Monday, February 27, 2006

Caravaggio was a Rock Star: The controversies and challenges behind his first public commissions in the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels.

Whitney Frank
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s biographer, Giovanni Bellori criticized the artist for “lacking in invention, [being] destitute of ideal beauty and grace, decorum, of architecture and perspective and other desirable elements” and on the whole, he was correct (Hinks 29). Examining Caravaggio’s entire oeuvre directly reveals a radical departure from these artistic conventions Bellori—an “extreme Classicist”—listed as vital to laudable painting. It may seem rather strange to hear such harsh words said of the man whom today we typically consider the inventor of modern painting. But in the thick of the confining Counter-Reformation, Caravaggio worked in a controversial and ground-breaking group of very few artists. Influenced by northern Italian artists and his contemporaries—not antiquity or Quattro cento academics like Raphael—he stood out against his competitors as he disregarded Classical canon and adhered to an unprecedented naturalistic and expressionistic form. His first public commissions in the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels in Rome are monumental and demonstrate the evolution of a young and experimenting student of nature a master of color, dramatic ingenuity, and realism—despite what Bellori said.

Caravaggio is renowned for his brash and rowdy lifestyle filled with brawls and a few law suits—and the infamous murder over a tennis match that prompted him to leave Rome for the south. However, he did not exactly set out to become a bombastic revolutionary (in artistic style at least); rather he pieced together appealing influences of his youth and reacted against his rather narrow training. In 1571, Michelangelo Merisi was born in Caravaggio, a small town close to Milan. He had a relatively comfortable childhood; his father owned a good-sized amount of land and worked for the Marchese of the town. At thirteen he was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, but the most formative period in Caravaggio’s life was arguably his twenty-odd years in Lombardy, the region surrounding Milan. Lombardy had a heritage of naturalistic art.
image 1

Artists of this school, like Giovanni Savoldo (image 1) and the Campi brothers, utilized effects of “natural light and the communication of intense human expression” to create a heightened sense of drama (Puglisi 8). Caravaggio rejected the Mannerist tendencies Peterzano employed, like exaggerated forms and keen elegance, in favor of these Lombard qualities, making expression, light, and color the fundamental elements of his work (image 2). 

image 2

Venetian art was also an influence—there was much communication between Venice and Lombardy before and during his youth and artists brought back ideas and art from painters like Titian and Tintoretto. For Romans (including Bellori), Caravaggio’s early works recalled too many northern Italian characteristics and they often joked that they were too “Giorgionesque: pure coloring, tempered shadows, and use of a few tones to render natural form” (Puglisi 38) (image 3). 
image 3

Departing from the typical painting doctrine, he also utilized the Venetian tradition of roughing out the plans on the canvas and correcting them as needed, forgoing preliminary sketches (Bayer 67).

Caravaggio arrived in Rome around 1590 and worked in the studio of Giuseppe Cerasi, mostly refining his hand at still lives for which he had talent. Painting flowers and fruit in addition to working for someone only a few years his elder did not satisfy Caravaggio’s “independent spirit” and after a short stint of unemployment, he was introduced to Cardinal del Monte, “an enthusiastic amateur and patron of young artists” (Hinks 21). Not only did del Monte let Caravaggio live in his palace, but he even secured him his first public commission: the altarpiece (and eventually two side panels) for Cardinal Matteo Contarelli’s chapel in San Luigi de’ Francesi, the French National Church in Rome. Before he died in 1585, Contarelli had commissioned a sculptor, Cobaert, to create an altarpiece of his name saint and the Angel but it was not satisfactory. It needed to be replaced, but a law suit over Contarelli’s donation to the church kept the clergy so occupied that the chapel remained closed for more than five years. 
image 4

Caravaggio’s replacement altarpiece, Saint Matthew and the Angel, also showed the Angel imparting the scripture to Matthew, but his first version was rejected (image 4). This commission presented Caravaggio with unprecedented challenges as these were the largest canvases he had attempted thus far. The monumental scale strained his technical powers since he was still relatively inexperienced and had not fully undergone intense training at an Academy like many of his peers. He also must have felt pressure to please from the fact that these large devotional works would be viewed by a diverse public forum. This fairly embarrassing situation was resolved by the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, an admirer of the young artist who purchased the rejected piece and arranged for him to create a new one, The Inspiration of Matthew, that was installed not long after the side panels in 1602.

The clergy rejected the first piece on the premise that the depiction of Saint Matthew was highly indecorous. In response to the troubles brought on by the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church made some modifications to revitalize and strengthen itself. One aspect of the Counter-Reformation was to emphasize high spirituality of the leaders of the church, which included saints. Devotional art was a direct way to assert the Church’s ideals and the standards for religious art were dictated at the Council of Trent in 1563:

“Religious images should teach the faithful how to invoke saintly intercession and to
honor and venerate saints. They are reminders of God’s grace and are virtuous
exemplars of pious conduct and devotion to God; representations must not be lewd
or unbecoming, irreverent or disrespectful” (Hinks 54).

Religious art must move the faithful, impassion and provoke them to desire to be saintly and therefore, saints should be pristine and beautiful. In the case of Saint Matthew and the Angel, showing Matthew’s thick, ruddy legs naked below the knees with his large foot projecting out at the viewer was not going to inspire the masses to lead lives of utmost piety. Indeed, Matthew looks much less like a saint to be venerated and more like a common field-worker one might pass on the street: his big bulbous head sans halo, heavy body, and brow wrinkled with the strain of concentration are a stark contrast to the angel’s softness and majesty. One can even go as far to call Matthew slow-witted because the Angel actually must guide his hand across the page while Matthew seems utterly astonished that he can form the letters, let alone that he is writing Holy Scripture.

image 5

Though the subject is still the same, Caravaggio made many compromises for The Inspiration of Matthew to the clergy’s delight. The most striking difference between the two is the new arrangement of figures into a hierarchical form: the angel in a swirl of white drapery gracefully floats above Matthew’s head while he kneels at his desk, looking up at the angel (image 5). Matthew listens to the review of Jesus’ genealogy and his gaze draws viewers upwards towards the angel. The viewer is situated below the picture, completing this hierarchical system; the faithful are supposed to attempt to be like Matthew as he is the intermediary between the world and heaven, represented here by the angel. It is easier and more proper to venerate a saint when he looks the part and in this work, Matthew looks immaculate; he is dressed in a stunning orange garment that immediately catches the viewer’s eye and he is clean and would probably have a high social standing in actuality. He looks intently at the saint but he understands what he is doing as he grasps the pen himself, unlike the dumbfounded Matthew in the first version. However, the bench he kneels on leans out somewhat precariously towards the chapel as if to remind the viewers that although he is a saint, he was not a perfect person; he is learning in this picture but is still intelligent and faithful.

The panel on the left is The Calling of Matthew, a relatively subtle depiction of conversion to Christianity. Jesus and Peter enter Levi’s tax-collecting office (after conversion he will be known as Matthew) and Jesus points at Levi, calling him to leave behind the momentary material world and follow him to eternity by joining his disciples. Matthew is surprised that he is chosen and points to himself to make sure he is the one whom Jesus means. The setting, rumored to be based on Caravaggio’s studio in del Monte’s palace, is musty and dark; the only light comes in from a mystery window behind Jesus’ head. Jesus strides forward with the light (as he is called “the light of the world”) and it hits Levi’s face, symbolizing his conversion as he will soon become “enlightened.” Caravaggio used tenebrism, or powerful contrasts of large shadowy areas and piercing light, to separate the realm of the believers from sinners: the two men to the left of Levi do not even notice Christ’s presence and they continue to count their money, emphasizing the focus of non-believers on material matters. Christ’s gaze is intent on Levi and his gesture, remarkably similar God’s hand giving life to Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, heightens the sense of drama as it invokes the viewer to make the connection of eternal life with following Jesus. Caravaggio further delineates between sinners and saved by dressing all the men at the table in contemporary costume while Jesus and Peter wear Biblical robes. The classic dress reveals that they and their beliefs belong to eternity while those in modern dress represent the unbelieving humanity who will not be saved. Even if this story from the Bible took place outdoors, the simple interior wall in the dim background is a perfect setting for the scene to take place as a setting in nature might detract from the subtle but intense internal drama of Matthew’s conversion.

The third painting on the right wall is the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, which gave Caravaggio the most trouble. Contarelli requested that Matthew’s execution be shown in a gloriously chaotic scene with witnesses, some feeling content and others compassionate and frightened while Matthew was to be shown beaten to the ground but not yet dead, the executioner about to strike the fatal blow (Puglisi 154). Such an intricate and action-filled scene placed much strain on the young artist as this was unlike any other work he had yet completed. He did paint a first version of the piece but was completely dissatisfied with it and started over. The work currently in place is his second attempt and it fits well with the Cardinal’s requests, for the Martyrdom is an immediately frightening and chaotic scene. The scene takes place on a dark baptismal font where Matthew was in the process of baptizing several men. In the center, a shaft of light illuminates both the executioner and Matthew who has fallen to the ground. At first he reaches up to defend himself, but Caravaggio depicts him acquiescing because he sees an angel handing him a palm frond, the symbol of martyrdom. The light cuts diagonally to the lower left of the painting but it becomes fragmented and lights up various faces, backs, and hands (principal body parts) to increase overall energy and intensify the chaos. From farther away, the work looks like a centrifuge of figures spinning out from the central two but all are projected onto the frontal plane—a definite break from the Classical school of composition. This forces the viewer into the middle of the violent commotion affronting his or her senses with the calamity of martyrdom. The emotion of this piece is represented by the face of the young boy to the right of Matthew, his terrified acolyte who is about to flee. He is an expressive study of emotion—much like his Head of Medusa, but this study is of sheer panic. On the left are four witnesses in modern dress who are meant to represent the world: two are indifferent and two are aghast, but all four are useless (Hinks 60). Again in this work, the Biblical dress emphasizes the idea that they and the Christian faith are eternal and the juxtaposition of it with modern dress serves as a reminder that the past remains in the present. Viewers are called to bear witness to such divine revelations and Caravaggio brings them as close as possible to the events.

The paintings from the Contarelli Chapel, often called the “del Monte group,” characterize Caravaggio’s early works. They show the beginning of his combination of reality and myth that creates a kind of new form of history painting where past events are brought into the perspective of the present. With this first public commission, he breaks from Classical and also current painting techniques by using models to achieve a naturalistic effect and earth tones and tenebrism to create heightened drama—subtle or outstanding. Though they can be considered a triumph over great difficulties, his two paintings in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo epitomize the height of Caravaggio’s career as they demonstrate his artistic maturity. Marchese Giustiniani probably secured him this commission while he was working on the Contarelli Chapel and yet again Caravaggio’s first submissions were rejected (this time they were purchased by Cardinal Sannesio). The two works currently in place were his second attempts and they are quite different from the Contarelli pieces indicating this shift in Caravaggio’s style.

The right panel is the Conversion of Saint Paul, which rival artist Giovanni Baglione sardonically called a “portrait of a horse” (Hinks 69). Saul (eventually Paul) was heading to Damascus to persecute Christians when all of the sudden the voice of Jesus called out to him, asking him to convert and join him and his disciples. The voice was so powerful that it knocked Saul off of his horse and blinded him for three days until he converted. Indeed, the horse in Caravaggio’s depiction takes up much of the canvas and there is a noticeable lack of action in the piece as Saul has already fallen to the ground and his elderly servant has tamed the reeling horse. Caravaggio used a limited narrative, retaining only necessary elements to create a dramatic effect. All action is contained in Saul who is utterly stunned, his arms reaching up and out towards the skies. The viewer should reflect on Saul’s internal conflict as the drama of his conversion is the focus of the story and this is clear because there are few distracting elements in the painting: the scene is shrouded in a mysterious darkness and there are only three figures involved. Once again Caravaggio uses light as a holy transmitter: in the top right corner light beams shoot down towards Saul, symbolizing Christ’s voice. Caravaggio’s rather understated take on the story is an unprecedented conception of conversion as his focus is on the saint’s response to the transcendental experience.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter on the opposite wall also relies on “minimal means” to achieve a poignant and meaningful portrayal of the crucifixion (Hinks 67). Like the Conversion, there is an absence of any descriptive setting as the background is very dark and light shines diagonally from the right mostly onto Peter’s face. The black rock in the background probably represents Peter, for he is the rock on which the Church was founded (Puglisi 172). There is a great contrast of action and emotion seen between the workers lifting the cross and Peter: all action takes place in the men lifting the cross. They are anonymous workers doing their everyday job; they are dirty and straining hard and we never see their entire bodies because we view them from angles. Peter on the other hand, is in full view and Caravaggio paid careful attention to his body: it truly is the body of an old man, with thin skin, a flabby torso, and a balding and wrinkled head. He has a look of despair laced with insolence on his face as he gazes towards his nailed hand. He contemplates his imminent death and seems slightly uncertain of the last few hours of his life. Peter’s story is about humiliation as he thought it wrong to be crucified in the same manner as Christ, insisting that he be crucified upside down. The poor, ugly workers and Peter’s miserable countenance reminds the congregation that this was not a heroic execution but a wretched and humiliating crucifixion.

The Cerasi Chapel is small and visitors have to view Caravaggio’s paintings at oblique angles. Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece of the Assumption was in place before Caravaggio completed the side panels and although the two artists worked in very different styles, it seems like Caravaggio designed his pieces to work with Carracci’s. Saul’s arms reach out towards the altar and the light source comes from the area of the altarpiece. The diagonals in the Crucifixion plunge towards the altar and Peter also gazes in its direction. If the cross were set in place, he would be facing it. These pieces may be very different stylistically and in subject matter, but Caravaggio’s clever techniques help unify them almost as a narrative for the viewer to contemplate: the first step is to believe in Christ, then to reach salvation in heaven one must have faith and make sacrifices. These paintings are a triumph of not only Caravaggio’s mastery of technique and form, but his of his poetic talents, making the Cerasi Chapel a stunning setting for prayer and personal reflection.

Caravaggio depicts these scenes from the lives of saints in a way previously unseen. He employs strong lighting and dark shadowy areas to enhance drama and highlight important features like faces or hands. He creates a new kind of history painting by mixing the historical story with the mythological tale but has a naturalistic approach to make the scene relatable to life at the time. By moving the action completely into the foreground and limiting the narrative to only necessary elements, he affronts viewers with dramatic, emotional, and sometimes gruesome Biblical accounts. In this sense, Caravaggio responds to the ideas of Counter Reformation art; the intense drama (internal or explicit) of the moments he chooses to depict forces the worshipper to reflect on these scenes, compelling them to venerate and imitate the lives of the saints. But Caravaggio responds in an unprecedented and unmatched manner that spurs countless followers, none of whom can match his technique, originality, or intensity.

Clearly Caravaggio is still admired and loved today—there were tons of tourists swarming the churches just to get a quick glimpse of his works! He was part of the great debate of design versus color, later epitomized by the Poussinistes who drew their inspiration from Carracci and of course, Raphael, and the Rubenists who followed Correggio and Titian. I was surprised to learn of how much some of his contemporaries harshly criticized his work and I found it curious that some of them became his biographers. Out of everyone we have thus far studied, I am most drawn to Caravaggio—the controversy and drama of his rowdy lifestyle and artistic style move and excite me. It does not matter that I do not attend church because his works hit me with a wave of such intense emotion that I feel as if I have witnessed the crucifixion in person. The revolutionaries are always the most interesting ones and they produce everlasting art.

Bayer, Andrea. Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in

Lombardy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Hinks, Roger. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: His Life—His Legend—His Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon Press Limitied, 1998.

Voss, Hermann. Baroque Painting in Rome, vol. 1. San Fransisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1997.

The Early Christians

Christina Rainey
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

"The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was going to come into the world. But although the world was made through him, the world didn’t recognize him when he came. Even in his own land and among his own people, he was not accepted” (John 1:10-11).These words were quoted from John the Baptist, a prophet who announced the coming of God’s Son Jesus Christ. The world into which Jesus would be born will be full of people who will not recognize nor accept him as their savior. For those who did believe preached his word, retold his miracles and began a movement. These people were the Christians, the first followers of Jesus Christ and through them a religion was born.

The first followers established a new contemplative art style, with the birth of Christianity. Using the fresco art technique, anonymous artists created biblical images that retold stories of Jesus Christ and his followers. These images appeared on the walls of early Christian burial sites, known as the catacombs. These burial sites, specifically the catacombs of Priscilla, marked a beginning in Christian art that was designed for the viewer to reflect on the importance of Jesus Christ and his teachings. The images and symbols found in the catacombs of Priscilla worked as a catalyst for Christian imagery in later centuries. To understand the foundations of early Christian art, one must first digress into the historical background of the first Christians.

The story of the life and crucifixion of Jesus is transcribed in the New Testament and a chorological timeline has been pieced together by historians and archeologists. Jesus was born a subject of the Roman Empire around 4 B.C. in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod (Matt. 2:1). According to the film From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, the larger Roman Empire at the time ruled by August Caesar, spread across the Mediterranean sweeping through north Africa stretching as far west as Spain, to the east it encompassed Egypt, Turkey, Greece and the Palestine (PBS part one).Within King Herod’s province, the great city of Jerusalem was rebuilt on a monumental scale; an aqueduct was constructed and the temple was reconstructed. The temple served as a unifying source in the Jewish community, because it was a synagogue where the Jews could come and worship one God. Since Jesus was a Jew, the temple was a part of his culture. Even though it was a part of him, it was the place where the Jewish council condemned him to death.

Within his thirty-three years Jesus traveled to small villages within the Aegean population preaching, teaching and performing miracles all in the name of God. His speeches were gentle in tone and usually told in parables. His parables told of the Kingdom to come, what laws and rules to live by, and what would happen to those who followed and those who choose not to. Through these types of speeches he gained many followers who after his death retold his stories to followers and to anyone who would listen.

Eventually Jesus’ messages were heard throughout the Judea population and opposition rose against him and he became a victim of the Pax Romania, condemned by Roman rule (PBS part one). The leader that presided over his sentencing was Pontius Pilate, who reined over the Judea Province from 26 to 36 B.C. Pilate would leave his place of residence and go up to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday, to watch over the crowds of Jews to make sure nothing got out of hand. Each year at Passover, Pilate would release one prisoner. Since Jesus was a prisoner, Pilate let the people decided who should be set free, Jesus or another criminal and they choose the criminal. Jesus knew his fate and he was beaten and crucified. After being buried, three days later he rose from the dead, which is known as the Resurrection of Christ.

After the Resurrection of Christ, there are two different opinions on how the movement of Christianity started or commonly called the “Jesus Movement” began (PBS part 1). One is the biblical interpretation and the second is that of historians. The biblical interpretation begins fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection on a day known as the Pentecost. On this day believers gathered in Jerusalem to discuss what was to come next, when all of a sudden they were visited by the Holy Spirit according to the book of Acts 2:1-13. The Holy Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak in many different languages, so that the wonderful things that God had done could be heard by many nations. The second interpretation is that of historians. Professor Paula Fredriksen of Boston University claims that Christianity began from many centers, were the disciples of Jesus Christ met and tried to make sense of the experience of Jesus and what happened to him after his death. Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University concurs that the Christians began with many small enclaves, trying to keep the memory of Jesus alive by traveling door to door, preaching the word (PBS part two).

This preaching of the word was known as the Diaspora of Judaism. Since Christianity, at the time was still a part of Judaism the diaspora made a network of cities in which apostles like Paul could travel and preach. By the end of the first century a multitude of Jewish cities around the Aegean Basin created a network of Christian cities. Christianity had spread to Greece, Italy, Gaul, Germany, Africa, Egypt and provinces east of the Euphrates by the end of the second century (Webb xii).

One of the first to travel around the Jewish cities in the Aegean Basin was Paul. Paul, one of the first major apostles, was a great instrument in converting and establishing Christianity as its own sect separate from Judaism. He preached in synagogues that served as a community center where people of every walk of life could be found. This sense of community fostered by the Christians drew people into the religion and helped the religion to rise over paganism. Paul, seeing the chance to gain more followers, converted the gentiles (people who hadn’t heard or did not understand the word of God), but the conversion of the gentiles became a problem. For did they have to become Jewish first and then a Christian? Paul addressed this question and argued that baptism could take the place of male circumcision, thus deeming that circumcision was not a requirement to be a part of the Christian community (PBS part 2). This and other defining differences such as places of worship and dietary laws, started to develop between the two groups. Eventually, these little differences were overshadowed by the Jewish revolt, which marked the beginning of a split between the two religions.

The Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire occurred around the time of 66-73 A.D. The revolt, ended by Titus, resulted in the sack of the city, the death of many Jews, and the destruction of Jerusalem temple. With its end the Jewish and Christian populations scattered throughout the Roman Empire. This helped in the diaspora but caused a gap between the two religions. With the destruction of the city the Jews and the Christians had to rethink the foundations of their beliefs, and rebuild on new ideas.

Before the siege, a new step was being made by the Christians. According to a letter by Paul to the Romans, the first Christians settled in Rome around 57 AD (Webb xi). As the number of Christians grew in Rome, so did the need for private burial grounds. Up until the end of the 2nd century Christians were buried along side their pagan counterparts. By this time, the number of Christians was estimated to be between thirty to fifty thousand in Rome (Krautheimer, Webb xii).With a growing population that had enough economic wealth as a community and the desire to have a place exclusively to themselves to perform burial rituals, the Christians began building the catacombs.

The word catacomb, originates from the word “toponym as catacumbas”, which means “at the hollows” (Vincenzo 5). This name also refers to a depression in the ground caused by the exploitation of a soft volcanic rock material called tuffa, to air. The catacombs were made out of tuffa because the rock was easy to shape and once exposed to the air it would harden quickly. This allowed for builders to make later additions to the catacombs.

The widely acclaimed belief that the catacombs were built for the Christians to escape persecution is not true. At this time ninety percent of the Mediterranean worshipped pagan Gods, so it was not a problem for the Christians to worship (PBS part 3). The Christians faced persecution because they refused to offer a sacrifice to the reigning emperor. The Roman emperor was to act like God and unlike the pagans’ worship, the Christians only believed in one God. For this reason they faced persecution and they were willing to be persecuted for their beliefs. Churches were closed and orders were given to kill all who did not offer a sacrifice. The persecutions were the most prevalent under the rein of Diocletian and Galerius between 285-311 A.D. It did not hinder the growth of the community and since they were willing to die for their beliefs, the catacombs were not an escape but a place of salvation to God.

The images found in the catacombs are similar to pagan tombs, but the Christians incorporated their own faith. Like the Etruscans and the Romans, the Christians embellished their tombs with frescos and used similar colors such as red, blue, brown, yellow, and green (Milburn 27). Unlike the images found in the pagan tombs the images served a higher purpose for the Early Christians: biblical enlightenment, a reflection of their faith, a reminder of the power of the deliverance that God has to save those who put their faith in him, and commutative prayer. Most of the scenes were taken from the Old Testament but there are some from the New Testament. With these frescoes, the rise of the early Christians is not just found in scriptures or preached, but now the stories can be seen in the form of Christian art.

One of the earliest catacombs, the catacomb of Priscilla, exhibits many signs of early Christian imagery. Located along the Via Salaria, the catacombs of Priscilla was built by the Acili Glabriones family. The Acili family, members of the Roman aristocracy converted to Christianity and donated their land to the Christian community. The name is said to come from an inscription found in the catacomb, regarding “the most illustrious woman, Priscilla and M. Acilius,” this suggests that Priscilla was a member of the Acili family (Galate 5). Using their wealth, the Acili built the catacomb near the first decades of the first century out of an abandoned pozzolana quarry (Matt 8). Being the largest of its period, thousands are buried here in addition to six popes and 365 martyrs (Matt 8).

The catacomb was rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio. Through the maze of intricate passage ways, the catacomb is divided into two main floors (see power point). The first floor is divided into three nuclei, the Arenario, the Cryptoporticus, and the Cistern. In the passage ways between rooms loculi can be found on the side walls. Loculi, rectangular in shape, are horizontal cavities hollowed out of the walls. Each cavity contained a corpse and were stacked one on top of other. The second floor is one main gallery with loculi and larger circular tombs.

The Arenario is considered to be the nucleus of the catacomb and contains many important 3rd century frescos, and the Christians first attempts at epigraphs, or inscriptions. The image of the Virgin Mary and child can be found in this area. Accompanied on their left side by the prophet Balaam or Isaiah who is pointing at a star is said to be the first known image in history of the Virgin and child. Continuing further in a family chamber, the fresco ceiling known as the Veiling can be found. In the center, a medallion of the good shepherd is surrounded by various birds and this is the first representation of Jesus Christ carrying members of his flock. On of the side walls is the scene of three Jewish boys placed in a furnace, their story represents the power of faith and prayer. On the other side is the image of Abraham, who was the father of Israelites and the predecessor of future nations. On the front panel the viewer can see the scene of Jonah getting spit out by a whale. This represents the power of God, faith and prayer. On the back wall is a scene of a woman raising her hands toward the heavens. On her left side a women and child are seated and on her right three men stand. This scene represents members of a deceased family. Also in this area, in 1906 loculi slabs were found. These slabs, rectangular in shape were made out of terracotta and were used to cover the tombs. These slabs usually contained epigraphs. The epigraphs were simple, usually just having the name of the one who was buried or a Christian wish for a joyful life in heaven. More than three hundred Latin and Greek epigraphs were found in this area and these represent the first attempts of the Christians to make inscriptions (Vincenzo 30).

The last two areas are known as the Cyprotiocius and the Cistern. The Cyprotiocius was made into a chapel, known as the Greek Chapel. Within this room, the early Christians held the celebration known as the Eucharist, where they imitated the Last Supper by eating the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Jesus. The various scenes in this room come together to make a theme of salvation and the divine intervention that God has (Milburn 36). On the arc above the door is a picture of Moses with his walking stick, striking a rock to create water. On the further archway is the scene of the three wise men giving gifts to the baby Jesus. The two side walls tell the story of Susana and the elders. Walking further into the small chapels are the scenes of Daniel in the lions’ den, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the raising of Lazarus, and Noah in the Ark. The last image to be found is that of the banqueting scene, which represents the Last Supper. The last room, the Cistern, or the hypogeum of the Acili, is the private burial area of the family. Not much is known about this area other than the fact that its composition is simple, two rectangular corridors connected to the Cistern.

The images found in each area served as propaganda for the early Christians. Each image displayed was connected to a biblical story and illustrated the power of God. For example, through prayer God saved the three Jewish boys from getting burnt in a furnace. This and the other images reflected on the fundamentals of the Christian faith such as prayer, faith, and redemption offered by Jesus. Each different in content served one higher purpose: to reflect on the importance of Christianity.
Besides using biblical scenes, the early Christians used “symbolic summarize in shorthand the essence of Christian hope” (Milburn 30). The symbols, most taken from pagan images, were important because they served as a connection to the stories related to Christian faith. The symbols stood as distinction between those who were a part the faith and those who were not. Early Christians could rejoice when they saw the symbols and take pride in what their religion entailed and look forward to going to the Kingdom of heaven. Each symbol mentioned here was found in the earlier works in the catacombs and continue to be found in later Christian images.

The good shepherd, chi rho, fish, dove, and Orans were the most prevalent images found. The good shepherd is said to appear 120 times in the catacombs throughout Rome (Milburn 30). It is used because of the many scriptural references to Christ acting as a shepherd. One such scripture reference is that of Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.”
The chi rho is one of the most commonly found Christian symbols. Composed of the Greek letters P overlaid by the letter X, it summarizes the name of Christ. It appears in various forms and sometimes combined with Greek letters alpha and omega, which represent the beginning and the end. The chi rho and the alpha and omega can be found in almost any work of art that reflects Christianity. The fish is the most commonly found and used symbol by the Christians. It is the symbol of baptism, for as the fish cannot live except in water, a true Christian cannot live a purposeful life according to God unless he/she has been through the waters of baptism. In early times it was used to identify other Christians; one Christian would draw a part of the fish in the sand, and another who recognized it would finish the symbol. Today the fish can most frequently be found on the bumper of cars of the faithful. The Greek letters I X O Y C, make up the phrase ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,’ which coincidently also means fish. When the two are placed together they reference to the biblical story of Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. The dove with an olive branch or without serves as a symbol of purity and peace and the representation of the Holy Ghost (the spirit of God). There are many biblical stories that include the dove, the one that is most recalled is the story of Noah and the Arc. Usually depicted as a woman with hands lifted towards the heavens, the Orans represented the human soul. The Orans had the same meaning for Christians as for the pagans: it represented pietas, which meant that affectionate respect is given to the state, the ruler, to family, or to in this case God.

These symbols were a discreet form of propaganda and promoted the ideals of Christianity. They were used to discern those that were faithful and those that were not. For the Christians were the only ones who could recognize the symbols and meaning behind them. Even though they are simple, these were the first representations of Christian symbolism in the catacombs.

The symbolism and artistic projection of biblical scenes found in the catacomb of Priscilla and other catacombs were influential to future generations. The images laid a foundation of Christian reflection that expanded artistically with later centuries. By the 4th century Christianity became official under the rule of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Under his rein churches increased and the art technique and style advanced. Within churches the mosaic style became popular and images started to reflect a heavenly realm including saints and apostles.

The frequent use of symbols can be found in almost every church in Rome and even at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Santa Maria in Trastevere is a good example of the different stages of development in Christian art. 3rd century inscription fragments decorate the outside façade, and in the interior there are frescos and 13th century mosaics.
As a modern viewer, the reason why I go to visit the catacomb of Priscilla and other monuments related to the rise of Christianity is to take a pilgrimage into the past. Looking at images in an academic textbook is not the same as actually seeing it. When you are in the place that you have seen only through pictures, your eyes become transfixed in awe at what predecessors have done. The images serve the same purpose as they did before; to remind the viewer that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it” (John 3:16-17).

*Thank you for reading my paper now you get a treat, click here.


Ferrua, Antonio. The Unknown Catacomb: A unique Discovery of Early Christian Art. transl. Iain Inglis. Florence: Geddes and Grosset, 1990.

Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Public Broadcasting Station. Paramount Home Entertainment, 1998.

Grabar, André. Early Christian Art. transl. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York: Odyssey Press, 1968.

Matt, Von Leonard. Early Christina Art in Rome. comm. Enrico Josi. New York: Universe Books, 1961.

Milburn, Robert. Early Christina Art and Architecture. England: Gower Publishing Company Limited, 1988.

The Life Recovery Bible: New Living Translation. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.,1998.

Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, inscriptions. transl. Cristina Carlo Stella and Lori-Ann Touchette. Regensburg: Schnell and Steiner, 1999.

Webb, Matlida. The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Beauty of Banking and Villa Farnesina

Nicole Draney
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

As you walk through the halls of Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, you are immediately led to the conclusion that the resident of this house must have been a great man, a patron of luxury and elegance, a man unafraid to dazzle his guests with lavish opulence. The vivid frescoes on every wall and ceiling draw the visitor into other worlds, suggesting that he or she is amidst a heavenly realm here on earth. This was no villa for casual tea or low-key gatherings – this was a palace away from home, a place for Agostino Chigi to show the world the wonders he had received from his grand successes in banking and his convenient relationship with the most powerful institution at that time – the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

The Earliest Bankers in Rome
Italy is well known as the birthplace of modern banking. The oldest forms of banking trace back to ancient Chinese pawnbroking, or lending money in exchange for the physical pledging of household items. Pawnbroking was not organized, however, until the practice became more prevalent for trading purposes during the Middle Ages. The word “pawn” probably comes from the Latin word “pannus,” which means cloth; in the earliest times, people borrowed money by pawning clothes.

The Jewish community has commonly been associated with pawnbroking and moneylending. Because of the essential services the Jewish population provided to the community, the Catholics have historically tolerated their presence in Rome. Jewish moneylending originated in the 11th and 12th centuries during the urban and commercial revolution. As population density dwindled following the Plagues in Europe, money actually became more concentrated in the hands of fewer people, and private wealth shot up, bringing with it demands for investment and financing opportunities. Jewish pawnshops and moneylending brought huge benefits to the economy. The presence of credit helped economic growth and prosperity, especially as cities accumulated private wealth. There was a catch to their lending practices, however, that would become the center of a huge debate over the next hundred years or so: the Jews charged interest, called usury, which was a complicated issue in the eyes of the Catholic Church. As usurers, they helped to stimulate the economy, yet the idea of interest went against some very clear rules laid out in the Bible. Luke 6:35 states, “Lend freely, hoping for nothing thereby.” However, the Church became divided over this seemingly clear statement because of its apparent conflict with an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, which forbids usurious lending “to thy brother” but permits it in dealings with “strangers.” It became difficult for the church to reconcile “strangers” with Christ’s new covenant of universal Christian brotherhood. The two mendicant orders of Christianity, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, took opposing sides of the issue. The Dominicans strictly believed all lending was bad – the passage from Luke should be understood literally, surpassing the earlier writings of Deuteronomy. As such, interest of any kind was wrong. The Franciscans, however, took a slightly different angle: they believed that charging interest for the sake of profit was a sin, but they understood that it was necessary to charge reasonable interest at times to cover general costs. They believed that the Jewish lending practices of charging exorbitant interest were unacceptable, but lending at “reasonable rates” could be acceptable under the laws of the Catholic Church.

Prior to the 14th century, Christians were permitted to lend money with interest, and actually rivaled the Jewish community as far as their success in banking. Soon after, a shift in the church back to a more Christian lifestyle increased criticism from religious leaders and led to an enforcement of the usury ban for Christians. Jewish moneylenders, however, were exempt from this ban, since they were non-Christians. Christians began to despise the Jews as they continued to charge exorbitant interest, sometimes up to 60% of the loan, and amassed huge fortunes. Christians started to hold the belief that the Jews “trafficked in other people’s misfortunes,” despite the fact that until recently, they had been allowed to charge interest as well.

Franciscan leaders tried to keep Christians away from Jewish lenders because lending at an interest rate was a mortal sin and an insult to the ideals of charity, brotherhood, and economic justice. One monk preached, "[I]f this concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is dangerous to the health of the city, it is even more dangerous when this wealth and money is concentrated and gathered into the hands of the Jews. For in that case, the natural warmth of the city – for that is what its wealth represents – is not flowing back the heart to give it assistance but instead rushes to an abscess in a deadly hemorrhage, since all Jews, especially those who are moneylenders, are the chief enemies of all Christians" (Katz, The Art Bulletin. 2003). Other preachers also spoke out violently against the Jews. The common belief among the Franciscans was that Jews were the “enemies of Christianity, and robbers of Christians through usury.” For a while, the Papacy spoke strongly in defense of the Jews, and issued letters in the early to mid-1400s denouncing the accusations on the part of the Franciscan preachers.

Pope Leo X, the Medici pope, was a strong supporter of moneylending. This makes sense, given that he came from a banking family. His policy towards the Jews, then, was decidedly less forceful than later popes. Even as he received criticism from various Franciscan leaders, Leo employed Jewish physicians and granted them the right to hold teaching positions at various universities. Two Franciscan monks in particular prodded Leo to implement a stronger strategy for converting Jews, including prohibiting them from charging interest. They suggested that Jews should be “handled with bitter and harsh measures” so that “they will be more easily incited… to seize the way of truth and of life” (Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy. 1977). Pope Leo did not adopt these policies, but later popes did.

The tide turned in the mid-1500s when Paul IV issued a bull forcing all Jews to live in the gated Ghetto and restricting them to work only in used clothing sales and moneylending. Venice had created the first Jewish ghetto in 1516, but Paul IV’s order was still a surprise to the Roman Jewish community. It meant a shift from tolerating Jews solely for reasons of Christian piety or charity, to tolerating them in the hopes of converting them. The Jewish ghetto was not as successful as Paul IV had hoped, however. The Jewish community stayed vibrant within the ghetto, and even as other banking institutions were created in response to their moneylending practices, the Jewish consistently had to “bail out” troubled banks and indebted popes.

Monte di Pieta: The Church’s Response to Jewish Lending
In response to the Church’s issues with Jewish moneylending, the “monte di pieta” were introduced throughout the late-14th and 15th centuries. “Monte di pieta” roughly translates to mean “mounds of pity or charity,” which refers to the piles of donations and funds collected by Tuscan clerics to be used for charitable works. Originally, any profits received by such an organization would be used to pay employees and extend the scope of charitable works. As described by Federico Arcelli in Banking and Charity in Fourteenth Century Italy, "The monti di pieta... sought to bring together solicitude for the poor and the needs of the economy, the objectives of politics and the resources of finance – all this with the explicit blessing (and implicit approval) of the Catholic Church, which continued to wield major influence in economic affairs."

Supported by the Franciscans, the Italian monte di pieta were expected to not only replace Jewish moneylenders but to also set up the conditions for their expulsion. Though the monti had many internal problems (frequently relying on the Jewish moneylenders to bail them out), they represented a symbolic attack against the protections given to the Jews throughout the Middle Ages.

From 1462 to 1515, several monti were founded by the Church. The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, considered the oldest bank in the world still in existence and the 6th largest bank in Italy today, was founded in 1472. Because the monti operated as “pawnshops” in the beginning, only later changing to “banks,” the Catholic Church supported them for charging reasonable interest. In addition, the monti also provided foundations for mass propaganda against the Jews.

During these times of harsh Jewish criticism, the propaganda against them was fierce. Near the end of the 15th century, artwork occasionally depicted the expulsion of the Jews and their villainous practices from Roman society. Altarpieces depicted Jews burning at the stake, showing usurers as evil, decrepit, Godless characters and casting the main members of that profession in an unfavorable light. Portrayals like these simply perpetuated Christian fear of Jewish violence and supported the Pope’s decision to place all Jews in the ghetto where they could be monitored. Often, altarpieces like these sparked rumors of Jewish violence in regions where such accusations had not existed previously. Jews were implicated in usury charges while Christians were spared, since their use of interest in lending was “charitable” and “justified.”

Any opposition to the Monte itself was not based on the idea of the institution but on the particular necessity of interest. The employees of the monti needed to be paid. Strict followers of the Dominican order argued that the use of interest to maintain the charity did not justify the usury, since a good end could not justify evil means. Supporters of the monte di pieta, however, argued that their loans consisted of two contracts: one concerning the loan, which should be gratuitous, and one concerning the custody of the object pawned and the use of space and personal responsibility to take care of it, which should not be gratuitous. While the Monte di Pieta originally existed solely to receive donations, requests in wills, and to distribute charitable funds, eventually the funds received were inadequate to meet demands, and so they had to start accepting deposits on a commercial interest-bearing basis. This required papal permission, which was achieved through Leo X in 1515 in a papal bull that declared the institutions in no way illicit or sinful, but on the contrary, beneficial and worthy of praise, such that whosoever preached or wrote against them in the future would incur excommunication. This was a powerful statement of support from the papacy, legitimizing the use of interest within certain bounds, and establishing a connection between the papacy and the banking institutions now rapidly on the rise.

The Monte di Pieta in Rome moved to its present location in 1604, a palace built by Pope Clement VIII on one side of a square filled with tiny jewelry shops. Catholic cardinals directed the bank until the unification of Italy in 1870, and it has since then merged with Banca di Roma. The cardinal connection explains the small oval chapel inside the bank – a showcase of Baroque art with statues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Mercy and bas-reliefs depicting the abolishment of usury. Valuable paintings and antique furniture decorate the marble-tiled halls. Throughout the years, the bank has collected its share of valuable art and treasure. One Monte di Pieta commissioned a fresco to be done by Giovanni dei Guasta of the Madonna della Misericordia, which now hangs in the bank. Other works have also been commissioned to various artists to commemorate stages in the bank’s history.

Italian bankers became key figures in Rome after the 15th century. They were responsible for a variety of services, including managing the deposits and affairs of the papal offices, farming taxes in Rome and throughout the papal states, dealing with international exchange and the transfer of money, contracting to provide Rome with grain, and acting as principal lenders to the pope and funders of the church debt. Cardinals and popes were expected to be patrons of the arts, and thus often needed help funding artistic commissions. This close connection to papal financial affairs meant that the presence of bankers in the papal court was not unusual. It was a new development of the 15th century to have such frequent acquisition of the cardinal office by members of prominent banking families. While it could be useful to have a cardinal member in your banking family, patronage and nepotism worked both ways. When popes brought pressure on bankers for huge loans to fund their massive art commissions, how could they refuse? One banking family “practically ruined themselves” through unsecured loans to Pope Leo X. To ensure continued prosperity for your family in Rome, a cardinal’s hat or an election to the papacy was the most useful position to obtain, and becoming the pope’s banker was the best place to start.

Banking and Patronage of the Arts: Agostino Chigi
As banking rose in importance during the 15th and 16th centuries, the rise in the patronage of artists was growing as well. The extravagance of popes like Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X led to the need for huge loans to support their patronage of the arts. As such, they often developed personal relationships with trusted banking families, such as the Chigi family in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, born in Siena in 1466, was often called “Il magnifico” because of the grandeur he displayed in every aspect of his life. His success and prosperity were known throughout Europe as he lent money to princes and cardinals and conducted business with the Kings of Spain, France, and England. Chigi especially prospered under the papal rule of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope. The Sultan of Turkey once called him “the great merchant of Christendom.” By assisting in the election of Julius II, a Della Rovere pope, Julius accepted him into the papal familia in 1509 and allowed the Chigi arms (6 hills crowned with a star) the honor of adding the Della Rovere name and oak symbol.

Using money borrowed from Chigi banks, Pope Leo X certainly supported well-known artists, such as Michelangelo, but he was also a great patron of the newcomer, Raphael. Raphael was willing to do anything, profound or trivial, for his patron, from painting portraits to painting pictures of Baraballo’s elephant. Because of this, Leo X openly preferred Raphael for many of his projects, and this support was mirrored by Agostino Chigi when he was deciding who should decorate his grand vacation villa.

In 1505, Chigi purchased land on the Tiber River that was full of vineyards and gardens. He commissioned Baldassare Peruzzi in 1510 to build his new house on the property. The house was designed to portray luxury and elegance, and as such, was lavishly decorated and furnished. The construction was meant to be seen as a re-evocation of the classical world, with rare plants, marble fragments, and antique statues. Chigi commissioned some of the most famous artists of the time, including Baldassare Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo, Sodoma, and Raphael, to decorate the villa. These artists created frescoes based almost entirely on classical mythology, much of it taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Inside the house, Chigi eventually received artists, poets, princes, cardinals and the Pope himself. Chigi had plays performed in gardens, and his court met there to read classical poetry and discuss philosophy and astrology in rooms where classical myths and gods were painted on the walls. The villa was intended to display Chigi’s own personality and high culture, clearly showing his great wealth and success to all who were invited to view his lavish lifestyle.

In the first and most important room of Chigi’s Villa, visitors will find the Triumph of Galatea, located in the loggia at the east side of the villa facing the Tiber. Raphael’s fresco was inspired by a verse from a poem by the Florentine Angelo Poliziano, the same poem that inspired Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” The poem describes how the clumsy giant Polyphemus sings a love song to the fair sea-nymph Galatea, and how she rides across the waves in a chariot drawn by two dolphins, laughing at his foolish song in the company of other sea-gods and nymphs. Some scholars believe Polyphemus was intended to symbolize Chigi and his futile love for a wealthy countess, Margherita Gonzaga, who refused to marry him despite his offers to give up all of his business interests. In the loggia, Raphael was responsible for the drawing of Galatea and her companions, while the giant depicted in the fresco to the left was done by Sebastiano del Piombo. In the vault of the Loggia di Galatea, Peruzzi translated Agostino’s own horoscope into images, organizing the arrangement of constellations, divinities, and signs of the zodiac into a complex, airy design. The work of these three great artists with their respective special talents amazed and dazzled Chigi’s distinguished guests, aiding in his mission to impress society with his grandeur.

There are several other rooms in the Villa open to the public, and all were completed by the same group of artists, giving the building a consistent theme and design all the way through. In the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, located at the back of the villa, Raphael depicted a continuous narrative alluding to Chigi’s upcoming marriage. In the Hall of the Perspective Views, Baldasarre Peruzzi created illusions of columns dividing the apparently open walls in a truly Renaissance style, framing landscapes of quiet, detailed villages, groups of houses, ruins of aqueducts, and a view of Rome. Peruzzi uses a milieu of Renaissance techniques to accomplish this perspective, including shading, vanishing points, and the extension of room features like the tile floor out into the picture. A fresco cycle of the wedding of Alexander the Great to his bride, Roxana, were chosen for the bedroom upstairs, perhaps in an attempt to compare Agostino “Il Magnifico” to Alexander the Great.

Upon completion of all the decorations in his villa, Chigi could finally impress all his guests, and wasted no time in doing so. Chigi was well known for his “eccentricities,” which were most evident in the ridiculously lavish banquets he held at his villa. At one banquet, Chigi had his guests dine on fine china to live music, surrounded by golden tapestries on every wall. At the end of the meal, when the Pope asked why Chigi was treating his guests so lavishly, Chigi pulled down the draperies to reveal the naked walls and stables behind them, replying that he had felt that he was being too bold when he asked his holiness to dine in a stable. At another banquet, Chigi had his guests throw their gold and silver dishes in to the Tiber at the end of the meal to spare his servants from having to clean them. This blatant lavishness actually disguised the shrewd businessman, who is said to have had nuns from across the river spread nets underneath the water to catch the precious dishes and pull them up after his guests had all left. Chigi’s most lavish recorded banquet was held on the Day of St. Augustine, August 28, 1519, where his distinguished guests were served rare birds or fish from their own countries on silver dishes decorated with their respective coats of arms. At the end of the banquet, Agostino surprised his guests by celebrating his second marriage, blessed by the Pope himself, to a modest young Venetian woman named Francesca.

Raphael’s last great work done for Agostino was the completion of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Agostino died on April 20, 1520. Following a string of various owners, the villa was purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who already owned a piece of land in the area and wished to turn the villa into an annex of their palazzo. Thereafter, the villa was known as Villa Farnesina, or “Little Farnese.” The building underwent many attempts at restorations, and sadly, many alterations. The Villa Farnesina is currently owned by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

As you walk through the rooms of Villa Farnesina, it is impossible to ignore the message behind the great works of these artists: ancient gods, symbols and myths, all imitating the greatest patrons of antiquity. Chigi’s magnificent personality shines through this return of classical art, making it impossible to deny the extent of his great wealth and embodying the essence of the Renaissance in one exquisite villa. Chigi’s goal, like that of so many other great patrons during the Renaissance, was to protect his artists while they built his grand villa, creating exquisite art to astonish his guests and display his magnificence. With the advent of modern banking, it became possible to continue this patronage tradition on a much grander scale, both in public villas and in papal splendor. The Monte di Pieta in Rome helped to usher in the new era of artistic spending and extravagance that really captured the “rebirth” of culture in Renaissance Rome.

Arcelli, Federico. Banking and Charity in XVI Century Italy; The Holy Monte di Pieta of Rome (1539-84). Leicestershire: Upfront Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Fremantle, Richard. God and Money: Florence and the Medici in the Renaissance. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2005.

Gerlini, Elsa. Villa Farnesina alla Lungara, Rome. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 1990.

Hallman, Barbara McClung. Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Katz, Dana E. “The contours of tolerance: Jews and the Corpus Domini Altarpiece in Urbino.” The Art Bulletin. Dec., 2003. .

Malafarina, Gianfranco. Ed. The Villa Farnesina in Rome. Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini Editore Spa, 2003.

Menning, Carol Bresnahan. Charity and State in Late Renaissance Italy: The Monte di Pieta of Florence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Stow, Kenneth R. Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy 1555-1593. NY: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1977.

Stow, Kenneth R. Theater of Acculturation: The Roman Ghetto in the Sixteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Vaughan, Herbert M. The Medici Popes. London: Methuen & Co., 1908.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Aqueducts, Piazza Navona and Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers

Julia Troutt
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

Water, to the ancient Romans, was more than just an ingredient for survival. It was an essential part of social life, an element of political sway, and a symbol of the great power of the city. Water shows its significance in Rome quite early on. Even in the story of the founding of the city water plays a major roll; Romulus and Remus float to safety on the Tiber where they were supposed to be drowned. There is also a large amount of evidence, both through documentation and physical ruins, to describe just how much the Romans loved their baths and fountains. At its peak, Rome supposedly contained over 1200 fountains. At Ostia Antica, the ruins of the huge bathing complexes demonstrate that the average Roman spent a large portion of his day bathing, doing business and exercising at the baths. On top of this, it has recently been proven that there could indeed have been mock naval battles held in the Coliseum for the entertainment of the populous. Clearly, water was essential to the ancient Roman on many levels.

Because of this perceived necessity of great amounts of water, Romans were very proud of their ability to bring water to their city, sometimes from over sixty miles away. They considered it a right to make lavish use of their laboriously obtained water. At the height of the Roman Empire, the people of Rome were using 250 million gallons of water a day. That is roughly 150 gallons of water per person per day; a large number compared to the 100 gallons used by the average American in a day. Such an end obviously required great means.

Great means (Roman style) consist of sophisticated structures called aqueducts. The Romans have used aqueducts since the 4th century B.C. to bring water into the city to augment the supply from the Tiber and Rome’s underground springs. At one point there were eleven aqueducts servicing the city, with a total length of 260 miles. Despite the modern notion of aqueducts consisting of giant stone arches supporting miles of waterslide-like conduits, only thirty miles of these ancient aqueducts were above ground. Because it was more cost-effective, the pipes carrying the water from fresh sources outside the city were built largely underground. The water was moved without pumps or any outside energy, letting gravity do all the work. Even in moving water up hills, gravity-created water pressure was used. These simple, majestic devices went from being a luxury to being a necessity in the mind of the average Roman, and the indulgent bond between Romans and water caused water displays to become a symbol of status. It became a trend for powerful people in Rome to build aqueducts for their city to solidify and legitimize their standing. People who built aqueducts (Marcus Agrippa, Emperor Augustus, Emperor Claudius and Emperor Trajan are a few examples) made sure that the structures appeared above the ground as they neared the city so they could be seen by the people and connected to their creator. What better gift could one give a populous so enamored with water?

Unfortunately this time of luxury did not last for Rome. Nearly all of the Roman aqueducts were left to fall into disrepair or were cut by the Goths during the Sack of Rome in the early 5th century. The one remaining aqueduct, the Aqua Vergine, supplied the entire city, or what was left of it, up until the end of the Middle Ages. The remaining people of Rome, who had been a million strong in the days of the Empire, retreated to a bend in the Tiber, repairing the Aqua Vergine just often enough to supply their sadly reduced population. In the words of Hibbard, Rome was “shrunken like a nut within the shell of her ancient walls.”

This lamentable water situation lasted until the fifteenth century when, finally, Rome’s savior arrived. Ironically this knight in shining armor came in the form of the church. The papacy had been at odds with the people of Rome throughout the medieval years, with popes being sought out and expelled from the country. However, there came a change in the Roman attitude toward the papacy with the election of Pope Nicholas V in 1453. At the time of his rule, the people of Rome had an idealized image of the grandeur of antiquity. They wished Rome to regain something of her old dignity and power. Thus, in the same year he came to power, Pope Nicholas V began the process of Rome’s journey into the Renaissance by repairing and extending the Aqua Vergine, the lifeblood of Rome. This allowed the population to expand and grow within the walls of the city. Yet this expansion was not the only effect of the restored aqueduct. A change was beginning to be made in the minds of the Roman people. The connection between water and power, which had been so strong in antiquity, was suddenly being used within the context of Christianity. This transition was a smooth one. Through bible stories like Noah’s Ark and the Baptism of Christ, Christianity itself uses water as a powerful symbol. Catholics everywhere use water to cleanse themselves as they enter churches, giving water a connotation of purification. The papal building of the aqueduct was therefore an ingenious move on the part of Nicholas V. The new abundance of water made accessible to the common people through fountains along the new aqueducts effectively connected Christianity and the papacy to the grandeur of ancient times. The Pope looked like a savior to the people of Rome.

Thus began a new age of papal rule in the Eternal City. Popes would use an association with water to win the favor of the people time and time again. Pope Sixtus V, Pope Paul V and Pope Pius IX all built aqueducts during their respective reigns, and the six aqueducts that are still in use in Rome today were built or refurbished by popes. One of these, the Aqua Paola, feeds what has been called the most famous fountain in Rome, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers.

This fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X, another pope who wanted to create a display of water to benefit the people of Rome. He chose to place his fountain in the middle of one of Rome’s oldest and most popular secular meeting places, Piazza Navona. The site of the piazza has been used as an assembly area since 86 A.D. when it became Emperor Domitian’s stadium. Outside of the normal races and games held in such a stadium, Domitian put on mock sea battles because the area was easily flooded. Being built directly on top of its ruins, the current piazza takes the shape of the ancient stadium. From the late 1400’s to the late 1800’s there was a daily open market that filled Piazza Navona with people, and beginning in the 1600’s there was a summer weekend tradition of flooding the Piazza and allowing all of the prominent families in Rome to splash through the water in carriages. By the time Pope Innocent X came to power in 1644, this was the most important assembly space in Rome. It was an ideal place for his family, the Pamphili, to have their palazzo, and the perfect place to erect a monument rife with meaningful symbols and propaganda.

Such a project would require a skilled architect to complete. Gianlorenzo Bernini, the most prominent sculptor at the time, would normally have been the obvious choice for such a project. However, Bernini had fallen from favor with the death of his principal patron, Pope Urban VIII. Pope Urban had been quite unpopular toward the end of his reign because of some questionable habits concerning overspending, and the new pope wanted nothing to do with him or his favorite architect. Thus when Pope Innocent began looking at designs by various architects for his fountain, Bernini was conspicuously left out of the running. Obviously the wily architect did manage to become the sole designer for the fountain. There are several distinct stories regarding Bernini’s eventual success at getting the commission, but all accounts agree on the basics. It seems Bernini made a beautiful design for the fountain, perhaps of solid silver, which was spirited into the palazzo by a member of the Pamphili family and placed somewhere where the pope would see it. The pope is reputed to have said upon seeing the statue; “If one does not wish to carry out Bernini’s designs, one must not see them.”

The design which so amazed the Pope is said to be one of Bernini’s finest works for several reasons. The fountain is adorned with statues depicting four reclining river gods set up at equal intervals around the circumference of the structure, forcing the viewer to walk all the way around the fountain to see all the figures. The four rivers represented signify the four continents known to geographers of the time. Around the base below the gods are carved animals and plants to help the viewer identify the continents represented.

Europe is represented by the Danube River, who twists in toward the fountain to support a large papal coat of arms displaying the Pamphili family iconography with his hand. This symbolizes Europe being the support and home base of the Catholic Church. There is a horse beside this god to help identify it with Europe.

Asia is associated with the Ganges river god, who is seen here holding an oar to demonstrate the navigability of the river. An exquisite palm tree, one of the only figures on the fountain actually carved by Bernini himself, helps to identify this god with Asia. A serpent beneath the feet of the river god further represents the Ganges.

The Nile, the main river of Africa, is symbolized by this statue, whose head is covered by a cloth. The statue is said to be portrayed in this way to signify the unknown whereabouts of the source of the Nile at this time. There is a lion below this statue to help associate it with Africa.

The Rio De la Plata is the river that represents the New World. Not much was known about this area of the world at the time, so the river god is depicted as a bald black man, with an armadillo as a defining animal. The armadillo looks a lot like a spiky teenage mutant ninja turtle because in Europe at the time not much was known about what the animal might look like. The river god is shown clutching a bag of gold coins to symbolize the riches that were being found in the Americas at the time.

Another reason the fountain has been hailed as Bernini’s best work is the striking feature in the center of the four statues. The fountain is surmounted by a 54 foot Egyptian obelisk of red granite, taken from Circus Maximus. Pope Innocent X had the obelisk brought to be a part of the fountain because obelisks were a popular symbol of the triumph of Christianity over Paganism. Obelisks also were used in monuments as symbols of the sun or holy light, because of their tendency to look as though they reached infinitely into the sky. This highly meaningful piece sits upon a chunk of local travertine rock cut to look like raw stone from which all of the figures on the fountain are carved. Bernini was such a talented architect, though, that he added a twist to this travertine base. The middle of the rock underneath the obelisk is carved out in two intersecting arches, leaving the obelisk looking as though it is suspended almost unsupported in the air. Bernini’s technique caused quite a sensation when the fountain was unveiled. Being the jokester that he was, Bernini’s response to the criticism that the fountain was unstable was to tie four strings to the top of the obelisk and attach them to the surrounding buildings for “added support.” Publicity stunts of this nature helped rocket Bernini back into the position of popularity as papal architect that he had enjoyed under the last pope.

On top of being a means of regaining favor for Bernini, the fountain was also a powerful tool of propaganda for the Pamphili Pope. The Pamphili family was the clear patron of the project because atop the obelisk, in the place of the most prestige, Bernini placed a single dove. This was the symbol of Pope Innocent’s family, as well as the symbol of the Holy Spirit and the symbol of peace. This extra tool, taken with all of the other aspects of the fountain, would have been a very potent symbol to the Roman people. The four continents of the world were united in one monument beneath a symbol of triumphant Christianity surmounted by the Holy Spirit and the family of the leader of Christendom. The overall effect of the fountain would have been one of triumph for Rome and for Christianity, especially over Paganism. The people of Rome would have recognized the symbols of the power of the Pamphili family through the use of the dove and the coat of arms. Pope Innocent was very pleased with the fountain, and rightfully so, because it sent such a strong message for his family, for the Church, and for Rome.

Today the fountain still has a strong impact on those who see it, even without the context of the politics of the 1600’s. It is heralded as one of the must-see monuments of Rome, because of this power to transcend time. The fountain is fascinating to viewers still because it remains in one of the most popular piazzas in Rome. Today Piazza Navona is a place for tourists and locals alike to stroll day and night, get a bite to eat, and perhaps buy a watercolor painting of the fantastic Fountain of the Four Rivers. The fountain also has a tendency to come alive to the viewer, engaging them. To see the fountain, a viewer must walk all the way around it, and each figure that they come across is full of life. Each of the four river gods are twisted and full of action. The horse seems in the middle of a panicked escape, startled perhaps by the lion that is leaning down to drink. Even the palm tree exudes life, seeming to sway in the wind. Although the political context of the fountain is fascinating and enlightening, I think the fountain stands on its own exceptionally well, heedless of time.


Chessen, Kaia. Piazza Navona: Palaza of Rome.


Evans, Harry B. Water Distribution in Ancient Rome. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1994.

Flood, Sara. Aqueducts and the Trevi Fountain.


Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Penguin, 1965.

Mac Veigh, Mrs. Charles. The Fountains of Papal Rome. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1915.

Morton, H.V. The Fountains of Rome. The MacMillan Co.: New York, 1966.

Taylor, Rabun. Public Needs and Private Pleasures: Water Distribution, the Tiber River, and the Urban Development of Ancient Rome. Rome: Via Cassiodoro, 2000.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Political Agenda Through Images - The Age of Augustus

Shayla Miles
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

The age of Augustus was one of the most successful, innovative and interesting time periods in the history of the world. The political genius of Augustus brought about a golden age in Rome, combining the best elements from Greek and Hellenistic imagery as well as Roman res publica values and mythology. The peace and security that Augustus brought about did not come overnight, however. Battles using images and swords, in and out of the political arena arose, as well as the struggle to restore traditional Roman values to a society that had been focusing more and more on their private lives in the late republic. Octavian had to find a new way to appeal to the Roman people, a populus that had been struggling amidst the corrupt and immoral workings of the late Republic. From his genius usage of political images and portrayal of himself to his “healing” of Roman society through building projects, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus lead Rome from the turbulent end of the Republic to the age of empires, which would forever affect and shape the course of Roman history, and always be looked back
upon as the Golden Age.

Before one can examine Augustus and the great things he did for Rome, and how he went about it, the events that led up to it all have to be examined. The decline of the Republic, starting with the dichotomy of a Roman public life and Hellenistic private life, as well as the murder of Julius Caesar, Octavian’s great uncle, can be said to have put the cry for a new age in motion. As mentioned before, there were distinct values in Roman society, namely virtue, piety, and duty to the state. Luxury and frivolity in public life was not tolerated. However, towards the late Republic, many citizens (especially the wealthier or politically powerful patricians, who could get away with it) would lead dutiful public lives, and then leave the city to go to their country villas to pursue a more Hellenistic, that is to say, artistically and pleasure focused, private life. Here, villas would be decorated with Greek statuary, and Greek gala events would take place. Symposiums and parties in a Dionysitic manner - wine drinking, games of passion, love between men, philosophical talks - the kind of excess that was regarded as immoral and unjust in public life, would fill the private lives of well off patricians, even lower class citizens to an extent. This immoral behavior was often blamed for the turbulent end of the Republic, as senators became more focused on personal wealth and glory, fueling corruption. Augustus would later use this in his campaign for “healing” Roman society to reinforce the idea of piety and a disdain for excess, for it was these traits that were necessary to have a successful state blessed by the Gods.

The instability that wracked the last few years of the Republic culminated with the murder of Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius, members of the senate, reflected the people’s fear of a tyrant, and together with other senators, murdered Caesar in the theater of Pompey. Marc Antony gained power of the senate after this, but Octavian when he was only 19 raised an army and defeated him in 43 B.C. An agreement was reached between the two, and along with Marcus Lepidus, they formed the second triumvirate. Together they lead an army against Brutus and Cassius and defeated them in 42 B.C., avenging Julius Caesar’s death, and gaining territory which they divided amongst themselves. Eventually, Lepidus lost his land to Octavian, leaving him to control the Western territory (Italy, Gaul, etc.), and to Antony the east (Asia Minor, Egypt), (World book).

Trouble, however, began brewing between Antony and Octavian. At this time, Antony ruled from the east, and in the meantime, had fallen in love with Cleopatra, an Egyptian queen who eventually bore him sons, while Octavian ruled actually in Rome. The two men, hoping to gain sole power of Rome, launched a political war against each other, using mythology and images as their ammunition. For example, Antony chose to portray himself as Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine, and this choice shaped not only the public’s image of him, but how Antony saw himself. Thus, the image that he used began to shape his actions. He lived a life of luxury in the exotic east with his Egyptian mistress (who would later become his wife), throwing large feasts and parties, while treating himself like a God. This gave Roman citizens the impression that Antony was squandering his wealth, rather than helping to strengthen Rome and do something for the people, as Octavian was clearly doing, (Zanker, Images).

Antony did not chose his image wisely, for his “Dionysiac revels” were denounced by Octavian in his shrewd political campaign as corrupt, godless, and associated with spiritual weakness - all of the characteristics the Roman people associated with the moral decay and thus problems with the late Republic. Antony finally crossed the line when he gave a number of Rome’s eastern provinces to Cleopatra and their children. Octavian called this unpatriotic and went to war with him and Cleopatra. They were defeated in 31 B.C. in the naval battle at Actium, which Octavian later uses as propaganda to validate his reign and rule.Octavian, however, made a much wiser choice as to which God to align himself with. He chose Apollo, the youthful and beautiful God of sun, music, and the arts, and Apollo, from this point on, always played a huge role in Octavian’s images of himself. From a historical point of view, however, Apollo was a very fitting God in terms of symbolism. The Roman people, in the midst of political unrest and uncertainty, began to have this irrational longing for a savior. Thus, any man who was to ascend to the emperor’s throne had to be able to fill this godlike role of savior. Octavian, throughout his political campaign, aligned himself with the god Apollo, as already mentioned, but from his very birth he was said to have godlike powers. For example, Suetonius writes in his “Life of Augustus Caesar” in the 1st century referring to Octavian’s mother Attia in the temple of Apollo, “a serpent glided up, entered her, and then glided away again. On awakening she purified herself...and the birth of Augustus nine months later suggested divine paternity,” (Testimonia). As a boy too, he was said to have superhuman powers - frogs obeyed his command (Zanker, Images). However, the most blatant form of propaganda was his use of sun and star images on coins and the like, which not only associated himself with Apollo, but were used as omen signs to show the populus he was the blessed new ruler sent by the Gods. Now that one understands the historical context and the foundations of Augustus’imagery and mythology, the monuments visited in the presentation of Augustus can now be examined. First was the remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor, located in the Forum of Augustus. This monument really marks the beginning of Octavian’s building campaign (although most of the actual temple building went on a lot later in his rule). This temple was Octavian’s statement that he had avenged the death of Julius Caesar.

In Octavian’s earlier years, his political agenda was not so much promoting himself, but promoting the image of the late Caesar and associating himself with that image of Caesar. In this way, the Roman people would be sure to look back upon Caesar fondly, as well as associate Octavian most closely with this beloved, wrongfully murdered man. The temple of Mars Ultor, in is prime, would of had a large cult statue of Mars (the God of war) as well as many statues of Julius Caesar in godlike poses (Zanker, Images). This temple was one of the 80 or more temples erected during the rule of Augustus. The focus on architecture and building projects during the first part of his reign was the centerpiece of the religious renewal program. “Only the best for the Gods,” was Octavian’s ultimate motto (Zanker, Images). Thus the focus turned away from Hellenistic private life, and towards a renewed sense of religious duty. Pride as well, played a lot into this, as so many glorious new temples were being erected, a Roman citizen couldn’t help but feel proud at the sight of his beautified city as well as a sense of responsibility to live up to these new standards that were graciously being instilled by the new emperor.

We then examined the copy of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus as well as the pater patrae, which displays the maturation of Augustus’s use of imagery and symbolism to appeal to the Roman people. This turning point in Octavian’s image happens after the battle of Actium, which marks the new age of Augustus. There is a significant change of focus after the political and military battle with Marc Antony. Up to this point, the statuary depicting the young Octavian captured a ambitious and power hungry young man, and used Hellenistic imagery style to depict him as godlike. It was merely for self-glorification, because at this point, Octavian had not done much for Rome, only asserted that he was the only one capable of changing things. However, in 27 B.C., the senate renames Octavian “Augustus”, a name that has a broad range of meanings, including “stately”, “dignified”, and “holy,” giving Augustus the ability to completely changes his image (Zanker, Images). We don’t actually get very many earlier images of Octavian to compare his newer one to, for after his shift in images, he had them all removed from around the city and melted them down, and gave them as a votive offering to Apollo (Galinsky, Culture). This dramatic move, though, tells just how large the shift in images was, and how important his new image would be for his political agenda. So what was this new image and why was it so important? Why change every single portrait, statue or bust of yourself in the entire kingdom just because of a name change? It has already been mentioned the emphasis placed on religious revival, duty to the gods, etc. With this in mind, it was impossible for Augustus to have these statues of himself around, asserting this arrogant claim to all encompassing power and God ship. Thus, “in place of the bony and irregular features of Octavian’s portraiture, the new type is marked by a harmony of proportions, inspired by the classical canon...[the face’s] earlier arrogance are now done away with. The face is now characterized by a calm, elevated expression...and timeless and remote dignity,” (Zanker, Images). He is dignified and virtuous. Powerful yet pious. His new image was not an outright claim to power, but a calm assertion that he was the only one capable of leading Rome into a glorious new era. The symbols on the Prima Porta statue are good examples of the mythology and imagery that Augustus wanted to associate himself with. He stands next to a statue of Eros riding a dolphin, claiming his divine ancestry (for Aeneas, the traditional founder of what today is known as Rome is the son of Venus, who is mother to Eros in most myths). His attire, which consists of military attire is, however, without shoes, which was a Classical way of depicting a God, elevating him onto a plane that transcends mortality. His breastplate is full of imagery of his connection between heaven and earth that he forges, as well as symbols of victory from the barbarians he has defeated. The pater patrae statue as well, depicts Augustus in a godlike manner - “the humble image of Augustus as the togatus making a sacrifice...does nothing to conceal the notion that he enjoyed divine powers,” (Zanker, Images). Though this statue was dedicated when Augustus was around 60 years old, versus the Prima Porta statue, dedicated almost 30 years prior, the serene, pious gaze is unchanging permanently fixed in a Classical youthful manner, reminiscent of portraitures of Alexander the Great - young but wise, humble, strong, and recalling of the youthful valor and glory Alexander achieved, conquering and unifying most of the known world. Augustus did not conquer and unify the known world at the time, but he did indeed expand Rome's territory holdings and undoubtedly conquered any opposition to his new reign as Emperor.

The legacy of Augustus was to be remembered and revered by forthcoming generations as a time of greatness. After his death, Augustus was in fact worshiped like a God. Temples were dedicated to him all over the empire, and emperors after him tried to live up to the standard that he had set. The imagery that he used - the youthful, Classical style of his statues - was used for centuries to recall the Godlike powers that Augustus employed and the new age that he brought about. The architecture used to stress the importance on religion, too, carried onto future generations as the temples that Augustus built became the centerpieces of the lives of Roman citizens until the beginning of Christianity (and some temples remained, transformed into Christian churches). Augustus’s political maneuvers were so tactical and fascinating - emperors from Trajan to Constantine tried to emulate his powerful uses of imagery, attempting to recall this glorious age. People nowadays still visit the temple of Mars, though its now in ruins, and marvel at its sheer size; we look at the copy of the Prima Porta statue on the via Imperiale and are blown away at all the intricate imagery; we stumble upon the Mausoleum or see images from the Ara Pacis (hopefully one day we will get the chance to actually see the real thing) and cannot even begin to comprehend the impact Augustus made on the Roman people. We are still interested in going to see his buildings or statues today because, I think, there is something eternal about what Augustus did and stood for. He was a man that lead a people out of war, instability and chaos, into one of the most prosperous and innovative periods in ancient history.