You cannot imagine modern Rome without the changes that a single pope, Sixtus V, imposed on it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Because of his patronage of titans like Michelangelo, we are naturally inclined to think of Julius II as the supreme “building pope” of the sixteenth century. And so he was, in a sense—but if the scale of Sixtus V Peretti’s changes to the urban structure of Rome is not appreciated, one is fated to misunderstand the city. It was Sixtus V who laid the groundwork of Baroque Rome, the city whose exoskeleton the visitor sees today but is apt to take for granted.
He was elected pope in 1585, inheriting a chaotic city riddled with crime, close to bankruptcy, and dotted with half-abandoned ruins. In the apogee of its imperial years, Rome held over a million people. Now it had possibly twenty-five thousand, and probably fewer. The economic depression of the fourteenth century, forced on Rome by the Great Schism that drove the city into a plunge, had turned Rome into a veritable ghost town with monuments.
The seven main churches of Rome were foci for a steadily increasing flow of religious tourism, which, unlike later and more exploitive forms of mass tourism, did little for the city’s general economy. True, every year the number of pilgrimages by the faithful increased. But the connective tissue between them—the living body of the supposedly Eternal City—seemed to be shriveling at an alarming rate. One project of renewal stood out: Michelangelo’s masterpiece of urban design, the remaking of the Capitol, which had been accomplished in the 1540s—long before Sixtus V’s papacy. But too little had been built anew, and the order on which Rome depended for its continued civic life had disappeared, replaced by a chaos reminiscent of New York City in the 1970s or Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. Some people believed the bandits had taken over. One estimate said there were twenty thousand of them, about one for every law-abiding citizen. This hardly seems plausible, but certainly the crime rate had increased beyond computation.
Such a crisis cannot be averted by one person. Yet it cannot be defeated without strong leadership, either—without a ruthless intensity of will that committees cannot usually summon. But, as sometimes happened, the crisis called forth the man—a cleric who, in the closing years of the sixteenth century, became pope and thus took over Rome and its administration. He was Felice Peretti, Cardinal Montalto, a Franciscan who had been elected pope by the conclave that followed the death of Gregory XIII, and had assumed the papacy under the name of Sixtus V.
He was a farmer’s son, born in Grottammare, an obscure paese near Montalto, in the Papal States. It was said that as a boy he had been a swineherd, which may easily be true. He rose rapidly within the Church as a Minorite friar, becoming the rector of successive convents in Siena (1550), Naples (1553), and Venice (1556). He was appointed counselor to the Inquisition there a year afterward. Fierce and fanatical Inquisitors were no novelty in Venice, but even there Peretti seems to have been abnormal in his zeal, and by 1560 the Venetian government demanded and got his withdrawal.
In 1566, Pope Pius V made him a bishop; in 1570, he took the cardinal’s red hat. Fifteen years later, he was elected pope. He was said to have entered the chamber of the electoral conclave on crutches, feigning extreme infirmity. No doubt he hoped this would improve his chances of being elected as an interim, short-term pope. The instant his election was confirmed by the white smoke rising from the chimney, he flung the crutches away, to stand before the assembled cardinals erect and fairly bristling with vitality. The story is untrue, but “se non è vero,” as the Romans habitually say, “è ben trovato,”—“if it’s not true, it ought to be.”
In some respects, Sixtus V was a terrifying figure; in others, an ignorant one; and in all ways, formidable. But he could never be reproached for either indecision or lack of creativity. The atmosphere of reform that seized the Church had brought forth a man whose belief in authority, especially his own as pontiff, was absolute. However, being a man of iron will, he was not inclined to listen to those he considered his inferiors—which meant anyone else in the One Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. This showed in all his actions, from city planning to Biblical scholarship.
In the late 1580s, Sixtus took charge of publishing the “Sixtine Vulgate,” or official Latin text of the Bible. This was a religious necessity, because it would give Italians the definitive printed form of the fundamental text of Christendom, protecting it from heretical incursions like Lutheranism.
But Sixtus did not take kindly to editors. He saw them as quibbling nuisances, and brusquely ignored their suggestions. This edition, published in 1590, became a bibliographic rarity, because it was so full of mistakes that it had to be suppressed—after his death, naturally.
Nothing like that happened with his plans for Rome itself. Thinking holistically, on a citywide scale rather than just building by building, Sixtus transformed the shape of Rome.
But first he had the crime problem to deal with.
“Non veni pacem mittere,” he told a fellow cardinal who congratulated him on his election, “sed gladium”: the words of Christ, “I come not to send peace, but a sword.”
The papal blade first swung, with deadly effect, at Rome’s population of thugs and thieves, who found themselves arrested, beheaded, garroted, or hanging from gibbets and the Tiber’s bridges. Sixtus V emphatically did not believe that citizens had the right to bear arms. What he did believe in was judicial terror. When four innocuous youths with sheathed swords were seen following one of his papal processions, he had them summarily executed. This policy was so effective that before long the Papal States were considered the safest domain in Europe. Sixtus celebrated this achievement by having a medal struck with his face on one side and on the other a pilgrim sleeping beneath a tree, with the motto Perfecta securitas.
In case villains tried to get away, Sixtus was the first to arrange for extradition treaties with neighboring states. No ruler was going to risk papal displeasure by ignoring them. If the death penalty could improve civic order, it could also do wonders for moral order. Among the actions Sixtus declared punishable by death, apart from theft and assault, were abortion, incest, and pedophilia. Theoretically, these had carried the death penalty before, but Sixtus made it absolutely mandatory and without exceptions. Lesser crimes, such as failing to keep holy the Sabbath day, were punished by condemnation to the galleys. (The Papal States still had a modest-sized fleet, though its ships were probably used less for warfare than for the punishment of sinners at the laboring oar.) Rome was swarming with prostitutes, who had scarcely been disturbed by previous papacies; Sixtus had them banned from major thoroughfares during daylight hours, and from all Roman streets after nightfall. He meant it, too: if a girl was caught plying her trade in the wrong place or out of hours, she would be branded on the face or breasts.
With crime and vice under some kind of control, Sixtus next turned his attention to the planned but unfinished urban work of Gregory XIII. This pontiff had already made his own changes to the city. A Holy Year was scheduled for 1575. It would bring many pilgrims to Rome, multiplying the circulation problems. By way of preparation for this, Gregory had cleared a wide street called the Via Merulana, running from Santa Maria Maggiore to the Lateran. He also revised the building codes, to encourage larger and more impressive civil structures.
But this was small stuff compared with the projects Sixtus V now embarked on, through his architect-in-chief, Domenico Fontana (1543–1607).
Much earlier, in 1576, Fontana had designed a huge (and ever-expanding) villa on the Quirinal for Sixtus, the Villa Montalto. He advised the pope on the restoration of one of the most beautiful early churches in Rome, the fifth-century Santa Sabina, with its twenty-four matching Corinthian columns recycled from some ancient pagan temple. He designed a large but undistinguished building to house what is now a great collection, that of the Vatican Library (1587–90), and chose the painters who frescoed it with such scenes as the Cumaean Sibyl presiding over the burning of the Sibylline Books.1 Sixtus was not in favor of keeping the palace of San Giovanni in Laterano, parts of which dated from the sixth century, and which until the fifteenth century had been the chief papal residence. Pope Nicholas V had moved out of it and into new quarters in the Vatican. Since then, the old building had decayed through neglect, and much of it was uninhabitable, certainly not pope-worthy. Sixtus decreed that it should be razed to the ground, and in its place Fontana built a new Lateran Palace, which was finished in 1588.
The particular concern of Sixtus V, though, one which amounted almost to an obsession, was the shape and circulation of the city of Rome itself. It was not enough for the pope to ban all overhanging wooden structures on its streets, though he did. The streets themselves needed radical surgery. In the end, Sixtus either paved or resurfaced about 120 streets in Rome, and laid out some ten kilometers of new roads within the city.
The city maps from earlier in the sixteenth century show its seven pilgrimage churches: San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Lorenzo, Sant’Agnese, and San Sebastiano. Meandering between them were roads, most of which were mere cattle paths. This messy informality offended the pope’s sense of order. In future, straight streets would join up at focal points, in orderly progressions. For instance, he directed the layout and construction of avenues that linked Santa Maria Maggiore directly to the Lateran Palace, and the Lateran with the Colosseum. A wide, handsome street named the Strada Felice (after the pope’s own name), and later renamed the Via Sistina, was driven three kilometers from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, on to Santa Maria Maggiore, and so to Santissima Trinità dei Monti. No existing building impeded the clearance of these avenues. If anything was in the way, down it came. The pope had an unquestioned right of eminent domain on secular as well as ecclesiastical buildings, and he exercised it without restraint.
Nor did he have the slightest regard for the classical monuments. Sixtus V was a man of superficial culture, never inhibited by humanistic reverence for the Roman past, or even the memories of the Renaissance. His predecessor, Gregory XIII, had set up ancient statues on the Capitol; Sixtus objected to this, saying that they were no more tolerable than any other pagan idols, and had them carted off. He told one of his courtiers that this gave him particular enjoyment because he had dreamed that Gregory XIII, whom he hated, was suffering in Purgatory. He took pleasure in spending the recorded sum of 5,339 scudi on destroying the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. Without a qualm he demolished the remains of the magnificent façade of the Septizodium of the emperor Septimius Severus (dedicated in 201 C.E.), so admired by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, and had its spolia of precious marble dispersed through the city as part of his own building projects. He wanted to see the four-sided arch of Janus Quadrifrons, in the Forum Boarium, demolished, so that his court architect, Fontana, could use its marble to make a base for the obelisk in front of San Giovanni in Laterano, and gave orders for the destruction of the tomb of Caecilia Metella, even though it was well outside the city limits. He also thought the Colosseum should be turned into a wool factory to increase employment in the city. This latter plan was going forward, but on Sixtus’ death, in 1590, it was dropped. So (luckily) was another and far worse idea of his, which was to tear down a whole section of the Colosseum to make way for a new, straight avenue connecting the Campidoglio to San Giovanni in Laterano.
When the question arose of what to do with the two great antique columns of Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, Sixtus went right ahead without regard for the original meanings of these monuments, installing a statue of Saint Peter (cast from the bronze of ancient statues melted down) on top of Trajan’s Column and one of Saint Paul on that of Marcus Aurelius. In dedicating the statue of Peter, His Holiness explained that such a monument as Trajan’s could only become worthy to bear the effigy of Christ’s vicar on earth if it was rededicated in the cause of the Catholic Church—an astonishing piece of casuistry.
The truth was that Sixtus V, like many another man of unbridled power, believed more in the future than in the past, because the future could be shaped but the past could not. At his core he simply did not see why the remains of a defeated paganism should be allowed to impede the progress of a living, triumphant faith. He was in that respect an ideal pope for the Counter-Reformation. Everything that was built, restored, carved, or painted under his papacy had to exemplify the power of the Church Triumphant. If a fountain was to be designed, its subject could no longer be the pagan Neptune surrounded by sea nymphs and Tritons. It would have to be Moses striking the rock, releasing the gushing water of faith.
Water was a prime metaphor of devotional art by now. Much of Fontana’s work depended on his construction of a new aqueduct, which, in homage to the pope’s birth name of Felice Peretti, was known as the Acqua Felice. “Happy Water,” indeed. Until then, new building in Rome had mostly been confined to the low-lying areas along the Tiber. The Acqua Felice entered Rome higher up its hills, finishing at Piazza Santa Susanna, by the Baths of Diocletian, the present site of the Museo delle Terme. This wider distribution of precious water opened up much more of the disabitato, the “abandoned” or “empty” tracts of the city, for development and occupation. Naturally, it was much easier to build on empty land than to “do an Haussmann” and have to demolish and clear every site first.
So there was always work, but the one project by which Fontana is remembered, and which gave him a deserved immortality as an engineer, was moving and re-erecting the obelisk of Saint Peter’s, that huge spike rising from what would become the heart of Christianity.
Sixtus V had a vast liking for obelisks, and Rome had more of them than any other European city—thirteen, to be exact, all except one either broken or lying prone, or mostly both.2 His enthusiasm was satirized by one of the acrid couplets that made the rounds during his papacy:
Noi abbiamo basta di guglie e fontane:
Pane vollemo, pane, pane, pane!
We’ve had it up to here with obelisks and fountains:
It’s bread we want, bread, bread, bread!
These angry rhymes were known as “pasquinades,” because they were traditionally affixed to a worn antique statue named, since time immemorial Pasquino. Rome had a number of such “talking statues,” which served as vents for civic annoyance at a time when Romans had no access to any press. Another was a female bust, now rather battered, known to Romans as Madama Lucrezia, attached to the wall of the Palazzetto Venezia, next to the corner of the Basilica di San Marco, the church of Rome’s Venetian colony. But the most famous pair of talkers were Pasquino and his old friend Marforio. Marforio, an ancient river god, used to be at the entrance of the Mamertine Prison, but then he was moved up to the Capitol and is to be found reclining at the entrance to the Capitoline Museum. Pasquino is in the little piazza named for him, the Piazza di Pasquino, behind Piazza Navona. Marforio would speak (through a placard), and Pasquino would reply (or vice versa), and their dialogue, usually in a dialect incomprehensible to the non-Roman, was one of the great comic acts of Rome.
Pasquino, like Marforio, is ancient: a worn and beaten classical torso of Menelaus from the third century B.C.E. dug up during the repair of an adjacent street. It was installed in its present place by a cardinal in 1501. The name is supposed to have come from a tailor in a nearby shop who was dangerously free with his impertinent criticism of the papal government. But there are so many legends about Pasquino’s origins that it is probably impossible to disentangle the true one.
In any case, one day during the reign of Sixtus V, Pasquino was seen wearing a horribly filthy shirt. Why, Marforio wanted to know, did he wear such a stinking rag? Because Donna Camilla has become a princess, came the answer. Donna Camilla, the pope’s sister, in her humbler days had been a washerwoman, but had just been ennobled by His Holiness.
There was a limit to what great figures would endure from Pasquino, and this crossed the line. It got to the ears of Sixtus V, who let it be known that, if the anonymous satirist owned up to writing it, his life would be spared and he would receive a present of one thousand pistoles in cash. But if anyone else found him out and denounced him, the writer would be hanged. Naturally, the nameless graffitist—for who was going to turn down such a reward?—confessed. Sixtus V gave him the money and spared his life, but unsportingly added, “We have reserved for Ourselves the power of cutting off your hands and boring your tongue through, to prevent your being so witty in the future.” But nothing would shut Pasquino up; he had a hundred tongues and two hundred hands. The very next Sunday Pasquino was seen draped in a still-wet freshly laundered shirt, set to dry in the sun. Marforio wondered why he couldn’t wait until Monday. “There’s no time to lose,” said Pasquino, thinking of His Holiness’s taxation habits. “If I stay until tomorrow perhaps I’ll have to pay for the sunshine.”
The obelisks of Rome were souvenirs of the Empire’s conquest of Egypt, and most of them had been brought to the city in imperial times. Ancient Egypt had three basic commemorative forms: the pyramid, the sphinx, and the obelisk. But the task of moving an obelisk (never mind a sphinx or a pyramid) across the Mediterranean was hardly less daunting than making the thing to begin with, which was difficult enough—indeed, insanely so—and could only have been undertaken by a theocratic anti-state like ancient Egypt.
All known Egyptian obelisks came from the same quarry—a deposit of extremely hard and fine-grained syenite, a rock similar to granite, at Aswan, below the first cataract of the Nile. It lay seven hundred miles from Alexandria and five hundred from Heliopolis, where the biggest concentration of finished obelisks stood.
The tools of ancient Egypt were very simple. No stonecutting saws or explosives, of course; no steel; and for moving the heavy blocks of syenite, once they were free of the quarry, only the timber lever, the roller, the inclined plane, the wedge, palm-fiber ropes, grease, and limitless manpower. Human muscle, at least, was not in short supply, and it was preferred to animal traction, since the fellahin could obey orders a team of oxen would not understand. Egypt had about 11,500 square miles of inhabitable terrain, and a population, in pharaonic times, of perhaps eight million people, a density of some seven hundred per square mile—six times more than China’s or India’s then.
The task of cutting out the granite block for an obelisk was simplicity itself—tedious, infinitely laborious simplicity.
You and other slaves marked the intended line of cleavage in the granite by gouging a channel for its full length, about two inches deep and two wide. Into the bottom of this channel you drilled a line of holes, each about three inches in diameter and six inches deep, spaced some eighteen inches apart.
You and your fellow slaves now had two choices.
The first was to hammer a wooden plug into each of these holes and then fill the channel with water, which other slaves would have brought in skins from the nearby Nile. If, despite the evaporative power of the Egyptian sun, the wood was kept soaked long enough, the plugs would swell and, with luck, cause the whole mass to crack away from its matrix.
The second choice was to build a fire the whole length of the channel and keep it burning until the rock was piping hot, then sweep away the ash and embers and quickly douse it all with cold water, which (with luck) would also crack the granite.
No tools for work on the obelisks have ever been found, except a single bronze chisel at Thebes. Iron tools, if they existed at all, have entirely disappeared, rusted away (some think) by the highly nitrous Egyptian soil. Possibly the chisels had diamond teeth. For the long and arduous task of smoothing the faces of the obelisks, there must have been abrasives of some kind—emery, corundum, or even diamond dust. The main ingredient, of which ancient Egypt was never short, was limitless amounts of human labor.
How the obelisk got its final sculptural shape, with the “pyramidion” or point on top of the shaft, is not known. It cannot have been done with abrasives—there was too much rock to remove—but trying to split the waste rock off accurately at sixty degrees on all four faces must have been, to put it mildly, chancy.
Nevertheless, it was done, and now came the problem of getting the thing to its intended site. But this was not a matter to deter a really serious pharaoh. In the nineteenth dynasty, about 1400 B.C.E., Rameses II had a nine-hundred-ton effigy of himself dragged 138 miles from its granite bed to the memnorium in Thebes, on some kind of enormous sled, with obedient Egyptians pouring oil on the sand in front of its runners to reduce friction and thousands of other Egyptians hauling on ropes. The obelisk’s granite bed was not so far—at least, not unthinkably far—from the Nile. The best guess is that the Egyptians built a dry dock on the bank of the river, at low water. Inside this, a transport barge was constructed. Now the obelisk would be dragged from the quarry to the dry dock on a massive timber sledge, an operation requiring perhaps fifty thousand men in double or quadruple lines, and miles of palm-fiber rope.
Thus the obelisk would be loaded slowly, slowly into the barge, there to wait for the great event, the annual inundation of the Nile. This would raise the laden barge, which then, with great luck and skill, would be floated down the river to a place as close as possible to the obelisk’s appointed site. There, the patient Egyptians would run through the whole process again, this time backward, building another dry dock, securing the barge in it, waiting for the Nile water to recede, dragging the obelisk from the barge and the embankment to its eventual pedestal, and raising it vertical.
How this might have been done was entirely conjectural, and so it had to be reinvented again and again. First the ancient Romans, of the time of Cleopatra and Ptolemy, had to reinvent it, no doubt with a great deal of subservient Egyptian help. Then, more than a thousand years later, the Italians had to invent it once more, since there were no records of the original moves.
Of the ships that brought the obelisks to Rome, not a trace remains. It is presumed that they were enormous galleys, each custom-built, quinqueremes with at least three hundred oarsmen, and that the prone obelisk was ballasted with many tons of wheat or dried beans in sacks packed around it to prevent it from shifting, since any instability in so immense a load would have rolled the ship and sent it to the bottom at once. (Underwater archaeology has found an amazing variety of objects in ancient wrecks, including what some presume to have been a primitive ancestor of the computer off the island of Antikythera—the “Antikythera Mechanism”—but no obelisk so far.)
Once the ship and its cargo had reached Ostia, the entire process had to be repeated in reverse: the dry dock, the sledge, the hauling, and the inch-by-inch journey to Rome. Some obelisks, at least, were raised vertically on their bases in the Circus Maximus and elsewhere, but it is not known how. Most of them were broken into several pieces, either by toppling over in unrecorded antiquity, or by damage from earthquakes or ground subsidence as they lay prone.
There was, however, one perfect unbroken obelisk still standing in Rome in the sixteenth century. The largest intact one outside Egypt, it dated from the nineteenth dynasty, about 1300 B.C.E., and had been brought to the Eternal City on the orders of none other than Caligula, having been raised first at Heliopolis. Caligula decreed its transport to a site on Nero’s Circus, which, more than a thousand years later, turned out to be the back of the old Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was a tapering granite shaft, eighty-three feet and one inch to the tip of its pyramidion, weighing 361 tons. On top of the pyramidion was a bronze ball, which nobody had ever opened; it was reputed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar.
Pope Sixtus V had often looked at the obelisk from afar, and was not satisfied. It should not be behind the new Basilica of Saint Peter’s, which was then nearing completion. It must be moved to the front. A simple matter of civic punctuation—shifting the exclamation point in the sentence. A great piazza would be made in front of the new Saint Peter’s (and so it was, years later, to the designs of the as yet unborn Gian Lorenzo Bernini). Let the obelisk be brought round and planted there, plumb in the center, to the wonder of pilgrims now, the edification of the faithful in centuries to come, and the eternal memory of Pope Sixtus V.
But—the age-old problem—how to move it?
The pope appointed a commission to look into the problem. Through 1585, some five hundred experts from all over Italy and as far afield as Rhodes, which had had previous experience with colossi, were consulted. Some were for transporting the obelisk prone, others for doing it standing upright, and at least one proposed, for inscrutable reasons, moving it at an angle of forty-five degrees. Some wanted to move it horizontally and then turn it upright by means of a gigantic half-wheel to which it would be fixed. Others proposed raising it off its pedestal with wedges. Scores of solutions were proposed, most of which looked ineffective and some downright lethal.
Before too long, Sixtus V wearied of looking at these notions, and appointed the man he had had in mind all along: his own architect, Domenico Fontana. The hitch was that Fontana was only forty-two, and therefore seen by some papal officials as too young and inexperienced. So the commission appointed a watchdog: the distinguished Florentine architect Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was seventy-four and had to his credit a number of architectural masterpieces, such as the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence; the Ponte Santa Trinità, spanning the Arno; and the Villa Giulia in Rome.
Ammannati was an outstanding architect, but he was hardly needed, since Fontana was the greater engineer. What Fontana proposed was to set one pair of massive timber pylons on each side of the obelisk. Each of the four pylons would consist of four vertical members, each ninety-two feet long, made of twenty-by-twenty-inch timber lap-jointed securely together with one-and-a-half-inch thick iron lag-bolts and iron bands. The timber balks were brought from twenty miles away. Ropes would run over pulleys at the top of the pylons and be secured to the obelisk, which was to be padded with straw and then encased in two-inch-thick planks for its whole length, to give it some degree of protection—though if it dropped nothing could save it from shattering. These cables would connect to eyebolts fixed to iron bands clasping the sheathed body of the obelisk. The cables would run to windlasses on the ground, turned by horse-powered capstans, like the capstans used to raise the anchors of ships. Fontana calculated the gross weight of the obelisk, its armature, and metal lifting bolts at 681,222 pounds. A capstan powered by four horses, he figured, could lift fourteen thousand pounds. So he would need forty capstans to lift vertically 80 percent of the obelisk’s weight—the remainder being done by five massive timber levers. If the obelisk began to tilt, it would initiate a catastrophe, slipping sideways to the ground, so the most exquisite care was going to be required to keep the tension equal on all those forty cables, fanning outward to the capstans around the obelisk. Winching in the cables required pulleys based on ship’s tackle, but of a huge size never used on a ship—scores of double-sheaved pulley blocks, iron-bound, with a two-to-one ratio, the largest of them five feet two inches long. The cables themselves were each 750 feet long, three inches in diameter, and spun in an especially large ropewalk at Foligno, with a breaking strain (Fontana figured) of fifty thousand pounds. This was the largest order of equipment the Italian maritime industry had ever known. But, then, nothing like this had ever been tried in the history of Italian civil engineering. It was going to need almost unheard-of care and coordination, which Fontana proposed to achieve with a system of sound signals—a trumpet to start each capstan pull, a bell to end it.
First the obelisk must be raised from its base, and then swayed down prone on the enormous carriage and rollers on which it would be dragged from the rear of Saint Peter’s to the site in front. Then the pylons and capstans must be brought round, rerigged, and used to stand the prodigious block of stone vertical again and gingerly lowered onto a base which had been prepared for it in front of the basilica.
Sixtus V issued lengthy and detailed orders that no one “shall dare impede, or in any way molest the work.” This meant invoking eminent domain over everything that lay along the route of the obelisk: if there was a house in the way, down it would go. The whole operation, which took days and consumed the labor of nine hundred men and some 140 horses, was watched by most of the population of Rome—who were kept back by a security fence and had been warned, in no uncertain terms, that anyone who made a noise or spoke a word would be instantly put to death. Nobody uttered a peep.
However, it became part of the folklore of this tremendous operation that, at a certain point, the ropes carrying the obelisk began either to fray from the load or to smolder from the friction. Disaster stared Fontana in the face. Legend has it that the day was saved by an iron-lunged Genoese sailor named Brescia di Bordighera, who broke silence by bellowing, “Acqua alle funi”—“Water on the ropes!” Far from punishing the man for breaking silence, the pope, when he realized how the sailor had saved the project, rewarded him with blessings and annuities.
Unfortunately, the story seems not to be true. Neither Fontana, who kept a log of the lowering, moving, and raising of the obelisk, nor anyone else who was there mentions the sailor and his saving cry, and it would hardly have been possible for anyone to find or bring the necessary water to Piazza San Pietro in time.
When the obelisk was vertical, Sixtus V could not contain his joy, crying in triumph, “Cio che era pagano ora è l’emblema della cristianità”—“The thing that was pagan is now the emblem of Christianity.” And that was the point: to Sixtus, the moving or “translation” of this and other obelisks, achieved with such immense, concerted effort and determination, symbolized the work of the Counter-Reformation, the reunification of the Church, the defeat and pushing back of heresy.
The pope showered Fontana with honors.
The bronze ball was opened, and it contained no trace of Caesar; it was quite empty. So much for superstition.
The Vatican obelisk and the Acqua Felice were the most spectacular projects that Sixtus’ papacy contributed to the fabric of Rome, but not by any means the only ones. An even bigger obelisk had been lying in three pieces near the cathedral, San Giovanni in Laterano. Originally commissioned by the Pharaoh Thutmose III, it was removed to Alexandria by Constantine in 330 C.E., and then transported to Rome by Constantius II in 337 C.E. and set up in the Circus Maximus. It was 105 feet high—fully twenty feet taller than the enormous Vatican one—and weighed 510 tons. At Sixtus V’s behest, Fontana managed to raise it, and repaired it so well that today its seams can be seen only if you look closely. He took charge of a third obelisk, which had also served as a marker in the Circus Maximus, and moved it to the Piazza del Popolo, where it still stands. Compared with the Vatican and Lateran obelisks, this was almost child’s play—a mere seventy-eight-footer, 263 tons. Finally, he had the obelisk that lay in four pieces on the Via di Ripetta, on the west side of the Mausoleum of Augustus, excavated and set up anew behind the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Piazza Esquilino. This was completed by the end of 1587.
This example was followed by several later popes, so that within a century a dozen obelisks were standing in Rome. The chief obelisk-pope, after Sixtus, was Pius VI Braschi, who had three erected during his twenty-four-year pontificate (1775–99). The first was put up on the Quirinal, between its huge white marble statues of the horse-taming Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux. It, too, came from the Mausoleum of Augustus, where it had been found in the sixteenth century, reburied (it was a massive obstacle to riverside traffic on the Via di Ripetta), exhumed again in three pieces, and, under the direction of the architect Giovanni Antinori, set up in 1786 in front of the Quirinal Palace. The second was installed at the top of the Spanish Steps, outside Santissima Trinità dei Monti, in 1789. The third, extracted from Augustus’ Mausoleum and known (for its ancient use as a gnomon on the enormous sundial) as the Obelisco Solare, went in five pieces to Piazza Montecitorio and was reassembled by Antinori; it still stands there today, in front of the Palazzo dei Tribunali. Augustus had brought it back from Heliopolis, in Egypt, where it had been made for the Pharaoh Psammetichus I.
So Sixtus V’s obelisk raising was by no means unique. How, after inheriting a bankrupt papacy, could this manic-impressive pontiff keep up the rhythm of building public works that he insisted on? By the sale of offices, by the establishment of new monti or public loans (a money-raising device first employed by Clement VII in the sixteenth century), and above all by ferocious taxation. All this created a glut in the papal fiscus, which, like some omnipotent Scrooge McDuck, he preferred to keep in bullion and specie in giant iron-ribbed coffers (still to be seen, but gaping empty) in the Castel Sant’Angelo. In these money boxes he hid three million scudi in gold and 1.6 million in silver, the biggest mass of cash in Italy, one of the biggest in Europe. In fact, his accumulation took so much cash out of circulation that it created severe economic problems for the Roman economy; money could not circulate as before, and so business stagnated. Either Sixtus was unaware of this, or he did not care about it. The public display, the rhetorical obelisk, was the thing.
In most respects his politics, particularly in the field of foreign policy, were a mess. He was given to grandiose fantasy. Wasn’t he God’s vicar on earth? He would conquer Egypt, he would bring the Holy Sepulchre to Italy, he would annihilate the Turks. He renewed the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and agreed to give the Spaniards a large subsidy for the Armada which would conquer England—not, however, to be paid until the Spanish forces had actually landed, which of course they never did, so that their providential wreckage and dispersal by a storm in the Channel saved him a million crowns.
But the rethinking and rebuilding of Rome around those exclamation marks of the obelisks, the re-creation of the expanse of the city as a pattern of rhetorical circulation—that was something new, worthy of another Caesar: and all done in five years of an incredibly short, obsessively active papacy. A fair epitaph was pronounced on him by the nineteenth-century vernacular poet Giuseppe Belli (1834):
Fra tutti quelli c’hanno avuto er posto
De vicarj de Dio, non z’è mai visto
Un papa rugantino, un papa tosto,
Un papa matto, uguale a Papa Sisto.
Among all those who have held the place
Of God’s vicar, there had never been seen before
Such a quarrelsome, tough, crazy
Pope as Pope Sixtus.
Nor would there ever be again. A visitor from Mantua, Angelo Grillo, reported, “Such is the newness of the edifices, the streets, piazzas, fountains, aqueducts, obelisks, and other stupendous marvels which Sixtus V of glorious memory embellished this old city” that he could hardly recognize the place he had left ten years before. Later popes would build, but not with such a commitment to reorganize the basic pattern, the manifest sense of space, that was Rome. In a sense, the “building popes” of the Baroque era stood in the shadow of Sixtus’ obsession with the city as a pattern of movement and coordinated public declamation, not just a collection of separate monuments. So the visitor to Rome feels gratitude to this man, so inventive, so tyrannous, and so dreadful in different ways. Yet few could be surprised to learn that a statue of him, erected in his honor on the Capitol when he was alive, was torn down by the common people of Rome—the “rabble”—as soon as the breath was out of his body. They must have felt a right to smash it, since it had been put up with the tax money Sixtus extorted from them.
And what of his early seventeenth-century successors? How did they change the appearance and layout of Rome? Very considerably, though perhaps not as radically as terrible Sixtus.
The greatest scheme was the one accomplished during the pontificate of Alexander VII Chigi (reigned 1665–67)—the rebuilding of Piazza del Popolo, which lay just inside the Porta del Popolo, one of the chief entrances to Rome. “Popolo” does not carry some proto-socialist implication; in the Middle Ages, populus was a politically neutral term, meaning simply “parish.”
Alexander VII cleared the way for his urban desires by reviving the Congregazione delle Strade, the planning commission for Rome, which had fallen into disuse. He gave it the authority to demolish whatever it wished, whenever it saw fit. This was a powerful license. It enabled him, for instance, to get rid of the Arco di Portogallo, which, by constricting the Via del Corso, caused endless traffic jams.
What Alexander favored was generous squares approached by wide streets (no more medieval crimps and doglegs) marked out by distinctive buildings, fountains, and groups of statuary: these he called teatri, “theaters,” and certainly Piazza del Popolo showed what he meant. It was the first part of Rome that most arriving foreigners saw, and it deserved special treatment. Gian Lorenzo Bernini had designed the gate with the Chigi star carried proudly above it, and at the other end of the piazza now rose twin churches. Designed by the architect Carlo Rainaldi in 1661–62 and finished by Bernini and Carlo Fontana in 1679–81, these frame the entrances to the trident of streets (Via del Corso, Via del Babuino, Via di Ripetta) that plunge away into the core of Rome, and heighten the sense of anticipation that has already been raised by the Porta del Popolo. Everyone who sees them from the piazza, unless forewarned, admires them for their symmetry. In fact, they are not symmetrical, being built on different-shaped sites. Santa Maria in Montesanto (on the left, looking from the piazza) stands on a longer triangular slice of ground than its companion. It therefore has an oval dome, whereas Santa Maria dei Miracoli has a circular one. But nobody notices this (at first) from the outside, and the illusion of symmetry is perfect until you look closer.
Rome of the Counter-Reformation—the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—did not offer much work to great Italian-born painters, though it incubated some extraordinary expatriates. There were, however, several outstanding exceptions, some of whom (chiefly Bolognese painters in Rome) affirmed the classical tradition, though another seemed completely to subvert it. The first of the classicizers was Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), along with his brother Agostino Carracci (1557–1602). They were native Bolognese, and a third painter-member of the Carracci clan, their cousin Ludovico (1555–1619), chose to spend his life in Bologna and never painted in Rome. Both Agostino and Ludovico were fine painters, but the genius of the family was undoubtedly Annibale.
How powerfully inventive he was can best be gauged by a visit, if it can possibly be arranged, to the state rooms of the Palazzo Farnese. Generally, this used not to be possible, since the palace, originally built by that arch-nepotist Alessandro Farnese, the futurePope Paul III (reigned 1534–49), and without much doubt the most sumptuous palazzo in Italy, became the French Embassy, and access to it used to be so unbelievably restricted that even its courtyard, the combined work of Antonio Sangallo and Michelangelo, was open to the public for exactly one hour a week, between 11 a.m. and noon on Sundays. As for the state rooms, forget it. This meant that one of the supreme works of seventeenth-century Italian painting could only be known by the visitor to Rome, and imperfectly at that, from reproduction. Fortunately, these conditions have now relaxed somewhat, and guided tours are offered. They should not be missed.
Alessandro Farnese (this, one must remember, was before he became pope, though it is unlikely that his proclivities changed much after his election to the Fisherman’s Chair) decreed that its subject should be the Power of Love, and earthly rather than divine love at that. To call such a theme inappropriate for a future pontiff would be a mistake: he had been made cardinal by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, whose mistress was Alessandro Farnese’s sister, Giulia Farnese. Moreover, he had four illegitimate children of his own, plus an unknown number of by-blows.
Thus Annibale Carracci set out, with tremendous zeal and brio, to cover the twenty-meter barrel vault with frescoes representing the Triumph of Love as symbolized by the cavortings of Bacchus and Ariadne—a surging, tumbling apparition of scenes from Ovid’sMetamorphoses, a veritable firmament of classical flesh, anchored in references to Raphael’s Loggia Farnesina and the ignudi of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, but as pagan as the art of painting could imaginably be. Annibale, a superb draftsman, was one of the greatest reinventors of the nude body that has ever existed, and the Farnese ceiling is virtually the last full-strength appearance of the classical impulse, at its outer boundaries of ambition, in Italian art. If one wants to see the other extreme of Annibale Carracci’s work, it, too, is in Rome, in the Galleria Colonna: the much earlier and more social-realist portrait of a worker tucking into his lunch of beans and onions, while clutching a bread roll and returning your gaze with a glare of feral possessiveness, mouth open, frayed straw hat on: The Bean Eater (c. 1583). It, too, is a masterpiece, though of a very different sort. Presumably it would be difficult, for today’s dinner guests in their fracs, glancing up from their plates of foie gras en gelée Lucullus at the tumultuous joys of gods on the embassy ceiling, to connect the two. It is sad to know that Farnese paid Annibale Carracci so stingily for his four years’ inspired labor on the Farnese ceiling that the artist slid into depression, took to the bottle, and died at the early age of forty-nine, reduced at last (one supposes) to eating beans.
The other major Bolognese artist working in Rome in the first part of the seventeenth century was Guido Reni (1575–1642). There can be few painters in history whose careers show such a spectacular rise to the heights of reputation, followed by such a plunge to the depths. For more than a century after his death, connoisseurs, tourists, and other artists considered him to have been angelically inspired, as famous, in his way, as Michelangelo, Leonardo, or (for that matter) Picasso. Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died in Italy, thought that if some cataclysm overwhelmed Rome, the loss of Raphael and Guido Reni would “be alone regretted.” Unquestioned geniuses, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, thought he painted “pictures of Paradise” and took his work for a model, and other artists were unstinting in their praise. As well they might have been: as his allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Rospigliosi-Pallavicini in Rome, such as the Raphaelesque Aurora (1614), amply demonstrate, Reni at his infrequent best had an exquisite sense of style. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, his big altarpiece of the Trinity in Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini was considered one of the sights of Rome, a mandatory spectacle for the serious young artist. But by 1846, in Modern Painters, John Ruskin was attributing to Reni “a taint and a stain, and jarring discord … marked sensuality and impurity.” Fifty years later, Bernard Berenson declared, “We turn away from Guido Reni with disgust unspeakable”—not that it took so very much to disgust that severe and fussy aesthete. The nadir was reached fifty years after that, when you could easily get a ten-foot Reni (if you wanted it, which few did) for under three hundred dollars at auction.
What happened? A tectonic shift in taste. The Victorians did not mind sentimental high-mindedness, just as long as it was not hypocritical, and hypocrisy was the charge made, more and more often, against Guido after his death. He was proud, he said, of being able to “paint heads with their eyes uplifted a hundred different ways,” but this did not seem a virtue to later generations—not, at least, one that outweighed Reni’s manifest vices, the saccharine of his expressions, the self-repetition, the overproduction.
Moreover, his personal life was disastrous, a swamp of neuroses. Reni had the misfortune to be a gambling addict, always badly in debt, and turning out masses of hackwork to stay afloat. It has been surmised, no doubt rightly, that his gambling was inspired by masochism—losing was a form of self-flagellation for the sin of being alive. Since debts had to be paid, he kept an enormous studio—at one point, his biographer Malvasia noted with some amazement, Reni employed some two hundred assistants. At the same time, he was socially inept, agonizingly aware of his poor education (which hampered him as a history painter and made him hopelessly awkward with sophisticates and scholars), and an extreme closet-case. It was commonly assumed that he lived and died a virgin. He was not only a daily churchgoer but morbidly superstitious. Women terrified him—he suspected them all of being witches, a suspicion they could only allay if they showed themselves to be the Virgin Mary, a hard thing to prove—and he could not bear it if anyone except his own mother touched his laundry.
Yet, for all that, he was capable of extraordinary things. Perhaps his greatest painting was done in 1618–19, not long after leaving Rome for his native Bologna, and now in the Prado. This is Atalanta and Hippomenes. In the myth, Atalanta was a swift-running huntress who was determined to keep her virginity and refused to mate with any man who could not outrun her in a footrace. Nobody could, until she was challenged by Hippomenes, who had been provided with three golden apples by the interfering goddess Aphrodite. At intervals in their race, Hippomenes would drop an apple, which Atalanta could not resist; picking them up delayed her so much that she lost both the race and her virginity. Reni’s vision is of two superb nudes that fill the picture space to the exclusion of everything except empty earth, bare sky, and a plain horizon line. But there is little doubt about its subliminal meaning. Hippomenes is well ahead of Atalanta, who is greedily stooping for her second apple. His gesture toward her, however, is one of repulsion and banishment; he is fending off all possibility of contact with her, even though his victory in the race will, according to the myth, entitle him to claim her. He is racing for a prize that he does not desire. It would be hard to think of a more direct statement of homosexual repulsion (within the bounds of decorum) than this.
The word “radical” became so comically overused in the late twentieth century that it has been worn to near-complete vacuity. But there were times (now long gone) when it could (with due caution) be applied to things that happened in the arts. One such time was the early seventeenth century in Rome, and such an event was the appearance in Rome of a young painter named Michelangelo Merisi, known by the name of his birthplace, the northern Italian town of Caravaggio, where he had been born in 1571. There was no reason to suppose that anything of promise, let alone of transforming importance, would come out of a backwater like Caravaggio. It had produced no artists, had no intellectual life, and could boast no aristocratic collections for a young painter to admire or copy. Yet Michelangelo Merisi was a genius, and he possessed what all who knew him agreed was uno cervello stravagantissimo, a really weird turn of mind. What form did the weirdness take? In a word, realism. Caravaggio was not even faintly interested in the tricks and tropes of Mannerist painting—the elongated bodies, the balletic twisting and posturing, the arty metaphors and elaborate concetti. Roman painting in 1592, the year Caravaggio got there, had a great past but a mincing present. Much of it was as fatuous as the stuff that would come to be praised as “postmodernism” there (and in New York) four centuries later: pedantic, clever-clever, garrulous, and full of weightless quotation. He wanted to see reality head-on, and paint it that way, direct from life, with the maximum impact and sincerity, down to the last callused foot and dirty fingernail.
This ambition, which seems admirably natural today, earned him much finger-wagging: he was called an “anti-Michelangelo,” as though that meant “anti-Christ”; an evil genius, a concocter of overpeppered stews, and so forth. But Caravaggio’s work really did turn the history of European painting around. For a time, one had practically no choice but to be a Caravaggista. France, Holland, Spain, Germany, and of course Italy itself were all subject to his influence. When he was born, almost all painters in Europe worked under the classicizing idealism of Michelangelo. Forty years later, after his early death, their descendants with equal unanimity were painting Caravaggios, neither classical nor idealistic. Scratch almost any seventeenth-century artist and you will find traces of Caravaggio: Rembrandt, Seghers, and Honthorst in the Netherlands: Velázquez and Ribera in Spain; Georges de La Tour and Valentin de Boulogne in France; and a dozen more, omitting the scores of mere imitators.
There are two reasons why the hunger in Caravaggio’s eye, the desire for complete and unidealized human truth, had such a powerful effect in its time, the early seventeenth century.
The first was a general one: all over Europe, people were getting tired of the euphemism that tends to accompany abstraction. One sees this, for instance, in theater: how the powerful and wrenching scenes of the Jacobean “revenge” dramatists entranced their audiences:
Tear up his lids,
And make his eyes like comets shine through blood;
When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good.
Or think of the fearful scenes in Lear—cold Goneril insisting that her father be blinded, not just put out of his misery by hanging—or in Titus Andronicus. Obviously, the language of horror and dramatic extremity was not invented by seventeenth-century artists and writers, but it moved to the forefront of their imaginations, whether for titillation or for religious revelation, and thus became one of the main ingredients of Baroque art. Then one must add the fact that, horror or not, seventeenth-century Europeans were getting a lot more interested in the pragmatic and the factual. Fewer angels with gauzy wings; not so much disembodied spirituality. Instead, direct appeals to the senses of smell, touch, hearing, and to the actual look and feel of a world which, after all, God had created. If a painter set before a viewer an image of high, transcendent artificiality, it might not affect his beliefs. But an image which came out of the real world and referred dramatically back to it, one which inhabited the same kind of space as the viewer, which was subject to the same kind of feelings—that was more convincing. Such was the opinion of the Council of Trent, which resolved to find ways of making the doctrines of Roman Catholicism more vivid and direct to an unsophisticated public. The object of art would be not to out-argue Luther, not to win theological debates, but to assure the faithful of the Truth by means of a superior intensity, a more palpable truth of events and emotions. And that, his patrons soon realized, was where Caravaggio came in.
He certainly did not please everyone, but nobody could say he went unrecognized. “In our times, during the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII,” begins a diatribe by the sixteenth-century painter and theorist Vicente Carducho (1570–1638), an Italian who had moved to Madrid,
Michelangelo Caravaggio rose in Rome. His new dish is cooked with such condiments, with so much flavor, appetite, and relish, that he has surpassed everybody.… Did anyone ever paint, and with as much success, as this monster of genius and talent, almost without rules, without theory, without learning and meditation, solely by the power of his genius and the model in front of him? I heard a zealot of our profession say that the appearance of this man meant a foreboding of ruin and an end to painting.…
Though he finished as a sublime religious dramatist, Caravaggio began as a painter of benign nature. Granted, the worm is in the bud sometimes—Caravaggio’s early still-lifes often show overripe, embrowned fruit—but the Caravaggian cave of darkness was not invented overnight. His early Roman works, such as the exquisite Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1594–95), are evenly and crisply lit, in a way recalling the High Renaissance painters Lorenzo Lotto and (more distantly) Giorgione. Mary, bent sleepily over her infant, is a beautiful redhead (presumably Caravaggio’s girlfriend at the time), and the elderly Saint Joseph holds up a score, from which the angel is playing soothing music on his fiddle as the mother and child doze.
Such works made him popular with the upper ranks of Roman collectors. They included Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who owned eight of his paintings, and the discerning and deep-pocketed Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, who had fifteen.
Because of their even lighting and elegant variety of color, we are apt to think of these early works as “untypical.” By his early thirties, though, Caravaggio’s essential character as an artist was formed. Its prime element was his mastery of gesture. Caravaggio saw things and set them down with uncanny accuracy: how people move, slump, sit up, point, and shrug; how they writhe in pain; how the dead sprawl. Hence the vividness of Abraham’s gesture in The Sacrifice of Isaac, as he pins his wailing son down on a rock like a man about to gut a fish. In The Supper at Emmaus, the characters seem ready to come off the canvas as Christ makes his sacramental gesture over the food (an ordinary Roman loaf); and the basket of fruit, perched on the very edge of the painted table, is ready to spill its contents at one’s feet. And the cramped little Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, for which Caravaggio painted a Conversion of Saint Paul and a Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1600–1601), is so small that it is impossible to get a distance from the paintings: they are almost pressed against you, like bodies in a crowded room, and you cannot believe this effect is not deliberate. This is particularly true of the figures of Peter and his three executioners; they form a powerful X of flesh and dun-colored cloth, the faces of two executioners hidden from us completely, and the third turned away in shadow. Only Peter (who was crucified upside down, according to pious legend, because he did not think himself worthy to die in the same way as the Messiah) is fully visible—that strong old man’s body reflecting the light, those eyes staring in anguish at the iron nail driven through his hand and into the wood. These are not invented or imagined figures; they have a tremendous physical presence, and one is left in no doubt that the stories about Caravaggio’s way of working—that he found his models among the people on the streets, and painted them just as they were—are basically true. He clearly went to great lengths to arrange the directional lighting in his dark studio. But not much else is known about his way of working, because not a single attributable drawing by Caravaggio has survived. Perhaps he destroyed them all, or they were lost in one of his many moves between one improvised studio and the next, one city and another. But there is also the possibility, which one cannot reject out of hand, that he did not make any: that he drew directly on the canvas, without planning things first.
Naturally, this risky and exalted spontaneity—unlikely as it seems, and out of kilter with “normal” studio practice—seems to fit the picture of Caravaggio that his way of life offers, from what we know of it. He died of a fever in 1610, at the age of thirty-nine, in Porto Ercole, then a malarial Spanish enclave on the coast of the Maremma, north of Rome. The last four years of his life were one long flight from police and assassins; on the run, working under extreme pressure, he left altarpieces—some very great, and none mediocre—in Mediterranean seaports from Naples to Valletta to Palermo. He killed one man with a dagger in the groin during a game of tennis in Rome in 1606, and wounded several others, including a guard at Castel Sant’Angelo, and a waiter, whose face he cut open in a squabble about artichokes. He was sued for libel in Rome and mutilated in a tavern brawl in Naples. Saturnine, coarse, and queer, he thrashed about in the etiquette of early Seicento Rome like a shark in a net. But the vivid piety of his work after 1600 was fundamental to Baroque painting, and he will always be remembered as one of the essential figures of Roman art on the verge of the Counter-Reformation.
The others were largely foreigners, drawn into the irresistible orbit of the world’s art capital. While he was being fêted during an unproductive visit to Paris (see this page), the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was shown the work of a number of French painters. They did not impress him. To the old maestro’s implacable eye, they seemed small fry—hacks and bores, capable of an uninteresting decorum at best. There was, however, one artist whose works had been collected by Paul Fréart (1609–94), the sieur de Chantelou and steward to Louis XIV. This was Nicolas Poussin. To him, Bernini responded strongly, looking long and carefully at his paintings and exclaiming, at last, “O il grande favoleggiatore!”—“Oh, the great storyteller!” (except that favolasuggests a kind of moral weight that goes beyond mere anecdote, into serious allegory). Later, again to Chantelou, Bernini would point to his own head and say admiringly that Poussin was an artist “who works from up here.”3
It was true; and one reason for its truth was Rome. Poussin was the father and first great practitioner of French classicism. He lived most of his working life in Rome, and left it only with the greatest reluctance. In cultural terms, everything north of Rome was merely a colony—especially France, the second-rate power he came from. “We are indeed the laughingstock of everybody, and none will take pity on us,” Poussin morosely wrote of the French, in a letter from Rome in 1649. “We are compared to the Neapolitans and shall be treated as they were.”
For him, Rome and the countryside around it were, above all, the terrain of thought and of memory. The thought was not abstract; it was grounded in observation. The memory combined deep feeling about the observed, natural world with a kind of poetic erudition which was rare enough in the seventeenth century and is even less common in the culture today. William Hazlitt put his finger on it when he compared Poussin to John Milton. Poussin, he wrote, “was among painters (more than anyone else) what Milton was among poets. There is in both something of the same pedantry, the same stiffness, the same elevation, the same grandeur, the same richness of borrowed material, the same unity of character.” Looking at certain Poussins, where a sturdy figure in a plain-colored garment is walking through a leafy landscape, you cannot help remembering the last words of “Lycidas,” as the shepherd takes the rural path, having sung his song, “With eager thought warbling his Doric lay”: “At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:/Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.” Everything about Poussin’s landscapes is ordered and coherent, but nothing in them is abstract; they are the “Fair champain” of Paradise Regained,
Fertil of corn the glebe, of oyl and wine,
With herds the pastures throng’d, with flocks the hills,
Huge Cities and high tower’d, that well might seem
The seats of mightiest Monarchs, and so large
The Prospect was, that here and there was room
For barren desert.…
What Poussin offers above all is the earthiness of the world he creates, and of the men, women, and children who work, embrace, play, and doze in it. This is not an abstract world of lifeless marble. You can imagine yourself desiring its inhabitants as flesh, not as idealized stone: the long-thighed shepherdess who leans forward with her shepherd companions (who clearly cannot read, either) to peer at the inscription Et in Arcadia ego on a forgotten sarcophagus in the woods, with a skull on top of it to remind you that the egoin Arcadia, the self, is the inexorable presence of death; or the ravishingly beautiful figure of the goddess Diana to whom the infatuated Endymion, kneeling, declares his love. “This young man has the inner fire of the devil,” wrote one of Poussin’s Roman acquaintances, and in fact it was his vitality, breathing his life into his reimagining of the Antique, that distinguished his work from all other archaizing painting that the seventeenth century produced in Rome. Even the play of children, watched by nymphs while charging at one another on goat-back, has a certain chivalric intensity, though it is at the same time a parody of knightliness. This landscape lives and breathes, and looks as though nothing trivial can happen in it. His goddesses and nymphs have not dropped from Olympus; they grow up out of the earth. They carry their archaism like a bloom, so that there is more sexual tension between the white goddess and the kneeling shepherd in Diana and Endymion (1628), than in a hundred Renoirs. This tension, for him, is part of classicism. “The beautiful girls you will have seen at Nîmes,” he wrote to a friend in 1642, “will not, I am certain, delight your spirits less than the sight of the beautiful columns of the Maison Carrée, since the latter are only ancient copies of the former.” It is an enchanting conceit, yet more than a conceit: the idea that the ancient orders of architecture were “copies” of the ideal proportions of the beautiful human body was deeply embedded in Poussin’s thinking, as it was in the ideas of many connoisseurs. This humanized ancient architecture and emphasized its relation to the present. And it emphasizes one’s feeling that the women drawing water from a well in a Poussin have a relationship to the architecture behind them which is not simply formal, but, in some historical way, spiritual.
In Landscape with Saint Matthew (c. 1640), we see the evangelist surrounded by ruins—fallen column, broken entablature—writing down the words of a visiting angelic being on a sheet of paper: its subject is the same as the Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, the dictation to Saint Matthew of his Gospel. But in its companion piece, Saint John writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, Poussin produced what could almost amount to a self-portrait, sitting among the mighty ruins of antiquity, sketching their geometrical fragments (prism, cylinder, with an obelisk and an intact-looking temple in the background), quite like himself encountering, in real life, the Roman ruins of the Campagna. Wherever else he may be, he is not where he was born. He is where fate and the necessity of his own art have obliged him to go. He was the model expatriate. This was the story of Poussin’s life.
He was born near Les Andelys, a provincial market town on the Seine in Normandy, in the vicinity of Rouen. Not much is known about his childhood, except that it clearly included some instruction in the classics, without which he could never have developed his enthusiasm for ancient Rome and its culture. Around 1612, he left home for Paris, and from there he is known to have made one unsuccessful attempt to reach Rome, defeated by illness and poverty (he got as far as Florence, but had to turn back). But then, in Paris, he had the good luck to meet the Italian poet Giambattista Marino (1569–1625), who was impressed by some drawings young Poussin had made for him on themes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and invited the budding artist to come to Rome with him. No urging was needed. In 1624, Nicolas Poussin arrived in Rome and began to make acquaintances whose regard for his work would stand him in excellent stead. One was Francesco Barberini, nephew of Urban VIII. The other was Cassiano del Pozzo, the Barberinis’ secretary, a man of singular connoisseurship and some scientific knowledge.4 Poussin’s main job in Rome, before his pictures started selling, was to draw records of classical sculpture for del Pozzo. This gave him excellent access to private collections, and the time to develop a repertoire of figures that would fill his work in years to come. The two men arranged for Poussin his first big commission, though a very uncharacteristic one—an altarpiece for Saint Peter’s done in 1628, the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, an early saint who suffered disembowelment, his guts wound out on a windlass. In the painting, which is mercifully short of blood, Erasmus’ intestines look like a long string of thin luganiga sausage. This would be one of Poussin’s very few images of a human being in extreme pain. Its only competitor is the anguished face of a woman in The Massacre of the Innocents, which Francis Bacon thought was the most awful depiction of grief in all Western painting. Poussin was certainly able to paint extremes of human feeling, but he wisely kept them under control and used them only where they counted most.
Poussin devoted his early years in Rome to studying ancient architecture, drawing the live model (in the studios first of Domenichino and then of Andrea Sacchi), and making measured drawings of Roman statues and reliefs. But his work as a history painter came into full focus in the 1630s with two magnificent compositions, each depicting a heroic or tragic moment from the Roman past. The first was The Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, commemorating the Emperor Titus’ sack of the Holy of Holies. (There goes the seven-branched candlestick with the soldiers, presently to be carved on the Arch of Titus in Rome.) The second was The Death of Germanicus.
Germanicus Julius Caesar, conqueror of Germany, was sent to command Rome’s Eastern Empire and died in Antioch in 19 C.E., poisoned on the orders of his adoptive father, the Emperor Tiberius—so it was believed—by a jealous Roman governor. He soon became an archetype of the Betrayed Hero.
In Poussin’s picture, the hero lies ashen and dying beneath the frame of a blue curtain, which suggests both a military tent and a temple pediment. On the right are his wife, women servants, and little sons; on the left, his soldiers and officers. The common soldier on the far left weeps inarticulately, his grandly modeled back turned toward us. Next to him, a centurion in a billowing red cloak starts forward: grief galvanized into action in the present. Then a gold-armored pillar of a general in a blue cloak (adapted from an antique bas-relief) projects grief forward into the future by swearing an oath of revenge. We do not see the man’s face or its expression, which is Poussin’s way to suggest that this death is not a private issue but one of history itself. The target of this socially ascending wave of resolution is not only Germanicus’ exhausted head on the pillow but his little son, whose blue cloak matches the general’s; the women suffer and can do nothing, but the boy learns, remembers, and will act.
In 1629, Poussin moved in with the family of a French cook in Rome, Jacques Dughet, who cared for him during an infection of syphilis which would last the rest of his life. In the end, Poussin was so afflicted by the tremors brought on by the advanced stage of this disease that he could no longer paint with any confidence; in 1658, aged sixty-four, he apologized in a letter to Chantelou for not writing a separate letter to his wife “because my trembling hand makes it difficult for me. I ask her pardon.” But there remained to him another twenty years of uninterrupted creativity. Poussin was lucky in being one of those men who did not care much about the social world. Selected friendships, such as his relationship with Chantelou in Paris, mattered greatly to him, but not the world of courts, whether royal, noble, or papal. A story went the rounds of how his friend and patron the Cardinal Camillo Massimi visited him in his modest house in Via del Babuino and wondered how Poussin managed without servants. “And I pity Your Eminence,” retorted the painter, “because you have so many.” “He avoided social gatherings as much as he could,” recalled one of his friends, the connoisseur André Félibien, “so that he could retire alone to the vineyards and most remote places in Rome.… It was during these retreats and solitary walks that he made light sketches of things he came across.”
Poussin was quite often accompanied on these walks by another French expatriate in Rome, Claude Lorrain (1604–82). The two men shared a passion for ideal and classical landscape, but were otherwise unlike each other; Poussin, compared with Claude, was a positively scholarly painter, well acquainted with classical poetry and philosophy, whereas Claude’s knowledge of ancient Roman and Greek culture was relatively thin. He was less educated than Poussin partly because he came from a lower social level—his parents were of peasant stock, smallholders from the village of Champagny in Lorraine. He was not interested in allegory or the illustration of myth: Poussin was the favoleggiatore, not Claude. And this was just as well, since he did not have a jot of Poussin’s aptitude for painting the human body, and hence not much gift for narrative.
Claude’s observation of trees, earth, water, and especially of light was exquisite, rapturous; the figures in his landscapes (and convention demanded that they should be there) were conventional at their infrequent best and, at their more usual worst, looked like spindles or slugs—a fault shared, not incidentally, by Claude’s great follower, J. M. W. Turner. No matter: Claude’s mastery of, and inspiration within, the conventions of ideal pastoral landscape (some of which he invented) were so great that he became a model for several generations of painters, and the visitor to Rome is still likely to catch brief glimpses of Italy through Claudeian eyes.
Claude came to Rome as a teenager, possibly as early as 1617. He seems to have had no artistic training in his native France, though it was often said that he had been a pastry cook—indeed, he is sometimes credited with having learned the technique of puff pastry, pâte feuilletée, in Rome, and introducing it to France; this is possible, but undocumented. His first known training with a painter was in the studio of a German artist in Naples, Goffredo Wals. He did not stay there long, and soon was back in Rome as a studio assistant to the Italian landscapist Agostino Tassi. In 1625, he returned briefly to France, to work for a minor court painter named Claude Deruet. But by 1627, or even a little earlier, Claude was back in Rome. He would remain there for the rest of his life, never revisiting France or traveling elsewhere in Europe, always at the same address, in Via Margutta off Piazza di Spagna, the haunt of foreign artists in Rome. Everything about his life was low-key and modest. He scrimped and saved. He never married; and of his love life, if he had one, nothing is known. Even though he was modest, hardworking, and probably rather a bore when he was away from the easel, Claude’s career was steadily successful; he sold nearly everything he painted, and at his death there were only four unsold paintings left in his studio. He was not interested in social climbing in the “great world”; the world could find its way to him, and it did, reliably and regularly. In fact, by the mid-1630s he was so popular that he was plagued by fakers, Roman artists who saw in the manufacture of “Claudes” a useful supplement to their modest (or nonexistent) incomes. The trademarks of a Claude were, at a certain level, easy to mimic: the parallel planes of the landscape, the luminous ultramarine skies (no cheap pigments for the maestro, only the very best), the feathery repoussoir trees framing a distant view of water or a Roman ruin—the Colosseum and the cylindrical tomb of Caecilia Metella, displaced, were particular favorites with collectors. To safeguard his own rights in his own work, Claude came up with the practice of making records of his paintings—drawings of them in their finished state, which he annotated and bound in an album called the Liber veritatis, or Book of Truth. Whatever was not in the book of truth was, by definition, false. In fact, Claude did not copy all his work in this way, and that led to some acrimonious disputes about the authenticity of perfectly genuine paintings—but the Liber veritatis was the first effort an artist ever made to keep a catalogue of his own work.
Claude’s career exemplified the fact that no foreign artist could really consider himself a finished man unless he had studied and worked in Rome, though of course the lengths of apprenticeship to the great city varied. So many flocked there, from practically every country in Europe, that it would be pointless to try to list them all. The chief ones will have to do. From Spain, they were Jusepe de Ribera (1588–1652) and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660).
Ribera, a brilliantly gifted realist painter of humble origins (he was the second son of a Valencian cobbler), was inspired by Caravaggio, whom he may have met in Naples. His most Caravaggian traits were his precise draftsmanship, unideal street-life models, and intense lighting, with faces and limbs plucked from surrounding darkness by brilliant shafts of light, in the manner of Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi. Though he passed almost all his working life as an expatriate in Naples, where he was affectionately known as lo spagnoletto (the little Spanish guy), Ribera spent several early years in Rome, 1611–15, living with a bohemian group of Spanish and Dutch expats around the Via Margutta.
His main surviving early work there was an extraordinary series symbolizing The Five Senses. Sight, for instance, is a portrait of an introverted-looking thinker, no doubt one of Ribera’s friends, holding a Galilean telescope, with a pair of spectacles and a mirror on the table before him. Earlier and more genteel painters might have symbolized Smell with flowers and flasks of perfume, in the hands of a nymph; Ribera painted a ragged and none-too-clean old man, who certainly stank, holding a split onion near his face. His opposite, however, is Touch, which one identifies at once with the cultural life of Rome—a well-kempt and decently barbered dealer in a brown jacket, his eyes closed in thought, running his discerning fingers over an antique head.
There is a certain family resemblance, caused by a common Caravaggian realism, between early Ribera and early Velázquez. That, and Spanish blood, was all the two men had in common, and it is doubtful that they met more than briefly in Italy, if at all. Ribera by nature was a democrat and a populist, whereas Velázquez was a gifted courtier and a crushing snob. (In person, that is. Both painted low-life figures, common workers, bravos, and tavern inhabitants, since the rich enjoyed seeing pictures of the poor on their walls in the seventeenth century, just as they would in the twentieth century with Blue Period Picassos.)
Velázquez was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses who ever held a brush, but he might have given up painting altogether for the sake of the right title. He was stiff, reserved, extremely conscious of lineage and protocol, religiously observant to a fault (you needed to be, for the right cardinals to give you the right commissions), and obsessed with winning membership in the noble Order of Santiago—a distinction he finally obtained, after years of lobbying, in 1658, only two years before his death, having tried throughout his life, without success, to prove that his family was of noble origin. In his self-portrait at the easel in his climactic masterpiece, Las meninas, he is wearing the red cross of Santiago on his tunic. Membership in this exalted order entailed proving hislimpieza de sangre, purity of blood—no Arabs or Jews allowed. He cannot have been an easy man to know. His contemporaries admired and respected more than liked him. But of his qualities there was little doubt: one of Italy’s leading artists, Luca Giordano, called his work “the theology of painting,” the highest imaginable praise.
Velázquez was born in Seville and spent most of his career in Madrid, in the service of King Philip IV. He was apprenticed to a mainly religious painter, Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), for six years. As an artist, Pacheco was a distinctly minor figure, but he knew a great deal about art theory and Christian iconography, which he imparted to the young Velázquez. As for his painting, its qualities were perhaps best summed up in a boutade:
Who painted you thus, O Lord,
So dry and so insipid?
Some may say it was True Love—
But I can tell you Pacheco did it.
Pacheco had a wide acquaintance as a portraitist among the upper crust of Seville, and this gave his student his first involvement with society. His apprenticeship ended in 1617, and Velázquez, now licensed to work as an independent painter, celebrated by marrying Pacheco’s daughter Juana and setting up his own studio. What earned him the most kudos in these early years, however, was less his portraits than his bodegones, or genre paintings—the word bodegón originally meaning a rough eating house offering the simplest of meals and wine. Bodegones were not considered a very serious form, but it was young Velázquez, above all, who made them so, by turning them into a vehicle for the most detailed and exquisitely recorded perceptions of substance and human character. There is no more beautifully painted glass of water in European art than the one the old man is passing to the boy in The Waterseller of Seville (c. 1617–19), nor has a terra-cotta water urn ever been painted with more enraptured and sober attention. It may be that these early Velázquezes bear a debt to the early works of Jusepe de Ribera, but the debt is more like a compliment. When a new Habsburg king, Philip IV, ascended the throne of Spain in 1621, it was almost inevitable that young Velázquez, who had already found favor with his grand adviser Gaspar de Guzmán, the count (later duke) of Olivares, should have been on track to become the Pintor del Rey, to which office he was raised in 1623.
To be the King’s Painter in seventeenth-century Madrid was not only a singular honor, but an extraordinary advantage. It gave Velázquez unlimited access to one of the greatest collections of painting in Europe, formed by the dispersal of the royal collection of the English King Charles I after he was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell—this collection was a veritable storehouse of Titian, Rubens, and other masters. Since Spain had no public collections and would not until the formation of the Prado in 1819, and since common painters had no access to the palace or the Escorial, this gave Velázquez the edge over practically every other painter in his country, and he made the fullest use of it—quite apart from the social advantages that went with being Pintor del Rey. Then, when Peter Paul Rubens arrived at the Madrid court from the Netherlands and Rome in 1628, an even wider world opened before the enraptured eyes of the thirty-year-old Spaniard. Rubens (who seems to have painted a number of his Madrid commissions in Velázquez’s studio) urged him to go to Rome, the center of the world, and of course Velázquez needed little urging. Letters of release and introduction were arranged, and in 1629 Velázquez set off for Italy: Venice, Ferrara, Bologna. But the key destination was Rome, where Velázquez stayed for a year with the Spanish ambassador, the count of Monterrey. On this first visit, he came as a young painter, albeit a brilliant one. On his second visit to Rome, twenty years later (1649–51), he arrived as an established and, as it were, absolute master.
What did Velázquez get from Rome that Spain could not have given him? A sense of pictorial possibility and sheer skill: no painting in Spain could rival in confidence, range, and pictorial imagination what Italian art from the Renaissance on—Michelangelo,Raphael, Veronese, Titian, Caravaggio, the Carraccis—magnificently embodied. Then there was the Antique as well, the ancient statues which Velázquez was not there to copy, but which fortified his sense of possible continuity with the long past. There were no Roman paintings that look like Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda (The Lances) (1635), and yet he could hardly have managed that theater of expression, that complex composition in deep space, and that inspired frieze of twenty-four vertical lances (their rhythmic beat broken by just three oblique ones) without knowing and internalizing the achievements of Roman art. For an ambitious artist with the skill and determination to work out its lessons, seventeenth-century Rome was indisputably the school of the world. It gave great liberties and opportunities to artists. For instance, in Velázquez’s case, it encouraged a figure painter to paint naked women. This practice, if not unknown in Spain, was very rare, because of the ignorant moral hostility of the clergy; as for the clientele, they could not display nudes on their walls, for fear of obloquy. But there was no risk attached to painting the female nude in Italy, and somewhere among the horde of potential models who hung out for hire around Piazza di Spagna, Velázquez found the girl whose slender, lovely body was destined to become one of the most celebrated in art history, and the first recorded nude by a Spanish painter: the pensive mirror-gazing subject of The Toilet of Venus, or The Rokeby Venus (c. 1651). Rome also presented Velázquez with the opportunity to create one of the most mesmerizing and inquisitorial images of human power ever put on canvas. This, of course, is the 1650–51 portrait of Pope Innocent X Pamphili, which still hangs in its cubicle in Palazzo Doria, above Piazza Navona. Such is the nature of late-modernist fame that, by now, probably most people who are aware of this painting know about it through the “screaming pope” versions of it done by Francis Bacon. These are among Bacon’s best work, but they do not come near the original (which is of course not screaming: of all men, the one least likely to scream, even privately, is this Pamphili). Indeed, one is sometimes tempted to say that very few portraits, if any at all, approach Velázquez’s pope—even Innocent X himself, on seeing it finished, is said to have called it “too truthful,” and when one confronts its steely, interrogatory glare, it is all too easy to know what he meant.
The fourth great seventeenth-century expatriate to work in Rome was not a Spaniard but a Fleming, originally from Antwerp: Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). In terms of versatility, influence, and sheer historical and mythical power, there has never been another artist to touch Rubens, and it is likely that there never will be. In his energy and his ability to fulfill great public roles, he puts every twentieth-century painter in the shade. We are apt to regard Picasso’s Guernica as a very important piece of public art, and so it is—for its time. But it is alone in Picasso’s work, whereas Rubens, the greatest Northern painter associated with the Counter-Reformation, could and did turn out such utterances, usually of a religious sort although sometimes descriptive of politics, on the grandest scale and with an eloquence and formal beauty that leave Picasso far behind him. This kind of painting, with such ambitions for the languages of paint, is simply no longer possible; its use has been subverted by the decay of religion, the distrust of politics and politicians, and the evaporation of belief in authority that characterize our own age. There can never be another Rubens, because the intellectual and ethical backgrounds to his work, not to mention the educational systems and reverence for historical prototypes that supported and infused it, no longer exist. Nor can they be willed into being. The enormous fish has no water to swim in, and the estuary is dry.
There is no doubt that Rubens got his sense of the public role of an artist from a long visit to Italy and, in particular, to Rome. He made his first visit there at the end of 1601, when he was serving at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, duke of Mantua. In that northern city he had already been able to study the late King Charles I’s collections of Renaissance art. Presently the collection was relocated to Spain, where Velázquez got to study it, and where Rubens would later be able to renew his acquaintance with its Titians, Tintorettos, Veroneses, and other High Renaissance masterpieces now relocated to the royal collection in Madrid. On his first trip to Rome, and during a later sojourn there in 1606–8, Rubens was able to study the chief works of the Grand Manner, all of which were there: Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes, Raphael’s Vatican stanze. Their impact on him was immeasurable, and it was increased by the fact that the ancient Roman marbles, which had served these earlier artists as authoritative sources, were also there for Rubens to study and copy, side by side: the Belvedere Torso, the Laocoön, and lesser but still instructive works such as the African Fisherman (then thought to be a carved marble figure of the dying Seneca). Thanks to the wholly privileged position of the Church, the greatest collections of such antiquities were in the hands of wealthy clerics: the huge room in Palazzo Farnese, for instance, whose ceiling Annibale Carracci had frescoed, was crammed with ancient statues, and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had already opened this collection of antiquities to scholars and selected artists (not yet a general public) in 1589. In an age before public museums, this situation was tailor-made for Rubens, who used all his powers of charm, talent, and ingratiation to get access to such aesthetic treasures and draw them, accurately, fast, and from every angle. He made hundreds of such drawings, which served him as memory aids—these being the days before photographic reproduction—and furnished the basis of many of his own figures and compositions to come. Rubens would never cease to be a student of the art of the past, and drawing was his medium of study. To copy a work was to absorb it; to internalize it; to assimilate its DNA. This process is almost lost to us today, in an age of mass mechanical reproduction.
On this early visit, Rubens did not leave many works in Rome. He was not yet well enough known to get big commissions there, although he did an altarpiece for the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, commemorating the Empress Helena’s acquisition in Jerusalem of the relics of the True Cross and the Holy Staircase contained in the church itself. But the experience of Rome, and in particular the sense of an immense sacred and aesthetic history transmitted through the ancient fabric of the city to the present day, would never leave him: it remained one of the basic messages of his art, the old vigorously underpinning the new. There was no artist who gave one a stronger sense of continuity in art than Rubens in Rome.
1 The Cumaean Sibyl was the most famous of that sisterhood. Her prophecies and oracles, filling nine volumes, were offered to the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, at a high price. He refused; the Sibyl burned three of the books and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same price. He refused again; she burned three more of them and offered the remaining three to Tarquin, who finally bought them. These Libri Sibyllini, filled with prophecies and advice on how to avert divine anger, were entrusted to the care of patricians. The Sibyls came to be thought of as equal to the Old Testament prophets and figure as such in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
2 It is thought that there had once been more than forty; the fate of the rest remains unknown.
3 Paul Fréart was chiefly remarkable for accompanying Bernini on his visit to France, and reporting copiously on the sculptor’s reactions to French art and his views on sculpture.
4 As a result of Cassiano’s instruction, Poussin became the illustrator of a later edition of Leo-nardo’s work on optics.