The pagan spirit of the age was enhanced by the presence and salvaging of classic art. Poggio, Biondo, Pius II, and others had denounced the demolition of classic structures, but it persisted nevertheless, and probably increased as the influx of money enabled Rome to build new and larger edifices with the ruins of the old. Builders continued to throw ancient marbles into furnaces to produce lime. Paul II used the stone wall of the Colosseum for the palace of San Marco; Sixtus IV pulled down the temple of Hercules, and turned a Tiber bridge into cannon balls. The temple of the Sun provided the material for a chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, for two public fountains, and for a papal palace in the Quirinal. Artists themselves were unconscious vandals; Michelangelo used one of the columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux to form a pedestal for the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and Raphael took part of another column from the same temple to make a statue of Jonah. The material for the Sistine Chapel was quarried from the mausoleum of Hadrian. Practically all the marble used in raising St. Peter’s was taken from classic buildings; and to the same new shrine went the podium, steps, and pediment of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the triumphal arches of Fabius Maximus and Augustus, and the temple of Romulus, son of Maxentius. In just four years, 1546–9, the new builders destroyed or dismantled the temples of Castor and Pollux, Julius Caesar, and Augustus.55 The destroyers argued that there were enough pagan monuments left; that the neglected ruins took up valuable space and interfered with the orderly rebuilding of the city; and that the appropriated materials were in most cases used to erect Christian churches just as beautiful as the ruins, and presumably more pleasing to God. Meanwhile the imperceptible inhumations of time had buried the Forum and other historic sites under successive layers of dust, debris, and vegetation, so that the Forum was at places forty-three feet below the level of the surrounding city; it was largely abandoned to pasturage, and was called Campo Vaccino—the cow field. Time is the greatest vandal of them all.
The influx of artists and humanists retarded the rate of demolition, and generated movements for the preservation of the old monuments. Popes collected pagan sculpture and architectural fragments into the Vatican and Capitoline Museums. Poggio, the Medici, Pomponius Laetus, bankers, cardinals gathered into private collections whatever of worth they could acquire of the ancient remains. Many classic sculptures found their way into private palaces and gardens, and stayed there till the nineteenth century; hence such names as the Barberini Faun, the Ludovisi Throne, the Farnese Hercules.
All Rome was thrilled when excavators unearthed (1506), near the Baths of Titus, a new and complex sculptural group. Julius II sent Giuliano da Sangallo to examine it, and Michelangelo went along. As soon as Giuliano saw the statue he cried out, “This is theLaocoön mentioned by Pliny.” Julius bought it for the Belvedere Palace, paying the finder and his son a lifetime annuity of 600 ducats ($7,500?); so precious had classic sculptures become. Such rewards encouraged art prospectors. A year later one of these found another ancient group, Hercules with the Infant Telephus; soon afterward the Sleeping Ariadne was unearthed. The enthusiasm for recovering ancient manuscripts was now equaled by the eagerness to recover lost works of ancient art. Both of these sentiments were strong in Leo. It was in his pontificate that excavators found the so-called Antinoüs, and the statues of the Nile and the Tiber; and these were placed in the Vatican Museum. Leo bought back, whenever he could, the gems, cameos, and other dispersed works of art once possessed by the Medici, and placed these too in the Vatican. Supported by his patronage, and starting with the previous work of Fra Giocondo and others, Iacopo Mazochi and Francesco Albertini copied, through four years, all the inscriptions they could find on Roman remains, and published them as Epigrammata antiquae urbis Romae (1521)—an event in classical archeology.
In 1515 Leo appointed Raphael superintendent of antiquities. Helped by Mazochi, Andrea Fulvio, Fabio Calvo, Castiglione, and others, the young painter formed an ambitious archeological plan. In 1518 he addressed to Leo a letter adjuring the Pontiff to use the authority of the Church for the preservation of all classical remains. The words may be Castiglione’s, the passion has the ring of Raphael:
When we reflect upon the divinity of those antique souls,… when we see the corpse of this noble city, mother and queen of the world, so miserably mangled,… how many pontiffs have permitted the ruin and defacement of the ancient temples, statues, arches and other buildings, the glory of their founders!… I dare say that all this new Rome that we now behold, however grand it is and beautiful and adorned with palaces, churches, and other edifices, has been cemented with lime made from the ancient marbles.…
The letter recalls how much destruction has taken place even during Raphael’s ten years in Rome. It surveys the history of architecture, denounces the crude barbarism of the Romanesque and Gothic styles (here called the Gothic and the Teutonic), and exalts the Greco-Roman orders as models of perfection and taste. Finally it proposes that a corps of experts should be formed, that Rome should be divided into the fourteen regions anciently designated by Augustus, and that in each of these regions a careful survey and record should be made of all classic remains. Raphael’s early death, soon followed by Leo’s, delayed for a long time this majestic enterprise.
The influence of the recovered relics was felt in every branch of art and thought. That influence worked on Brunellesco, Alberti, Bramante; now it became supreme, until in Palladio it completely and almost servilely copied ancient forms. Ghiberti and Donatello had tried to model classically. Michelangelo achieved the classic manner perfectly in his Brutus, but for the rest he remained his passionate and unclassic self. Literature transformed Christian theology into pagan mythology, and replaced paradise with Olympus. In painting the classic influence took the form of pagan subjects and—even in Christian themes—pagan nudes; Raphael himself, darling of the popes, painted Psyches, Venuses, and Cupids on palace walls; and classic designs and arabesques mounted the pillars and ran along the cornices and friezes of a thousand buildings in Rome.
The classical triumph expressed itself most clearly in the new St. Peter’s. Leo kept Bramante as “master of the works” there as long as possible; but the old architect was crippled with gout, and Fra Giocondo was commissioned to help him design; however, Fra Giocondo was ten years older than Bramante, who was seventy. In January, 1514, Leo appointed Giuliano da Sangallo, also seventy, to direct the operations. Bramante, on his deathbed, urged the Pope to confide the enterprise to a younger man, specifically, Raphael. Leo compromised; in August, 1514, he made the young Raphael and the old Fra Giocondo comasters of the work. For a time Raphael worked enthusiastically in his uncongenial function as an architect; henceforth, he said, he would live nowhere but in Rome, and this “from love for the building of St. Peter’s… the greatest building that man has ever yet seen.” He continues, with characteristic modesty:
The cost will amount to a million gold ducats; the Pope has ordered 60,000 for the works. He thinks of nothing else. He has associated me with an experienced monk who has passed his eightieth year. The Pope sees that the monk cannot live much longer, and His Holiness has therefore determined that I should benefit by the instructions of this distinguished craftsman, and attain to greater proficiency in the art of architecture, of the beauties of which the monk has recondite knowledge…. The Pope gives us audience every day, and keeps us long in conversation on the subject of the building.56
Fra Giocondo died July 1, 1515; and on the same day Giuliano da Sangallo withdrew from the group of designers. Raphael, left supreme, undertook to replace Bramante’s ground plan with a Latin cross, of unequal arms, and sketched a cupola that Antonio da Sangallo (nephew of Giuliano) proved too heavy for its supporting pillars. In 1517 Antonio was appointed coarchitect with Raphael. Disputes arose now at every step, and Raphael, burdened with pictorial engagements, lost interest in the undertaking. Meanwhile Leo ran short of funds, tried to raise more by issuing indulgences, and as a result found a German Reformation on his hands (1517). St. Peter’s made no substantial progress until Michelangelo was put in charge of it in 1546.