo (1444–1514), commonly called Bramante—a nickname that meant “Ardent” or “Intensely Desiring.” (His maternal grandfather had been nicknamed Bramante, too: perhaps intensity was a family trait.) He was a farmer’s son, born in a village of the Papal States near Urbino. He undoubtedly witnessed the construction of the Ducal Palace, and he would have had some contact with artists who attended its highly cultivated court at the invitation of its ruler and patron,Federigo da Montefeltro, including Alberti and such figures as Piero della Francesca. He was one of a constellation of early-Renaissance figures who were born in or around the 1440s—Perugino, Botticelli, Signorelli, and, in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci. Later, when he moved to Milan, he came to know Leonardo, but how well one cannot say. Probably a small book on ancient Roman architecture that appeared anonymously around 1500 and was dedicated to Leonardo was by Bramante. Certainly both men worked for the Sforza court in Milan in the 1490s. Presumably Bramante got his introduction to Duke Ludovico through his aunt Battista Sforza (d. 1472), who had married Federigo da Montefeltro. Bramante was to spend more than two decades in Milan, doing some building forDuke Ludovico Sforza. He did not become a star there; as an outsider to the city, he did not secure the big commissions. However, he did design the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, and was involved with the design of the Milanese monastery and church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo painted his disastrously ill-preserved Last Supper—that now almost vanished icon of the High Renaissance. Bramante designed a tribune at the end of the nave which was originally meant to be a mausoleum for the Sforzas.
Bramante’s move to Rome we owe to political history. When the French armies marched into Milan in 1499, they expelled the duke and dislocated the city’s cultural life entirely. They also perpetrated what is doubtless one of the greatest crimes against art ever committed; Leo-nardo’s clay model for the giant bronze horse which was to be the monument to Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Ludovico’s father, ignominiously fell to pieces after the French crossbowmen used it for target practice—a great loss indeed. Bramante and the bitterly frustrated Leonardo, were among the figures who left for Rome, and Milan’s loss was very much Rome’s gain. Like any other architect of talent, Bramante was soon absorbed in the grandeur and purity of its ancient structures.
Quite soon, Bramante’s obvious talents would be snapped up by one of the great “building popes” of the Renaissance, Pope Julius II. But he designed several nonpapal buildings first, and the most significant of them was hardly bigger than a summerhouse—a diminutive domed circular temple in the courtyard of the Spanish Franciscan convent and church, the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, up on the Janiculan Hill. This may have been inspired by the ancient Temple of Vesta in Rome. The sixteen columns of its outer ring are all Doric, the order considered most suitable for commemorating robust and virile heroes, which Peter, no plaster saint, certainly was. Bramante worked to a modular scheme originally set out as a recipe for internal harmony by Vitruvius—all the chief dimensions, such as the diameter of the interior, are multiples of the column diameters. The tempietto is the first completely Doric building of the Italian Renaissance, as another pioneer architect, Sebastiano Serlio, pointed out: “We should give credit to Bramante, seeing that it was he who was the inventor and light of all good architecture, which had been buried until his time, the time of Julius II.”
Julius II was the name taken, at his election to the papacy by the College of Cardinals, by Giuliano della Rovere (1443–1513). This impatient, bellicose, and thunderously energetic man was the greatest patron of art the Roman Church had ever produced, and he would remain so until the partnership of Urban VIII Barberini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini more than a century later. His architect was Bramante, his sculptor Michelangelo, his painter Raphael.
This trio formed, without much question, the most remarkable body of artistic talent ever assembled by a single European man.
Raphael frescoed his suite of private papal apartments on the second floor of the Vatican, the chief one of which was known as the Stanza della Segnatura because in it Julius signed his name to essential documents. Some think that Julius himself, rather than Raphael, chose the narrative of images for these rooms.
As for Michelangelo, Julius was by far the most important, if difficult, client he ever had—just as Michelangelo was the most difficult and important artist Julius had ever employed. The sculptor embarked upon a colossal and never-to-be-finished project for Julius’ tomb in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. He very reluctantly frescoed the ceiling and end wall of the chapel in the Vatican which, having been built by Julius’ uncle Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471–84), was known as the Sistine, and later decorated thePauline Chapel, also in the Vatican, with scenes of the conversion of Saint Paul and the crucifixion of Saint Peter.
And Bramante—an aging man when he came into Julius’ employ, more than sixty years old—took on the Herculean task of finishing the work Alberti had started, creating a new symbolic center for Christianity by demolishing Constantine’s Basilica of Saint Peter and building an entirely new one. It would be the biggest church in the world.
That Julius II was a monster of will and appetite has never been in doubt. You could not defy him with much hope of survival, let alone success. He was known to his court and the rest of Rome as il papa terribile, the terrifying pope—or, if you wanted to shift the meaning an inch or two, the dreadful father. He did not call himself Julius for nothing. His model was antiquity’s Julius the First—the all-conquering, all-seeing, all-remembering, and godlike Julius Caesar, conqueror of Europe and remaker of Rome, Roma triumphans, the city around which the rest of the world turned. Julius II was determined to restore, not just superficially refurbish, the scope of the Catholic Church’s political power, which had suffered all-too-apparent losses through the translation of the Papacy to Avignon.
For this, it was necessary to expand the Papal States, an effort which could be tried by diplomacy but only underwritten by military force. Thus Julius II became the first and last pope to lead an army from horseback, wearing plate armor. (His papacy also brought the foundation, on January 21, 1506, of the Swiss Guard, who today are merely pushy Vatican cops with flapping yellow uniforms but in the sixteenth century were a serious force of halberdiers dedicated to protecting the person of the pope—an ecclesiasticalPraetorian Guard.)
Much of the money for his military enterprises came from Italy’s textile industry. The dyeing of cloth requires a fixative, which in the sixteenth century was a mineral, alum. Most alum had come from Turkey, but large deposits of it were to be found north of Rome, in an otherwise unremarkable spot named Tolfa. The mines of Tolfa, with their virtual monopoly on the mineral, rose with the textile trade and so were a large source of income for the Papacy.
In 1503, when Julius was elected pope, the city of Rome was in difficult straits. In some respects it hardly functioned at all as a city—it lacked a strong central government and was divided up into quarrelsome and isolated districts, run in an improvised way by the entrenched heirs of medieval clans. It was plagued by crime, particularly in the dock areas of the Tiber, the Ripa and the Ripetta, where trade was dominated by mafiosolike thugs. Some banks had closed, unable to hold up against the creeping devaluation of the currency. The price of corn had doubled. The ancient system of water supply was near collapse, despite Nicholas V’s earlier efforts to fix it. There were frequent outbreaks of plague. Some riverside parts of Rome had turned malarial—even Julius II had a bout of malaria, though not a grave one.
Against this background, Julius’ actions, even if resented by many Romans, made considerable sense. He stabilized the price of bread by setting up public bakeries. He brought in cheap grain from Sicily and France, he prohibited immigration, tightened the screws of tax collection and confiscated the estates of several immoderately rich cardinals who had conveniently died. They were replaced by newly appointed cardinals, all friends of Julius, who were also rich but could be relied on to obey him. And of course the Church was directed to wring every penny it could from the sale of indulgences, that abusive and superstitious practice by which the faithful could supposedly buy remission from Purgatory in the next life by giving hard cash to Rome’s agents in this one. “When you open your purse strings and the cash bell rings, the soul flies out of Purgatory and sings.” Disgust at the indulgence trade would be one of the forces that drove the Protestant Reformation, but at first the Catholic hierarchy did not realize how furious an industry it was growing to be. Thanks to these emergency measures, the papal treasury, which had about 300,000 ducats in 1505, rose to 500,000 in 1506.
Julius was lucky to have a close friend and astute money manager in the Sienese papal banker Agostino Chigi (1466–1520), recognized as the wealthiest merchant banker in Europe, who had more than a hundred offices spread from Cairo to London and at one point held the papal tiara in pawn as security on his loans.
Thus Julius was able to indulge his appetite for Caesarian glory. This became especially clear after the papal armies annexed Bologna and expelled its Bentivoglio rulers in 1507, when an imperial procession exactly reminiscent of the original Caesar’s triumphs was arranged for him in Rome; along streets flanked by cheering crowds, he rode under triumphal arches to the Capitol. In 1504, a new and revalued silver coin bearing his portrait and known as the “giulio” was minted in his honor. The following year, Julius II commissioned from Michelangelo an enormous figure of himself, which was mounted on the façade of the Bolognese Church of San Petronio, but three years later, when his forces lost control of the city, this bronze giant was torn down, broken up, and recast as cannon. But by then Julius’ attention was preempted and occupied with other projects by Michelangelo, as well as by Raphael and Bramante.
Architecture took first place. Through new building on a grand scale, Julius intended to renovate the “decorum” of Rome, returning the city to the grandeur and authority its ancient buildings had once conferred on it. Julius Caesar had given Rome a renewed spiritual center through his constructions. Julius II would do the same, by rebuilding Saint Peter’s on a hitherto unimagined scale.
In 1505, Bramante began a series of additions to the Vatican Palace: the terraces of the Belvedere Courtyard. These were private, of course—indeed, so much so that they were designed to be seen from one main vantage point, the window of the pope’s study, the part of the papal apartments overlooking the downhill slope toward the Tiber known as the Stanza della Segnatura. Modeled on the huge imperial palaces of antiquity—Nero’s Domus Aurea, Hadrian’s Villa—they would tell the visitor that a new Catholic and papal Rome comparable in every way to the old imperial and pagan Rome was on its way. Naturally, Julius wanted this gigantic affair—a hundred meters wide and three hundred long, with its stairs, ramps, formal gardens, arcades, fountains, nymphaeum, and open-air theater—to be finished tomorrow, if not yesterday. It would have the most impressive and precious collection of antique sculpture that existed: the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, the Belvedere Torso were all there. The words of Virgil’s Cumaean Sibyl, warning off the ignorant—“Procul este, profani” (“Begone, you uninitiated”)—were cut into the stone of the spiral staircase ramp near the sculpture court. You could ride a horse up this ramp. Its architrave bears on a series of columns, which get slenderer and more refined as one ascends: the Tuscan order at the lowest level, giving way to the Doric, and then to the Ionic, and finally the Composite.
The fresco of Parnassus was painted on the north wall of the Stanza della Segnatura, above its window. The view from the window was of a part of the Vatican Hill traditionally considered sacred to Apollo. Another part of its mythic history was that Etruscan priests used to watch for auguries and make prophecies (vaticinia) from this spot. Hence the name “Vatican” for the general area. The Apollo was installed on the Belvedere as an act of naming, not so much the sculpture as its site. Having Raphael’s fresco of Apollo and the Muses right at the spot from which one observed the distant sculpture of Apollo confirmed the mantic tradition of the place, and this was enriched by the further myth that Saint Peter had been crucified there.
The Belvedere, with its size and levels, could almost be a town in itself, and certainly Bramante’s town-planning ambitions, though never fulfilled, were part of his reputation in Rome. Two years after his death, a writer named Andrea Guarna put Bramante in a comedy titled Scimmia (The Monkey). He dies and arrives at the gates of Paradise, telling Saint Peter—the original pope, one should remember, the prototype of Julius II—that he will not come in unless he is employed to rebuild the whole place:
I want to get rid of this hard and difficult road that leads from earth to Heaven; I shall build another, in a spiral, so wide that the souls of the old and the weak can ride up it on horseback. Then I think I will demolish this Paradise and make a new one that will provide more elegant and comfortable dwellings for the blessed. If you agree, then I shall stay; otherwise I shall go straight to Pluto’s house, where I shall have a better chance of carrying out my ideas.… I shall make an entirely new Hell and overturn the old one.
Neither Bramante nor Julius hesitated to get rid of old buildings, however venerable, if these got in the way of their plans. It is no surprise that one of the architect’s nicknames was “Bramante Ruinante,” Bramante the Wrecker. This was used a lot as he prepared to undertake the biggest project of his life, perhaps the biggest project of any architect’s life (unless you count later mile-high skyscrapers in Arab sheikhdoms or mega-airports in China): the design and building of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Both the pope and the architect believed, with good reason, that the old building, erected in the fourth century by Constantine, would no longer do. In the reign of Nicholas V (1447–55), a survey had shown its walls were tottering out of plumb, and there was a real danger that an earthquake tremor (to which Rome, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was more prone than it is today) would bring the whole thousand-year-old fabric down. Both men were conscious of their own mortality, and in fact would die within a year of each other, Julius in 1513 and Bramante in 1514. If history were to remember them as the authors of this colossal enterprise, they would have to hurry. Moreover, they needed to move the project as far along as possible, so that the next architect and the next pope would be stuck with their conception, unable to make radical changes.
Unfortunately, since Bramante did not run an architectural office in the modern sense, there are practically no written or drafted records of how ideas might have passed to and fro between him and Julius, and the only firsthand record of Bramante’s intentions is a drawing known as the “parchment plan,” now in the Uffizi. It shows a central dome and two domed chapels, forming a Greek cross, though of course with no indications of size. But there were strong motives for making the basilica enormous, and one can imagine Julius and his architect discussing how, now that Constantinople had fallen (in 1453) to the Turkish infidel and Hagia Sophia had become a mosque, the largest dome should be the center of Christendom. The questions raised by the demolition of a building as venerated as old Saint Peter’s would be silenced by the phrase inscribed on a medal depicting its intended elevation: TEMPLI PETRI INSTAURACIO. Instaurare meant “to restore,” “to make new”; the pope and the architect could say that they were only “restoring” the ancient fabric, though of course they were replacing it altogether.
Bramante’s inspiration for the new church was essentially Roman, not Florentine. That is to say, it was modeled on the gigantic bath complexes of ancient Rome and, like them, made of concrete and brick, with various facings of marble and limestone. As built, the basilica is 218.7 meters long, its main nave being 26 meters wide and 46 high from floor to roof. The transept is 154.8 meters long. The whole fabric contains 46 altars. It covers an area of 5.7 acres. None of these raw figures gives more than a faint impression of the vastness of a building that can, if the congregation is packed in, hold up to 60,000 people (though not comfortably). For comparison, the Duomo in Milan can hold about 37,000. Saint Peter’s dome is the tallest in the world—448 feet from the floor to the top of the external cross on the lantern. In diameter, it is fractionally smaller than the ancient dome of the Pantheon and Brunelleschi’s “modern” dome of Florence Cathedral. The tradition that it is built on top of the actual site of Saint Peter’s tomb is only that—a tradition, for which there is no compelling historical or archaeological evidence.
Not the least impressive aspect of the cupola was its lighting, splendid and theatrical. Today it is done with electric floods and spots, but from the Seicento to the end of the nineteenth century it was achieved (on special occasions, such as the festa of Saint Peter) with a superabundance of several thousand lamps, lanterns, and torches, all of which, on the orders of a theatrical maestro, would be lit simultaneously. Everyone who saw this, before the age of electricity, was astounded by its grandeur. Goethe, who witnessed it, recorded, “If one reflects that, in that moment, the great edifice serves only as the frame of a fantastic orgy of light, one can well understand that nothing else like it can be found in the world.” Rome’s vernacular poet Giuseppe Belli echoed this astonishment in a sonnet he wrote in 1834:
Chi ppopolo po’ èsse, e cchi sovrano,
Che cciàbbi a ccasa sua ’na cuppoletta
Com’ er nostro San Pietr’ in Vaticano?
In qual antra scittà, in qual antro stato,
C’è st’illuminazzione bbenedetta
Che tt’intontissce e tte fa pperde er fiato?
“What people, and what sovereign,/Have in their home a little dome/Like that of our St. Peter in the Vatican?/In what other city, in what other country,/Is there this blessed light/That stuns you and takes your breath away?”
The design of the basilica was heavy with liturgical symbolism. Thus (to take only one instance) the early drawings for the church specify twelve doors, alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel and to the twelve apostles. The most essential thing about it, from both Bramante’s and Julius’ viewpoint, was that it should be based on “perfect” geometrical forms, the square (symbolizing, among other things, earth) and the circle (the heavens), one inscribed within the other. It was not built that way, but in another building by Bramante—not in Rome—one can get some idea, on a smaller scale, of the general effect. This is the far smaller pilgrimage Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione, built on a hillside below the town of Todi, in Umbria. Its dome rises from a drum which in turn rises from a square block, from which grow four polygonal apses, each roofed with a half-dome. There is no town around it; it simply emerges from the earth, flooded with light inside. No mosaics, no statuary, no gilt, no marble: only strong, ideal geometrical form. To have such an interior to oneself, in the light of a spring morning, is to grasp a fleeting sense of what Dante meant—“luce intellettual, piena d’amore”: “the light of the mind, suffused with love.”
The construction of Saint Peter’s took 120 years and lasted for the lifetime of twenty popes. When Bramante died in 1514, he was replaced by Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo, and Raphael. Sangallo and Fra Giocondo both died the next year, which left Raphael as the master architect until he, too, died, in 1520.
Antonio da Sangallo now took over the revision of the design, and stayed with it until his own death in 1546, by which time Michelangelo—old, reluctant, and increasingly infirm—was handed the enormous task. By then Sangallo had built the crossing piers that would support the dome, and vaulted some of the arms of its immense Greek cross.
But the dome itself did not exist yet.
Michelangelo’s first step was to cancel Sangallo’s plans altogether and tear down whatever structures by Sangallo he did not like.
He wanted to revert to a Bramantean purity, and in a famous letter he sent to the Fabbrica, or Office of Works, of Saint Peter’s, he wrote, “Any who have deviated from Bramante’s arrangement, as Sangallo did, have deviated from the truth.”
Sangallo had cut off all the light from Bramante’s plan, or so Michelangelo thought, creating dark corners where nuns could be molested and false coiners could do their nefarious work. In the evenings, when the basilica had to be locked up, it would take twenty-five men to clear out anyone hiding inside. And so, “Winning [the commission for Saint Peter’s] would be the greatest loss to me, and if you can get the pope to understand this you will give me pleasure, because I don’t feel well.” It was no use. Having no choice, Michelangelo accepted, full of misgivings, in 1547. He sent off to Florence for clay and wooden models of its Duomo. These became the first inspiration for the double-shelled cupola of Saint Peter’s raised on its sixteen-sided drum. It had come nowhere near completion before Michelangelo died, in 1564. It was eventually finished by Giacomo della Porta in 1590; his design had a somewhat more pointed, upward-reaching quality than Michelangelo’s hemispheric outer dome.
Meanwhile, Raphael had been at work inside the Vatican.
Raphael was born in 1483 in Urbino, which, though small, was no cultural backwater. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter, attached to the court of its duke. The first duke, the condottiere Federigo da Montefeltro, had been ennobled by the pope—Urbino was part of the Papal States—and, largely thanks to him, the town had become what W. B. Yeats would later call “That grammar school of courtesies/Where wit and beauty learned their trade/Upon Urbino’s windy hill.” As the gifted son of a court artist, Raphael was raised in an environment where polished manners, tact, and all-round gentilezza counted immensely; this place, this tiny social world, was to be the model for Baldassare Castiglione’s classic manual of behavior, The Book of the Courtier (1528). So, although Raphael did not get a top-flight education as a humanist scholar—his Latin always seems to have been a little shaky—he did receive one in the manners and skills of a court artist. Moving gracefully in high circles was never to be a problem for him, as it often was for other Renaissance painters. Other artists, as Vasari pointed out, might be hampered by “a certain element of savagery and madness, which, besides making them strange and eccentric, had … revealed in them rather the obscure darkness of vice than the brightness and splendour of those virtues that make men immortal.” Not Raphael.
Of his precocity there was never any doubt. Right from the start, as his earliest surviving drawings (done when he was sixteen or seventeen) amply show, Raphael’s hand was both brilliant and disciplined. He was apprenticed to the studio of one of the best-known and most successful painters in Italy, Pietro Perugino (1450–1523). According to Vasari, young Raphael imitated Perugino’s style, in all its elegance and sweetness, so closely that their paintings could hardly be told apart; “his copies could not be distinguished from the master’s originals.” What made him more than an epigone of this fine but provincial artist was a sojourn in Florence, where “he changed and improved his manner so much from having seen so many works by the hands of excellent masters, that it had nothing to do with his earlier manner; indeed, the two might have belonged to different masters.”
Clearly, the road pointed toward Rome, where, thanks to Julius’ patronage, a new interest in painting, as in architecture, was simmering. It is not known how word of Raphael’s existence reached Julius II’s ears. Perhaps Bramante, who came from the same part of Italy, recommended him. In any case, by 1508 the young painter, now in his mid-twenties, had been summoned to Rome and given the difficult and prestigious job of decorating the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace. From then until his death, he would be occupied with this commission, which required him to hire more and more assistants, including Giulio Romano—who would presently transfer what he had learned from Raphael about architectural design to Raphael’s Villa Madama, in Rome, and about fresco to his own gloriously eccentric masterpiece for the Gonzagas, the Palazzo del Te, in Mantua. Giulio Romano was often accused of vulgarity, but in his hands in Mantua this became a virtue; since he could not incorporate his life-affirming coarseness into Raphael’s rooms for the pope, it went instead into the Mantuan frescoes, some of which fairly burst with stylish libido, and the enjoyably pornographic prints he made as illustrations to the work of the bawdy writer Aretino. It hardly surfaced in his Roman work.
The first room Raphael addressed in the Vatican Palace was the pope’s library and office, the Stanza della Segnatura. The themes he chose, or was given, were those appropriate to Theology, Poetry, Jurisprudence, and Philosophy.
“Poetry” called, of course, for a scene of the gathering of ancient and near-contemporary genius on Parnassus, grouped around an Apollo, who is making music below his emblematic laurel tree. At the top are his agents, the nine Muses, the Greek deities of astronomy, philosophy, and the arts. The daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne, they are Calliope (Muse of the heroic epic), Clio (history), Euterpe (lyric poetry and flute music), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (erotic poetry), Melpomene (tragic drama), Thalia (comedy), Polyhymnia (mime, sacred poetry, and agriculture), and Urania (astronomy). Ancient poets in the fresco include Homer, Virgil, Sappho, Propertius, Horace, and Tibullus. Among the more modern writers, some of whom were Raphael’s contemporaries, are Petrarch, Ariosto, Sannazaro, Boccaccio, and of course Dante. It is an anthology of what a person would need to have read before he could call himself civilized.
Traditionally, and rightly, The School of Athens, representing “Philosophy,” is the grandest of the four compositions in the Stanza della Segnatura. The arch of the wall opens out into a perspective series of further arches: we seem to be in a majestically vaulted but unfinished architectural space. Blue sky can be seen through its gaps, suggesting that the building is the new Saint Peter’s, of which Raphael was now the supervising architect. To a sixteenth-century visitor seeing this image for the first time, it would have suggested a pristine Rome, being rebuilt and restored—just what Julius II wanted his papacy to suggest.
It is filled with figures, explaining, arguing, reading, or writing. At their center, the vanishing point of the perspective, two men are advancing toward us. The one on the left, in the red garment, pointing upward, is Plato, indicating to his listeners, and to us, that the source of all ideal form is to be found in the heavens. He is holding a copy of his late work the Timaeus, which was devoted to natural science and sought to describe the relationship between gods and man in the world. The world, the Timaeus asserts, is eternal, because it is subject to eternal laws. Next to him, Aristotle, in the blue cloak, contradicts this; he points downward, to the earth, indicating that true knowledge is to be found empirically, in the world as it is and its contents as they are. He carries a book inscribedETH[IC]A—the Nicomachean Ethics, regarded by Christianizing humanists of the day as the summit of Aristotle’s thought. Each man has his eager group of listeners and disciples. The heroes of thought are sometimes given the faces of Raphael’s contemporaries. Plato, for instance, has the archetypal-sage features of Leonardo da Vinci.
Raphael wanted his fresco to represent not the physical production of books, but the processes of thinking that go into them and undergird their arguments—along with the buzz of discussion that thought produces. If one man is writing something down, another is reading it over his shoulder. The School of Athens is often taken for an image of “classical” composure, but in fact it is almost as animated as a battle piece, crisscrossed with vectors of agreement, exposition, and surprise. In the right foreground is a knot of figures watching a savant with protractors, drawing a geometrical figure on a tablet. He represents Euclid, demonstrating one of his theorems. But his face is that of Bramante, in whose buildings geometry played so large a creative role. In a corresponding position on the steps to the left is Pythagoras, busily writing in a book. Solitary, sitting apart, wrapped in a keep-away melancholy (the saturnine artist in contemplation), is Michelangelo, his pencil poised over a page. What is he thinking about? We don’t and can’t know—but we know what Raphael has been thinking about, and that is the permeability, the exchange value, of thought itself. And surely he could think about that, and find such a fluid, continuous embodiment for it, because he could draw on the help and interpretive support of the humanists in and around Julius II’s court. Perhaps such a painting as The School of Athens could be called, in that sense, a collaborative work of art. Other painters worked under Raphael as painting assistants on the Stanza della Segnatura, but who worked with him in deciding its cast of characters and implied themes?
The theme of Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza d’Eliodoro is broadly political. They represent God’s way of protecting His Church from various possible threats.
Is its wealth threatened? Then the would-be thief has to consider a once-obscure incident related in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 3), where the larcenous general Heliodorus has been planning to loot treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem. We see him sprawling, blinded, and furiously attacked by two spectacularly beautiful youths while a horseman sent by Heaven tramples him down. From the left, this scene is watched by Julius II seated in a litter, which is borne by an entourage that includes likenesses of Raphael himself and his assistant Marcantonio Raimondi.
Is there concern or skepticism about the truth of dogma? Then the visitor must consult Raphael’s fresco of The Mass at Bolsena, where we see a priest celebrating Mass; it is the climactic moment of the ceremony, the consecration of the Host, when, at the words“Hoc est enim corpus meum” (“This is indeed my body”), first uttered by Christ at the Last Supper, the bread—so Catholics are required to believe—is transformed into the veritable flesh of Jesus. This Mass in the lakeside town of Bolsena, north of Rome, had a skeptic in its congregation who was unsure about the Transubstantiation, and to convince him God caused the Host in the priest’s hands to bleed Jesus’ own sacred blood. Raphael has this event watched by the kneeling figure of Julius II, who never saw it but wished to emphasize his devotion to the Eucharist.
Thirdly, is the seat of the Church, Rome itself, in danger of invasion? Raphael symbolizes this in The Meeting of Leo the Great with Attila, the least inspired and satisfactory of the four scenes, in which we see Attila the Hun and his barbarian hordes reeling back from the walls of Rome at a mere gesture from Pope Leo I. Raphael’s figure of this pope is a portrait of the tenth Leo, Giovanni de’ Medici.
Finally, is the person of the pontiff in danger? Then the viewer must consider the fourth wall of the Stanza d’Eliodoro, with its fresco of The Liberation of Saint Peter, Raphael’s superb night-piece of the saint incarcerated in the darkness of the Mamertine Prison in Rome, glowing like a firebrand beside the shiny black armor of his guards. The sense of life restored, the contrast between the vitality of the saint and the moribund, beetlelike quality of the guards’ bodies, shows how carefully Raphael must have taken note of similar contrasts between the risen God and his slumbering captors in earlier paintings of the Resurrection of Christ. This must have been the last fresco of Raphael’s that Julius could have seen; he was painting it in 1513, the year the pope died.
The work of frescoing the stanze continued well past Julius’ death and was still absorbing Raphael while he worked as papal architect on Saint Peter’s. The clearest reference to the new pope, Giovanni de’ Medici, who took office as Leo X, is quite indirect: it shows a miracle performed by his namesake, an earlier Pope Leo, the Fourth (reigned 847–55), who miraculously extinguished a fire that threatened to destroy Saint Peter’s along with all the buildings of the Borgo. In the so-called Stanza dell’Incendio, in the frescoFire in the Borgo, he appears as a small, distant figure making the sign of the cross on a balcony, near the vanishing point of the composition. Unless you look for him, you hardly know he is there, but the clue is given by the distant, agitated women beseeching him from below his balcony. The emphasis of the fresco is on the frantic Romans in the foreground, scurrying to and fro, disoriented by the threat of the blaze. The fire rages on the extreme left. On the right, one sees a crowd of women carrying pots of water to put out the flames. There, in the foreground, is a strong young man carrying an older one piggyback, accompanied by a boy: a direct reference back to images of Aeneas accompanied by his son Ascanius and carrying his old father, Anchises, away from the flames of Troy, on their way to found Rome. A mother hands her swaddled child over a wall, into the receptive arms of a helper; a naked man hangs by his fingertips from the wall, about to drop to safety. (This is a fairly operatic moment, since it would clearly have been just as easy for the naked man to scoot around the end of the wall. But that would have deprived Raphael of the pretext to paint that magnificent body, muscles tensed at full stretch.)
In the years during which he worked on the stanze, Raphael did not limit himself to fresco. He also had a large output of portraits and devotional paintings. His portrait of Baldassare Castiglione is to be ranked with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa as one of the suavely inventive masterpieces of that genre. His most popular religious paintings were of the Madonna and Child, usually with the infant John the Baptist. One typical complaint about Raphael concerns these images, which remained steadfastly popular from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and influenced generations of artists, down to Ingres, who wrote, “We do not admire Rembrandt and the others at random; we cannot compare them and their art to the divine Raphael.” The group of German artists in Rome who called themselves the Nazarenes (Overbeck, Pforr, and others) venerated the early more than the later Raphael. Others thought him sentimental, stereotyped, and oppressively masterly; nineteenth-century English artists like Millais and Holman Hunt called themselves “Pre-Raphaelites” because they wanted to paint as though he had never existed.
But today it is difficult to have more than a glancing acquaintance with Raphael’s devotional easel paintings without succumbing to their charm, and then realizing what unsurpassed mastery lies behind them. No matter how often one sees Baby Jesus and infant Baptist playing together, however strongly one may react against the repeated theme—the prophetic Baptist showing the little Saviour a stick, or wand, with a crosspiece which Jesus eagerly reaches out for, since it is a prefiguration of the cross on which he will die—the sheer beauty and fluency of the painting gets you every time. “Immortal,” “divine,” “perfection”—such words, which Raphael’s work evoked from earlier admirers, may die on our modern (or “postmodern”) lips, but their memory cannot be entirely effaced.
And certainly no need to be rid of it was felt in the early sixteenth century. Raphael was the ideal secular as well as religious painter, faultless in his production, his meanings always clear as springwater, his saints holy, his men noble and thoughtful, his women desirable, his technique impeccable. What other artist could have painted two little angels like Raphael’s into an Assumption of the Virgin, giving them an enchanting air of childish detachment while not distracting at all from the majesty of the event? The answer is: none. Nobody had a word to say against him except the notoriously prickly Michelangelo, who learned that Bramante had let Raphael into the Sistine Chapel for an early, unauthorized look at its first completed ceiling section when its scaffolding was dismantled in 1511. “Everything he knew about art he got from me,” the titan grumbled, though serious enmity did not persist between them.
Raphael never let a client down, and among his clients were some of the most powerful men in Italy. Apart from the pope, his chief patron was the papal banker Agostino Chigi, for whom he painted two chapels in the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo (Chigi’s own burial chapel) and Santa Maria della Pace. For Chigi he also painted his only major mythological subject, a Triumph of Galatea (c. 1511–12), frescoing it on a wall of Chigi’s Villa Farnesina in Rome. Where did this delectable sea nymph come from? Possibly, indeed quite probably, she is a portrait of Chigi’s mistress. In the myth, Galatea was uncouthly loved by the monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus, in the Odyssey. (Polyphemus himself is depicted in a nearby fresco in the villa, by Sebastiano del Piombo.) She escaped from him over the sea, in a boat drawn by two dolphins, and in Raphael’s version of the event one sees that one of these charmingly stylized marine mammals is chewing up an octopus, a “polyp,” in its sharp jaws—a sight which Raphael no doubt remembered from a visit to a fish market, but which equally alludes to the defeat of Polyphemus. Nereids and other sea deities sport around her, putti flutter in the sky above. Galatea herself is enchantingly pretty, surfing along in graceful contrapposto, but she may not have been directly painted from a living model: “To paint a beauty, I should have to see a number of beauties, provided Your Lordship were with me to choose the best. But in the absence of good judges and beautiful forms, I make use of an idea which comes to my mind.”
By then Raphael was famous throughout Europe, and so esteemed in the papal court that the pope’s treasurer—Leo X’s chief minister, Cardinal Bernardo Bibbiena—actually offered his niece to the painter in marriage. Even more remarkably, the painter politely refused. There seem to have been two reasons for this. The first was that Raphael’s life was full of other women, notably La Fornarina, who was his adoring mistress for years. If his portrait of her (c. 1518) in Rome’s Galleria Nazionale is truthful, which presumably it is, and correctly identified, which it may not be, one can well understand why he might not have wished to switch. The second reason is said to have been more practical: there was a possibility that Leo X might make him a cardinal, an office to which married men could not be raised. If that had happened, Raphael would have been the first and only artist in history to receive the red hat for making art. But neither that nor the marriage took place: in 1520, at the excessively young age of thirty-seven, Raphael died—as a result, some said, of a fever caused by a particularly energetic night of love with La Fornarina, “the Baker’s Daughter,” his delicious black-eyed woman of the people from Trastevere. He was buried in a niche in the Pantheon: the epitaph cut on his tomb slab was an elegant distich by his friend the poet Pietro Bembo: ILLE HIC EST RAPHAEL, TIMUIT QUO SOSPITE VINCI/RERUM MAGNA PARENS, ET MORIENTE MORI. “The man here is Raphael; while he was alive, the Great Mother of All Things [Nature] feared to be outdone; and when he died, she, too, feared to die.”
The frescoing of the stanze was one of the two chief achievements of Julius’ patronage. The other, it goes almost without saying, was the employment of Michelangelo Buonarroti. It was for Julius that Michelangelo, sometimes with the deepest misgivings and resentments, frescoed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, producing what remains the most powerful—if not in all ways the most likable or even comprehensible—series of images of the human figure in the whole history of European art. It would be followed, more than twenty years after Julius’ death, by the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel, conceived by Pope Clement VII late in 1533, commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese in 1534, started as cartoons in 1535 and as fresco in 1536, and finally unveiled to very mixed reactions in 1541.
In between these fell the tragic debacle of Julius’ tomb, Michelangelo’s obsessive project. It was to have been a sculptural block about twenty-four by thirty-six feet, and thus with a “footprint” of over seventy square meters. It was designed to be on three levels, containing some forty-seven marble figures. It would have been in Saint Peter’s, where, since Bernini had not yet appeared, it would have been the greatest sculptural project of the Christian world. And, Michelangelo being what he was, maker of the colossalDavidin Florence, it would have been entirely the work of one man. Ascanio Condivi, who knew Michelangelo and wrote his life, relates:
All around about the outside were niches for statues, and between niche and niche, terminal figures; to these were bound other statues, like prisoners … rising from the ground and projecting from the monument. They represented the liberal arts, and likewise Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture … denoting by this that, like Pope Julius, all the virtues were the prisoners of Death, because they could never find such favor and nourishment as he gave them.
This was never achieved. Julius II died in 1513, but none of his successors was able, or willing, to support the project. Before long it was relocated, in a much-diminished form, to Julius’ former titular church in Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli. Though it contains one tremendous finished sculpture for the tomb, the Moses, Julius II’s final resting place does not even remotely resemble in scale, size, site, or imagery what Buonarroti had in mind. Julius himself had undermined Michelangelo’s chances to complete it, by ordering him to paint the Sistine instead. Paul III had ruined them by insisting that he lay down hammer and chisel to paint the Last Judgment. Then there were the architectural projects for the Medici, such as the Laurentian Library and the façade of San Lorenzo, the Medici church in Florence. A man, even if that man is Michelangelo, can only do so much.
The Sistine Chapel was so called because it had been built thirty years before Julius’ papacy by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV (reigned 1471–84). Its architect was the otherwise unremarkable Giovannino de’ Dolci. Its walls were frescoed by some of the greatest Quattrocento artists, including Luca Signorelli, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Bernadino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio; but nine out of every ten people who visit the Sistine go there only for the ceiling.
The layout of the Sistine reflects a particularly medieval conception of world history. It was believed, in the Middle Ages, that humanity’s past divided into three sections or epochs. The first was the story of the world before God gave the Law to Moses. The second was the Law as laid down to Moses. The third, life since the Law, centered on the birth and life of Christ: the period of the New Testament. Sixtus IV’s artists had illustrated the third part and some of the second. However, this left the first untouched, and so it was to Michelangelo that Julius II entrusted the task of illustrating, on the ceiling, the epic narrative of the Old Testament.
The ceiling was blank, or almost. The only decoration on it was a uniform coat of ultramarine blue, dotted with golden stars. It was enormous, forty and a half meters long and fourteen wide, and every inch of it had to be painted by Michelangelo. The contract to paint the vault was drawn up and signed in May 1508, and the work was finished in October 1512—a little more than four years, which included an interruption of close to a year, between 1510 and 1511. Considering that all, or nearly all, the painting was done by Michelangelo and not delegated to assistants, as Raphael might have done, this represented an astounding speed of execution. Of course, he did have assistants—carpenters to erect the high scaffolding and the ladders, studio men to grind the colors and mix the plaster, laborers to carry the paints and buckets of water up the ladders to the top of the scaffold, stuccatori to apply the wet plaster to the ceiling, and assistants to help hold the cartoons or design drawings in place while their lines were transferred to the plaster, whether by scratched-in marks from a stylus or by “pouncing” lines of powdered charcoal dots through holes pricked in the paper. No one man could have done all that donkey work. The conception of the grand design must have been formed by conferring with others, chiefly Julius II and whatever clergy and theologians he might have brought in—not many, one suspects.
But all the rest—which is to say, about 95 percent of the actual work, all the painting of more than ten thousand square feet of ceiling—was done by Michelangelo alone, and the more one knows about the technique of buon fresco, as this kind of painting was called in his native Florence, the more astounding the achievement of the Sistine becomes.
An artist could not just paint his design on a hard, dried plaster surface. That invited disaster, and when even an artist as skilled as Leonardo da Vinci tried it with the Last Supper in Milan, disaster obligingly came. The reason is that no wall made of bricks, mortar, and plaster is ever completely dry and impermeable. Waterborne salts work their way in from outside and destroy an oily paint film lying on top of plaster inside. This does not happen, or not as gravely, when the colored pigment is integrated with the plaster, and such is the essence of buon fresco. For the paint to be integrated with the plaster, it must be applied while the plaster is damp—ideally, two or three hours after the laying of the intonaco, as the fresh lime plaster is known. Then the two form an indissoluble chemical bond when they dry.
But fresco has its peculiarities, and the chief one is that it has to be done piecemeal. The artist must complete painting a section of the intonaco before it dries. If the pigment is put on dry plaster, as it sometimes has to be for retouching and correction, it is said to be done a secco and lacks the durability of true fresco. However, not all pigments are suitable for fresco, because some—particularly the blues and greens, such as ultramarine and malachite—are vulnerable to the alkaline action of the lime. These were used a secco.The preferred fresco pigments included the ochers, brown and yellow earths, hematite reds, umber, burnt sienna, ivory black, and vine black. The borders of each section must therefore be planned, like a large jigsaw. Each is limited to the work that can be done in a single day. The patch of each day’s surface was known as a giornata, and it is easy for a trained eye, close up, to follow the outlines of each giornata and thus reconstruct the order in which the fresco was done. If repair work is needed, as it sometimes was, it was done by brushing water-based paint onto the now dried intonaco. A further complication is that in fresco colors do not dry the way they look when wet—a problem that does not arise with oil paint or watercolor. Pigments with a green or black hue dry lighter, whereas iron-oxide pigments dry darker; matching up wet and dry demands from the artist the most acute powers of visual memory.
It is not known exactly how the narrative of the ceiling was composed. Michelangelo undoubtedly had input from others (especially the pope) in doing it. (He claimed he invented it all, but he was given to claims like that.) The basis of the vault we see now is nine scenes from the book of Genesis, framed in fictive (painted) stonework, running crosswise between the long walls. They begin at the altar end of the chapel with three scenes of cosmic creation, The Separation of Light from Darkness, The Creation of the Sun and the Moon, and The Separation of Land from Water. Then follow three more: The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, and The Temptation of Adam and Eve combined in one panel with The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Finally, one sees The Sacrifice of Abel (or perhaps that of Noah), The Flood, and The Drunkenness of Noah, complete with the ancient patriarch’s eldest son committing what had become known as the Sin of Ham—not overindulgence in prosciutto crudo, but gazing upon his inebriated father’s nakedness.
Gazing on masculine nakedness was, of course, Michelangelo’s unwavering obsession. On the painted stone frame surrounding these scenes sit the ignudi, the beautiful naked youths who have no part in the biblical narrative but are purely the invention of the artist, and make up the grandest anatomical repertoire in Western art. They serve to hold up garlands and painted bronze medallions. The spandrels of the chapel hold mighty figures depicting those who foretold the coming of Christ to the ancient Gentiles (the Sibyls) and to the ancient Jews (the Prophets). They alternate down the walls: the Libyan Sibyl, then Daniel, then the Cumaean Sibyl, then Isaiah, and so on. It seems, the more one looks at this huge vocabulary of human form, that Michelangelo did more than any artist before him to give posture and gesture their utmost eloquence. Here is the Libyan Sibyl, arms spread wide to hold open her enormous book, showing her back but looking over her shoulder. Here is the figure of Jonah, just released from the mouth of the whale—which is actually more the size of a large tarpon—leaning back and gazing upwards in astonishment at a sky which he never thought to see again. Goethe, after visiting the Sistine, wrote that no one could have any idea of what a single individual could accomplish on his own unless he had stepped inside this huge hall. It is still true, and no other work of art can deliver that.
The effort of painting the ceiling, lying on his back, was brutal and interminable, even for a man in his mid-thirties in peak physical condition. Michelangelo wrote a sardonic sonnet about it, addressed to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia. “I’ve grown a goiter at this drudgery,” it begins,
The kind wet cats get in the Lombard swamps
Or in whatever country the things live—
My belly’s rucked up underneath my chin,
My beard points up, my memory hangs down
Under my balls, I’ve grown a harpy’s breast,
And all the while my brush above me drips,
Spattering my face till it’s an inlaid floor.
He feels crippled, permanently deformed—“I am recurved like a Syrian bow”—and his thinking is distorted:
A man shoots badly with a crooked gun.
And so, Giovanni, come to rescue me,
Come rescue my dead painting, and my honor—
This place is wrong for me, and I’m no painter.
The Sistine ceiling is almost all body, or bodies; the only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree. Michelangelo was not even remotely interested in landscape; in this respect, as in many others, he was completely the opposite of Leonardo da Vinci. The human body, preferably male, its structure, musculature, and infinitely diverse postures, framed all the expressive powers he wanted to use. A dumb tree? A patch of unconscious grass? A wandering, arbitrarily shape-shifting cloud? Forget it. None of these, in Michelangelo’s eyes, had the grand complexity, the sublimely purposeful integration, of the human body, created in God’s own likeness. Leonardo might suspect that universal laws lay hidden in the behavior of water pouring from a sluice gate into a still pond, but such speculations were of no interest to Michelangelo.
Twenty-one years after the ceiling was complete, in 1533, Michelangelo began work on his fresco for the altar wall of the Sistine, and this time the work contained nothing but bodies (though there is a small patch of water, representing the river Styx, at the bottom). The subject of this monumental muscle-scape was the Last Judgment. It is a huge creation, and he took eight years over it, finishing it in 1541, at the age of sixty-six—almost twice the age he was when he began the Sistine ceiling.
Politically, a great deal had happened in Italy in those twenty-nine years, and the most traumatic event of all had come in 1527, with the Sack of Rome. Barbarians and other enemies had got as far as the walls of Rome in previous years, but none had actually succeeded in breaching them on a large scale. The Sack of 1527, however, was almost another Cannae in its traumatic effects on Roman self-possession and self-confidence.
Europe had now become an immense cockpit in which national factions were battling it out for international dominance. Long and inconclusive wars (1526–29) were fought in Italy between the troops of the self-styled Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the hodgepodge alliance of France, Milan, Florence, and the Papacy. There is considerable truth in the saying that the Holy Roman emperor was neither holy, nor Roman, nor in any real sense an emperor. Nonetheless, Pope Clement VII had thrown his lot in with Charles so as to avert France’s defeat at the hands of Charles’s army. But the imperial forces did defeat the Franco-Florentine-papal alliance—only to find there was no money to pay the troops their promised fee. Frustrated, the imperial forces mutinied and forced their commander, Charles III, duke of Bourbon, to lead them in an attack on Rome. Rome was a fat, rich city, full of treasure; so it was assumed. The army of the Holy Roman emperor contained a substantial number of Lutheran sympathizers, grimly delighted at the thought of attacking the throne of the Great Whore of Babylon, the Catholic Church; and, whatever their religious views, all thirty-four thousand soldiers wanted their promised back pay. So they marched south, spreading rapine and chaos as they went, and arrived beneath the Aurelian walls of Rome in early May 1527.
The city was not strongly defended. It had better artillery than its attackers, but only five thousand militia and the small papal force known as the Swiss Guard. Duke Charles III died in the attack—the great goldsmith-sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, never averse to self-promotion, claimed to be (and possibly was) the marksman who shot him. With him died the last possibility of restraint on the imperial invaders, among whom were fourteen thousand fearsome German Landsknechte, thirsting for blood, sex, and gold. The Swiss Guard was cut down almost to the last man on the steps of Saint Peter’s—out of its five hundred members, only forty-two escaped and, with commendable bravery and guile, managed to smuggle Pope Clement VII by a secret corridor out of the Borgo and to precarious safety as a prisoner in all but name in the Castel Sant’Angelo. About a thousand defenders of the city and its churches were summarily killed. Then the sack began.
Before long, it was for the living in Rome to envy the dead. Priests were dragged from their sacristies, savagely humiliated, and put to death, sometimes on their own altars. Hundreds of nuns were gang-raped and then killed, starting with the younger and more attractive ones. Monasteries, palaces, and churches were gutted and torched, and the higher clergy—including many cardinals—had to pay heavy ransoms to the implacable soldiers. Some of the minor scars of these days can still be seen today: in one of Raphael’sstanze, a mutineer left his scratches on the fresco of Heliodorus. The chaos went on for weeks. The Emperor Charles V was unable, and not altogether willing, to stop his troops. Not until June 6, after a month of unremitting plunder and rape, did Clement VII formally surrender and agree to pay a ransom of 400,000 ducats for his own life.
It was spared, but there was no way to restore the prestige of his papacy, or the sense of inviolability that went with Rome’s position as caput mundi. If God had allowed this to happen, what reliance could be put on Rome’s supposedly divine mission? In minds all over Europe, the Sack of Rome was an omen, joining in terrible synergy with the Reformation, which was by now a ten-year-old movement with undeniable staying power. God was abandoning the city; had already abandoned it, perhaps. A judgment had fallen. This was the end of the Renaissance papacy in Rome, that short and glorious thing. And although Michelangelo, who witnessed these things, was not given to writing about current events, it is surely not wrong to see in the titanic pessimism of the SistineLast Judgment some character of response to the sacking of the helpless city six years earlier. Possibly, indeed probably, the image of Charon, the diabolic ferryman, whacking the terrified souls out of his boat with his oar, harks back to some moment Michelangelo had witnessed when a gleefully ruthless Landsknecht was driving a gaggle of helpless citizens out of their shelter with stabs and swipes of his halberd.
The wall of figures is huge; it is also almost unbearably claustrophobic, because there is no “space” in the ordinary sense of the word: no landscape or skyscape in which you can imagine your own body moving. It is packed almost to immobility with enormous bodies. Its actors are vehemently corporeal, and yet not of this world. We see, as we have seen in other Last Judgments, the division of the damned from the saved, the former going down to Hell, the latter rising to glory under the aegis of Judge Jesus. And yet there is something disquietingly irrational about the scene, if something as huge and dispersed as this can rightly even be called a “scene.” Why does Jesus look more like a relentless Apollonian Greek god than the “normal” judge and Saviour of other Last Judgments? Why does Jesus’ mother crouch so submissively by his side, as though terrified by the revelation of her son’s capacity for wrath against sin? Perhaps both are related to the line of Dante’s which had probably inspired Michelangelo before, when he carved the adult and supremely beautiful dead Christ lying in his mother’s lap, Figlia del tuo figlio, Daughter of Your Son. But why does Saint Bartholomew, customarily depicted holding up his own skin (which was flayed from him in his martyrdom), hold up a human skin whose collapsed face is unmistakably that of Michelangelo himself? And why on earth did Michelangelo give the blessed Bartholomew the face of that most unsaintly writer, the satirist and pornographer Pietro Aretino, whose collection of sexual “postures,” illustrated byGiulio Romano, was one of the repressed classics of High Renaissance titillation? These and a dozen other questions rise unbidden whenever one enters the chapel and gazes at its altar wall, and they bring with them the thin thread of possibility that they could be answered, at least partly, if only one could see Michelangelo’s work as it had been when his brush left it.
In the meantime, both the ceiling and the Last Judgment had been condemned to woeful indignities. Some popes later than Paul III quite vehemently disliked it. Paul IV (reigned 1555–59) called the Judgment “a stew of nudes,” meaning “stew” in the Renaissance sense of a public bath, a stufato, a whorehouse. Another Medici pope, Pius IV (reigned 1559–65), ordered that some of the figures be made decent with painted loincloths; this task was assigned to a good painter, Daniele da Volterra, who ever after was known as il braghettone, the trouser maker. Clement VIII (reigned 1592–1605) wanted the whole thing whitewashed over, but fortunately was dissuaded by his clerics.
No art-interested person who was in Rome in the late 1970s and early ’80s is likely to forget the passions roused by the project of cleaning the Sistine. Lifelong friendships were broken; the field of discussion, usually a relatively tranquil one, was swept by hails and cross-fires of moral disagreement.
The argument tended to revolve around one central question: was the grayness, the almost monochrome character of so much of Michelangelo’s coloring, deliberate or accidental?
There is always a certain resistance to cleaning any beloved work of art. The thought of damage, the natural fear of radical change, combine in what sometimes amounts to an anguished conservatism. And sometimes it is not a bit unreasonable: those who remember certain paintings in London’s National Gallery, before the director Sir Philip Hendy’s restorers were unleashed to use their swabs and solvents upon them, bitterly recall that they were not merely spruced up but skinned alive. The puritanical belief that cleanliness is next to godliness, that the more you take off the closer to the original truth you come, was still very strong in some quarters of the picture-cleaning trade in the late 1970s, and in the early 1960s it was virtually a dogma. The reduced color of the Sistine ceiling seemed to accord very well with the belief that Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, a man who naturally thought in terms of monochrome substance. People didn’t want to think that the grayness which lent the figures a marmoreal grandeur, even as it deprived them of detail, was just dirt, soot, and centuries of grime.
Elaborate explanations were devised by the anti-cleaning faction, which, it is only fair to say, included some of the most distinguished art historians in Italy and elsewhere. The most popular idea was that Michelangelo, disliking the relative brightness of the Sistine frescoes, had applied an última mano, a “final touch,” in the form of a darkening and unifying wash of pigment and animal glue-size. Obscure and ambiguous ancient texts about the use of atramentum, a dark tonal wash, in antique painting were resurrected to suggest that Michelangelo had used it, too.
Glue there certainly was, and dark-wash pigment, too. But Michelangelo did not put them there. They were later accretions. The pigment was mostly airborne soot, from hundreds of years of burning candles. (Before the age of electricity, the Sistine was lit by large, stout candles, smoking away on an internal ledge below the level of the frescoes. They were not beeswax, which burns relatively cleanly, but the kind of black gunk you get on a barbecue from grilling chops.) And the glue was animal size, much of it also applied long after Michelangelo’s death by intrusive conservators who sought to bring up the higher tones in the frescoes by darkening the lower ones. The net result was a messy obscurity. Various attempts were made over the years to clean some of the film of dirt away, but none succeeded.
If you wanted to know what colors Michelangelo really preferred in a painting, it made sense to look at his one surviving complete easel picture, the Doni Tondo, or Holy Family (c. 1504). Bright, singing colors—colori cangianti, as they were called, the hues of shot silk, the crinkled sky-blue of Mary’s skirt, the opulent yellow of Joseph’s garment, the general clarity of light—none of this looked remotely like the colors of the Sistine ceiling. Inevitably, when the ceiling was cleaned in 1999 and colors similar to those of theDoni Tondo began to appear, there were cries of protest from art historians who felt that Michelangelo had been traduced: the “new” colors were those of later, Mannerist art, characteristic of artists like Pontormo or Rosso Fiorentino. The obvious deduction from this should have been that the bright colori cangianti of Mannerism had been copied from the Michelangelo of the Sistine, by artists who regarded Michelangelo as the ultimate guide and wished only to follow him in homage, when they flocked to the Sistine to see his new work. But critics of the restoration were determined to put the cart before the horse.
Seeing the Sistine frescoes in their renewed state a decade later, one can only guess what the hysteria of opposition had been about. They can now be seen in their full plenitude of color, and it is one of the world’s supreme sights. At this point I should perhaps confess a bias: working for what was then a major American magazine, Time, I was lucky enough to get extended access to the ponte or moving bridge between the Sistine walls on which the cleaners worked, and spent the better part of three days up there, with my nose a couple of feet from the fresco surface, seeing the way Michelangelo’s color was coming alive once more after so long a burial under waxy residue, and how the forms were being reborn. This was a privilege, probably the most vivid one I had in a fifty-year career as an art critic. It left me in no doubt that the Vatican team’s meticulous high-tech efforts, inch by inch, were as great a feat of skill and patience as John Brealey’s magnificently discreet cleaning of Velázquez’s Las meninas in Madrid, and that an enormous cultural truth, once obscured, was now coming to light.
Michelangelo’s frescoes are, of course, a magnetic point of concentrated attraction for visitors to Rome—so much so that it is no longer possible to appreciate them in peace, thanks to the intolerable jam-packed year-round crowds. Michelangelo’s Romanarchitecture is, however, a different matter. Its chief undertakings were three: the reform of the Capitol, complete with its bronze of Marcus Aurelius on horseback; the design of the grandest palace in Rome, Palazzo Farnese; and the development of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s.
Sometimes, while he was working on the Last Judgment, Michelangelo was approached in the hope that he would turn to public-architecture projects. With the Judgment finished, and the Paoline Chapel behind him, he was relieved to give himself over to architecture, and the first of the schemes in which he immersed himself was the redesign of Rome’s mythic and historic nucleus, the Capitol (in Italian, Campidoglio). The need for a renewed Capitol had become clear in 1536, nine years after the Sack of Rome, when the victorious Charles V made a state visit to the still horribly scarred Rome, and Pope Paul III realized that, although temporary processional arches were run up to greet the emperor along the old Roman route of triumph, there was no great central piazza for a reception ceremony.
The Capitoline Hill, with all its historical associations, seemed suitable, and in 1538, Paul III ordered the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback to be moved from its site outside the Lateran to a new spot on the Capitol. The pope thought, wrongly, that it was a statue of the Emperor Constantine, hence Christian. It was a fortunate mistake, since only the fact that all Romans in the Middle Ages had assumed it to be Constantine (or, later, the Christian Antoninus Pius) had protected it from being demolished and melted down as a pagan monument. Michelangelo, interestingly enough, opposed placing the Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol—we don’t know why—but, fortunately for Rome, the pope overrode him. He was made an honorary citizen of Rome in 1537, and, flattered by this compliment, he pressed ahead with ideas for the Capitol. He designed an oval base for the statue, which he surrounded with an oval pavement, replacing the amorphous piazza in front of the Palazzo del Senatore. He put in two symmetrical staircases on the face of that palace, and designed a fine wide stepped ramp, the cordonata, linking the piazza to what is now the level of Piazza Venezia below. So the visual axis of the cordonata runs through the Marcus Aurelius and up to the junction of the twin stairs on Palazzo del Senatore. Now the statue needed a new architectural environment. To one side of it, built on the ruins of what was once the Temple of Jupiter, was the fifteenth-century Palazzo dei Conservatori. Michelangelo gave it a new façade, with powerful full-height Corinthian pilasters, and on the other side, facing it, he built the matching Palazzo Nuovo, now the Capitoline Museum, which holds its prodigiously rich collection of Roman antiquities.
In this way, Michelangelo created one of the greatest urban centers in the history of architecture; only a few others in Italy, such as Piazza San Marco in Venice and the Piazza del Campo or shell-shaped piazza in Siena, compare to it in spatial beauty, and none can approach its phenomenal richness of art content. Nothing could rival it, or ever will. Its effect on visiting aesthetes was summed up in a much later drawing by the neoclassical artist Henry Fuseli, who had moved to Rome for an eight-year sojourn in 1770. It showed a figure, head buried in his hands in despair, seated before the enormous marble foot and hand of Constantine; this is still on the Capitol. Its title is The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments. This emotion was often felt, and by many; but not by Michelangelo. Raphael was the more enthusiastic preserver of the two.
Through his short life, Raphael actively promoted the preservation of Rome’s innumerable ancient ruins and monuments. A report on their decay was submitted to Julius II’s successor, Leo X, who in 1515 appointed Raphael to be prefect of the antiquities of Rome. This did not give Raphael the power to block the plunder of ancient marble. Rather the reverse—it put him in charge of gathering ancient material to be used in building the new Saint Peter’s. So there is something hypocritical about the lamentations in the report. It is not clear who compiled and wrote it. Unsigned, it has been ascribed to Bramante, Raphael, the writer Baldassare Castiglione, and others. Since a draft copy of the report written in Baldassare’s hand was found in the Castiglione family library, and since Raphael (1483–1520) was not only the architect-designate of Saint Peter’s and the chief adviser on aesthetic matters to Leo X, but also an intimate friend of Castiglione, it is likely that the two men wrote the report together.
The author(s), says the report, have been all over Rome, looking, drawing, measuring, and it has been a decidedly mixed pleasure: this knowledge of “so many excellent things has given me the greatest pleasure; on the other hand, the greatest grief. For I beheld this noble city, which was the queen of the world, so wretchedly wounded as to be almost a corpse.” In Rome, antiquity had been mercilessly despoiled by the Romans themselves, the fine stone of the ruins looted, the columns felled and carted away, the marble statues and friezes burned for lime, the bronzes melted down. This had been going on for hundreds of years, without hindrance from pope or Senate. The Romans had done more damage to Rome than the worst barbarian invasions. Compared with them, “Hannibal would appear to have been a pious man.” “Why should we bewail the Goths, the Vandals, and other perfidious enemies of the Latin name, when those who above all others should be fathers and guardians in defense of the poor relics of Rome have even given themselves over to the study—long study—of how these might be destroyed and disappear?” This Ubuesque project of demolishing the ruins, this relentless urbicide, was Rome’s biggest, almost its only, industry.
How many pontiffs, Holy Father, who have held the same office as yourself, though without the same knowledge … have permitted the ruin and defacement of the ancient temples, of statues and arches and other edifices that were the glory of their builders? How many allowed the very foundations to be undermined so that pozzolana [volcanic ash] might be dug from them, so that, in but a little time, the buildings fell to the ground? How much lime has been burned from the statues and ornaments of ancient times?
This piecemeal destruction of the city by its ignorant developers was “the infamy of our times,” an atrocious historical castration. Raphael and Castiglione knew very well whom they were pleading to. He was Giovanni de’ Medici, successor to the mighty Julius II, the last layman to be elected pope, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence, then only in his early forties.
He had received a good humanistic education at Lorenzo’s court in Florence, from such luminaries as Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and the poet Angelo Poliziano. Both in Florence and in Rome, he had been immersed in art and literature; his reverence for the classical past was thoroughly instilled, not just an affectation or a pseudo-intellectual quirk. Moreover, he did not have automatic respect for the opinions of earlier popes, especially on such matters as architectural history.
“Since God has given us the papacy,” Giovanni de’ Medici famously remarked after his election as Leo X, “let us enjoy it.” He set out to do so, and he did. Venice’s ambassador to Rome, Marino Giorgi, wrote that Leo was “a good-natured and extremely free-hearted man, who avoids every difficult situation and above all wants peace.… He loves learning; of canon law and literature he possesses remarkable knowledge.” He had a menagerie of pets, including a tame white elephant. He was, according to the 1525 testimony of the historian and politician Francesco Guicciardini, an active and unembarrassed homosexual, “exceedingly devoted—and every day with less shame—to that kind of pleasure which for honor’s sake may not be named.” And he was culturally serious. Leo X restored the University of Rome, which had fallen on hard times during the pontificate of Julius II. He increased the salaries of its professors, expanded its faculties, and underwrote a Greek printing press, which created the first Greek book to be published in Rome (1515), an important step in the implantation of humanistic ideas in the city. He gave papal secretaryships to scholars and poets, such as Pietro Bembo and Gian Giorgio Trissino.
All this cost money—a great deal of it. Leo X badly depleted the papal treasury in two or three years. Naturally, it embarrassed him, as Christ’s vicar on earth, to find himself presiding over a city as miserably shorn of its ancient glory as Rome had become. The Church needed defenses, of which new buildings were the manifest and concrete proof. Julius II and his architect Bramante had begun to replace the old Saint Peter’s with a vast new basilica, and now Leo X set out to double its size, a thing unheard of in the previous history of Christianity. Much of the time these expansions were chaotic, since new popes tended quite often to allow the projects of those before them to lapse. The military, political, architectural, and artistic ambitions of successive pontiffs drove the Papacy into long spasms of bottomless debt, causing inextricable woes to its bankers. Leo X was certainly not exempt from these financial horrors, and his short-term palliatives for them were a disaster for the Church. He was one of the most feckless spenders in the history of the Papacy. One cannot help liking him for his attachment to the fine arts, especially for his encouragement of literature and scholarship. But the Church needed a more restrained man, and restraint was not a virtue Leo X understood. He needed immense sums, not only to support his luxurious tastes, but to finance large projects, of which the largest was building the new Basilica of Saint Peter’s. He therefore opened the door to one of the worst rackets in ecclesiastical history: the large-scale sale of indulgences.
When not enough cash was flowing in from it, Leo sold (to selected buyers, of course) the prestige of association with the Papacy. He invented all manner of new papal offices, and sold them to the highest bidders. It was reliably estimated that when Leo died more than two thousand people were paying for offices he had created, generating a capital value of three million ducats, which yielded the pope 328,000 ducats a year. Cardinals’ hats were commonly sold, and this caused the higher levels of the hierarchy to silt up with avaricious crooks. Leo was even reported to be pawning and selling some of the artistic contents of the Vatican—furniture, plate, jewels, and works of art.
It is not certain that Leo X fully understood the determined anger propelling the epic change in the history of ideas and of worship that was about to rock Europe; there could hardly have been two more dissimilar men than the Medici pope and the German monk named Martin Luther who, in the fourth year of Leo’s papacy, on October 31, 1517, nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther was a deeply educated man, but he had none of the hedonistic delight in culture that animated Leo. In no way could he have been called a sensualist, which Leo in all respects was.
The indignation and disgust this caused among the faithful was to be one of the prime causes of the Reformation, in which for doctrinal reasons the epochal split between Catholicism and Protestantism took root. But at the same time that Leo was disposing so recklessly of such magnificent works of art, he was acquiring others, notably books and manuscripts for the ever-growing Vatican Library. In the process, the pope who gave rise to the Reformation was also fostering a new intellectual elite: the Roman humanists.