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 disjunct parts of the city in a grid of streets.

Born a poor lad of the Marches, Sixtus had risen in the Franciscans with a show of theological scholarship that was largely sham (his huge edition of Saint Ambrose is full of famous howlers).8 But he had a peasant’s sense of property values and resourceful management. The difference between his false expertise and his real talent can be gauged by contrasting his Bible with his buildings. Impatient for quick results, he took over the work of a Bible commission that had labored for years to establish a scholarly text of Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible. Sixtus reviewed all the unresolved editors’ decisions, line by line, and imposed his own fiat, rushing out a text that was an acute embarassment to Catholic scholars in their attempt to refute Reformers’ claims that Catholics do not honor scripture.

But when Sixtus took on a building project—where he could not step in and overrule his engineers—the results seemed supernatural. For almost half a century, the apse of the new St. Peter’s had stood, lacking its dome and its nave. Plan after plan had been drawn up for the dome, but pope after pope lacked the material, the trained workers, the cash, or the nerve to try to raise a dome that would have to surpass Brunelleschi’s miraculous duomo in Florence—at that time the only major dome raised since the classical period. Sixtus organized his work force, and the dome went up in two years—the equivalent, in modern terms, of completing the English Channel tunnel in two years.

That was at the end of Sixtus’s reign. An event from the beginning of his rule symbolized what was to come. Of the dozen or so Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome by victorious Roman emperors, only one had stayed upright since the time when Caligula (probably) raised it—and this one was an unwanted pagan intrusion near the sanctuary of St. Peter’s. It stood close on the south flank of Constantine’s Christian basilica and was thought to contain at its peak the ashes of Julius Caesar. Many pontiffs had wished to move the thing, but they could not find an engineer confident of his ability to complete the task. Even the ancient Romans had been awed by the difficulty of transporting and erecting these huge trophies. Sixtus gave the assignment to Domenico Fontana, and supplied him with everything he needed to get huge cables woven, new winches manufactured. Large trees were felled to construct the “castle” of scaffolding that surrounded the obelisk (much like the service tower around a modern space rocket). Dozens of horse teams were brought to turn the winches that lifted the obelisk, lowered it on its side, slid it along the prepared tracks of a specially constructed ramp, and re-erected it far in front of St. Peter’s, where Bernini would later use it as the center of his great piazza (correcting with some clever sleights of perspective for the fact that it is not aligned directly with the nave Maderno had added to St. Peter’s in the interval).


Sixtus “converted” the obelisk by exorcising its idolatrous (Egyptian) and pagan (Roman) taints, topping it with a cross (and his own heraldic emblems). The power to remake the landscape to his purposes had been asserted. Annually over the next three years, Fontana would find, reassemble, and raise another obelisk at some key point in Sixtus’s new city, punctuating the long vistas he was opening up, teaching people how to “read” the city in relation to these new coordinates.

One of the charges against Sixtus was (and is) that he destroyed classical monuments to impose his new scheme on the city. He took down the famous “Septizonium” of Septimius Severus and used its marble for new buildings. Actually, he destroyed. medieval Christian shrines as well when they got in his imperious way. He could be ruthless in his practicality—yet he usually had some mystic purpose as well. His grid formed crosses over the whole terrain of the city. His “Christianizing” of Rome was no different, after all, from the way ancient Romans had reconsecrated Egyptian religious objects to imperial cult purposes. He not only put a statue of Saint Peter on top of Trajan’s column—he restored the damaged column of Marcus Aurelius, reassembling its fragments and raising it on a new site, this time with Saint Paul’s statue on top.

The mystical side of the Pope fed on superstitions about his own destiny. He compared his humble birth in the countryside (also in December) to Jesus’ nativity. When, as Cardinal Peretti, he established his residence in Rome, he purchased a villa in the open land next to the basilica (Santa Maria Maggiore) that boasted Christ’s cradle among its relics. After becoming pope, Sixtus had Fontana add a great new chapel to the basilica, destined to be his own burial place, and winch the old altar-shrine of the cradle over to it. Later, when dreaming of a Crusade, he conceived the ambition of bringing Christ’s sepulcher to Rome and supplying that with a matching chapel. (His modernity is seen in this—not even Henry Ford, when collecting famous places for shipment to America, hoped to bring home that particular shrine.)

On a more mundane level, when Sixtus was not comparing himself to Christ, he conceived himself as a Sixtus IV redevivus. That Franciscan had also been humbly born; but by force of his office he made his family (the della Rovere) one of the great dynasties of Rome. And Sixtus IV brought up in Franciscan schools the nephew who would become pope after him, the warrior-autocrat Julius II. As the acorns of the della Rovere name were scattered over Rome’s artifacts (alluded to even on the Sistine ceiling Michelangelo painted for Julius), Felice Peretti meant for the pears of his name (duly inserted in his heraldic arms) to decorate monuments throughout the city—as they do.

Sixtus tried to bring up his nephews to hold civil and religious power; but they turned out to be disappointments. They were the sons of Felice’s beloved sister Camilla, in whose name he had bought the villa next to Santa Maria Maggiore. (His Franciscan vows made it embarrassing to hold the land in his own name.) The talking statues of Rome—on which Romans wrote bits of gossipy dialogue—were untrue to their populist reputation when they mocked Camilla’s lowly background. When “Marforio” asks “Pasquino” why his shirt is dirty, the latter says that he has no one to wash it since his laundrywoman became the Pope’s sister.9


There is something inescapably comic about the Sistine pretensions. Ludwig von Pastor in his History of the Popes thought Sixtus’s foreign policy was brilliant, since he pitted Catholic powers against each other rather than uniting them to oppose Protestant forces. But his dashes from side to side in France seem to reflect his congenital impatience rather than any grand scheme.10 As for the Protestants, he admired the imperious yet pragmatic Elizabeth, and would have preferred converting her to conquering her—especially since he despised the only instrument of conquest at hand, Philip II of Spain.

His comic impatience and nutty thoroughness were on display in Sixtus’s artistic schemes. He was unfortunate in that he came too late to use the services of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael, but too early to use those of Borromini, Bernini, and Rubens. He had to settle for a group of late Mannerists from whom he whipped up a storm of activity, substituting energy for genius. His building projects gave him acres of interior walls to fill, and he had his team leaders—Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra—organize hundreds of painters and decorators, just as Fontana organized work teams for building aqueducts and housing projects. The most successful cycle of paintings, reflecting as it does Sixtus’s personal myths, is the chapel of the cradle at Santa Maria Maggiore. The two side altars are dedicated to his patron saints, Saint Lucy (on whose feast day he was born) and Saint Jerome (whose Bible he “perfected”). The main cycle has to do with the birth of Christ, and it contains some nice pastoral touches, prompted by the villa next door.

In keeping with his interest in transported bits of the Holy Land, Sixtus rehoused two huge relics—the Virgin’s home at Loreto, and the stairs from Pilot’s judgment hall (Scala Santa) at the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The stairs are now arched over by Sistine frescoes, meant to be seen from one’s knees as one ascends them (according to the pious custom). I tried the exercise, after reading about the paintings, but poor lighting, degeneration of the frescoes, and a traffic jam of kneelers (preventing any but a long climb) made me back down (on my knees) after a stair or two. What is left of the companion paintings in the descending stairways show how merciful time has been in effacing much of them.

The new Vatican Library Sixtus built at the Vatican Palace, throwing it across the inner courtyard and breaking up Bramante’s long interior façade, is decorated in a scribble of scholarly flourishes. The overlapping schemes show great libraries of the past, great scholars of the past (beginning with Adam), and great church councils of the past—with Trent as the natural climax. The only pictures of charm are a set of frescoes, high up, celebrating Sixtus’s gifts to Rome—his obelisks, his columns, his water fountains, his processional ways. The frisky lion from his heraldic arms goes bounding around, scaring off brigands, shaking pears from trees to feed the poor, sheltering virgins.11 One symbolic picture shows young ladies strolling in the triple crowns of the papal tiara, presented as a huge fortress for their virtue. The reference is to the draconian laws that hanged prostitutes and even highborn adulteresses—though the English-speaking guide told a group that came up as I was studying it that the Pope was so nice as to give people his own hat as a place to take their summer strolls on.12

Clearly Sixtus made Rome jump in his five years as the crimebuster Pope of civic renewal. When the four hundredth anniversary of his papacy was nearing (1985–1990), the Italian equivalent of the NEH (the Ministry of Cultural and Environmental Assets) set up a National Commission for the Celebration of Sixtus V. This led to a number of shows, restorations, and scholarly publications, reaching its climax in the final show at the Palazzo Venezia (from whose balcony Mussolini used to address the Roman crowds). It came three years after the period it was meant to mark, but it benefitted from the preceding labors.

The show was imaginative in scale and presentation. Rare things were found and put on display for the first time—e.g., the strips of sketches for the restoration of the Column of Marcus Aurelius drawn up by Giovanni Guerra and recently rediscovered in Amsterdam. There was a huge wood model of the Pope’s villa (whose original area included, while extending beyond, the present train terminal in Rome), and a reconstruction of the room in the villa that held frescoes of Sixtus’s achievements—companion pieces to those in the Vatican Library, arranged in the show as they were in the lost villa.13

The show was neatly punctuated by large wood obelisks, symbolically dividing Sixtus’s work as he divided the city. Plans, engravings, photographs, and charts revealed the way Sixtus refashioned Rome, section by section. (One interesting chart compared, in kilometers, the length of straight roads in Sixtus’s Rome with that in other Italian cities of his day.)

Unfortunately, the quality of the catalog does not match that of the exhibit—it does not reproduce all the artifacts or the careful texts, full of useful information, displayed along with them. Instead, it gives us mere label titles and a selection of the artifacts for reproduction. Luckily, some of the scholarly works produced for the celebration were on sale at the exhibit, and one of these is a gem. The two least satisfying books—and the least satisfying parts of the exhibit—treat the paintings Sixtus commissioned. Le arti nelle Marche has, it is true, a larger scope—it deals with all the arts and crafts encouraged by Sixtus in his native province (part of the Papal States). The account of certain churches he built or redecorated—especially that at Loreto—fills out the picture of his Roman achievements; but only specialists in the region covered will be tempted to go see the works treated with such scholarly detail in this book.

Alessandro Zuccari’s book on the picture cycles commissioned in Rome provides the key for looking at the works in Santa Maria Maggiore, the Vatican Library, and the Santa Scala. This is interesting for its revelation of Sixtus’s desire to unite Franciscan preaching and recondite scriptural scholarship; but the laborious work of separating different hands in the projects brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s comment on the futility of debating relative degrees of depravity. Paul Bril is one of the few painters in the Sistine army who remains interesting in himself. (Zuccari regrets the difficulty of assigning most of the faded works at the Santa Scala to specific painters, and hopes for restoration as an aid to scholarship—a project, it is satisfying to note, on which the Commission did not waste its time or money.)

Sisto V: Architetture per la città, a special edition of the Storia, Architettura series, goes some way to redeem Domenico Fontana from the generally low marks he gets from architectural historians. It is true that he was more an engineer than what we think of as an architect today, and his vanity kept stride even with that of Sixtus. But he was indispensable in imposing the new vision of a city on Rome, and his activity should be seen in those large terms. Besides, his work could be elegant, if minor, in more conventional tasks of the architect—as in the new entry he created for the landmark Palazzo della Cancellaria.

But the prize publication from the Sistine project is the wonderful series of prints created for La pianta di Roma al tempo di Sisto V (1585–1590). These are twenty-four detached plats, or maps of structures, each twenty-five by seventeen inches—twelve showing, district by district, the structures existing when Sixtus came to the papacy; twelve matched ones showing the same districts when he left office. One can follow in detail the transformations wrought on the ground by roads, aqueducts, buildings. A book contained in the same large envelope-cover gives a chronology of events for each of the structures recorded on the plats. The result will be useful for any student of Rome, even apart from its importance in showing how deeply Sixtus affected the future of the city. Since the plats are coordinated with the old civic precincts of Rome (the Rioni), they can be read in conjunction with the widely used precinct histories (Guide rionali) put out by Fratelli Palombi, to see how the future filled in the outlines established by Sixtus. The charts are a visual delight as well as a bargain (about $70 at current exchange rates), and the scholarship of the chronology for each structure is stunning. The show made one see Rome in an entirely new way. The plats make that a renewable pleasure.

This Issue

June 10, 1993