Chapter 1

The Crumbling City


"YOU MUST HAVE heard of this city from others," wrote a visitor to Rome in the middle of the fifteenth century.

There are many splendid palaces, houses, tombs and temples here, and infinite numbers of other edifices, but they are all in ruins. There is much porphyry and marble from ancient buildings but every day these marbles are destroyed in a scandalous fashion by being burned to make lime. And what is modern is poor stuff.... The men of today, who call themselves Romans, are very different in bearing and conduct from the ancient inhabitants.... They all look like cowherds.

Other visitors wrote of moss-covered statues, of defaced and indecipherable inscriptions, of "parts within the walls that look like thick woods or caves where forest animals were wont to breed, of deer and hares being caught in the streets ... of the daily sight of heads and limbs of men who had been executed and quartered being nailed to doors, placed in cages or impaled on spears."

This was the state of the city that had once been the capital of a mighty empire; now two-thirds of the area inside the walls, which had been built to protect a population of 800,000, was uninhabited, acres of open countryside used for orchards, pasture, and vineyards, and dotted with ancient ruins, which provided safe hiding places for thieves and bandits. And this was the state of the true home of the pope, the leader of the church who could trace his predecessors back in an unbroken line to St. Peter, the apostle entrusted by Christ himself with the care of his flock.

For most of the fourteenth century, even the papacy had abandoned Rome. In 1305, distressed by the unrest and bloody disturbances in the city, the French Pope Clement V (1305–14) had set up his court in Avignon, in the rambling palace on the east bank of the Rhône, which is known as the Palais des Papes. In Rome there had been constant calls for the papacy to return from its French exile. Most recently these calls had come from an elderly woman, who could be seen almost every day in the crumbling city, sitting by the door of the convent of San Lorenzo, begging for alms for the poor.

She was Birgitta Gudmarsson, the daughter of a rich Swedish judge and widow of a Swedish nobleman, to whom she had been married at the age of thirteen and for whom she had borne eight children. Founder of the Brigittines, she had left Sweden after experiencing a vision in which Christ had appeared before her, commanding her to leave immediately for Rome and to remain there until she had witnessed the pope's return. As she went about Rome, from church to crumbling church, house to ruinous house, she claimed to have had further visions; both Jesus and his mother Mary, she said, had spoken to her, and they had strengthened her faith in the restoration of the pope and in the eventual salvation of the city.

Around the house where she lived stretched the charred shells of burned-out buildings, piles of rotting refuse, deserted palaces, derelict churches, stagnant swamps, fortresses abandoned by their rich owners, who had gone to live on their estates in the Campagna, hovels occupied by families on the verge of starvation. Pilgrims took home with them stories of a gloomy city, whose silence was broken only by the howling of dogs and wolves, and the shouts of rampaging mobs.

In Avignon the popes remained deaf to the calls for their return, heedless of the prayers that the saintly Birgitta Gudmarsson uttered so fervently and of the letters that the poet Francesco Petrarch wrote, describing the "rubbish heap of history" that Rome had become. This once-superb imperial capital was now a lawless ruin, a city torn by violence in which belligerent factions paraded through the streets with daggers and swords, where houses were invaded and looted by armed bands, pilgrims and travellers were robbed, nuns violated in their convents, and long lines of flagellants filed through the gates, barefoot, their heads covered in cowls, claiming board and lodging but offering no money, scourging their naked bloody backs, chanting frightening hymns outside churches, throwing themselves weeping, moaning, bleeding before the altars.

Goats nibbled at the weeds growing up between the stones littering the piazzas and flourishing in the overgrown, rat-infested ruins of the Campo Marzio; cattle grazed by the altars of roofless churches; robbers lurked in the narrow alleys; at night wolves fought with dogs beneath the walls of St. Peter's and dug up corpses in the nearby Campo Santo. "Oh God, how pitiable is Rome," an English visitor lamented, "once she was filled with great nobles and palaces, now with huts, wolves and vermin; and the Romans themselves tear each other to pieces."

In 1362, while Petrarch was urging the papacy to return to Rome, a sixth Frenchman was elected to the line of Avignon popes: the austere and unworldly Urban V. Encouraged by Emperor Charles IV, who offered to accompany him, he recognized the necessity of return, not only for the sake of the neglected and decaying city but also for the papacy itself, now in danger at Avignon, both from the mercenary bands roaming throughout western Europe as well as from the English, who were fighting the French in wars that were to last intermittently for a hundred years.

Five years after his election, Urban V travelled across the Alps, knelt in prayer before the grave of St. Peter, and took up residence in the stuffy, dismal rooms that had been prepared for him in the Vatican Palace. His visit to Rome, however, was brief. He found the city even more dilapidated and depressing than he had feared; and, feeling that he could undertake the role of mediator between England and France more effectively from Avignon than from Rome, he went back to France in 1370. Having ignored Birgitta Gudmarsson's warning that he would die if he abandoned the city, he then fulfilled her prophecy by expiring within just a few months of his return to the Palais des Papes.

It was his successor, Gregory XI, another Frenchman and the last of the Avignon popes, who finally moved the Curia back to Rome, fearful that the Church and her estates in Italy would be lost to the papacy forever. He died there, however, in March 1378, little more than a year after his return, and his death provoked a papal election of extraordinary animosity. Terrified by the Roman mob, which had invaded the Vatican during the course of the conclave, the cardinals chose the Neapolitan Bartolomeo Prignano, who took the title of Urban VI. The French cardinals, however, refused to accept him, declaring the election invalid and electing their own candidate, a Frenchman, naturally, Clement VII. The Great Schism had begun; the lame and wall-eyed Clement VII returned to Avignon, while the rough and energetic Urban VI remained in Rome.

By now it was not just the sight of the city, little more than a decayed provincial town, that distressed visitors. Corruption was rife in the Church and shocked the pilgrims who came to Rome to receive indulgences, which were now being dispensed on an unprecedented scale. Abandoning in despair their attempts to form a strong and stable political state, the Romans allowed Urban VI's successor, the clever and avaricious Boniface IX, another Neapolitan, to assume full control of their city, to turn the Vatican as well as the enlarged Castel Sant'Angelo into fortified strongholds, and to appoint his relations and friends to positions of power and profit. On his death in 1404, fear of the powerful Kingdom of Naples led to the election of another pontiff known to be on good terms with the king: the ineffective Innocent VII from the Abruzzi, against whom the Romans roused themselves to revolt in a tragic uprising that was to end in humiliating retreat; and after the death of Innocent VII in 1406, the election of Gregory XII, a Venetian who seemed disposed to come to terms with the anti-pope in Avignon, led to the invasion of Rome in 1413 by the king of Naples, who was determined not to lose his influence by ending the Great Schism.

Meanwhile, a fresh attempt had been started to end the schism, which had divided Europe, by summoning a council of the Church at Pisa. The council's solution was to charge both the Avignon and Roman popes with heresy and to depose them. In their place the council elected a cardinal from the island of Crete, Petros Philargos, who took the title of Alexander V and who promptly adjourned the council, whose decision was, in any case, not recognized by either of his rivals. There were now three popes instead of two, each claiming legitimate descent from St. Peter and each of whom excommunicated the others.

A second attempt to disentangle the imbroglio was now made by Emperor Sigismund, who summoned another Church council at Constance. By this time a new pope had appeared on the scene in the unlikely person of Baldassare Cossa, successor of Alexander V, the pope chosen at Pisa, whom he was widely supposed to have murdered. Once a pirate and then a dissolute soldier, John XXIII was sensual, unscrupulous, and extremely superstitious. He came from an old Neapolitan family and established himself in Rome with the help of a mutually suspicious alliance with the king of Naples. On June 8, 1413, in breach of their understanding, the king attacked Rome, driving the pope out of the city. John XXIII fled with his court along the Via Cassia, beside which several prelates died of exhaustion and the rest were robbed by their own mercenaries. Yet again, the city behind them was plundered. The Neapolitan soldiers, unchecked by their commander, set fire to houses, looted the sacristy of St. Peter's, stabled their horses in this ancient basilica, ransacked sanctuaries and churches, and sat down amid their loot with prostitutes, drinking wine from consecrated chalices.

John XXIII travelled to the council at Constance, where he found himself accused of all manner of crimes, including heresy, simony, tyranny, murder, and the seduction of some two hundred ladies of Bologna. After escaping from Constance in the guise of a soldier of fortune, he was recognized, betrayed, and brought back to face the council, which deposed both him and the Avignon pope and which, once the Germans and the English had united with the Italians to keep out the French, managed to elect a new pope, the Roman Martin V.

Martin V was a member of the Colonna family, one of the old baronial dynasties of Rome. When he returned to the city in 1420 under a purple baldachin, jesters danced before him and the people ran through the streets with flaming torches, shouting their welcome long into the night. He was to reign in Rome for over ten years, followed by two more Italians, Eugenius IV and Nicholas V. There was hope at last that a new age was dawning for the city.

Nicholas V, who had been elected in 1447, in appearance at least looked peculiarly unsuited for his role as the champion of this new age. Small, pale, and withered, he walked with stooped shoulders, his bright black eyes darting nervous glances around him. But no one doubted either his generosity or his kindliness, just as all those who knew him praised his piety and his learning: "He owed his distinction not to his birth," wrote one contemporary, "but to his erudition and intellectual qualities." They also praised his determination to reconcile the Church with the secular culture of the burgeoning Renaissance, sending his agents all over Europe and beyond in his search for manuscripts of the literary and theoretical works of antiquity, many of which were preserved in monastic libraries, and then generously rewarding the humanist scholars who translated and copied these ancient texts.

The Rome of Nicholas V, however, was still a crumbling, dirty medieval city, bitterly cold in winter, when the tramontana blew across the frozen marshes, unhealthy in summer when malaria was rife. The inhabitants, a large proportion of them foreigners and many of the rest born outside the city, numbered no more than 40,000, less than a twentieth of the population that had lived in Rome in the days of Emperor Nero. The city was small also by the standards of the time—Florence had a population of 50,000, whereas Venice, one of the largest cities in Europe, could boast over 100,000 inhabitants. Rome, however, was the true heart of the Christian world, and those who made the long pilgrimage there each year provided the city with its one highly profitable trade.

At the beginning of 1449, Nicholas V proclaimed a Holy Year for 1450, and the surge of pilgrims who came to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee brought immense profits to the Church—not least from the sale of indulgences. So much money, in fact, that Nicholas V was able to deposit 100,000 golden sovereigns in the Medici bank and to continue confidently with his plans to restore the city. In the judgement of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the cardinal of Siena, "he built magnificent edifices in his city, though he started more than he finished."

The focus of Nicholas V's new Christian capital was St. Peter's, the church built by Emperor Constantine over the tomb of the first pope and restored by Nicholas. He also moved his official residence from the Lateran to the Vatican Palace, and the influx of artists who came to Rome to work on his projects was soon to make the city a leading centre for goldsmiths and silversmiths, as well as painters and sculptors. It also became home for a time to Fra Angelico, who decorated Nicholas V's lovely private chapel in the Vatican with scenes from the lives of two early Christian martyrs, St. Stephen and St. Laurence. This small and saintly Dominican friar knelt to pray before starting to paint each morning and was so overcome with emotion when painting Christ upon the Cross that tears poured down his cheeks.



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