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Renaissance Rome
(XV – XVI centuries)


Pieta - Michelangelo Buonarroti

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Renaissance is a term used by Giorgio Vasari, painter, architect, and biographer of the XVI century, in reference to the cultural renewal that characterized the period after the decadence of the Middle Ages. According to him, the new art born with Giotto and Arnolfo da Cambio culminated with the works of Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), artist “divine” and perfect.
Renaissance meant also a rediscovering of the Classic art. Considering themselves as the heirs of the ancients, the artists of the ‘400 looked back for inspiration to the Roman and Greek models.

Traditionally the begin of this period is considered the year 1420, when Brunelleschi planned the prospective according to geometric rules, and ended with the death of two great artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Raphael.
The reform inaugurated by Martin Luther and the sack of Rome in 1527 mark the beginning of a new period, that of the Counter-Reformation.

From a political and social point of view, the medieval institution of the commune was substituted by other forms of institution, such as the Signorie and the Principati. Cities returned to be populated and eventually became the new centres of urban life, artisanship, and trade, replacing the medieval court. While the widespread of this new laic, rational, and scientific spirit, the Church lost much of its privileges. Its temporal power slowly began to diminish.

The cultural centre of the Italian Renaissance was Florence, where Lorenzo il Magnifico, one of the greatest patrons of his time, gathered the best artists, thinkers, philosophers, and scientists of Europe around his court.
Though, all the Italian cities produced great works of art in this period, and each one developed its own style with local characteristics. This widespread artistic development was possible thanks to the phenomenon of the patronage, operated by the rich families that ruled the cities.

In Rome, the Renaissance began with Pope Martin V and continued under the following popes who, commissioning the erection of many religious monuments, both public and private, notably contributed to the enrichment and embellishment of the city.
Many of these constructions could be erected with the marble taken by old monuments. The Imperial Forums became the cave for the new Renaissance buildings in marble.

The most peculiar erections of the Renaissance are the churches, the palaces, and the villas.

The Renaissance church kept the symbolic crossed form (Latin or Greek) and was covered by a plain ceiling, often by coffered vaults, in replacement of the Medieval barrel and cross vaults


S. Maria del Popolo was erected in 1475, under Sixtus IV, by a Florentine artist. The church stands on the side of a chapel erected by Pascal II in 1099 over the tombs of the Domitia family. Because Nero was buried there it was believed to be the haunt of demons. The early Renaissance façade is attributed to Andrea Bregno.
The two chapels inside the church are frescoed by Pinturicchio in ‘400. The second chapel is the well-lit, octagonal Chigi Chapel, founded by the great banker Agostino Chigi (1465 – 1520) and designed as a fusion of architecture, sculpture, and painting by Raphael (1513 – 16). Inside, the church still keeps beautiful paintings and sculptures typical of the 17th-century art (Caravaggio, Bernini).

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The church of Sant’Agostino was built for Cardinal d’Estouteville by Giacomo di Pietrasanta (1479 – 83). The severely plain façade is one of the earliest of the renaissance. The church is dedicated to St Augustine, author of the Confessions. His mother, St Monica, is buried here.
The interior, renovated by Luigi Vanvitelli in 1750, reflects the typical taste of the ‘700. It contains good frescoes on the vault and nave by Pietro Gagliardi (1855), including five prophets on the nave pilasters which accompany the Prophet Isaiah frescoed on the third pillar on the north side by Raphael. This was commissioned by the Humanist scholar Giovanni Goritz in 1512 for his funerary monument, and shows how much the painter was influenced by Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

On the Janiculum Hill it raises, on a terrace, the church of San Pietro in Montorio, built in the 15th century on a site wrongly presumed to have been the scene of St Peter’s crucifixion.
The second door on the right of the church, flanked by two oleander brushes, gives access to a courtyard with the Tempietto, an extremely important Renaissance work by Donato Bramante, usually dated 1499-1502 or 1508-12. Erected on the supposed exact site of St Peter’s martyrdom, it is a miniature circular building, designed on the model of the Pantheon, with 16 Doric columns of granite, which combines all the grace of the 15th century with the full splendour of the 16th century.

A typical Renaissance construction is the palace, erected as private residence for rich merchants, ecclesiastics, and nobles. The form was generally squared or rectangular, with an inner court, which was the private area, intimate, around which there were the bedrooms.
The most representative part of the building was the façade, on the street or on the square, characterized by precious materials and elegant forms.

Venice Palace

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Palazzo Venezia is the first civic architectural work of the Roman Renaissance. The building is a synthesis of the medieval castle (characterized by towers and merlons) and the noble palace (characterized by crossed windows).
Partly built of stone from the Colosseum, this palace was firstly commissioned in 1455 by the Venetian Pope Paul II (1464-71), the first of the great High Renaissance popes, who is said to have built it in order to view the horse races in the Corso. He used it as papal residence and rebuilt the church of San Marco here, providing it with a loggia for papal benedictions.
The palace was often occupied as such even after it had been given by Pius IV (1559-65) to the Venetian Republic for its embassy. Charles VIII of France stayed here after entering Rome with 20,000 soldiers in 1494. From the Treaty of Campoformio in 1797 until 1915 it was the seat of the Austrian ambassador for the Vatican.
In 1917 Italy resumed possession and the palace was restored. During the Fascist regime it was occupied by Mussolini, who had his office in the Sala del Mappamondo. Some of his most famous speeches were made from the balcony overlooking Piazza Venezia. The door on the square is finely carved and attributed to Giuliano da Maiano.
The picturesque inner court, with its tall palm trees, has a large, unfinished 15th century loggia on two sides, of beautiful proportions, and, in its centre, a fountain by Carlo Monaldi (1730).

In 1485, Cardinal Raphael Riario commissioned the erection of Palazzo della Cancelleria, a masterpiece of the Renaissance, whose graceful façade stretches along one whole side of Piazza della Cancelleria.
It was built by an unknown architect with a double order of pilasters. On the windows, on the cornice, and on the capitals of the columns of the elegant courtyard is sculpted the Riario coat of arms with the emblem of the rose. The magnificent courtyard has double lodge with antique columns. Incorporated into the palace is the basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso, which is entered by a door way at the right end of the main façade.
The ancient basilica founded by Pope St Damasus I in the 4th century, was one of the most important and largest early Christian churches in Rome. The palace is now the seat of the three Tribunals of the Vatican, including the Sacra Rota, and of the Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia.

Palazzo Farnese was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, afterwards Paul III (the pope who excommunicated King Henry VIII of England in 1538). The pope demanded some special modifications to the plan in order to have a more severe and solemn palace, that showed his power and wealthy.
The architect designed the vestibule, with a beautiful colonnade and stuccoed ceiling, and the first two storeys of the courtyard. He also began the piazza façade, finished after his death by Michelangelo, who added the superb entablature. The palace is today seat of the French embassy.

Skilfully set in a narrow, irregular site, it raises the beautiful Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, erected by Baldassare Peruzzi in 1536. The convex façade follows the line of the cavea of the Odeon of Domitian which stood here. The beautiful portico is decorated with stuccoes.
The palace has two courtyards: one a charming Renaissance work with a frescoed lodge and a Baroque fountain, and the second with 17th century decorations.

In 1536, Cardinal Girolamo Capodiferro commissioned the erection of a noble residence, with a cubic form, with a central courtyard and a garden on the backside. The palace was bought in the 17th century by Cardinal Bernardino Spada and is now owned by the State. It has been the seat of the Council of State (of Supreme Court) since 1889. The courtyard and façade are outstanding examples of stucco decoration.
Cardinal Spada had it restored by Borromini, who designed the famous painted niche with a statue on a wall in Piazza Capodiferro to close the view from the garden entrance on Via Giulia. The design of the niche has been found beneath the plaster, and reconstructed above an ancient sarcophagus which serves as a fountain in the square.

The most elegant example of the Roman suburban residence is represented by Villa Farnesina, along the Tiber. The Renaissance Villa was built for Agostino Chigi by Baldassare Peruzzi (1508-11). Here the rich banker, who controlled the markets of the East, entertained in grandeur Pope Leo X, cardinals, ambassadors, artists, and men of letters. He was a patron of Raphael, who, together with his school, has embellished and enriched his palace with beautiful frescoes.
The banker was famous for his extravagancies. At a celebrated banquet silver plates and dishes were thrown into the river after every course (it was later revealed that a net had been in position to recover them). In 1590 the villa passed to Cardinal Farnese, from whom it received its present name, and through him it was inherited by the Bourbons of Naples in 1731. Since 1927 it has been the property of the State, and houses the administrative offices of the Accademia dei Lincei.

As had affirmed Vasari, art achieved its peak with Michelangelo. After his death, it would have followed the decadence, the crises of creativity. The artist sculpted his masterpiece, the Pietà, when he was just 25.
This work, destined to be placed in St Peter, is the only one inscribed with his name. It is probably the most moving of all his sculptures. The religious theme of the Piety, sculpted in many different ways always inspired by the northern iconography of the dead Christ sustained by His mother’s arms, will accompany the artist till the death.

His other masterpiece, the Moses, was realised by Michelangelo in 1512 for Pope Julius II. It was supposed to contain the pope’s burials. The original plan included a solemn monument with 40 statues, to be placed in St Peter over the tomb of the Apostle, but the artist sculpted only the Moses, Lea, and Rachel, and the work was collocated in St Peter in Vincoli.

Cappella Sistina, Creation of Adam

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The Sistine Chapel was built in 1475 after will of Pope Sixtus IV. The rectangular hall was frescoed in 1481-83 by a team of painters coming from Umbria and Tuscany under the direction of Botticelli. The vault represented a blue sky covered with golden stars. The frescoes reproduce scenes from the Old and New Testament and portrays of popes. From 1508-12, Michelangelo painted the barrel-vaulted ceiling with 9 histories of the Genesis.
The powerful sculptural figures are set in an architectural design with an effect of high relief and rich colour on a huge scale. From 1536-41 he added on the altar wall the huge fresco of the Last Judgement, crowded by 391 figures in movement around the enigmatic figure of Christ, beardless, and probably derived from Classical models. The artist was supposedly inspired by the description of the Hell made by Dante Alighieri in his masterwork, the Divina Commedia.

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Pope Sixtus IV, after whom is named the chapel, was one of the richest patrons of his time. In 1471 he founded the oldest public art collection of the world when he donated to the city the sculptures which now form the nucleus of the Capitoline Museums, and he considerably increased the holdings of the Vatican library and opened it to the public. Besides the Sistine Chapel, he erected the Ponte Sisto across the Tiber and reorganized the streets of the city.

In 1538, just after he had been made a citizen of Rome, Michelangelo designed the beautiful Piazza del Campiglio, to add grandeur to the historical centre of the city.
The square, which is the civil centre of Rome, is surrounded on three stately palaces designed by the artist. Michelangelo planned also the attractive pavement with an oval star to give prominence to the famous gilded bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, which has been displayed under cover since its restoration. It was replaced here by a disappointing copy in 1997. Michelangelo provided its small and elegant base.
The architectural masterpiece of Michelangelo is by far the Vatican Basilica. S Peter was founded in 324 by Emperor Constantine. By the mid- 15th century it was in ruin, so that in 1506 Pope Julius II decided on a complete reconstruction and employed for the purpose Donato Bramante. The work was not completed until the early 17th century.
Most of the old church was dismantled, and much was destroyed which could have been preserved. The new basilica was on a Greek-cross plan surmounted by a gigantic central dome and flanked by four small cupolas. It was Michelangelo, however, who finally took the project in his hands and completed its construction.
At Sangallo’s death in 1546, Michelangelo, then 72 years old, was summoned by Paul III. He decided on the original Greek-cross plan, and developed Bramante’s idea with even greater audacity. He took as his model Brunelleschi’s cupola for the Florentine cathedral, replaced Bramante’s piers with new, stronger ones, and completed the dome as far as the drum.
His plan for the façade was derived from the Pantheon. Confirmed in his appointment by Paul III’s successors, he continued to direct the work until his death in 1564. In 1605 Paul V demolished what had been left of the old basilica, pulled down the incomplete façade, and directed Carlo Madero to lengthen the nave towards the old Piazza San Pietro. The present façade and portico are Madero’s work. Thus, after many vicissitudes, the basilica was completed on a Latin-cross plan. In 1629 Madero was succeeded by Bernini, who planned the colonnade around the square.

The other great Renaissance artist is the painter and architect Raphael. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius to decorate the Stanze, which are his masterpiece. The Raphael Rooms are a series of rooms built by Nicholas V as papal audience chambers, and they include a library and a hall for the papal tribunal.
They are the example which best represent the artist’s creativity. They show the extraordinary development that took place in his art during the years between his coming to Rome in 1508 and his death at the age of 37 in 1520. When Raphael arrived, Rome was one of the most important centres of High Renaissance in Italy, and the artist assimilated an entirely new manner of painting. Raphael began work in the Stanza della Segnatura, with two frescoes of Astronomy, Apollo, Adam and Eve, and the Judgement of Solomon, which were probably his trial works. He then carried out the other frescoes in this room.
After this he decorated, successively, the Stanza d’Eliodoro, the Stanza dell’Incendio, and the Stanza di Costantino. Other works by Raphael in Rome can be seen in the Vatican picture gallery, while as architect he planned the church of S. Eligio degli Orefici, Villa Madama, and the Cappella Chigi, in Santa Maria del Popolo. He also designed the loggia of the Villa Farnesina and carried out a fresco there of Galatea. He painted a famous portrait of Julius II two years before the pope’s death in 1513.
The new Medici pope, Leo X, appointed Raphael head of the building works in St Peter’s in 1514, and commissioned him to decorate the Vatican Loggia. Leo appointed him commissioner of antiquities to ensure that everything possible was done to preserve the ancient buildings of Rome. Raphael left the huge altarpiece of the Transfiguration, now in the Vatican picture gallery, incomplete and it was displayed above his coffin at his funeral in 1520. He is buried in the Pantheon.

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