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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Italian Art 1500-1600: The Papacy and the Church

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538. Uffizi, Florence

By Alexandra A. Jopp

The power and influence of the Christian Church was one of the leading features of the Renaissance. Not only was the church the dominant political force, it also directly shaped the lives of individuals throughout Christendom. Most people were poor and had very limited information about the world around them, and the church offered an explanation of the world – and beyond – that largely defined the weltanschauung of millions of Europeans.
The High Renaissance – from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the closing of the Council of Trent in 1563 – was a period of remarkable cultural expansion, artistic enterprise and increasing demand for technical skill (which created a high degree of competition among artists). Many Italian nobles held refined courts, where they encouraged and protected artists. In Milan, for example, Francesco Sforza and, later, Ludovico il Moro, held courts – Ludovico housed Leonardo da Vinci for years – and in the small state of Mantua, the Gonzaga family held a splendid court in which avid art collector Isabella d’Este, daughter of Eleonora and Ercole and wife of Duke Giovanni Francesco II, came to be considered one of the superior women of her time.

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica - Palazzo Barberini
In the little court of Urbino, Duke Federico created a cultural center and contributed to the society of the learned to which he partially belonged. Raphael, Bramante, Laurana, Pisanello and Piero della Francesca all worked at Urbino, and the magnificent Palazzo Ducale is still one of the finest Renaissance palaces in Italy. And in Florence, the Medici dynasty, especially at the time of the Cosimo de Medici and his son Lorenzo the Magnificent, heavily supported the arts and humanities. Their patronage of artists was imitated by several states in Italy, above all those in the district of Rome.
While the Medici family was strengthening its supremacy in Florence, Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X enjoyed growing religious power in Rome. The city had become the artistic center of the world by 1520, with artists and collectors during the Roman Renaissance rediscovering of the masterpieces of the ancient world. Since many antiquities were found in or near Rome, popes were well situated to acquire many of the greatest prizes: “Julius II, for instance, took charge of both the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön sculptures after they came to light.” (Norris, Michael. "The Papacy during the Renaissance")
The Renaissance represented a restoration of the Catholic Church and a spiritual rebirth of the Roman Empire. “The great movement for Catholic renewal of the sixteenth century was international in character but made Rome a special focus” (Nussdorfer 21).  The central themes of the Roman Renaissance were found in sculpture, painting and architecture, with art meant to induce devotion, worship and praise of the divine. Paolo Cartesi in a chapter of De Cardinalatu (1510) devoted to cardinals’ palaces, wrote that art should have “ingenious subjects” and “erudite content,” citing as examples the wall frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and the decoration of the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. (Stinger 3)
The church, with the power of its purse, generally restricted the images produced by artists to those that encouraged piety and conveyed the its official messages: “In the invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, all superstition shall be removed, all filthy quest for gain eliminated, and all lasciviousness avoided, so that images shall not be painted and adorned with a seductive charm.” (Klein 121)
As God’s emissary on Earth, the pope was considered to be infallible and above any earthly ruler. (Of course, not all earthly rulers agreed with this, and many claimed their own high-level endorsement through the divine right of kings.) The pope was “spiritual director of the Catholic world whose center was Rome, he was the absolute monarch of one of the richest states in Italy, and often times he was the head of an ambitious and powerful family.” (Haskell 32)  And family, notably, was not necessarily second to the church for a pope. For instance, within a month of Cardinal Giovanni de Medici becoming Pope Leo X, his cousin Giulio was named archbishop of Florence, and he later became a cardinal. The Medici pope and Medici cardinal was just one example of the nepotism that all of the Renaissance popes practiced. While part of the motivation was not unreasonable – popes argued that they needed to have assistants whose loyalty could not be questioned – the result, not to mention what was likely a less reasonable motivation, was the massive enrichment of papal families.
Popes built as much as they could, both for their personal satisfaction and for the public good. One pope said that “it was a public charity to build, and all princes should do so: because it brought assistance to the public and to private citizens, and employment on building greatly helped the people.” (Haskell 32) Thus, it was seen as the church’s duty to beautify the city.

Pope Julius II, a Renaissance prince and patron of the arts (r. 1503-1513)
Top artists were in great demand, and popes seeking to hire them for Roman beautification efforts faced competition from monarchs and aristocrats. During the High Renaissance, though, popes had annual incomes in the range of 500,000 to 1,500,000 scudi, which was equivalent to or greater than the income of many monarchs. In addition, popes were adept at exercising their power – both ecclesiastical and temporal – to secure the best artists. For instance, papal intervention led to Michelangelo painting the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel after Perugino’s Assumption was damaged by fire in 1525. This commission led to a revival of Pope Julius II’s plan for a new altarpiece representing the Resurrection, which would serve as a fitting conclusion to the decoration of the chapel that began with the Creation. Before Michelangelo began working, however, the subject became the Last Judgment that we know today, a change probably inspired by Pope Paul III, who convened the Council of Trent and helped to lead the Counter-Reformation. Paul III had long admired Michelangelo, and in 1535, he made him the chief painter, sculptor and architect of the Vatican Palace. The scale and the subject matter of the altar wall reflected the newly moral and radical mood of the church.  
In the midst of the chaotic change of the High Renaissance, church officials constantly negotiated their political, social and religious positions. Putting family members in important stations not only brought the family direct power but also provided it with more wealth through benefices. In addition, marital alliances were important both in increasing wealth and establishing political connections, with church officials, like nobles, using marriage to cement old alliances and forge new ones. It is also likely that more aggressive tactics were at times employed. For instance, the death of Ippolito de Medici, a staunch adversary of Paul III, conveniently opened the door for Cardinal Farnese to become vice-chancellor.
Titian, Penitent Mary Magdalene ca. 1565. Hermitage. St. Petersburg.
Positions on religious and reform issues could also determine one’s place in the hierarchy, and it is often difficult to separate sincerely held religious beliefs from those held out of self-interest. While it is evident, for example, that Cardinal Farnese was deeply involved in what most see as a culture of corruption, he also seemed to be deeply religious and committed to the church. While accompanying the papal army that was waging war against the Protestant Schmalkaldic League in 1546, the disguised cardinal snuck into the Protestant city of Ulm. In a bookstore there, he got into a heated argument in defense of the church, placing himself at great risk, much to the dismay of his protection entourage. 
Whether an art patron was a member the social elite or the church hierarchy, the choice of projects was typically shaped by the same factors, among them cost, style, political and social ambitions, relationship with the artist, and even the desired time of completion. Often, multiple ambitions led to the production of a particular work, though, and it can be very difficult to discern exactly what led to a patron’s decision. As Haskell noted, it is impossible to formulate “underlying laws which will be valid in all circumstances. At times, the connections between economic and political considerations and a certain style have seemed particularly close; at other times [one is] unable to detect anything more than internal logic of artistic development, personal whim or the workings of chance.” (Robertson 5)
A given patron may have been motivated by religious belief, a relationship with an artist or a desire to acquire the “label” of a well-known artist to increase his own prestige. (Robertson 5) A patron might also take on a project as fulfillment of “his duty as a member of the wealthy ruling class,” an act of charity, an attempt to raise his public image, or an effort to one-up another patron by backing a greater work. (Robertson 6) There were limits on self-promotion, however. Cosimo de Medici was criticized for prominently incorporating his family coat of arms on churches he constructed, since this was seen as a desire to promote his family rather than glorify God. So even when self-promotion was the primary motivation for commissioning a work, it had to be done subtly.
The more sophisticated patron wanted to demonstrate his superior knowledge about art and its history and direction and show that he had more style than his contemporaries. He also wanted to produce something new and different without it being vulgar or otherwise unacceptable. However, it was not always the patron’s taste that produced the end result, and it is difficult to determine whether a particular decision regarding a work was the patron’s or the artist’s. While, at times, the primary influence can be deduced by comparing the collection of a particular patron to the body of work of a given artist, this approach is not always conclusive. Such a determination is also complicated by patrons’ practice of employing “humanist advisers” to help them decide on artistic purchases. (Robertson 7) What can be surmised as a general rule, though, is that, because of the immense cost and importance of major works of art, patrons sought to satisfy multiple goals in their projects, and there were always many considerations that contributed to the final work. Unfortunately, even when the creation of a given work is thoroughly documented, the exact reasons behind each facet of the image can never be known with certainty. 
For a pope or cardinal, one might logically guess that church considerations would be the dominant factor in art patronage, but this was not always the case. The infamous Borgia family, for example, essentially ran the church like a family business, and their art projects, as with their entire papal policy, were designed to promote the family. Such corruption however led to growing dissent.
During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the church’s authority faced both internal and external challenges. Voices inside the church spoke out against corruption, while Protestantism threatened to undermine the church’s position as the controlling religious power in Europe. The threats were related, since Protestantism grew out of the corruption and greed that had long permeated the church. The church was also threatened by the ambitions of the Spanish and French monarchs and their desire for European preeminence and control of Italian soil. The church’s rapidly changing leadership as well as the constantly shifting alliances it engaged in to try to “pick the winner” led to an unstable and ineffective papal foreign policy and the disastrous sack of Rome by Charles V in 1527. The combination of these shocks led to a reexamination of the church and what would become the Counter-Reformation.
The Counter-Reformation was initiated at the Council of Trent by Pope Paul III in 1545 to address corruption within the church and, at the same time, reaffirm the supremacy of the church and declaim against the heresies of the Protestants. Overall, it was a call for a renewed spirituality with an emphasis on the importance of theological traditions. The Council repudiated the pluralism of the secular Renaissance that had plagued the church. The organization of religious institutions was tightened, discipline was improved and the local parish was emphasized. 
Among the issues addressed in the Counter-Reformation was the excess and secularism that had dominated religious art. The Council of Trent decreed that no church should contain any image that “inspires erroneous doctrine and that could mislead the uneducated … and that lasciviousness should be avoided, so that no figure should be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust” (Robertson 149). Previous Catholic councils had rarely felt the need to pronounce on these matters. The proclamation of the Council on art was less an initiator of reform than a codification of a movement that was already underway.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment came under attack in the Counter-Reformation for including nudity, showing Christ standing and featuring pagan images. Ten years after the Council’s decree, artist Veronese was ordered to explain why his Last Supper (later renamed Feast in the House of Levi), contained “dwarfs, buffoons, a man with a nose bleed and German soldiers.” (Robertson 149) Veronese was ordered to change his painting. Much traditional iconography that was considered not to have an adequate theological basis was prohibited, as was any inclusion of pagan elements and almost all nudity.
Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573. Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
The effect of the Counter-Reformation can be seen in the patronage of Cardinal Farnese. Farnese’s religious commissions before the Council were few in number, but after 1560, he became one of the foremost patrons of religious art. Although the increase was no doubt due in part to his papal aspirations and the increased power and wealth that came with age, there is little doubt that the Counter-Reformation played a major role in the increased piety of his public commissions. Even his private commissions became more religious. After 1570, the frescoes at his villa at Caprarola, which previously featured classical mythological images, were largely religious. The rooms at the Villa d’Este also show the shift, with the iconography of the rooms after 1570 becoming entirely religious. In addition, there were no more private commissions of nudes. An unsolicited painting sent by Titian to Farnese in 1567 shows a penitent (and fully-clothed) Magdalena with a look of great devotion. All of this notwithstanding, it seems that Farnese’s artistic decisions were largely political and that his personal taste did not change: he still kept Titian’s Danaë in his bedroom.
The long-term impact of Counter-Reformation-style art was limited, though. The Council’s decree only controlled religious art, and secular art still flourished. By the time of the pontificate of Paul V in 1605, the austere functionalism that characterized most Counter-Reformation religious architecture, painting and sculpture had been abandoned. Eventually, even the Last Judgment was again undressed.
 Monument to Urban VIII
(Aug 6, 1623 - July 29,1644) Maffeo Barberini
by Bernini, 1647
By the early seventeenth century, the primary challenge to newly elected Pope Urban VIII was no longer Protestantism but, rather, the enmity between France and the Hapsburg Empire, which threatened the peace in Italy and necessitated the building of costly fortifications. At the same time, a growing secularism was confronting the church, with advancements in science posing challenges to church doctrine. In response, Urban VIII, recognizing that the austerity of the Counter-Reformation was insufficient to excite the common man, set out to demonstrate the grandeur of the church. (Haskell 33) He sought a return of magnificence to religious art, and he had the great artist Bernini to assist him. Urban VIII turned his and Bernini’s attention to the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a grandiose project that would occupy the remaining years of both of their lives. The quest to return the church to greatness combined with the cost of wars left the Vatican in massive debt, however, and Urban VIII died as a very unpopular pope in 1644.

Michael Norris. "The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Charles L. Stinger, “The Renaissance in Rome”. Indiana University Press,  1985.
“Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” in Italian Art 1500-1600: Sources and Documents, eds. Robert Klein and Henri Zerner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966), 119-22.
Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (London: Chatto & Windus, 1963), 24-43.
Laurie Nussdorfer, Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 21-44.
Clare Robertson, ‘Il gran cardinale’: Alessandro Farnese, Patron of the Arts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 1-14, 69-88, 149-51, 181-207.


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