The City-Planner Pope

Roma Sisto Quinto: arte, architetture e città fra rinascemento e barocco

edited by Mario Bevilacqua et al.
Edizioni de Luca, 63 pp., L 15,000

Le arti nelle Marche al tempo di Sisto V

edited by Paolo Dal Poggetto
Cassa di Risparmio di Ascoli Piceno, 463 pp., L 50,000

I pittori di Sisto V

by Alessandro Zuccari
Fratelli Palombi Editori, 173 pp., L 85,000

Sisto V: Architetture per la città

edited by Maria Piera Sette, edited by Simona Benedetti
Multigrafica Editrice, 319 pp., L 50,000 (paper)

La pianta di Roma al tempo di Sisto V (1585–1590)

edited by Gianfranco Spagnesi et al.
Multigrafica Editrice, 53, 24 detached plats pp., L 90,000

Of the five major exhibits concurrent in Rome this spring, the best (and the best attended) was announced by a huge red banner hung on the Palazzo Venezia: Roma Sisto Quinto. It is an ambiguous title. How should one connect its terms? Rome (and) Pope Sixtus V? Or Rome (was) Sixtus V? Or even: Rome (is) Sixtus V? The latter formulations seem extreme for a pope who reigned only five years toward the end of the sixteenth century (1585–1590). But the show prompts large claims.1

Sixtus, born Felice Peretti, is not your ordinary hero for modern times, though some trendy credentials are now being offered him. He was one of those odd Franciscan popes who were also Inquisitors. The predecessor whose name he took, Sixtus IV (1471–1484), having served as general of the Franciscan order, set up the Spanish Inquisition under the Dominican Tomás de Torquemada.2 Sixtus V had just received some attention in America, at the Vatican Library show in the Library of Congress, since this Sixtus completed the work of his Franciscan predecessor by giving the Vatican’s books their present home.3 But if you stroll through the public part of that library—where the Library of Congress show will return for its Rome mounting—you notice, in the frescoes decorating it, two scenes of book burnings, which would be considered odd ornaments for a library in our time.

When Sixtus was not burning books, he was banning them. A zealot of the Counter-Reformation himself, he put on the Index of Forbidden Books one volume by the principal Counter-Reformation theologian, Roberto Bellarmino. Even that Jesuit was not deferential enough to the papal office for Sixtus’s tastes.4 This Pope went beyond burning books: he burned men—though Ludwig von Pastor, author of the monumental history of the papacy, points out that he was even harder on bandits than on heretics.5 Since Sixtus helped finance the Spanish Armada in its attempted invasion of England, he was a villain on Elizabethan stages, still being attacked by Christopher Marlowe two years after his death.6

What could make this unlikely fellow a hero for our time? Well, we get from the past what we are equipped to appreciate, and it turns out that Sixtus had a genius for things in high regard just now—he was an inspired city planner, urban ecologist, and labor manager. Some of his schemes went too far, and were never realized: he wanted to turn the Colosseum into a classical Pullman Village, with clothing workers housed, supplied, and entertained in tiers below their working quarters.7 But other efforts proved more practical. With his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana, Sixtus developed standardized plans for module housing units that could be thrown up fast and cheap (some of them still stand). Like any modern governor of, say, Arkansas, he built rows of shops to lure merchants into Rome from surrounding fairs and markets. He created good business conditions by renewing the water supply, policing urban crime, and connecting…

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