IX. CLEMENT VII AND THE ARTS

The Pope’s treatment of Florence confirmed the degeneration of the Medici; his efforts to restore Rome revealed a spark of the administrative genius and esthetic appreciation that had made the family great. Sebastiano del Piombo, who had portrayed him in maturity, painted him now as an old man, somber, deep-eyed, white-bearded, giving benediction; apparently suffering had chastened and in some measure strengthened him. He took vigorous action to protect Italy from the Turkish fleets that now commanded the Eastern Mediterranean; he fortified Ancona, Ascoli, and Fano, and paid the costs by persuading the consistory of June 21, 1532—over the opposition of the cardinals—to impose a levy of fifty per cent upon the incomes of the Italian clergy, including the cardinals.54Partly by selling ecclesiastical offices, he raised funds to rebuild the property of the Church, to restore the University of Rome, and to resume the patronage of scholarship and art. He took measures to ensure a proper supply of grain despite the raids of Barbary pirates upon shipping near Sicily. In a remarkably short time Rome was functioning again as the capital of the Western world.

The city was still rich in artists. Caradosso had come from Milan, Cellini from Florence, to raise the art of the goldsmith to its Renaissance zenith; they and many more were kept busy making gold roses and swords of honor as papal gifts, vessels for the altars, silver staffs for Church authorities and processions, seals for cardinals, tiaras and rings for the popes. Valerio Belli of Vicenza made for Clement a magnificent casket of rock crystal, engraved with scenes from the life of Christ. This, now one of the most precious objects in the Pitti Palace, was presented to Francis I at the marriage of his son to Catherine de’ Medici.

The decoration of the Vatican stanze had been resumed in 1526. The greatest painting of Clement’s pontificate was done in the Hall of Constantine: there Giulio Romano pictured The Apparition of the Cross and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge; Francesco Penni painted The Baptism of Constantine, and Raffaello del Colle portrayed Rome Presented to Pope Sylvester by Constantine.

After Michelangelo—and now that Giulio Romano had migrated to Mantua—the ablest painter in Rome was Sebastiano Luciano, who acquired his sobriquet del Piombo when he was appointed keeper and designer of the papal seals (1531). Born in Venice(c.1485), he had the luck to be taught by Gian Bellini, Giorgione, and Cima. One of his earliest and finest pictures—The Three Ages of Ages—shows him as a delectable youth between two famous foreign composers then in Venice—Jacob Obrecht and Philippe Verdelot. For the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo he painted —or finished for Giorgione—a vivid representation of that saint in the fever of composition; and about the same time (1510) he copied Giorgione’s most voluptuous manner in a Venus and Adoniswhose generous women seem to belong to a golden age before the birth of sin. Probably in Venice also Sebastiano painted his renowned Portrait of a Lady, long ascribed to Raphael as La Fornarina.

In 1511 Agostino Chigi invited Sebastiano to come to Rome and help adorn the Villa Chigi. There the young artist met Raphael, and for a time imitated his style of pagan ornament; in return he taught Raphael the Venetian secrets of warm coloring. Soon Sebastian became a devoted friend of Michelangelo, imbibed the Titan’s muscular conception of man, and announced the aim of wedding Venetian color to Michelangelesque design. He had a chance to do this when Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici asked him for a picture. Sebastiano chose as his subject The Raising of Lazarus, in deliberate competition with the Transfiguration that Raphael was painting at the time (1518). Critics did not unanimously contradict his judgment that he had equaled Leo’s favorite.

He might have progressed further had he not been too readily content with his excellence. A passion for leisure kept him this side of genius. He was a jovial fellow who could not see why one should wear himself out either for superfluous gold or for such a will-o’-the-wisp as posthumous fame. After he had received his sinecure in the Vatican from his patron made pope, he confined himself for the most part to portraits, in which few painters have surpassed him.

Baldassare Peruzzi was more ambitious, and made his sonorous name ring for a generation across the mountains of Italy. He was the son of a weaver. (Artists are mostly of lowly stock: the middle classes seek utility first, hoping to have time for beauty in their senility; aristocrats, though they nourish art, prefer the art of life to the life of art.) Born in Siena (1481), Baldassare learned painting under Sodoma and Pinturicchio, and soon went off to Rome. Apparently it was he who painted the ceiling of the Stanza d’Eliodoroin the Vatican, and Raphael thought the work good enough to leave much of it unchanged. Meanwhile, like Bramante, he fell in love with the classic ruins, measured the ground plans of the ancient temples and palaces, and studied the diverse forms and arrangements of columns and capitals. He became a specialist in the application of perspective to architecture.

When Agostino Chigi decided to build the Villa Chigi, Peruzzi was invited to design it (1508). The banker was pleased with the result—the stately crowning of a Renaissance façade with classic moldings and cornices; and finding that Peruzzi could also paint, he gave the young artist freedom to decorate several rooms of the interior in competition with Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphael. In the entrance hall and the loggia Baldassare pictured Venus combing her hair, Leda and her swan, Europa and her bull, Danaë and her golden shower, Ganymede and his eagle, and other scenes calculated to raise the tired moneylender from the prose of his days to the poetry of his dreams. Peruzzi set off his frescoes with borders painted in such tricks of perspective that Titian thought them to be veritable reliefs in stone.55 In the hall of the upper floor Baldassare made illusory architecture with his brush: cornices sustained by pictured caryatids, friezes supported by pictured pilasters, mimic windows opening upon pictured fields. Peruzzi had fallen in love with architecture, and made painting its handmaid, obeying all the builder’s rules, but spiritless. Let us make an exception here for the Biblical scenes that he painted in a semidome of Santa Maria della Pace (1517), where Raphael had painted sibyls three years before. Baldassare’s frescoes stood the comparison well, for these are his finest paintings, while Raphael’s there were not his best.

Leo X must have been impressed by Peruzzi’s versatility, for he appointed him to succeed Raphael as chief architect at St. Peter’s (1520), and engaged him to paint the scenery for Bibbiena’s comedy, La Calandra (1521). All that remains of Peruzzi’s work on San Pietro is the ground plan that he drew; Symonds pronounced it “by far the most beautiful and interesting of those laid down for St. Peter’s.”56 Leo’s death, and the accession of a pope allergic to art, drove Peruzzi back to Siena, then to Bologna. There he designed the lovely Palazzo Albergati, and made a model for the never finished façade of San Petronio. He hurried back to Rome when Clement VII reopened the paradise of the arts, and resumed his work at St. Peter’s. He was still there when the imperial mob sacked Rome. He suffered special tribulations, says Vasari, because “he was grave and noble of aspect, and they thought him some great prelate in disguise.” They held him for a lordly ransom; but when he proved his lowly status by painting a masterly portrait, they contented themselves with taking from him all but the shirt on his back, and let him go. He made his way to Siena, and arrived there almost naked. The Sienese government, proud to recapture its prodigal son, engaged him to design fortifications; and the church of Fontegiusta commissioned him to paint a mural which was acclaimed by generous critics as his chef-d’oeuvre—a Sibyl announcing to a frightened Augustus the coming birth of Christ.

But Peruzzi’s greatest success was the Palazzo Massimi delle Colonne, which he designed on his return to Rome (1530). The Massimi claimed descent, and derived their name, from Fabius Maximus, who had earned immortality by idling; they took their surname from the columned porch of their previous dwelling, which had been destroyed in the sack. It was Peruzzi’s good fortune that the curved irregularity of the site forbade the usual dreary rectangular plan. He chose an oval form, with a Renaissance façade and a Doric portico; and while keeping the exterior simple, he gave the interior all the ornament and splendor of a Roman palace of Imperial days, with Greek refinements of proportion and decoration.

Despite his multiform ability Peruzzi died poor, not having had the heart to haggle with popes, cardinals, and bankers for fees commensurate with his skill. When Pope Paul III heard that he was dying he bethought himself that only Peruzzi and Michelangelo remained to raise St. Peter’s from walls to dome. He sent the artist a hundred crowns ($1250?). Baldassare thanked him, and died nevertheless, at the age of fifty-four (1535). Vasari, after suggesting that a rival had poisoned him, relates that “all the painters, sculptors, and architects in Rome followed his body to the grave.”

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