Modern church emerged amid decadent 1500s

  • August 24, 2009
{mosimage}When the young German monk Martin Luther visited Rome in the winter of 1510-1511, his experience of the city made the impending Protestant Reformation thinkable for the first time, and perhaps inevitable. Luther was appalled by the avid worldliness of Christian Rome and of its corrupt, ambitious, brilliant ruler, Pope Julius II. And not only Luther. Many other thoughtful Catholic clergy, thinkers and layfolk of the early 16th century were similarly scandalized by the avarice and show off of Rome’s elite, who had so conspicuously embraced pomp and splendour to the detriment of the work of Christian living and witness.

From a spiritual perspective, then, the Rome that Luther discovered was going through the worst of times. But they were also the best of times for artists, architects and interior designers. In 1505, Julius had decided to tear down the much-venerated fourth-century basilica of St. Peter and start work on a huge, magnificent new church more suitable (in his opinion) for the capital of the Christian West. Great palaces were to be constructed to complement this new St. Peter’s, grand boulevards laid out, glorious piazzas and fountains built. In 1508, Michelangelo had begun the ceiling murals in the Sistine Chapel. In the same year, the artist-architect Raphael had arrived in Rome at Julius’ invitation, and founded a large business to supply the church and secular elite with the pictures and murals they desired.

This Rome, of wealthy patrons and immensely gifted artists, is the one celebrated in From Raphael to Carracci: The Art of Papal Rome, an exhibition of 16th-century Roman paintings and works on paper on view through Sept. 7 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I mention the dark back-story of the times, not to detract from this beautiful, subtle show, but rather to balance the impression that may be left by it. That impression is one of uninterrupted loveliness, a golden age of papal and aristocratic patronage and artistic accomplishment (though shading off to silver in the latter years of the century), an epoch of creative intensity with few exact parallels in the history of art.

To be fair to it, the National Gallery display never asks us to forget the cultural context of the art on view: Large explanatory panels throughout the installation and, above all, the excellent catalogue essays and notes keep us abreast of the often sordid background. Rather, the show illustrates the fact that human activities are very often a mix of high and low motives and outcomes, though these have been rarely more extreme than they were in Rome in the 16th century.

Many of the most important papal and aristocratic commissions by Michelangelo and Raphael (at the beginning of the century) and Annibale Carracci (at the end) are wall-paintings in churches, chapels and palaces, and so could not travel to Ottawa. But taking their place are many workshop sketches and studies on paper by these masters. Gone, in the earliest artworks on show, is the solemn Christian piety and strict devotional composition of religious painting in the earlier Italian Renaissance. Raphael’s drawings of human figures here, especially, are brilliantly fresh with life and movement. The strong, sculptural musculature of his nude males echoes that of his rival Michelangelo, and the works of both the morose, isolated Michelangelo and the gregarious, charming Raphael here reflect the fascination of all Rome and its artists with the vigourous ancient sculptures being unearthed across the city.

In painting, Rafael is represented here by at least one masterpiece: his portrait of the young, wealthy banker Bindo Altoviti. This is not, after all, a show of worked-up masterpieces, but rather of studio drawings that reveal the creative imagination in rapid, full play. Nor is it an exhibition limited to a few great names. Indeed, one of its strengths lies in its embrace of many artists who are today less well-known, but who demonstrate the long creative shadow cast across the whole 16th century by Raphael, long after his untimely death in 1520.

The opulent patronage and cultural intensity of Luther’s Rome endured throughout the 16th century; but by its middle years, the shock of the Reformation was being registered in Rome in theology and liturgy — the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent — and also in art. Devotional painting of saints and other pious topics, such as Titian’s Mary Magdalene in Penitence (1567), began to enjoy a new vogue. Bartolomeo Passarotti’s portrait of Pope Pius V (1566) portrays the pontiff, not merely as a worldly sovereign, but as a prayerful leader with a breviary in his hand.

The times in Rome, in other words, had begun to change in ways that young Martin Luther believed to be impossible. This show bears eloquent witness to artistic changes and to the transformations that eventually produced the modern Catholic Church.

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