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Rome’s first Jubilee

01 April 2016

Nicholas Cranfield takes in one moment from the Eternal City

Rome 1600: The city and the visual arts under Clement VIII
Clare Robertson
Yale £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50


IN 2000, the year of Jubilee, Herbert Kessler and Johanna Zacharias wrote the highly regarded Rome 1300: On the path of the pilgrim. It examined the medieval route to the Eternal City in the year when Pope Boniface VIII sought to establish the primacy of Rome by introducing the first Jubilee. That attempt was short-lived; three years later, his successor moved to Avignon.

That book showed how the Church built on the early Christian riches of the city. The following period, from c.1350 to the Sack of Rome in 1527, has also been brilliantly surveyed, by Kathleen W. Christian in Empire without End (2010). Tracing the city’s collections of antiquities, Dr Christian examined the Renaissance response to spectacular archaeological finds.

All that came to a violent end when imperial troops ravaged the city, and it was not until later in the 16th century, in the wake of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, that the papacy was strong enough to set about rebuilding.

Ippolito Aldobrandini, from a Florentine mercantile family, was elected Pope (Clement VIII) in 1592, with powerful support from the French factions in the Farnese palace. This was at a time when the Curia was divided between French and Spanish interests, the subject of T. J. Dandelet’s insightful Spanish Rome 1500-1700 (Yale, 2001).

In this work, Clare Robertson shows that, although Clement insisted that the precepts of the Council of Trent concerning images be upheld, this was rarely enforced; plans to establish an index of forbidden works of art, akin to that for books, failed after the first four years. She explores how the new religious orders, especially the Jesuits and the Oratorians, became significant artistic patrons and encouraged the restoration of premillennial churches including Santi Nereo e Achilleo, San Cesareo, Santa Pudenziana and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where the body of the martyr was unearthed on 20 October 1599.

Restoration of older churches had begun earlier in the century. Charles Borromeo had renovated the former Cistercian church of Santa Prassede when it became his cardinal titulus in 1560. Others followed: Cardinal Bernerio at Santa Sabina, in 1599, and, in the same year, Giustiniani at Santa Prisca. Additional churches were built, often to replace medieval ones: San Salvatore in Lauro, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, and San Silvestro in Capite.

Clement capitalised on the Jubilee of 1600 to summon artists and architects from across the Italian peninsula and further afield. From Germany came Adam Elsheimer, whose 1606 wedding to a Scot was witnessed by another northern artist resident in Rome, while Paul Bril, and more famously Peter Paul Rubens, both arrived in the city in 1600.

The city’s palaces and gardens were also redesigned and constructed. For this, Robertson provides a list of palaces from among the Strozzi papers in the archives in Florence. Unfortunately, it is not translated, which may hamper some readers of this rich book.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

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