Roma caput mundi
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.