I have been chided for not adding anything to this site recently. It is not that I have refrained from writing; simply that the well-turned phrases are composed in my mind. That, and the recent distractions of being in Rome, albeit briefly.
The Rinascimento a Roma exhibition, held in the cramped space of the Palazzo Sciarra, tells the familiar tale of exuberant creativity in the generation of Michelangelo and Raphael, followed by despair in the wake of the Sack of Rome and then the renewed religious fervour we call the Counter-Reformation. To be fair, some of the show’s display might raise questions about that well-known narrative: the desolation of 1527 did not stop Maarten van Heemskerck travelling there a few years later and painting a penitent Jerome surrounded by a capriccio of the gargantuan remains of ancient Rome; Paul III saw no conflict between austere piety and the ostentation of his family residence, the Palazzo Farnese. But the exhibition appears comfortable living in a familiar world of clichés.
A cliché about clichés is that there are oft-repeated because they have a kernel of truth. So it may be: an early section of the exhibition talks of Rome in the early sixteenth century being the centre of the world, the caput mundi. I had seen evidence to support this statement just a few days earlier. Within the embrace of the ancient circular church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, out on the Celian Hill, beyond SS Giovanni and Paolo, there is a memorial slab to a member of the curia, the Hungarian Janos Lazai, who died on 17th August 1523. The inscription beneath his feet draws attention to the fact of his foreignness and asks the viewer not to wonder how he came to be here — for Rome is the homeland of everyone.
Rome as a universal homeland — acknowledgement, surely, even in the first years of the Reformation, of its long-standing status as caput mundi. And, yet, what struck me was that the author of the lines imagined that the viewer might be surprised to see a Hungarian here, and might need to be told Romana est patria omnium. Was this particularly trite when it was written or was it expressing a truth only then becoming to be acknowledged?
Of course, Rome as the centre of the then only church had a long charisma. Even in the Avignonese years, it was still a centre for pilgrimage and it was promoted as such by the declaration of a jubilee in 1350, when travel to the relevant sites would gain the pilgrim plenary indulgence. And during the Schism, still the devout would make their way to worship at the apostolic shrines — so much so in 1400 that, in effect, an unofficial jubilee occurred.
Yet, at the same time, the papacy’s grasp on Rome was weak and liable to slip, as it did when Eugenius IV had to feel the city up the Tiber, his boat being pelted with stones. It was over a decade before he returned to his ‘capital’. His successor, Nicholas V, worked to glorify the city in architecture and ritual — he declared a jubilee for 1450 — but this did not save him from the threat of conspiracy in 1453. His courtiers celebrated Rome as the centre of the world; his successors continued his policy but one wonders how permanently a pope felt secure in his palace in a restive city, which for most of them, was alien. Perhaps, even in the early sixteenth century, the repeated statements of Rome’s pre-eminence were less an expression of an obvious truth than an aspiration, a pious desire never quite rid of doubt. Rome was as much a project as it was a place.
For all the acreage of frescoes on the walls of the Vatican Palace, it is surely the case that what has been lost over time is more substantial than what we can see now. Much of the fifteenth-century art, let alone that of earlier generations, has been destroyed or covered over by later generations. We can reconstruct some of what was there and we know of particular moments of frenetic activity, the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447 – 55) being one.
Yesterday, I came across a reference to decorations in the Vatican during his pontificate; a quick look in the obvious secondary material provides no mention of this passage or corroboration of it. So, loyal reader, this is for you to consider, to research further or to advise me on where it is discussed.
The brief passage comes from an unpublished humanist text, a commentary on Juvenal by Gaspare da Verona, now better known for his later biography of another pope, more controversial but no less corpulent than Nicholas, that is Paul II. Gaspare’s commentary, which must have been written in 1449, was intended for presentation to Nicholas V, and the author makes no secret of his desire for pecuniary recompense for his efforts. It was a hope that seems to have been little rewarded — or maybe not at all — by the learned pope. However that may be, in the commentary, Gaspare takes a mention of Hercules in Juvenal as reason to outline the mythical hero’s twelve labours. At the end of his discussion, he adds a characteristically contemporary comment:
…quae nisi fallor et ficte sunt ab egregio pictore in palatio longe pulcherrime sancti petri iussu quidem glorissimi et maximi pontificis summique domini nicolae quinti qui ita decora palatium curavit ut iam non teneat italia immo nec ulla transaplina regio magnificentius quantum memini me videre in gallia hispania germania…
So, it is Gaspare’s assertion that in some part of the palace, Nicholas had commissioned, early in his pontificate, a set of frescoes of Hercules’ Labours, from a ‘famous’ artist. Who this was and exactly where they were it seems we do not know. And, indeed, it may be that Gaspare himself was not that certain. He crowds his text with repeated praise of the pope but he also says at one point that he sees him rarely; it is likely that he was equally no habitué of the Vatican Palace. Perhaps, then, he was speaking from hearsay, and gives us a sign of what was talked about in Rome in the late 1440s. Of course, we could go further and say that he might have been mistaken and there was no such fresco — at which point the paintings revealed in prose would disappear again, to be as lost as so many others that once adorned the Vatican. Let us hope that we can stop short of that and that some learned scholar can tell us more about them.