Reviewed by Kathleen M. Comerford (Department of History, Georgia Southern University)
Published on H-Italy (October, 1999)
Charles L. Stinger's The Renaissance in Rome (first published in 1985 and winner of the American Historical Association's Marraro Prize) helped to broaden the focus of renaissance scholars, too often narrowly concerned with Florence and its environs. This updated edition of the volume includes a new preface by the author, and makes the important study available in an affordable paperback. As the preface notes, new studies have added greatly to the understanding of Rome in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and a survey written now would be quite different from that written in 1985. Stinger's bibliographical essay in the preface is an invaluable update on that research, and is in fact the only revision. He notes, "Much recent work in fact serves ... to further validate and extend that fundamental conclusion" of a particularly Roman Renaissance, different from other contemporary expressions of renewal and rebirth. As such, he decided to reissue the original. Readers who have already purchased or read The Renaissance in Rome should be advised, therefore, that the value of the new publication is its cost (at $19.95, less than half the cost of the cloth, and affordable for students) and the updated ten-and-a-half page bibliographical essay.
Stinger's argument is laid out in the following manner: in the mid-and late fifteenth century, Rome reinvented itself as the center of the Catholic Church, with a restored (and reunited) papacy. The consequences of this were great: re-establishing a stable and centralized Church, reminding the people of the continued historical significance of the "Eternal City," building a court to support both, and creating an artistic milieu to express the power and glory of both. The Roman Renaissance lasted from 1443 to 1530, at which point the Counter-Reformation (Stinger's terminology) began. It was led by the papacy, which constructed a new city full of Renaissance palaces and a new church headed by an aristocracy more comfortable with conspicuous consumption than with apostolic poverty. It was centered in a city understood by the world to represent both earthly and eternal things; according to Stinger, even cynical observers, like Giovanni Rucellai, saw this dual nature: "Rather than a functioning city with a coherent topographic unity, he saw it as a congeries of nodal points, denoted by talismans of the sacred" (p. 36). (Sometimes Stinger's prose borders on the purple, as in that quote and the reference on page 42 to popular festivals as expressions of "picturesque, domestically human, and perhaps even sweetly pathetic piety.")
Rebuilding the Roman papacy meant focusing on ceremony and, in what the Renaissance popes considered a natural corollary, on courtly life. The pageantry with which Jubilees and processions were celebrated and the ornamentation in religious architecture were unprecedented and served to heighten awareness of the glory of the Church and the papacy. The popes became further removed from the people, which was appropriate for their image as princes, but which meant a change in liturgy: since popes no longer preached, they had to hire mendicant preachers. This focus on papal power was more than religion and ceremony, however; it was a reminder of the ancient glory of Rome (festivals celebrated the past as well as the present) and also served to deflect power from the city government of Rome.
An uneasy relationship with the past defined Roman humanism: while plundering the ruins for building materials, Romans celebrated their ancestors. Stinger explains how the Roman Renaissance man both discovered a mythology of Rome and created one. In part this depended on a revival of oratory, in particular the epideictic oratory of which John O'Malley has written in Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome (Duke University Press, 1979). The papacy is an example. Renaissance popes such as Julius II, Alexander VI, and Leo X chose names to pay tribute to heroes of the classical period and to suggest ways in which they hoped to emulate past achievements (Julius II and Leo X encouraged references to previous popes as well). They viewed the papacy as a dynastic princedom as well as a religious institution, and the divisive politics of the Borgia, Della Rovere, and Medici families controlled the papal throne in much of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth centuries. These popes built up the power of the papacy in different ways, for example constructing castles and huge churches, playing politics with other Italian rulers, creating marriage alliances for their relatives, and defending the patrimony of St. Peter. Reviving the Crusade in the face of Ottoman threats and intervention in the exploration of the Americas were other methods of asserting papal leadership in both the political and religious spheres. The administrative bloat of the Curia was an expression of secular as well as sacred goals: reform commissions were created because of abuses, but rarely made changes because "[t]he inertial force of this vast administrative apparatus, representing enormous financial investment, clearly formed an effective obstacle to any reform of the Church in capite" (128). Stinger discusses the varieties of abuses in the Roman establishment, from the financing of bishops with multiple benefices to the sale of indulgences to the political excommunication, in an even-handed manner, noting both the practical aspects of the matter (e.g., the desperate poverty of the southern Italian dioceses) and the misuses of power and resources.
The vitality of Rome as center of both theology and secular culture was not due solely to the papacy, however. Secular intellectuals in the city " actually contributed in significant ways to at least three key theological developments of the Renaissance period": the revival of patristic studies, the application of humanist rhetorical methods to the study of the Bible, and the revival of Thomism (p. 141). These trends supported a Roman center by focusing on patristic, biblical, and Thomistic statements of Roman authority, particularly on texts in defense of papal primacy and a hierarchical church. Roman historians like Biondo, Leto, and Platina demonstrated the Roman (imperial and republican) roots of contemporary institutions and a continuity of Christian practices dating from Jesus and the apostles. Artists and architects worked out this theme in their depictions of power, glory, theology, and Roman history (as demonstrated in the richly-illustrated chapter IV). The theological ties with humanism only went so far; "The fact of the matter was that, Valla apart, Roman humanists saw no need for doctrinal reform" (p. 233). Rather than seeing the study of the past as a way to correct current mistakes, as Erasmus and Protestant Reformers did, humanists in Rome saw the Greek texts as monuments of the faith, underlining the primacy of Rome and thereby restoring true Christianity.
Since Nicholas V, in fact, popes worked diligently to restore the physical city as well as the honor of its rulers, and they made constant references to Imperial Rome while doing so. The emulation of Julius Caesar by Pope Julius II is one of the great examples of the tension between the types of history Romans emulated simultaneously (Roman=pagan, yet Roman=Catholic). Leo X continued the plan of rebuilding Rome in order to assure the triumph of Christianity not only in Europe but also in the New World; he displayed Roman architecture to call attention to the centrality of the ruler of Rome in history. Emphasizing the great leader's of Rome's past, Julius Caesar and the emperors, Augustus and Constantine, was a way of reminding both Romans Catholics around the world of the greatness of the city as well as of forcing a comparison with the new empire-builders, namely Julius II and Leo X. Other popes, such as Paul III, rescued or renovated ancient literature, art, and symbolism, from the display of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius to Jovian mythology in coins. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, humanists adopted this combination of sacred and secular, and connected the revival of the papacy intimately with the revival of the city, so that "the idea of the return of the Golden Age to Rome had become, in short, a commonplace of Roman humanist thought, and almost de rigueur in praises of the pope" (p. 298). Envisioning the city in this way meant that its destruction would also resonate with classical models. In lamentations, the sack of Rome was compared to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, despite obvious political differences. In reality, the situation was indeed desperate for both humanists and churchmen for a variety of reasons: the religious and secular intrusion of Spain in Roman affairs and the loss of interest in the Roman Renaissance under Adrian VI. The contemporary Lutheran threat was another blow to Rome, since it no longer held a place of religious primacy in Europe. Reviving the church would mean reviving Rome again, and though the mid-sixteenth-century Catholic Church had important anti-Renaissance concerns, Stinger argues, "in some of its ambitions and achievements the Counter-Reformation does reveal continuities with Renaissance aspirations," for example in missionary work in the colonies and in the use of imperial themes in art and architecture, though these were realized in different ways (p. 330).
With attention to detail and the use of a wide array of sources, Stinger proves his point, which in his words is that "the Renaissance in Rome elaborated a persistent vision of religious and cultural renewal". In Rome and in the Roman Church the humanists and artists of the Eternal City saw fused the civilizing wisdom and the sanctifying power of the fides latina. To them, Rome, under the authority of Roman pontiffs restored to their rightful primacy in ecclesiastical and temporal matters, represented the culmination of human history" (p. 334). Unfortunately, Stinger's chronological outlines are not as strictly defined as he claims; note the discussion of post-Sack popes, for example, in the "building of Rome" section. The larger points he makes are absolutely supported by their inclusion, but they certainly were not Renaissance popes. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book for students of the Renaissance. The closing comments on the differences between the Florentine and Roman manifestations of the Renaissance are well done. As much a study of civic-architecture-as-propaganda as it is of the rhetoric of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists, The Renaissance in Rome is, in a real sense, a textbook and the basis for a variety of questions which continue to motivate research.
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Kathleen M. Comerford. Review of Stinger, Charles L., The Renaissance in Rome.
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