Renaissance in Rome; Being Made Whole

Exhibit Follows Footsteps of Michelangelo, Raphael

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 1, 2011 ( Visiting the new exhibition, «The Renaissance in Rome: In the Footsteps of Michelangelo and Raphael» in Palazzo Sciarra is like going to an ideal party for this golden age of Rome. Not only are Michelangelo and Raphael in attendance, but also the celebrated thinkers, prelates and patrons who shaped this momentous era.

Entering this 16th-century palace on the Via del Corso, one feels invited into the home of one of the prestigious nobles who once entertained the artistic geniuses of the age. The first face to greet you is Raphael’s; his self-portrait at the door is like a welcoming host. A few moments later, one encounters an unusually gregarious Michelangelo in a portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo looking over his shoulder to get your opinion on his drawings.

A wonderful map of Rome from the late 16th century introduces us to the theater of action. The Aurelian walls enclose an 11-mile circuit, but the amount of undeveloped land inside displays how much work was yet to be done to restore Rome to her former glory. Fortunately there were visionary patrons to propel Rome’s rebirth; Popes Julius II and Leo X are both portrayed in copies of their famous portraits by Raphael. Julius looks weary; the projects of rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica, completing the Sistine Chapel, building new roads, all the while defending papal territory, seem to have worn him out. Luxury-loving Leo X, always attentive to fine details, will give Rome its most exquisite touches like the Raphael Loggia in the Vatican.

But Rome was not made by popes alone. Many who never sat on the throne of St. Peter made great contributions to the city. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who would finance the building of the Gesù and Bishop Tommaso Inghirami, believed to have written the program for Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, seem to be lost in thought in their respective portraits by that prolific painter.

It was a dynamic era of plans, projects and discoveries. Elegant palaces were cropping up throughout the city  alongside monumental churches; the Roman soil was sprouting antique treasures as fast as the Roman nobles could buy them. Humanists discovered, translated and interpreted increasingly obscure mythologies, but also commissioned endless paintings of the Holy Family for their private devotions.

The spark of the competitive atmosphere is omnipresent. Beyond the giants of art who dominated the Roman scene, there were dozens of other painters looking for their big break in Rome. One corridor feels like a receiving line, with Spaniard Alfonso Berruguete, Sienese Baldassare Peruzzi, and a host of others offering salutations in their many pictorial languages.

Suddenly the luxurious red paneling turns to black and the rooms become small and stifling. This heralds the era of the Lutheran Reform followed by the Sack of Rome in 1527 that effectively ended this golden age. The population of Rome was decreased by half, and the Pope, Clement VII was forced to flee to Orvieto for a year. An astonishing pairing of before and after portraits of Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo (who loyally followed the Pope into exile) reveal what was first a proud man, but later a weary Pontiff who had aged before his time.

Peer closely into the glass cabinets below and you will see that anti-Church hyperbole is not a modern invention. Every party needs a pooper and Lucas Cranach’s engravings of the Pope as the Anti-Christ and Rome as the Whore of Babylon are clearly the ancestors of the tiresome stereotypes in novels and televised tripe today.

Rome was devastated by the Sack, but she didn’t remain on her knees for long. The Roman show must go on. That Pope Paul III inherited a difficult papacy can be seen in a strikingly simple little woodcut of a boat tossed by spiraling waves; but undaunted, this Pontiff set about calling the Council of Trent, approving the Jesuits and harnessing Rome’s remaining artistic talents to restore the city. The result? The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (there is an early copy in the show which pre-dates the draperies added in 1564 for reasons of modesty).

The show pauses for a moment to consider the spirituality of Michelangelo in this age, looking at two works he prepared for Cardinal Reginald Pole and his beloved friend Vittoria Colonna. His painted Pietà and the striking Crucifixion reveal a man deeply engaged with the matters of faith of his age.

The show ends with the age of Mannerism, the legacy of the great achievements of the High Renaissance. Large and dramatic, but also loud and gaudy, like a party that has gone on a little too long. After the delights of the High Renaissance, this last room makes for a bittersweet goodbye.

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One year ago on Nov. 6, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI solemnly dedicated the minor basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. To celebrate this first anniversary, a new exhibition sponsored by the Archdiocese of Barcelona was inaugurated Nov. 24 in the Carlo Magno wing next to St. Peter’s Square. «Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Art, Science, Spirituality,» will continue through Jan. 15, 2012, of next year, allowing those who come to Rome for the Christmas season to also appreciate the Catalonian devotion to the Holy Family.

The Basilica was begun by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), an extraordinary Catalan architect of the era of Art Nouveau. His architecture treasured the glorious past of Barcelona, still visible in its Gothic churches and delicate plays of light, but also looked toward the future with modern design and materials.

His wondrous home of the Casa Batlló demonstrated his ability to recount a story through architecture but in the Casa Milà, Gaudi began to weave faith and innovation through a domestic structure. The plan, based on Our Lady of the Rosary, has five floors crowned with an undulating cornice, bearing carved rosebuds inscribed with the Ave Maria in Latin. This was his last civil work before dedicating himself entirely to the construction of the Sagrada Família. Gaudí died while working on the basilica and his cause for canonization has been opened.

The exhibition is divided up into five sections; the entrance is cleverly arranged so you feel as if you are walking into the basilica. The first part is chronology of both the life of Gaudí and the basilica. The foundation of the Devotees of St. Joseph first developed the idea of the church in 1866, but Gaudí did not get involved until 1883. It was intended as an expiatory temple and was under construction at the same time as the expiatory basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris. The project was only at the beginning stages when Gaudí died, but it has slowly progressed over the centuries. It survived the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and added the dedication «to Peace» to its title.

The exhibit then acquaints the visitor with the work of Gaudí with brilliant images of his houses and projects before taking on the Sagrada Familia. Although his art seems exuberant and fanciful, it was based on a solid foundation of scientific calculations. The construction of Sagrada Familia embodies faith and reason.

The Catalonian love of nature is ever present in the church. The variegated pillars of the church recreate a dense forest while the stained glass filters in the luminous colors of the region’s flora, sea and sun.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona Lluís Martínez Sistach, who was present at the inauguration, pointed out that one can only understand the church with the eyes of faith. Prayer and liturgy occupy the penultimate section. The carved names of saints invoke them to the altars, sculpted symbols proclaim the mystery of salvation from the soaring spires. This awe-inspiring space gives the Church a fresh and fascinating face to evangelize in the new millennium.

Antoni Gaudì intended the church to encompass past and present, words and images, and mos
t importantly the liturgy. He wrote, «A man lacking religion is a man without spirituality; a mutilated man.» The Sagrada Familia seems like the perfect place to be made whole.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, «The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at

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