chapter  4
19 Pages

THE CLASSICISM OF THE CINQUECENTO

In disintegrated Italy, the Pontifical State had seized the reins of political power. The Popes felt that they were the heirs of the Caesars and they also partly succeeded in exploiting for their own power-political ends the fantastic expectations of a renewal of the old glory of the Roman Empire which were burgeoning in every corner of the land. It is true that their political endeavours remained unfulfilled, but Rome became the centre of Western civilization and attained an intellectual influence which became still deeper during the Counter Reformation and remained active until far into the baroque period. Since the return of the Popes from Avignon, the city had been not only a diplomatic meeting place, with ambassadors and chargés d’affaires from every corner of the Christian world, but also an important money market where what must have then seemed exorbitant sums flowed in and were spent. As a financial power the curia surpassed all the princes, tyrants, bankers and merchants of North Italy; it could afford a more sumptuous expenditure on culture than all of them and it took over the lead in the field of art hitherto held by Florence. When the Popes returned from France, Rome lay almost in ruins after the barbaric invasions and the destruction caused by the century-long feuds of the Roman patrician families. The Romans were poor, and even the ecclesiastical dignitaries were unable to amass sufficient wealth to finance a revival of art which would have allowed Rome to compete with Florence. During the Quattrocento the papal residence had no Roman artists at its disposal; the Popes were dependent on outside forces. They called the most famous masters of the age to Rome, including Masaccio, Gentile de Fabriano, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Melozzo da Forlì, Pinturicchio and Mantegna, but after carrying out their commissions, they all left the city, without leaving behind the slightest trace apart from their works. Even under Sixtus IV (1471-84), who, by the commissions he gave for the decoration of his chapel, made Rome a centre of artistic production for a time, no school or tendency came into existence with a local Roman character. Such a tendency is not discernible until the papacy of Julius II (1503-13), after Bramante, Michelangelo and, finally, Raphael had settled in Rome and placed their gifts at the service of the Pope. That is the earliest beginning of that unique period of artistic activity of which the result is the monumental Rome, which we now see before us, not only as the greatest but also as the sole authoritative memorial of the High Renaissance, and which could have arisen at that time only under the conditions prevailing in the papal residence.