South of the Po, along the Adriatic and spanning the Apennines, were the states of the Church—Ferrara, Bologna, Forli, Ravenna, Perugia, Benevento, Rome—forming the central and largest part of the Magic Boot.

When Ferrara was incorporated into the Papal States (1598) its Estense dukes made Modena their home, and gathered there their archives, books, and art. In 1700 Lodovico Muratori, priest, scholar, and doctor of laws, became curator of these treasures. From them in fifteen years of labor and twenty-eight volumes, he compiled Rerum italicarum scriptores (Writers of Italian Affairs, 1723-38); later he added ten volumes of Italian antiquities and inscriptions. He was rather an antiquarian than an historian, and his twelve-volume Annali d’Italia was soon superseded; but his researches in documents and inscriptions made him the father and source of modern historical writing in Italy.

Aside from Rome the most flourishing of these states was Bologna. Its renowned school of painting continued under Giuseppe Crespi (“Lo Spagnuolo”). Its university was still one of the best in Europe. The Palazzo Bevi-lacqua (1749) was among the most elegant structures of the century. A remarkable family, centering in Bologna, brought theatrical architecture and scene painting to their highest excellence in modern times. Ferdinando Galli da Bibiena built the Teatro Reale at Mantua (1731), wrote famous texts on his art, and begot three sons who carried on his skill in deceptive and sumptuous ornament. His brother Francesco designed theaters in Vienna, Nancy, and Rome, and Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico—often rated the finest in Italy. Ferdinando’s son Alessandro became chief architect for the Elector of the Palatinate. Another son, Giuseppe, designed the interior of the opera house at Bayreuth (1748)—“the most beautiful of its kind in existence.”80 A third son, Antonio, drew the plans for the Teatro Communale at Bologna.

That theater, and the massive old Church of San Petronio, heard the best instrumental music in Italy, for Bologna was the chief Italian center of musical education and theory. There Padre Giovanni Battista Martini held his modest but austere court as the most respected music teacher in Europe. He had a music library of seventeen thousand volumes; he composed classic texts on counterpoint and musical history; he corresponded with a hundred celebrities in a dozen lands. The accolade of the Accademia Filarmonica, of which he was for many years the head, was coveted by all musicians. Here the boy Mozart would come in 1770 to face the prescribed tests; here Rossini and Donizetti were to teach. The annual festival of new compositions, performed by the hundred-piece orchestra of the Accademia, was, for Italy, the supreme event of the musical year.

Gibbon estimated the population of Rome in 1740 at some 156,000 souls. Recalling the brilliance of the Imperial past, and forgetting its paupers and slaves, he found the charm of the Catholic capital uncongenial to his taste:

Within the spacious enclosures of the [Aurelian] walls the largest portion of the seven hills is overspread with vineyards and ruins. The beauty and splendor of the modern city may be ascribed to the abuses of the government, and to the influence of superstition. Each reign (the exceptions are rare) has been marked by the rapid elevation of a new family, enriched by the childless pontiff at the expense of the Church and country. The palaces of these fortunate nephews are the most costly monuments of elegance and servitude: the perfect arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture have been prostituted in their service; and their galleries and gardens are decorated with the most precious works of antiquity which taste or vanity has prompted them to collect.81

The popes of this period were distinguished by their high morality; their morals rose as their power fell. They were all Italians, for none of the Catholic monarchs would allow any of the others to capture the papacy. Clement XI (r. 1700-21) justified his name by reforming the prisons of Rome. Innocent XIII (1721-24), in the judgment of the Protestant Ranke,

possessed admirable qualifications for the spiritual as well as the temporal government, but his health was extremely delicate. … The Roman families connected with him, and which had hoped to be promoted by him, found themselves completely deceived; even his nephew could not obtain without difficulty the enjoyment of those twelve thousand ducats annually, which had now become the usual income of a nephew.82

Benedict XIII (1724-30) was “a man of great personal piety,”83 but (says a Catholic historian) he “allowed far too much power to unworthy favorites.”84 Clement XII (1730-40) flooded Rome with his Florentine friends, and, when old and blind, allowed himself to be ruled by his nephews, whose intolerance further embittered the conflict between Jesuits and Jansenists in France.

Macaulay thought Benedict XIV (1740-58) “the best and wisest of the 250 successors of St. Peter.”85 A sweeping judgment, but Protestants, Catholics, and unbelievers join in acclaiming Benedict as a man of wide learning, lovable character, and moral integrity. As archbishop of Bologna he had seen no contradiction between attendance at the opera three times a week and strict attention to his episcopal tasks;86 and as a pope he reconciled the purity of his personal life with gaiety of humor, freedom of speech, and an almost pagan appreciation of literature and art. He added a nude Venus to his collection, and told Cardinal de Tencin how the Prince and Princess of Württemberg scratched their names on a gracefully rounded portion of the anatomy not often mentioned in papal correspondence.87 His wit was almost as keen as Voltaire’s, but it did not prevent him from being a careful administrator and a far-seeing diplomat.

He found papal finances in chaos: half the revenue was lost in transit, and a third of Rome’s population consisted of ecclesiastics far more numerous than the business of the Church required, and more expensive than the Church could properly afford. Benedict reduced his own staff, dismissed most of the papal troops, ended papal nepotism, lowered taxes, introduced agricultural improvements, and encouraged industrial enterprise. Soon his probity, economies, and efficiency brought a surplus to the papal treasury. His foreign policy made genial concessions to turbulent kings: he signed with Sardinia, Portugal, Naples, and Spain concordats allowing their Catholic rulers to nominate to episcopal sees. He strove to quiet the doctrinal furor in France by a lax enforcement of the anti-Jansenist bull Unigenitus; “since infidelity progresses daily,” he wrote, “we must rather ask whether men believe in God than whether they accept the bull.”88

He made brave efforts to find a modus vivendi with the Enlightenment. We have noted his cordial acceptance of the dedication of Voltaire’s Mahomet, though this play was under ecclesiastical fire in Paris (1746). He appointed a commission to revise the Breviary and to eliminate some of the more incredible legends; however, the recommendations of this commission were not carried out. He secured by his personal activity the election of d’Alembert to the Bologna Institute.89 He discouraged the hasty prohibition of books. When some aides advised him to denounce La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine he replied, “Should you not refrain from reporting to me the audacities of fools?” And he added, “Know that the pope has a free hand only to give blessings.”90 The revised Index Expurgatorius which he issued in 1758 abandoned all attempts to keep track of non-Catholic literature; with a few exceptions it confined itself to prohibiting some books by Catholic authors. No condemnation should be made until the author, if available, had been given a chance to defend himself; no book on a learned subject should be condemned except after consultation with experts; men of science or scholarship should be readily given permission to read prohibited books.91 These rules were followed in subsequent editions of the Index, and were confirmed by Leo XIII in 1900.

The popes found it almost as difficult to govern Rome as to rule the Catholic world. The populace of the city was probably the roughest and most violent in Italy, perhaps in Europe. Any cause could lead to a duel in the nobility, or to a bloody conflict between the sectionally patriotic gangs that divided the Holy City. At the theater the judgment of the audience could be merciless, especially when wrong; we shall see an instance with Pergolesi. The Church strove to appease the people with festivals, processions, indulgences, and Carnival. During the eight days preceding Lent they were allowed to don gay and fanciful disguises, and frolic on the Corso; nobles sought popular favor by parades of horses or chariots bearing skilled riders or beautiful women, all richly adorned; prostitutes offered their wares at temporarily raised rates; and masked flirtations relieved for some hours the strain of monogamy. Carnival over, Rome resumed its uneven tenor of piety and crime.

Art did not prosper amid the diminishing returns of a declining faith. Architecture made some minor contributions: Alessandro Galilei gave the old Church of San Giovanni in Laterano a proud façade, Ferdinando Fuga put a new face upon Santa Maria Maggiore, and Francesco de Sanctis raised the stately, spacious Scala di Spagna from the Piazza di Spagna to the shrine of Santissima Trinità dei Monti. Sculpture added a famous monument, the Fontana di Trevi—where the pleased tourist throws a coin over his shoulder into the water to ensure a further visit to Rome. This “Fountain of the Three Outlets” had a long history. Bernini may have left a sketch for it; Clement XII opened a competition for it; Edme Bouchardon of Paris and Lambert-Sigisbert Adam of Nancy submitted plans; Giovanni Maini was chosen to design it; Pietro Bracci carved the central group of Neptune and his team (1732); Filippo della Valle molded the figures of Fertility and Healing; Niccolò Salvi provided the architectural background; Giuseppe Pannini completed the work in 1762; this collaboration of many minds and hands through thirty years may suggest some faltering of will or failure of funds, but it bars any thought that art in Rome was dead. Bracci added to his honors the tomb (now in St. Peter’s) of Maria Clementina Sobieska, the unhappy wife of the Stuart Pretender James III; and della Valle left in the Church of St. Ignatius a delicately carved relief of the Annunciation, worthy of the High Renaissance.

Painting produced no marvels at Rome in this age, but Giovanni Battista Piranesi made engraving a major art. Born to a stonemason near Venice, he read Palladio and dreamed of palaces and shrines. Venice had more artists than money, Rome had more money than artists; so Giovanni moved to Rome, and set up as architect. But buildings were not in demand. He designed them anyway; or, rather, he drew imaginary structures that he knew no one would build, including fantastic jails that looked as if the Spanish Steps had fallen upon the Baths of Diocletian. He published these drawings in 1750 as Opere varie di architettura and Carceri (Prisons), and people bought them as they bought puzzles or mysteries. In loftier mood Piranesi turned his skill to engraving his sketches of ancient monuments. He fell in love with them, as Poussin and Robert did; he mourned to see these classic ruins disintegrating further, day by day, through spoliation or neglect; for twenty-five years, almost daily, he went out to draw them, sometimes missing meals; even when he was dying of cancer he continued to draw, engrave, and etch. His Roman Antiquities and Views of Rome went out as prints over Europe, and shared in the architectural revival of classic styles.

That revival was powerfully stimulated by excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii—towns that had been overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In 1719 some peasants reported that they had found statues embedded in the earth at Herculaneum. Nineteen years passed before funds could be secured for systematic exploration of the site. In 1748 similar excavations began to reveal the wonders of pagan Pompeii, and in 1752 the massive and majestic Greek temples of Paestum were cleared from the jungle. Archaeologists came from a dozen countries to study and describe the findings; their drawings stirred the interest of artists as well as historians; soon Rome and Naples were invaded by enthusiasts for classic art, especially from Germany. Mengs came in 1740, Winckelmann in 1755. Lessing longed to go to Rome, “to remain there at least for a year, and, if possible, forever.”92 And Goethe—but let that story wait.

Anton Raphael Mengs is hard to place, for he was born in Bohemia (1728), worked chiefly in Italy and Spain, and chose Rome for his home. His father, a painter of miniatures at Dresden, named him after Correggio and Raphael, and pledged him to art. The boy showed talent, and the father took him, aged twelve, to Rome. There, we are told, he shut him up in the Vatican day after day, with bread and wine for lunch, and told him, for the rest, to feed on the relics of Raphael, Michelangelo, and the classic world. After a brief stay in Dresden Anton returned to Rome, and won attention by a painting of the Holy Family. For this he took as his model Margarita Guazzi, “a poor, virtuous, and beautiful maiden.”93 He married her in 1749, and in the same embrace he accepted the Roman Catholic faith. Again in Dresden, he was appointed court painter to Augustus III at a thousand thalers a year. He agreed to paint two pictures for a Dresden church, but he persuaded the Elector-King to let him do these in Rome, and in 1752, aged twenty-four, he settled there. At twenty-six he was made director of the Vatican School of Painting. In 1755 he met Winckelmann, and agreed with him that baroque was a mistake, and that art must chasten itself with neoclassic forms. Probably about this time he executed in pastel the self-portrait now in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie—the face and hair of a girl, but eyes flashing with the pride of a man sure that he could shake the world.

When Frederick the Great chased Augustus from Saxony (1756), Mengs’s royal salary stopped, and he had to live on the modest fees offered him in Italy. He tried Naples, but the local artists, following an old Neapolitan custom, threatened his life as an alien invader, and Mengs hurried back to Rome. He adorned the Villa Albani with once famous frescoes; still visible there is his Parnassus (1761), technically excellent, coldly classical, emotionally dead. Nevertheless the Spanish minister at Rome felt that this was the man to decorate the royal palace in Madrid. Charles III sent for Mengs, promised him two thousand doubloons per year, plus a house and a coach, and free passage on a Spanish man-of-war soon to sail from Naples. In September, 1761, Mengs arrived in Madrid.

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