Saturday, October 29, 2011

Financing the Basilica

The Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican
Let’s go back to the saga of building Saint Peter’s.  We had discussed in earlier blogs  (April 16, 2011)  that by the fifteenth century Constantine’s basilica was falling down—the north wall was totally out of plumb and in danger of collapse.  There had been plans to expand the old basilica and enlarge it under Nicholas V in the middle of the fifteenth century and the papal architect, Bernardo de Matteo Rossellino had actually begun building a new apse, but with the Nicholas’ death in 1455 the project came to nothing.  (One thing that does last to Nicholas’ everlasting credit—at least measured in earthly values, if not heavenly—is the exquisite chapel in the Vatican frescoed by Dominican friars, Fra Angelico. To my mind it is the most beautiful of all the churches and chapels in the Vatican—more than the Sistine Chapel or Saint Peter’s itself.  It is quite small—smaller than most bedrooms in a modest suburban American home—but exquisite for the sublime frescoes of Saints Laurence and Stephen.   O well, back to the Basilica (which I have always thought to be rather garish). 
Fra Angelico fresco of Saint Laurence
distributing alms
     Anyway, it was Julius II della Rovere who decided to tear down the old Basilica and construct a new one—a radical decision. (Imagine of Benedict decided to tear down the current Basilica and build a new one “in the modern style;” don’t you think that infallible or not his ass would be in a sling with all the neo-cons?  Well Julius had it no easier.  People were horrified.  Julius was called all sorts of things even by the Cardinals.  (I bet the biggest critics of any pope are from among the Cardinals though they keep their deprecations among their closest friends.)  Originally Julius’ motivation was he wanted the space to hold this new tomb that he had Michelangelo carving over 40 larger-than-life figures to adorn.  But Julius was a man with many irons in the fire.  Michelangelo was working on the tomb, Bramante on the basilica.  But the pope wanted to expand his palace.  First he didn’t want to live in the apartments of his predecessor, Alexander VI Borgia, whom he hated.  Alexander was an evil man, but that wasn’t what stopped Julius from liking him.  Julius understood weaknesses of the flesh as well as anyone.  It was just that the Borgias and the Della Roveres were the Hatfields and McCoys of fifteenth century Rome.   Each family had held the papacy at different times and tried to shut out the other family from power and influence in their turn.   So Julius had new apartments built and commissioned Raphael to fresco them. But that was only part of the remodeling project.  Innocent VIII had built a villa on a hill just north of the Vatican palace to which he could retire in the heat of Roman summers—the hill commanding refreshing breezes that missed the palace lying on lower ground.  The villa was named the Belvedere—“beautiful to see” or “beautiful views” because it gave lovely views of the meadows and orchards at the time lying between the Vatican and the Castle Sant’Angelo. Julius decided to connect the palace and the villa with two long narrow buildings, creating a massive courtyard between.  When one visits the Vatican Museum today you spend a lot of time in these wings that are wonderfully frescoed and which for years held the treasures of the Vatican Library.   Not only was Julius building basilicas and palaces and tombs, but everyone who was anyone in Rome was into building—palaces, churches, monuments.  With Julius, Rome had displaced Florence and become the center of the Renaissance.  Rome was swarming with artists, sculptors, architects, musicians, littérateurs, gold and silversmiths, all seeking patronage.  And the Church officials were only too happy to patronize them.  An essential part of the career path in the Church was liberality in patronizing the arts.  Prelates became known for the churches they were building or furnishing and for the opulent palaces in which they lived and the lavishness with which they entertained.  I make fun, as you know, of the clerical coxcombs who parade around in trains of scarlet silk and furred capes today—but it fit the espirit of the times. (Whether it fit the Gospel any better then than now is another question, but then I am sure Jesus has shed more tears over his Church than he ever did over Jerusalem of old.) This created huge employment—stone masons and carpenters, cooks, stewards, servants, mixers of paints, cutters of stone, hewers of trees, pages, vinters, brewers, bakers, chandlers, glass blowers, weavers,  tailors, grocers, stable hands, milliners, construction workers, brickmakers : Renaissances are not cheap.  As I mentioned in earlier blogs money was being drained from all over Europe to pay for the extravagance but at the same time—as Democrats know and Republicans fear—spending 
Ordination of Laurence as Deacon
creates jobs and Rome was abustle with work and employment means money and money means more jobs.  But how could it be kept being fueled?  Pope Julius had an excellent banker—we would refer to him today as a Finance Minister or Secretary of the Treasury, he didn’t stand behind a window counting out twenties.  His name was Agostino Chigi and he had an idea. “ Why not,” he asked Julius, “why not sell indulgences?”  indeed, why not?

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