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The popes, Rome and the arts (15th-17th centuries)

At the end of the Middle Ages, back in Rome, the Pope was the only one able to compete with the King of France, because he was both spiritual and temporal sovereign. This power and this rivalry are expressed through the arts with, as far as the papacy is concerned, the central and rediscovered importance of Rome, the basis of the pope's power and of his legitimacy through the heritage of Saint Peter, and this even if several popes exercise their patronage in other cities, such as Siena, Savona or Florence. During the period, the link with Rome only grew stronger.

« Roma instaurata »

This term is used by the humanist Flavio Biondo (died 1463) to call for a restored Rome by reviving the monuments of imperial and Christian Rome under the pontificate of Eugene IV (1431-1447). During this period, the power of the Pope is contested, the sovereign pontiffs are accused of worldliness, corruption and simony, the most significant example being Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503), who is depicted in some engravings such as the Antichrist. There is therefore a need, upon returning from Avignon, to restore Rome and the legitimacy of the Pope.

Long before Alexander VI Borgia, it was therefore Eugene IV who got down to it. He succeeds Martin V and has to face a rebellion of the Colonna, which pushes him to flee until 1434. This does not prevent him from ordering Filarete a Crucifixion of Saint Peter which aims to exalt ancient Rome and its links with the founding of the City (the two pyramids, tombs of Romulus and Remus).

An antiquating program continued in the following years: under the pontificate of Alexander VI Borgia, the Catholic Monarchs thus ordered Bramante to Tempietto, for the Church of San Pietro in Montorio. We rediscover ancient wonders like the Laocoon (in 1506) and the grotesque frescoes of the Domus Aurea of Nero (circa 1480). At the same time, an urban planning program was put in place to reshape Rome, first under Sixtus IV (1471-1484) with the construction of the Ponte Sisto, which opens up the Vatican and facilitates the coming of pilgrims for the Jubilee of 1475, as well as the works of Campidoglio (Capitol) and the bronze of the Roman She-Wolf (where the twins are added), way for the Pope to integrate the municipality and to establish his authority. Under Julius II (1503-1513) the via Lungara and Giulia which connect political and religious centers.

The popes also built palaces, the number of which multiplied at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th century, like the Palazzo Venezia by Pope Paul II (1464-1471). The successor of Eugene IV, Nicolas V (1447-1455), launched the great Vatican project to renovate a basilica and defensive buildings in very poor condition. The site lasted without interruption until the 17th century! There followed artists like Fra Angelico, Bramante, Michelangelo,… Pope Sixtus IV, with the help of Laurent the Magnificent, had the Sistine Chapel built and opened the Vatican Library (1475), while the Constantinian basilica was renovated in 1505, under Julius II. This one has a large collection of works, some of which are exhibited at the Belvédère from 1507: the Laocoon, the Apollo and the Venus Felix. Within the Belvedere stands a humanist academy, assimilated to Parnassus by artists such as Raphael (1483-1520). It is a place where poetry competitions are held (as during the visit of Maximilian 1er in 1512). The Platonic influence leads to an exaltation of the philosophical popes, linking power and knowledge, as can be seen in The school of Athens and The dispute over the Blessed Sacrament by Raphaël. The Medici popes (Leo X and Clement VII) are those who rely most on the arts to restore the prestige of the popes, while deviating from the imperial model of Julius II or the "paganization" reproached to Alexander VI Borgia .

The end of the Roma instaurata intervenes in the violence with the sack of Rome by Charles V, in 1527.

"Roma sancta"

The context of religious (and political) crisis modifies the artistic policy of the popes. The successor of Leo X, the ephemeral Adrian VI (1522-1523), was outraged by the ancient statues, which he hid or covered with vine leaves, which did not prevent him from being considered a barbarian by the Romans, being of German origin (the last non-Italian before John Paul II).

Abuse and nepotism are criticized, but not the exaltation of Rome, sometimes with a touch of hypocrisy. Thus, the Italian Pope Paul III launches a great project of reforms, but does not hesitate to practice nepotism himself, as Titian shows in Paul III, Alexander and Ottavio Farnese (1546). In 1536, he welcomed Charles V with an ancient triumph, and for that reason drilled a way between the arches of Titus and Septimius Severus. This demonstration seals both reconciliation with the emperor, and the confirmation of Rome as the sole imperial center. In the same spirit, and on the advice of Michelangelo, he moved the statue of Marcus Aurelius (or Constantine?) On the Place du Capitole.

The religious concern due to the context of the Reformation is found in the arts, as in The last judgement of Michelangelo, which is an artistic revolution but also a scandal: nudity, absences of God, of the Holy Spirit and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, separation between the elect and the damned not obvious, show the influence of Spirituali and some themes of the Reformation. Without it being said that the artist was Protestant. We are more in anguish than in triumphalism.

However, there remains a desire to assert an image of Rome's power, for example with Vasari and his Paul III overseeing the construction of St. Peter (1544).
Heresy is fiercely opposed, with the creation in 1542 of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which controls the election of popes. Paul IV (1555-1559) continues to strengthen papal authority and fight against heresy and simony, in an authoritarian manner, while staging himself as illustrated by his statue on the Capitol, and practicing nepotism . His death is celebrated by the people, who destroy the palace and the statue of the Pope, mutilating his nose and ears.

Despite everything, the uncompromising popes prevail, like Pius V (1566-1572) who ordered Vasari to make a Last Judgment for the Bosco Palace; on the board, a massacre of heretics. The victories of Lepanto and the Huguenots are also celebrated on his tomb. The popes of the end of the 16th century insist on the Christian antiquity of a Rome gorged with the blood of the martyrs (rediscovery of the catacombs), and the apogee of this superiority of Christian Rome over pagan Rome is celebrated during the jubilee of 1600, under the pontificate of Sixtus V, when a million pilgrims entered a city once again modified for the occasion by major urban planning projects.

"Roma caput mundi"

The period which followed, however, saw an exhaustion of intransigence and a return of nepotism, like the pontificate of Urban VIII (1623-1644). The world character of the papacy asserts itself when Japanese princes are received by Sixtus V, or through the works of Bernini (the fountain of the Four Rivers) or of Andrea Pozzo (Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius, where the four continents are represented ). In addition, artists are no longer just Italian, but international, like Nicolas Poussin or Rubens: Rome is establishing itself as an artistic capital.

This triumphalism is symbolized by the completion of the works of the Saint-Pierre site, with the works of Maderno, and especially of Bernini: the Chair of Saint Peter and the Baldachin, on the model of the Temple of Jerusalem (the twisted columns). This Roman model will spread, even if in the end Bernini's project will not be retained by Louis XIV.


- A. Vauchez, Rome in the Middle Ages, Riveneuve, 2010.

- A. Chastel, The sack of Rome (1527), Gallimard, 1983.

- G. Labrot, The image of Rome, a weapon for the Counter-Reformation (1534-1677), Champ Vallon, 1987.

- P. Prodi, Il sovrano pontefice: un corpo e due anime: la monarchia papale nella prima età moderna, Il Mulino, 2006.

- F. Buttay, "The death of the pope between the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation: the transformations of the image of the sovereign pontiff and its implications (late 15th - late 16th)", The Historical Review, no 625, 2003, p 67-94.

Article taken from a Capes prep course with M. Tallon, at Paris I-Paris IV.

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