Visitors to the Vatican know Pope Nicholas V for his eponymous chapel painted in visual Sensurround by Fra Angelico. It seems, to modern taste, the only one of the four frescoed papal apartments, in this part of the palace, where one might reasonably be expected to pray. By Ruskin’s standards this is because Angelico was “pre-Raphaelite”—he antedates the humanist incursion that filled whole walls with classical torsos wrestling in anatomically interesting ways. Forty years after Fra Angelico did the chapel of Nicholas, Pinturicchio placed the fleshy Borgia pope (Alexander VI) in scenes of classical pomp. Twenty years later Raphael painted a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger climbing a barrier in his Stanza dell’Incendio. Twenty-five years later Michelangelo created a shower of nude sinners falling into hell—in Ruskin’s eyes, “heaps of dark bodies curled and convulsed in space, and fall as of a crowd from a scaffolding, in writhed concretions of muscular pain.”1 A fall indeed from the glowing purity of the Nicholas V chapel.

Yet Nicholas, Angelico’s patron, was the real villain of this story, if one accepts Ruskin’s standards. Nicholas was the first great humanist pope who systematically exploited classical antiquity for the glorification of his church. Elected in 1447, he threw open the gates through which classical statues would march in and take over the palace, room by room. He gave Michelangelo his warrant for putting Christ’s head on the torso of Herakles. And perhaps the most important part of Nicholas’s scheme was the Vatican Library, housed three stories under Angelico’s chapel and stuffed with newly discovered classical manuscripts.

Nicholas, born Tomasso Parentucelli, was a humanist himself, a former teacher and secretary to the Bishop of Bologna. He loved Rome, a filthy collection of hovels the popes had been absent from for over a century—first during the seventy years of “exile” to Avignon, then during the comic chasings about of popes and anti-popes, who were busy calling or dodging the councils at which they kept deposing each other. Even when popes happened to be in Rome, they rarely stayed at the Vatican, which had decayed badly in their absence. They preferred the greater amenities of the Lateran Palace or the family stronghold of the Colonna or the Orsini (whichever family had its favorite in office). The neglected St. Peter’s was a dangerous place to enter—its nave walls leaned two full meters out from the perpendicular.2

Nicholas decided to reclaim the Vatican as his seat of power and the entire city of Rome as its proper setting, though the town had become a jumble of ancient ruins and interstitial slums, with malarial swamps inside the old walls, and only one of the eleven ancient aqueducts working (intermittently). One needed a guard to get from one stronghold to another. Pilgrims to this forbidding place had a slogan—go as a dog to Rome, you return as a wolf.3 Yet Angelico accepted Nicholas’s scheme to make the tomb of Peter, not the tomb of Jesus, the new center of the Church: the painter transferred his scenes of Stephen’s martyrdom from Jerusalem to Rome.

Rome was not a center of learning, as Bologna was; or of civic pride, as Venice and Florence were; or of royal order, as King Alfonso’s Naples was. But it had one treasure the others lacked. Nicholas saw the very ruins as a form of riches. At a time when the most vibrant intellectual activity centered on the classics, the papacy held the old center of classical power. Rome owned little else, but it owned Rome. Nicholas would rebuild papal Rome with the reviving energies of pagan Rome. He built up by digging down.

To do that, it was not enough to own and interpret the ancient monuments. One had to acquire and use the ancient documents, which held the key to interpreting the monuments. These documents were no longer in Rome itself. They had to be ferreted out of northern monasteries or transported from Byzantium. For this effort, at least, the mobile papacy of the preceding century had been useful. The agony of the Church was the opportunity of the humanist. At Avignon, Italian staffers to the papacy met the secretaries of northern bishops. Scholars traveled to councils, in service to the rival clerics, and formed alliances with one another. When attempts were made to heal the Eastern schism, Greek-speaking Church diplomats began to reunite the sundered empire of learning, though their superiors could not reunite the Church. While the bishops squabbled, the secretaries schemed. They traded hints and reports on the location of missing texts.

The international community of humanists in the fifteenth century resembled the international community of nuclear physicists in this century. A shared learning was at war with political allegiance, one yielding to the other and then reasserting itself. Texts were as rare and sought after as fissionable material. Critical skill at reading and amending them was as treasured a procedure as the ways of splitting an atom. Poggio Bracciolini, the keenest hound on the scent of old texts, exhorted his team to beat a rival to the prize:


Prick up your ears, Pamphilus. There are two volumes, large and oblong, in a Lombard hand; they are in the Cistercian Monastery of Sora, two miles from Roschild, which you can reach in two days at the most from Lubich. So see to it that Cosmus writes in detail as soon as possible to Gherardus de Bueris to go there himself if need be; yes, by all means let him go to the monastery. For if this is true we shall triumph over the Dacians. The Cardinal is going to send someone or other there or he will entrust it to someone who is leaving very shortly after this. I would not want such a morsel to drop from our jaws, so hurry up; and be careful not to go to sleep.4

Popes needed the tools of these zealots for pagan knowledge. Lorenzo Valla, serving King Alfonso in Naples, used his knowledge of Latin to prove that “the Donation of Constantine,” on which old papal claims to temporal power had been based, was a forgery. That should have made him unwelcome in Rome. But Nicholas pried him away from Alfonso with patronage, honors, and appointment to one of the first humanistic teaching posts in Rome. Nicholas was willing to surrender the medieval claims. He meant to stake larger ones for a new Rome with the imperial reach of the old Rome.

Valla’s inaugural lecture for his new patron set the program: Romanum Imperium ibi esse, ubi Romana lingua dominatur. Where the Roman language prevails, the Roman empire exists.5 Sure in this knowledge, Nicholas accepted with equanimity even Valla’s attacks on the Latin readings of Saint Jerome in the Vulgate Bible. Jerome had lamented that he was too much the Ciceronian. Valla acidly told him,across the ages, that he had been too little Cicero’s disciple.

In creating the library, in collecting rare texts and promoting the scholars who could purify and translate them, Nicholas was setting up more than a trophy room. The library was his arsenal. It was the center of energy from which came his successors’ rebuilding of St. Peter’s and Rome itself in a classical idiom. Nicholas undoubtedly set much greater store in the books down on his palace’s ground floor than in the frescoes Fra Angelico created on the fourth floor. Angelico only painted Saint John Chrysostom as one of the church fathers in the chapel. George Trebizond, the humanist scholar, gave Nicholas Chrysostom himself—his Greek commentary on Saint Matthew translated into classical Latin.6 The act is represented on the manuscript itself, which rests on display until April 30 at the Library of Congress during the dazzling exhibit of some 181 objects from the Vatican Library.

The illuminated dedication page of Trebizond’s translation contains, in brief, the story I have been sketching here. At the bottom of the page, Trebizond is shown giving the book to Nicholas. Standing between them is Cardinal Bessarion, the Greek whose efforts to spread and teach Greek Nicholas had supported. On the left are the symbols of the four evangelists, whose text is being restored to its early state by appeal from Jerome’s Latin to Greek commentaries like Chrysostom’s. To the right, an idealized classical structure rises to a great dome over the papal tiara and keys, a vision of the renewed St. Peter’s that Nicholas was sponsoring, Learning, power, piety, and architecture are blended. This is the visual embodiment of the entire creed of Nicholas’s Christian humanism.

Nicholas is the star (or, in Ruskin’s terms, the villain) of the Washington exhibition, Rome Reborn. In recent years much of the credit for the library has gone to Sixtus IV, the pope who is called the second founder and often treated as the real founder. Nicholas, we are told, desired to set up the library but could not even get it housed in his palace before he died. The current prefect of the library, Dominican father Leonard Boyle, strenuously refutes this in the introduction to the catalog, proving that Nicholas did house his library, in a room probably frescoed by Andrea Castegno.

It is true that Nicholas began many literary schemes he did not live to complete. After all, he was starting from zero. The popes had brought no books back from Avignon. Private libraries in Rome, like that of Bessarion, dwarfed the papal library in its early stages. But Nicholas was the patron of projects that would go on among the scholars he assembled. And the fruits of that patronage are extensively illustrated in this show.


Consider the two Alberti manuscripts. Leon Battista Alberti—like so many other humanists, a secretary to ecclesiastical figures—had been a friend of Nicholas since their university days together in Bologna. The two shared an enthusiasm for unearthing the evidences of ancient Rome—Alberti even raised a Roman ship from the bed of Lake Nemi.7 A skilled geometer and engineer, among other things, he wrote a treatise on the perspective presentation of Roman ruins. The treatise is exhibited here as is his masterpiece On Architecture, dedicated to Nicholas. Poggio Bracciolini, too, had known Nicholas before he became the pope, and dedicated to him essays both before and after his ascension to Peter’s throne. There is a stunningly realistic (and unflattering) portrait of the waspish Poggio on a manuscript copy of his Fortune, Its Variability in the show.

Many of the people whose work is represented here enjoyed or fought for Nicholas’s patronage—George Trebizond and Theodore Gaza, rival translators of Aristotle; Cardinal Bessarion; Antonio Manetti, whose eulogy on Nicholas’s death presented his vision of Rome as a program for future popes to live up to. There is an illuminated portrait of Nicholas receiving from Giovanni Tortelli his book On Orthography. Almost a third of the exhibition could have been mounted to illustrate Nicholas’s activity, patronage, or influence. The importance of Nicholas to the spread of Greek manuscripts in Italy is emphasized in N.G. Wilson’s book, From Byzantium to Italy. Though the center of Platonism was in Florence, and of printing in Venice, Wilson devotes one whole chapter to Nicholas, and the pope figures largely in the chapters dealing with Bessarion and Valla.

After Nicholas, the library was neglected for sixteen years, until Sixtus IV began his long reign (1471–1484, long for popes, who normally come to power in old age). Sixtus was visibly connected with the library because of the huge fresco contained in it, of the pope appointing Bartolomeo Platina papal librarian, painted by Melozzo da Forlì. Under Sixtus the mechanics of the library were perfected—the arrangement of the chained books on desks (with warnings against stepping over the desks), the check-out procedures (illustrated here by overdue notices). Charles Borromeo, later canonized, returned twelve books at one sweep.

The books were immense treasures; some left the library cum catena, with the chains that normally anchored them flat on the benches where they were used. The humanist explosion came just on the eve of printing’s appearance, and the first humanist generations (Petrarch through Poggio) did much of their own copying, in a script of improved clarity. “Gothic” was now a term of reproach, and the exfoliating hand of the monks had to be cleaned up. Yet illumination of Bibles and other “sacred” texts continued. The labyrinthine ornamental designs were largely replaced by “white spiral” (bianchi girari) decoration, which looked like vines carved in marble on classical buildings.8 Title pages were often arranged as triumphal marches, through which the text advanced toward the reader, as to trumpets. The dedication to a patron was painted with growing humanistic emphases on portrait realism—the prize in this exhibit is a full-page frontispiece to Orations of Cardinal Bessarion, from a dedication copy given to Edward IV of England. (Similarly “customized” copies were give to three other rulers.)

Some collectors were reluctant to admit printing into libraries where the manuscripts had been prepared so lovingly and were such great artifacts. The books of one of the greatest collectors, Federigo da Montefeltro, the condottiere ruler of Urbino, later came to the Vatican, and some of Urbino’s gems are included here. The most famous is the two-volume Bible prepared for Federigo by the Ghirlandaio family.9 Each book of the Bible begins with an elaborately painted set of symbols and scenes from it. I went through the volume when it was being mounted, and pages may be turned every week or so while it is on display. But the catalog shows the beginning page of Revelation, on which, in one medallion, a tiny ring-chorus of angels dances, each figure rendered in incredibly microscopic detail.

Federigo was the patron of Piero della Francesca, and three books Piero used or owned are in the exhibit, including his own geometrical treatise on solids, with red-ink illustrations by Piero himself. Carlo Bertelli’s new book on Piero shows how scientifically grounded was Piero’s art—not only in the perfection of perspective and the geometric method of composition, but in technical knowledge of optics. Bertelli oversaw the restoration at the Brera of Piero’s Montefeltro Altarpiece, where Federigo kneels in armor that receives and bounces light in precise and accurate ways. The great book collector’s piety is appropriately celebrated by the mathematical rules he encouraged in his favored painter.

Science was a beneficiary of the classical revival—something symbolized in the show by one of Galileo’s drawings of sunspots. Nicholas had encouraged the translation of Greek scientific works—Euclid, Archimedes, Galen, Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Aristotle on animals. The illumination for the latter shows Adam and Eve, flanked by all the animals they had named in Eden, lined up for Aristotle’s inspection. Even the findings of the Arabic astronomer Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi, who worked at the observatory of Maragha, were brought to Italy and translated. The show has a text by Tusi and a commentary on him.

Music was another aspect of classical culture that Rome was reclaiming. While opera was being recreated as an echo of the Greek theater in Florence, Rome sought the clarity of verbal dogma in Palestrina’s work. Palestrina, like Josquin des Prés, was a singer in the Sistine chapel choir, whose constitution and record are on display here, along with the large illuminated manuscripts that whole choirs could read from. (Printing was for a long time resisted in the creation of scores, since the large spacing of notes had to be tailored to the size of the choir and the disposition of singers in the Sistine loft.)

As a center of church diplomacy, the Vatican had relations with Eastern churches, Muslim lands, and China—the last part of the exhibit covers these regions. If I say little of them, this is because I am not learned enough to appreciate what must be documents fascinating in themselves. The catalog tells the tale of a struggle, carried on in rival Chinese publications, between Jesuit scholars like Matteo Ricci, who mastered the Chinese of the imperial court and attempted a “top-down” conversion of China’s masses through its elite, and the “bottom-up” approach of Dominicans, who learned and used the language of the lower classes.

The show that opens with the Renaissance closes with the Counter-Reformation. The pope who welcomed Valla’s irreverent learning was followed by popes who put people on the Index of Prohibited Books for spreading Valla’s embarrassing truth about “the Donation of Constantine.” The Vatican dossier on Henry VIII includes a bound set of his letters (in French as well as English) to Anne Boleyn.

The catalog of the exhibit contains an exemplary collection of essays by seven scholars, each covering his or her field of expertise. The essay on humanism, by James Hankins, shows how controversial, still, is Nicholas V’s marriage of papal power to classical antiquity. Hankins chafes at the story he is telling because he knows its outcome. At the end of the imperial building schemes and the worldly use of art, Luther is waiting to cry out against the Whore of Babylon. Hankins writes:

With hindsight it is hard to see the marriage between the papacy and humanism as anything but hopelessly misguided. What the Church needed desperately in the age of the Renaissance was reform.

Ruskin, as usual, put it more vigorously, calling Michelangelo’s dome on the rebuilt St. Peter’s the great candle snuffer of the faith.

We all, always, need reform. No doubt it would have been better if all the popes had been saints (though few rulers—of churches or anything else—are saints). Yet humanism was, in its time, a liberating force. For the Church to have opposed it would have been a repressive act. Retention of an exhausted scholasticism and medieval Church discipline was no protection, in itself, against corruption. Humanism was many-sided, with its pitfalls as well as its advantages. In that it resembles modern science. The churches can no more ignore science today than they could have kept themselves “innocent” of humanism in the fifteenth century. The deal Nicholas struck with pagan antiquity was a dangerous one; but it was not (quite) a pact with the devil. The record of ancient Rome’s recovery—not only reflected in the Vatican Library but partially caused by it—is a stirring thing to behold in the very documents men used as the weapons and tools and ornaments for that large task.

This Issue

February 11, 1993