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.'


Laurent said...

Indeed the Popes real stories and that of the Holy See is not the one Hollywood would have us believe. Living in Rome as one colleague told me many years ago, you loose your religion and learn a lot about politics. I too was horrified at the spin of Vatican officials on the numerous visits I made there. But they did leave behind splendid monuments.

David Damant said...

On Rome, may I recommend Gibbon, especially the famous chapter(s) on Christianity

Gibbon was NOT a believer - a true child of the most extreme parts of the Enlightenment. But his disguised sarcasm ( and not always much disguised) may have been lost on some Christians.

A young Dutch friend visited Rome and was very impressed with the tremendous grandeur of the Papal Establishment. He called his father, a convinced atheist, to report that he was almost pursuaded to go over to Rome. His father replied that he was very glad to hear the word "almost"

David said...

Yes, Laurent, sadly the Vatican is still as toe-curling as ever. And Hughes makes clear that our Bavarian conservative is all too hooked on the nonsenses of Pio Nono.

David, I must read my Gibbon: but in what form? There must be a suitable selection of the best of Decline and Fall.

I'm afraid the grandeur does overwhelm some of our frou-frouing clerics as well as awed outsiders. Presumably JC would have gone in there and overturned the tables - though I've read some more worrying things about HIS militancy recently which suggest that Christlike humility isn't what it's all about either (RH constantly cites something along the lines of ‘I come not with peace but with a sword’). But here I open the biggest can of worms on the planet.

Howard Lane said...

Is it as big a can of worms as Robert Graves' "King Jesus"?

Thank you for the Rome book - you may have solved my perennial-significant-other-Christmas-present problem (and she has a birthday in January too!).

Yet another trip to the majestic Albert Hall last night for Rowan's steel band gig. Their 'adopt a composer' piece will be broadcast in the spring, inspired by Aconcci, Cage and Ives (the composer is a mate of Gabriel Prokofiev).

wanderer said...

Let the worms out, I say. RH, bless his antipodean roots, is now on the 'give to self' list for Christmas, which I do celebrate in the very best sense, I think, with a Midrash light of course.

Susan Scheid said...

And when, exactly, did you find the time to read this? And as for the comments, well the whole thing is a great entertainment for the first night of my end of year holiday. As for opening up cans of worms, I would not fear, as I think the worms have long been out of the can. I do find religion exhausting, so much harm done in its name, and, while I can reason about it on the plane of intellect, at bottom I am simply unable to fathom its appeal.

Will said...

In Catholic school in the 1950s, the nuns told us about how the Popes were elected. Then they told us that there was NEVER even a hint of politics in the election of a Pope; the Holy Spirit inspired each Cardinal with the name of god's choice, and that is how the Pope was elected.


But I shall have to delve a bit into Sixtus V. Sounds like an interesting guy.

David said...

That's at least two copies sold, then (I'm not on commission). It's a handsomely produced book, though I do wonder why the colour pics jump from Goethe in the Campagna to Sant'Elia's amazing 1913 skyscraper design.

Can of worms - not much more to it, really. Hughes seems to think there's proof Christ existed; the last book I read on the subject told us there was nothing concrete at all. Must read the Pullman, which is sitting on the shelves; I can't believe it's as bad as some have said. Banksy's comment added at the foot of the piece has, predictably, caused much offence. I like everything I read about/tersely from this mythical figure.

David Damant said...

There are indeed two recent abridgements of the Decline and Fall ( Wormersly and Muller). I read that the scholarship of the Byzantine part of the original is more questioned today than the history of the Western Empire. Super stuff

Julain the Apostate comes out very well, but I feel that one must allow for the fact that Gibbon probably approved of him, which might have biased his commentary

Sixtus V poured forth words like a waterfall, though Mattingly comments that out of this torrent it was not often easy to judge what he actually thought. But the style is always his:

On Elizabeth: " She certainly is a geat queen, and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistess of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all"

And " Just look at Drake. Who is he? What forces does he have? ...We are sorry to say it , but we have a poor opinion of this Spaniah Armada, and fear some disaster"

One must always remember Jung's words, that if the Christian religion [I suppose any religion] is not true it is still psycologocally valid, as how else could it have succeeded? Lord Rees ( an atheist) suggests that religion ios hard wired into the human mind.

wanderer said...

Speaking of reading - I am just finishing A C Grayling's 'Toward the Light of Liberty' (and like Susan am confounded where others find time) which has helped me enormously unravel and tease out the threads of recent (500 years) of religious authority and oppression of thought and science, culminating in the excess of excesses - infallibility. Like Will, the nuns, and later the brothers (from whom I escaped abuse and have yet to recover) did their best to promulgate the unbelievable with threats of eternal punishment.

As David D notes, the need for a god, any god, and all that goes with it, does seem part of the programme from which we operate, well, most of us. To that extent, at least, Jesus existed because there was a need for him, and as such, (H)he has changed with the needs, and not for the better.

David said...

Should give Grayling a chance - in print, at any rate.

How extraordinary that of the handful of regular comment-leavers, two of you should have direct experience of Catholic-school strong-arming.

I suppose I ought to add that I AM much humbled by those priests doing genuine good in poor communities, without pressure of 'soul saving'. That superlative film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) has helped to clarify what, if anything, it's all about.

Willym said...

As always you lead me to wonderful things. God only knows how many books we have on Rome we now have another to add to the groaning library shelves.

I just finish John Julius Norwich's book on the Popes and though I know he's a populist its a good read - if not as good as his Venice or Byzantine series. He only touches on some of the wonderful - and gory - intrigues and foibles of the chosen of god. The Tapestry of the Papacy is an rich one shot through with threads of gold, stone and blood.