Renaissance Art in Rome
Characteristics, History of Roman Painting & Sculpture.

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Renaissance Art in Rome
Under the Popes (1400-1600)

Genesis Fresco by Michelangelo
The Genesis Fresco on the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican.
Painted 1508-12 by Michelangelo.

Rome and the Pope
Early Developments
Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84)
Pope Julius II (1503-13)
Pope Leo X (1513-21)
Rome Weakened by Papal Overspending
Pope Paul III (1534-49)
Counter Reformation
Greatest Renaissance Paintings (1400-1600)
Best Renaissance Drawings (c.1400-1550).

Rome and the Pope

During the Dark Ages (c.500-1100), Europe stagnated and the Western Pope in Rome was overshadowed by his Eastern Byzantine counterpart in Constantinople. Even when Europe began to recover from about 800 onwards, the Western Papacy was heavily dependent upon the secular power of the French Emperor Charlemagne and later the Emperors in Germany. It wasn't until an ecumenical council elected Pope Martin V pontiff in 1417, in the early years of the Renaissance, that he and subsequent popes were able to turn their attention towards regaining and fortifying the papal prestige of Rome.

At this point (1417), the pope was not only the spiritual but also the temporal ruler of millions, and this dual authority was to result in many conflicts as the fifteenth century wore on. The pope was not only the steward of the Roman Church, but the ruler of numerous territories as well. Bologna, Perugia, Urbino, Ferrara, and Siena are but a few of the Italian cities that fell under papal jurisdiction. Some were governed in the pope's name by archbishops, some by the local nobility, and not a few by the current pope's relatives.

The flowering of Renaissance art in Florence during the 15th century (quattrocento) was a matter of concern and envy to many other Italian cities, especially Rome. The Florentine leadership of the early Renaissance lent the city an indisputable aura of authority. (See Florentine Renaissance, for more detail.) As the century wore on, it became clear to Martin and his successors that one way to re-establish the prestige of the papacy, was to make Rome the new centre of the Italian Renaissance by beautifying it with great architecture, sculpture and painting. This is exactly what they did.

Early Developments

Two great Renaissance Old Masters are particularly associated with the history of papal patronage, Raphael and Michelangelo. (See also Renaissance Sculptors.) During their life-times, thirteen popes were elected - three of them members of the Medici family. Despite differences of character and personal style, virtually all of the popes were motivated by one dominant concern: the strengthening of the papacy through the exercise of personal power. Through wisdom, diplomacy, and deception, they created an authority to be reckoned with, and Rome became once more the spiritual and cultural centre of the Christian world. In the arts, this involved Renaissance-style use of Greek art forms, especially classical Greek sculpture, as well as Roman art and architecture.

Among the great Renaissance popes, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1458-64), who took the name of Pius II, was one of the first to recognize the importance of preserving and disseminating ancient learning. A fresco painted by Bernardino Pinturicchio (c.1454-1513) at the beginning of the sixteenth century commemorates the life and humanistic achievements of Pius II, whom he idealized as a kneeling young man about to be crowned with a poet's wreath of laurels. Nowhere in this completely secularized High Renaissance work is there even a reference to the pontiff's religious or ecclesiastical identity.

The successor of Pius II was Francesco della Rovere, who reigned as Sixtus IV (1471-84). This shrewd and ruthless man had given his blessing to the Pazzi conspiracy to murder the Medici brothers in the early years of his reign as Pope. He was, however, a vigorous and intelligent patron of the arts, who inaugurated a significant building program in the Vatican, the administrative and residential headquarters of the Papacy. Perhaps the most famous single structure commissioned by Sixtus IV was the Sistine Chapel.

The building was originally conceived to house official religious conclaves and as a place of refuge for the pope. In our century, the Sistine Chapel recently witnessed a historic meeting between Pope Paul and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84)

Artistic activity in Rome increased significantly during the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-84). His patronage of Christian art attracted not only painters, sculptors, and architects, but many poets and classical scholars, as well. Determined to make the city a cultural and artistic showplace that would rival Lorenzo de' Medici's Florence, Sixtus encouraged artists like the Florentine Melozzo da Forli to leave their native city and work in the churches of Rome. In one of the many works Melozzo produced in Rome, "The Founding of the Vatican Library by Sixtus IV", he celebrated a major achievement of Sixtus' patronage.

In addition Sixtus IV summoned a number of painters to decorate the Sistine Chapel. They included Perugino (1450-1523), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Luca Signorelli (1450-1523), and Botticelli (1445-1510). See, for instance, Perugino's fresco painting Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482).

There is no question that the Pope was extremely sensitive to the judgment of history and that he wished to be remembered as a dedicated humanist who had generously supported the arts and letters. Melozzo's fresco mural painting, which exhibits the characteristic Florentine bent for three-dimensionally conceived figures occupying a rational, coherent space, depicts the shrewd and ambitious Pope seated in a narrow chamber with ornate classical decor. Four of his nephews and a fifth cleric attend him; most notable among his relatives is the kneeling Cardinal Giuliano dell a Rovere, who was to add even greater lustre to the Vatican during his pontificate as Julius II.

When Sixtus died in 1484, he was succeeded by Giovanni Cibo, who reigned as Innocent VIII (1484-92). Although Sixtus' building program was continued by Innocent VIII and his successor Alexander VI (1492-1503), whose reign coincided with the beginning of the High Renaissance, the enthusiasm that had marked earlier activity diminished. Moreover, Italy was in this period beset by political troubles that necessarily involved the pope, in their capacity as temporal rulers. Only with the election of Julius II in 1503 did Rome truly supersede Florence as the artistic center of the peninsula - and of Europe. It was then that she became known as madre di belle arti ("mother of the fine arts").

World's Top Art
- For a list of the Top 10 painters/sculptors: see: Best Artists of All Time.
- For the Top 300 oils, watercolours, see: Greatest Paintings Ever.
- For the Top 100 works of sculpture, see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Pope Julius II (1503-13)

The pontificate of Pope Julius II lasted only a decade, but it was among the most memorable ever recorded, at least in the history of art. In those ten exhausting years, Rome witnessed some of the mightiest achievements of the human mind and spirit, made possible by firm political control. Julius has been called "the warrior pope," for he seemed to revel in combat and often appeared in armor at the head of his army. He had been familiar with the problems of the Papacy since his uncle's tenure as pope, and he was determined to build its power.

Unlike many of his predecessors Julius seldom spread the fortune and prestige of the Papacy among the members of his family; what he acquired he proudly and grandly gave to the Church. His character, even more strikingly than that of Sixtus, combined the seemingly opposite characteristics of brutality and refinement. His wars and intrigues were counterbalanced by his cultivation of learning and his founding of the Vatican Museums. Julius was another model of the well-rounded Renaissance man, a figure at home both on horseback and seated in a book-lined study. More than any other pope, he was responsible for the restoration of Rome to her ancient splendor and prestige. He had a master plan to unify the Italian peninsula and to make Rome not only the political center of Italy, but of all Europe. In his time, this was not an idle dream, for the European continent was still united by a single religious faith, and the multinational character of the "universal Church" made the pope a logical candidate for political leadership.

In working to make Rome the cultural capital of the world, Julius demanded and received the dedicated assistance of the most gifted artists and architects of his day. One by one, they journeyed from distant Italian cities to Rome. Raphael - probably the greatest exponent of High Renaissance painting - came to decorate the papal apartments in the Vatican with frescoes celebrating the theological and humanistic interests of the Pope. (See Raphael Rooms: Vatican). Michelangelo was the unwilling guest of Julius while he spent four years of agonizing labor creating the Genesis fresco (featuring the iconic image The Creation of Adam) - part of the majestic Sistine Chapel frescoes - and working on a grandiose marble tomb to ensure the Pope's memory. Donato Bramante (c.1444-1514), the leading architect of the day, was called from Milan to create a plan for the rebuilding of the crumbling old basilica of St. Peter's, which had stood since early Christian times. See: Renaissance Architecture.

It was Julius' intention that this building should surpass the monuments of ancient Rome in grandeur, and thus signal the arrival of an even greater era. He laid the cornerstone of St. Peter's, this great architectural symbol of the power and universality of the Papacy, in 1506, but it was more than one hundred and fifty years before the entire project saw completion. During that time, a steady stream of architectural talent flowed to Rome: Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo, whose majestic dome rises over the basilica, Carlo Maderna, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who designed the impressive colonnade that encloses the piazza in front of St. Peter's. Julius also commissioned Raphael to produce a decorative painting - The Sistine Madonna (1513-14) - for his tomb. However, the work was eventually used as an altarpiece for the high altar of the Benedictine church of San Sisto (St. Sixtus) in Piacenza.

In September, 1512, eighteen years after their family's expulsion from Florence under Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), JuIius supported Giovanni, Giulio, and Giuliano de' Medici in returning to their native city and re-establishing their family's control of the government there. Six months later, the warrior pope died, and Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici ascended the throne as Pope Leo X. Thus the amazing Medici family emerged from exile and relative obscurity to control the two main centers of Italian political and cultural activity.

[For a chronological list of painters and sculptors active in Italian art during this period, see: Early Renaissance Artists and High Renaissance Artists.]

Pope Leo X (1513-21)

Only thirty-seven years old when he became Christ's vicar, Leo X is said to have remarked about his election, "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." This he certainly did in the eight active years of his reign (1513-21). Julius II had set high standards for the patronage of the arts, but the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent was not to be over-shadowed. He supported poets, philosophers, classical scholars, and musicians.

Carrying on the family tradition inaugurated by his great-grand-father Cosimo, and the papal tradition set by Sixtus IV, Leo sent scholars all over the world to buy and borrow ancient manuscripts for the growing Vatican collections. Like Sixtus and Julius, he supported building programs. These were needed in increasing number to accommodate the many people who flocked to a booming Rome from the provincial cities.

Leo's favourite artist was Raphael, who - in addition to his divine Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15, Louvre) - has given us a wonderful portrait of this fascinating Pope. In the painting Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi (1518, Pitti Palace, Florence), we see the Pope as he was in 1518, in the forty-third year of his life. A corpulent man who enjoyed good food and drink as much as he enjoyed his manuscripts, Leo is seated at a table on top of which is an illuminated book that he has been reading. The painting is remarkable for its definition of various textures and surfaces in clear detail. It also provides subtle insights into the personal relationships of those portrayed. Particularly fascinating is the way in whim Raphael underlines the watchfulness of all three figures, especially Cardinal Giulio at the right, who was shortly to become Pope Clement VII. He and the other cardinal seem almost to guard the Pope. Although the Medici cardinal is characterized as the Pope's "right hand" and is indeed placed in close proximity to him, Raphael does not allow either figure to become more than a secondary shadow, while the picture is dominated by Leo's hulking presence. In the same year, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici commissioned Raphael to paint an altarpiece on The Transfiguration for the French cathedral of Narbonne.

In reviving the grandeur and prestige of Rome, Julius II and Leo X spent astronomical sums of money. The building of St. Peter's Basilica alone precipitated a financial crisis. There developed in the Church a revolt against papal excess that had powerful consequences throughout Europe, especially in Germany. One of the methods of obtaining money to fill the rapidly draining Vatican treasury was the sale of indulgences, for remission of purgatorial punishment for sins. It was in Germany that an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, first cried out against this old custom. For details of this revolt and the art it spawned, see: the Protestant Reformation Art of countries in Northern Europe and the Catholic Counter-Reformation Art of Italy and Spain.

Rome Weakened by Papal Overspending

Because it was bought at so high a cost, the moment of papal supremacy was brief. Although Leo's successor, the Dutch Pope Adrian VI, reacted sternly to the loose morality and highhanded spending of his predecessors, the greatest damage had already been done. The changing political and economic climate of the times also helped weaken older ties. Within ten years of Leo's death, many ruling princes had severed their temporal and spiritual ties with the Papacy, and millions of souls left the Church of Rome. In 1527, during the pontificate of Giulio de' Medici as Pope Clement VII (1523-34) - whose favourite artists included Michelangelo (1475-1564), Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) - the golden age of papal power and patronage was brutally terminated. The armies of Charles V, King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, and a presumably loyal son of the Church invaded the city and robbed it of many of its celebrated treasures. Among the mercenary soldiers who fought for pay in Charles's imperial armies were a number of zealous converts to the doctrines of Luther. They saw the magnificent churches of Rome - filled with Renaissance sculpture - as temples of idolatry and were bent on desecrating and destroying them. The Pope and a few followers fled to his nearby fortress, the Castel St. Angelo, to watch the destruction of the city in powerless horror.

This sack of Rome had a sobering effect on the Papacy, and the consequences for Roman Renaissance art were significant. When the foreigners invaded, painters, sculptors, and architects fled the city along with the rest of its inhabitants. Many of these artists sought employment with the Renaissance in Venice or elsewhere; some left Italy altogether and travelled to the courts of France or Austria*, carrying with them the achievements of early sixteenth-century Italian art.

[For information about painting and sculpture north of the Alps, in Germany and Holland, see Northern Renaissance. For a list of artists, see Northern Renaissance Artists.]

Pope Paul III (1534-49)

Despite the turmoil in Rome, the new pontiff, Pope Paul III (1534-49) quickly came to terms with Charles V and re-installed Michelangelo as the 'Chief Architect, Sculptor and Painter of the Apostolic Palace' and commissioned him to repaint a wall of the Sistine Chapel with a fresco illustrating The Last Judgement. This magnificent example of Mannerist painting took Michelangelo five years to complete (1536-41), and includes some of the most eloquent figure painting in Western art. In contrast with the relative calmness and assuredness of his Genesis ceiling fresco, The Last Judgement is far more strained, reflecting the uncertainty of the times, and was the first major work in Rome associated with the Mannerism style of art, which endured until the Baroque era at the end of the 16th century. (The Council of Trent 1545 later ordered Michelangelo's pupil Daniele da Volterra to conceal the nudity of the figures.) Michelangelo was given a number of further architectural commissions, notably to develop St. Peter's and rebuild the Capitol. His design for the dome of St. Peter's (largely realized after his death) was intended to rival Brunelleschi's design for the cupola above the Cathedral in Florence. For late Renaissance Mannerist sculpture, see: Stefano Maderno (1576-1636).

For details of the colour pigments used by Renaissance painters in Rome, in fresco, tempera and oil painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette. For a general review of colourism, see: Colour in Painting.

Counter Reformation

When the Papacy finally recovered from the shock of the Reformation, the religious revolution that accompanied the attack on the Church's temporal authority, it quickly sought to regain lost ground by organizing the Counter Reformation, a reformatory movement of its own within the Roman Church. With the establishment in 1534 of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit order, by the ex-soldier Ignatius of Loyola, and the convocation of the Council of Trent in 1545 to redefine religious dogma, the Church assumed a militant posture and won back much of her influence. However, it was to be nearly a century before Rome once again played a dominant role in Italian art.

• For the chronological history of culture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For painting and sculpture in Rome, see: Homepage.

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