Wednesday 14 December 2011
Emperors and popes: mostly bad, some mixed
What a sorry but enticing saga is the history of Rome – rather oddly told, it has to be admitted, in Robert Hughes’s popular and understandably art-skewed book bearing the city's name as title. Odd and skewed since, once the glory days and the era of the Grand Tour are over, Hughes seems to be stumped for specifically Roman material and goes tramping all over Italy, and sometimes the rest of Europe. He’s also no Simon Winder – see one of my endless paeans to Germania – in that the personal flavour of the Prologue gets lost in the chronological, if still selective, account that follows.
Yet Hughes can be entertainingly wrathful on the grandeur and follies of emperors and popes. He questions, as any good historian must, the story of Rome as told entirely from a Christian perspective. Horrible things happened to the early Christians, to be sure; but equally horrible and worse tortures lay in store for the so-called Pagans (a term I had to reassess, since of course it embraces so much of the humanities) under the so-called Christian emperors.
I do like the sound of the emperor Julian – some ‘Apostate’; it simply transpires that the fledgling Christianity didn’t speak to him; but he never went round stoking any fires under the believers.
Besides, one forgets that Julian’s predecessor Constantine wasn’t exactly a ‘Christian emperor’ in the all-embracing way we think of it. Tolerant of the Roman majority and no zealot after his ‘vision’ at the Ponte Milvio, he was nevertheless another of those family monsters – putting his own son by an early marriage to death on the accusation of a later wife, boiling her alive in the hot-room of the palace when it turned out she’d lied. No wonder mamma Helena sublimated her sorrow by going off round the middle east buying up bits of cross and less easily transportable objects.
Much worse for history, though, was the later, forged ‘Donation of Constantine’ which gave free rein to papal infallibility. And it’s no surprise, of course, that most of the later popes wallowed in luxury and persecuted the faithless with a zeal that puts even Caligula and Nero to shame. But here the paradoxes accumulate, especially since many who would seem to us the worst have given us Rome as we so wonderingly know it. Most likeable to a libertarian is Leo X, Giovanni de’Medici, who kept a pet elephant, led a shameless gay sex life and honoured scholars and poets.
But his feckless spending led to that sale of indulgences, posts and art treasures which gave his polar opposite, Martin Luther, fuel to his rightful indignation. Nevertheless I know which I’d rather invite to an ideal dinner party.
Even the anti-religious Hughes has mixed feelings about the ‘manic-impressive’ Sixtus V. Stalin could hardly have done a better job on purging the criminality which beset Rome when Sixtus, born Felice Peretti, came to power in 1585.
He drove many of the spectacular lines we see through Rome today, often at the expense of the classical, with which he held no truck – other than to show its inferiority to Christianity; the tale of the dragging of the Egyptian obelisk from the back of St Peter’s to stand at the centre of the square in front takes on Neronian dimensions. He also stuck a statue of St Peter, cast from melted-down classical bronzes, on top of the magnificent Trajan’s column. As Hughes reports, ‘in dedicating the statue of Peter, His Holiness explained that such a monument as Trajan’s could become worthy to bear the effigy of Christ’s Vicar on Earth only if it were rededicated in the cause of the Catholic Church – an astonishing piece of casuistry’.
Another tale chills the blood but simultaneously warms one’s spirit to know that ordinary Romans did sometimes fight back: here's what followed an accusation carried out in the traditional dialogue between the messages posted on the old statue called the Pasquino (a BC Greek sculpture of Menelaus) near the Piazza Navona and those on the river-god Marforio outside the Travertine Prison (now at the entrance to the Capitoline Museums on the Campidoglio). Let Hughes tell the tale:
…one day during the reign of Sixtus V Pasquino was seen wearing a horribly filthy shirt. Why, Marforio wanted to know, did he wear such a stinking rag? Because Donna Camilla was the pope’s sister, who in her humbler days had been a washerwoman but had just been ennobled by His Holiness.
There was a limit to what great figures would endure from Pasquino, and this crossed the line. It got to the ears of Sixtus, who let it be known that if the anonymous satirist owned up to writing it, his life would be spared and he would receive a present of one thousand pistoles, cash. But if anyone else found him out and denounced him, he would be hanged. Naturally the nameless graffitist – for who was going to turn down such a reward? – confessed. Sixtus V gave him the money and spared his life, but unsportingly added that ‘We have reserved for Ourselves the power of cutting off your hands and boring your tongue through, to prevent your being so witty in future’. But nothing would shut Pasquino up; he had a hundred tongues and two hundred hands. The very next Sunday he was seen draped in a freshly laundered, still-wet shirt, to dry it in the sun. Marforio wondered why he couldn’t wait until Monday. ‘There’s no time to lose,’ said Pasquino, thinking of His Holiness’s taxation habits. ‘If I stay until tomorrow perhaps I’ll have to pay for the sunshine’.
Anyway, it’s Sixtus we have to thank for some of Rome’s avenues and the fountains I much admired on my dawn walk back to Termini the other Monday. But as far as the human cost is concerned, compared to all this, the caprices of Pio Nono in the 19th century and Mussolini (and Berlusconi) in the 20th seem like childsplay.
15/12 - a neat addition from Banksy and his disfigured cardinal in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery. Read about it here, or just enjoy/abhor the seasonal sentiment I've extrapolated: 'The statue? I guess you could call it a Christmas present. At this time of year it's easy to forget the true meaning of Christianity - the lies, the corruption, the abuse.'