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Italian Renaissance (1330-1550)

Rome: The Depths of Corruption and the Rise of the Golden Age

Rome: Papal Control and Early Resurrection (1400-1484)

Venice and Milan (1300-1499)


The already corrupt Papacy reached perhaps its ultimate depths during the reign of Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected to the papacy in 1492 after the death of the generally unnoteworthy Innocent VIII, and who assumed the name Pope Alexander VI. Borgia, a Spaniard, had been at the center of Vatican affairs for 30 years as a Cardinal. When he became pope, myth and legend quickly rose up around his family. Alexander VI had four acknowledged children, three males and one female. Alexander VI was himself known as a corrupt pope bent on his family's political and material success, to an even greater extent than Sixtus IV had been. It was no secret that Alexander VI's oldest son Cesare, was a murderer, and had killed many of his political opponents. Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander VI's daughter, was married three times in the pope's efforts to create beneficial alliances. Under Alexander VI, the Papacy continued to grow politically and economically strong, but the means by which it grew were much questioned throughout Italy.

Alexander VI died in 1503, and was succeeded by Pope Julius II. Under Julius II, both the city of Rome and the Papacy entered a Golden Age. Julius II continued the consolidation of power in the Papal States, encouraged the devotion to learning and writing in Rome begun by Pope Nicholas V, and, foremost, continued the process of rebuilding Rome physically. The most prominent project among many was the rebuilding of St. Peter's basilica, one of the most sacred buildings in Christianity. The creation of a new St. Peter's, and indeed a new Rome, taxed the city. Ancient structures were demolished to make room and building materials for the new buildings of the city.

Artists flocked to Rome during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to study the ruins and contribute to the new structures of Rome, striving to connect the new with the style of the ancient. Many took architectural ideas gleaned from the study of ancient Rome to the cities of the North, and Florence, Milan, and Venice soon showed the signs of Roman influence.

Rome received its final push to renaissance glory from Pope Leo X, second son of Lorenzo de Medici. He came to the papal throne in 1513, following Julius II. He was at ease in social situations, a skilled diplomat, demonstrated great skill as an administrator, and was an intelligent and beneficent patron of the arts. He encouraged scholarly learning, and supported the theatre, an art form considered to be of ambiguous morality until that time. Most prominently, he supported the visual arts of painting and sculpture. He is well known for his patronage of Raphael, whose paintings played a large role in the redecoration of the Vatican. Under Leo X, the ruins of Rome began to be more effectively preserved, and metaphorically, so did the morality of the Papacy. When he died in 1521, Rome's Golden Age effectively ended, and the Renaissance as a whole began to fade.


Rodrigo Borgia, later Alexander VI, has assumed the role of the archetypical Renaissance pope. Historians cite his exploits as pontiff as representative of the nepotism and corruption that plagued the Papacy throughout the Renaissance period. Certainly, the effect Alexander had upon Italy and upon the popular view of the Papacy cannot be denied. Even in his own time, the Borgia family took on legendary status in Italy as cruel and manipulative monsters. Many saw the rise of Rodrigo Borgia to the papal throne as a sign of impending demise for the Catholic Church. However, both Italy and the Catholic Church survived Alexander VI's reign, and perhaps even learned some valuable lessons, for Julius II and Pope Leo X reversed the slide of the Papacy and ushered in the Golden Age of Rome, during which both the city and its rulers were admired and respected, reversing the trend under which the Papacy had slipped into moral degradation while the physical city itself rose to new heights.

The main project Pope Julius II undertook was the destruction and rebuilding of St. Peter's basilica, the oldest and most sacred building in all of Christianity, containing the tomb of St. Peter and of many past popes. Many questioned and opposed the wisdom of the project, but Julius II insisted that the building was in desperate need of repair and should be replaced with a structure more worthy of the glory of its purpose. Once he began the planning and destruction, he proceeded with zeal, never second-guessing his decision. The destruction and rebuilding of St. Peter's soon became known throughout Italy as a symbol of the descent and resurrection of Rome.

The rebuilding of Rome was undertaken at great cost, especially to the memoirs of the past. Since the fall of Rome, popes and princes had treated Rome as a vast quarry from which to extract treasure and building materials. The Coliseum is the greatest monument to this destructive habit. For centuries, Romans hacked away at the colossal structure, harvesting material for foundations and marble inlay, and destroying one of the greatest architectural creations of human history. Even so, the Coliseum remains the largest structure in Rome. Many other buildings suffered a similar fate, and were severely damaged, if not completely destroyed, before the spirit of antiquarianism that was revived during Pope Leo X's reign saved many of the remains of ancient Rome. Among Romans the passion for antiquarianism was not an intellectual exercise as it was elsewhere, but rather a reaffirmation of their lost status of glory. Romans began to grasp the details of their real, rather than legendary, past.

Pope Leo X oversaw the Golden Age, the rise of humanism and antiquarianism to its Renaissance apex. He was perhaps the closest thing to the enlightened princes of the northern Italian states that the Papacy saw during the Renaissance, a fact not surprising in light of his Medici lineage. He proved a gifted administrator and a thoughtful and generous patron of the arts. He inherited the staunch project of rebuilding St. Peter's basilica, which he undertook determinedly in the name of the Church. Incidentally, this greatest of Renaissance Popes also made the decision that turned out to be one of the Chruch's greatest blunders. In an effort to finance the tremendous undertaking of St. Peter's Basilica, Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences to finance construction. Indulgences were basically pardons for sin. Their sale was the final act in a long string of offenses triggering the Protestant Reformation, a movement which created a schism in Christianity so large that it dominated history for centuries, and whose effects have played and still play varied, nuanced, and fundamental roles in the modern world.

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