Each year, tourists, scholars and
pilgrims flock to Rome to admire and study,or
simply be awed by, the architecture, art and history of
The Eternal City. Looking out across the modern city,
looking at St. Peter's, the Castel St. Angelo, Palazzo
Farnese, the countless churches and villas, all spread
against a backdrop of ancient splendour, such as the
Colosseum, the Circus Maximus and the arched aqueducts
of the ancient imperial capital, it is easy to believe
that Rome is, indeed, "eternal". Yet, the Eternal City
has had some very ephemeral moments. It is ironic that
the fortunes of the city of Rome took a turn for the
better only after so much misfortune had befallen the
institution so closely connected with that city, the
Roman Catholic faith.
year 1300 is often said to have been the zenith of the
Papacy, marked by a gigantic celebration in Rome presided
over by Pope Boniface VIII. In retrospect, however, it was
really one huge farewell to the good old days, times that
would not come again for the Popes. The Western Christian
Church (Rome) had come into its own, on the worldly plane,
in 756, when Charlemagne's father, Pepin III, rendered
unto Christ a lot of what had once belonged to
Caesar—land. That gift, consisting of a large part of
central Italy, was the beginning of the Papal State, a
church-state ruled by the Pope King. Over the next few
centuries, a papal vision took form, a vision of Europe as
a single theocracy with its earthly princes subject to the
princes of the Church, or, in the words attributed to Pope
Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085: "The Holy See has
absolute power over all spiritual things: why should
it not also rule temporal affairs? God reigns in the
heavens; His vicar should reign over all the earth."
Besides such changes in
thinking, which marked the true end of "The Middle Ages"
and the beginning of the Renaissance, there were much more
tangible events that would underscore the fact that the
earthly princes were no longer willing to have "…His
vicar reign over all the earth." The most
dramatic of these involved a struggle between the Church
and France's King Philip the Fair over the right of laymen
to tax the clergy. It was a dispute that led to the
imprisonment and death of the Pope in Rome in 1305 at the
hands of agents of the King. The new Pope, a French
prelate, agreed to move the Papacy to Avignon in France in
1309. This lasted until 1377, a period referred to in
Christian history as the Babylonian Exile of the Papacy.
It was a period that would decide the centuries-old
contest between the Church and the kings of Europe for
temporal supremacy once and for all in favor of kings.
[See also this item for more on the
When the papacy returned to Rome, in one sense it returned to a less " believing" city than a century earlier. The years had been marked, certainly, by confusion —the confusion of the Avignon popes and the succeeding Western Schism of popes, anti-popes and even anti-anti popes— but also by an enormous revival of interest in the glories of ancient Rome, indeed, even by a short-lived attempt to set up a Roman Republic. And right along with all the tribulations of the time, it was also a period when the Italian poet Petrach started referring to the centuries between the fall of Rome and his own time as the "Dark Ages," almost heretically ignoring the "light" that Christianity had shed on those centuries. A feeling was taking hold that only by a rebirth of ancient learning could Europe be brought out of darkness into a new light. "Rebirth" is the key word. Renaissance. Rome was on the verge of change.
The Popes began a conscious campaign to make Rome the center of a normal Renaissance state, a spiritual center, yes, but also a temporal power that might one day unite the peninsula again. They began a wave of construction, building streets, bridges, hospitals, fountains, and churches, drawing on the genius of Renaissance art and architecture to transform the city into tangible proof of the power and glory of the church. The wave can be said to have started in the 1450s with the Vatican fortifications and then the beginning of the rebuilding of St. Peter's under Pope Nicholas V (pope from 1447-1455). Under a succession of Popes, building was often irrational, but spectacular. Like magnificent mushrooms, churches and villas sprang up helter-skelter at the whim of Papal egocentric spontaneity and their desire to stamp their own mark on the city. The gloriously sprawling city that is modern day Rome, with no true center of the city, is a direct result of this urbanism begun in the Renaissance.
The papal curia —the central
administration of the church— became one of the most
efficient governments in Europe. Through its efforts,
Rome, between 1450 and 1600, took shape. Besides directing
new construction, they set about to rediscover the
original ancient city by identifying major sites and
buildings, and began the task of copying the ancient
inscriptions that made the city a true textbook on the
Roman empire of old. By the middle of the 16th century
scholars knew Rome better than anyone had in a thousand
years. The combination of spiritual and intellectual
energies that propelled such construction and
investigation made Renaissance Rome somewhat of a paradox.
On the one hand, as the center of a major faith, it
promoted that faith. On the other hand, it was part of the
great intellectual movement of the Italian Renaissance,
Humanism, a movement bursting with earthy energies to
rediscover the important biological works of Aristotle and
Hippocrates, to translate the mathematics of Archimedes
and the Geography of Ptolemy (which would inspire
Columbus); to study the great Latin encyclopaedia of
Pliny; to promote scholarship in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and
Coptic; to let Palestrina invent the music of the future
by revising ancient Gregorian chants, and to be patron of
geniuses such as Michelangelo and Raphael.
The US Library of Congress has an excellent on-line exhibit, Rome Reborn, at
The Vatican Museums
The plural is correct: technically it's the Vatican Museums (Italian: Musei Vaticani). They are the public museums of the Vatican City. They display works from the immense collection amassed by the Catholic Church and the papacy throughout the
centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. The museums contain 70,000 works, of which 20,000 are on display and currently employ 640 people who work in 40 different administrative, scholarly, and restoration departments. This link is to the very thorough Wikipedia entry on the museums.
dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 1500s when a single marble sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, was found in a vineyard in Rome on 14 January 1506. The pope sent Michelangelo to check it out. He knew a bit about sculpture. On his say-so, the Pope bought the vineyard and the group sculpture. The figures are slightly larger than life-size. (image, below, right)
There is debate about the work. Some think it is likely the same statue praised by the main Roman writer on art, Pliny the Elder. The Pope put the sculpture, which shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by giant serpents, on public display at the Vatican one month after its discovery. It is not known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze. That is plausible, but no similar bronze sculpture has been found in Greece. In any case, these are Greek sculptors working in Italy. When in Rome do as the Romans do; sculpt in marble.
In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican Museums were visited by only 1,300,000 persons, a drop of 81 percent from the number of visitors in 2019, but still enough to rank the museums fourth among the most-visited art museums in the world. There are 24 galleries, or rooms, in total, with the Sistine Chapel, notably, being the last room visited within the Museum. On 1 January 2017, Barbara Jatta became the Director of the Vatican Museums,
This is a nice list of the most-visited art museums.