Popes and Pagans

Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture DC, January 6–April 30, 1993

catalog of the exhibition at the Library of Congress, Washington,, edited by Anthony Grafton
Library of Congress, 323 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Piero della Francesca

by Carlo Bertelli, translated by Edward Farrelly
Yale University Press, 240 pp., $60.00

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…

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