Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry 2003;    revise Mar 2016, Vatican Museums added Sept. 2022;
The Appian Way- April 2023

The Rebirth of Rome in the Renaissance  

Each year, tourists, scholars  and pilgrims flock to Rome to admire and study,or simply be awed by, the architecture, art and history of The Eternal City. Looking out across the modern city, looking at St. Peter's, the Castel St. Angelo, Palazzo Farnese, the countless churches and villas, all spread against a backdrop of ancient splendour, such as the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus and the arched aqueducts of the ancient imperial capital, it is easy to believe that Rome is, indeed, "eternal". Yet, the Eternal City has had some very ephemeral moments. It is ironic that the fortunes of the city of Rome took a turn for the better only after so much misfortune had befallen the institution so closely connected with that city, the Roman Catholic faith.

The year 1300 is often said to have been the zenith of the Papacy, marked by a gigantic celebration in Rome presided over by Pope Boniface VIII. In retrospect, however, it was really one huge farewell to the good old days, times that would not come again for the Popes. The Western Christian Church (Rome) had come into its own, on the worldly plane, in 756, when Charlemagne's father, Pepin III, rendered unto Christ a lot of what had once belonged to Caesar—land. That gift, consisting of a large part of central Italy, was the beginning of the Papal State, a church-state ruled by the Pope King. Over the next few centuries, a papal vision took form, a vision of Europe as a single theocracy with its earthly princes subject to the princes of the Church, or, in the words attributed to Pope Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085: "The Holy See has absolute power over all spiritual things: why should it not also rule temporal affairs? God reigns in the heavens; His vicar should reign over all the earth."

That, of course, was not to be. The 1300s saw the birth of Humanism in European philosophy. It was a movement away from the rigid medieval mold according to which everything and everyone had a fixed place within the Church, the Empire and the feudal hierarchy. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) put these words in the mouth of God in his Oration on the Dignity of Man: "…I have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal so that, like a free and sovereign artificer, you might mold and fashion yourself into that form you yourself shall have chosen." Nothing could be more contrary to the spirit of the papal vision. And nothing could be less medieval.

Besides such changes in thinking, which marked the true end of "The Middle Ages" and the beginning of the Renaissance, there were much more tangible events that would underscore the fact that the earthly princes were no longer willing to have "…His vicar reign over all the earth."  The most dramatic of these involved a struggle between the Church and France's King Philip the Fair over the right of laymen to tax the clergy. It was a dispute that led to the imprisonment and death of the Pope in Rome in 1305 at the hands of agents of the King. The new Pope, a French prelate, agreed to move the Papacy to Avignon in France in 1309. This lasted until 1377, a period referred to in Christian history as the Babylonian Exile of the Papacy. It was a period that would decide the centuries-old contest between the Church and the kings of Europe for temporal supremacy once and for all in favor of kings.

[See also this item for more on the Avignon papacy.]

The more than half-century of Papal absence from Rome was a rough period for the city. Throughout the 1300s, the city was riven by factional strife. Also, the Black Plague beset the population, and by 1400 Rome was described as a city filled with thieves, huts and vermin—a place where around St. Peter's, itself, wolves could be seen at night. In comparison to the great medieval states to the north, such as Florence, for example, or the maritime republic of Venice, the city that had once ruled the known world was a village.

-St. Peter's Square and Basilica in Rome-
This Jewel of the Italian Renaissance, designed by Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and G.L. Bernini,
took much of the 1500s and 1600s to build. It is the reason that in Italian today you can call any
extended building project "St. Peter's."

When the papacy returned to Rome
, in one sense it returned to a less " believing" city than a century earlier. The years had been marked, certainly, by confusion
—the confusion of the Avignon popes and the succeeding Western Schism of popes, anti-popes and even anti-anti popes but also by an enormous revival of interest in the glories of ancient Rome, indeed, even by a short-lived attempt to set up a Roman Republic. And right along with all the tribulations of the time, it was also a period when the Italian poet Petrach started referring to the centuries between the fall of Rome and his own time as the "Dark Ages," almost heretically ignoring the "light" that Christianity had shed on those centuries. A feeling was taking hold that only by a rebirth of ancient learning could Europe be brought out of darkness into a new light. "Rebirth" is the key word. Renaissance. Rome was on the verge of change.

The Popes began a conscious campaign to make Rome the center of a normal Renaissance state, a spiritual center, yes, but also a temporal power that might one day unite the peninsula again. They began a wave of construction, building streets, bridges, hospitals, fountains, and churches, drawing on the genius of Renaissance art and architecture to transform the city into tangible proof of the power and glory of the church. The wave can be said to have started in the 1450s with the Vatican fortifications and then the beginning of the rebuilding of St. Peter's under Pope Nicholas V (pope from 1447-1455). Under a succession of Popes, building was often irrational, but spectacular. Like magnificent mushrooms, churches and villas sprang up helter-skelter at the whim of Papal egocentric spontaneity and their desire to stamp their own mark on the city. The gloriously sprawling city that is modern day Rome, with no true center of the city, is a direct result of this urbanism begun in the Renaissance.

The papal curia —the central administration of the church— became one of the most efficient governments in Europe. Through its efforts, Rome, between 1450 and 1600, took shape. Besides directing new construction, they set about to rediscover the original ancient city by identifying major sites and buildings, and began the task of copying the ancient inscriptions that made the city a true textbook on the Roman empire of old. By the middle of the 16th century scholars knew Rome better than anyone had in a thousand years. The combination of spiritual and intellectual energies that propelled such construction and investigation made Renaissance Rome somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, as the center of a major faith, it promoted that faith. On the other hand, it was part of the great intellectual movement of the Italian Renaissance, Humanism, a movement bursting with earthy energies to rediscover the important biological works of Aristotle and Hippocrates, to translate the mathematics of Archimedes and the Geography of Ptolemy (which would inspire Columbus); to study the great Latin encyclopaedia of Pliny; to promote scholarship in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Coptic; to let Palestrina invent the music of the future by revising ancient Gregorian chants, and to be patron of geniuses such as Michelangelo and Raphael.

Behind it all was the desire to restore the city of the apostle Peter to its rightful glory. What Nicholas V said on his deathbed about building in the new Rome of his day might well be said of the entire physical and spiritual rebirth of the Eternal City in the Renaissance: "Not for ambition, nor pomp, nor vainglory, nor fame, nor the eternal perpetuation of my name, but for the greater dignity of the Apostolic See… did we conceive such buildings in mind and spirit."

central photo: Wikipedia

The US Library of Congress has an excellent on-line exhibit, Rome Reborn, at

                                The Vatican Museums

The plural is correct: technically it's the Vatican Museums (Italian: Musei Vaticani). They are the public museums of the Vatican City. They display works from the immense collection amassed by the Catholic Church and the papacy throughout the
centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. The museums contain 70,000 works, of which 20,000 are on display and currently employ 640 people who work in 40 different administrative, scholarly, and restoration departments.  This link is to the very thorough Wikipedia entry on the museums.

The Vatican Museums, seen from the

                                                                                                    dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 1500s when a single marble sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, was found in a vineyard in Rome on 14 January 1506. The pope sent Michelangelo to check it out. He knew a bit about sculpture. On his say-so, the Pope bought the vineyard and the group sculpture. The figures are slightly larger than life-size. (image, below, right)
There is debate about the work. Some think it is likely the same statue praised by the main Roman writer on art, Pliny the Elder. The Pope put the sculpture, which shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being attacked by giant serpents, on public display at the Vatican one month after its discovery. It is not known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze. That is plausible, but no similar bronze sculpture has been found in Greece. In any case, these are Greek sculptors working in Italy. When in Rome do as the Romans do; sculpt in marble.

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican Museums were visited by only 1,300,000 persons, a drop of 81 percent from the number of visitors in 2019, but still enough to rank the museums fourth among the most-visited art museums in the world. There are 24 galleries, or rooms, in total, with the Sistine Chapel, notably, being the last room visited within the Museum. On 1 January 2017, Barbara Jatta became the Director of the Vatican Museums,

This is a nice list of the most-visited art museums.

added April 19, 2023============================

p, Up & Away Upon the Appian Way

The Appian Way (Latin and Italian: Via Appia) is one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient Roman republic. It connected Rome to Brindisi, a port in southeastern Italy, 450 km/300 miles away. The Romans knew how important it was and commonly called it Appia longarum. regina viarum ("the Appian Way, the queen of the long roads"). 

The road is named after Appius Claudius Caecus, the Roman censor who began and completed the first section as a military road to the south in 312 BC, during the Samnite Wars. The Romans were ambitious quite early on, but they weren't thinking that Brindisi was the perfect port from which to control Mare Nostrum (Latin: "Our Sea"). When we say the Mare Nostrum was the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea, that is, in one sense correct, but also jumps to an unwarranted conclusion. In 300 BC, even they were not that farsighted. The term Mare Nostrum originally was used by the Ancient Romans to refer to the Tyrrhenian Sea after their conquest of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica in the Punic Wars with Carthage. But by 30 BC, Roman dominion extended from Spain and Portugal (the Iberian Peninsula) to Egypt, and Mare Nostrum began to be used to mean much more. A road from Rome to Brindisi does indeed seem like a good idea, a springboard into the waters of what would eventually be the real Mare Nostrum, the whole Mediterranean.

A lot happens in 2,000 years. The Roman Empire rose and fell; the Persian Empire rose and fell; new religions rose and a few old ones fell; Italy, itself, became a crazy quilt of feudal duchies, republics, maritime powers, a Papal state, and a sad division between north and south, none of which would be even partially sorted out until the "World Wars". All that in just 2,000 years. I bet that not one of those farsighted Romans from 30 BC ever looked in his (or hers --the sybyls!) crystal ball and solemnly intoned: "I foresee someday an Appian Way Regional Park."

But that's what happened. The Park is a protected area of around 4580 hectares/18 sq. miles, established by the Italian region of Latium (Lazio). It falls primarily within the territory of Rome but parts also extend into the neighboring towns of Ciampino and Marino. It aims to be a "green wedge" between the center of Rome and the Alban Hills to the southeast. It contains most of the relics of Ancient Rome to be found outside the city center. From the center of Rome to the 10th Mile includes the Villa of the Quintilii; the Park of the Caffarella; the Tombs of Via Latina; and the Aqueduct Park. It's not a new idea. They thought of it in 1931, but WW2 came along. So much for that good idea.

Now they have one. You can walk along it if you want. There are monuments, statues, aqueducts, and explanatory signs.There are also motorways and trains farther outside the park, itself, but you wont see much. You can drive it, you tourist. I hate to tell you that because you might be gauche enough to do it. Walk (or skip) or bike it. It's open right now. Park authorities tell us that an imposing life-size Roman statue of Hercules found during recent sewer work on the Appian Way will be visible to the public on Liberation (or Libation!) Day, April 25. The Parco Appia Antica is open from Tuesday to Sunday and also, for free, on Liberation Day Also see the grand Villa of the Quintilii, "a mini-city with a wine cellar and wine fountain for the emperor" --and you, if you hang around and look shabby and poor. Just off the Appian Way there are many things to to do and see, including Roman tombs, aqueducts, a number of churches and religious sites, the Vigna Randini Jewish Catacombs, etc.etc. Most of the attractions are within easy walking distance and the pamphlets you get will say "This attraction: 5 km marker, 7 km maker, etc. This is not a 460 km hike, but I dare you. You should see this. You really can do this, and it's not that hard, though the street signs have changed in two-thousand years. It's still known as the "via Appia", although the modern
road is officially called SS 7, for Stradale Statale 7, and often you will see one right over the other. It still connects Rome to Brindisi. You're on the right track. I'll be waiting at the fountain where the wine flows like water. I'll wave.

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