The Vaults of the Vatican and the Pope’s Luminous Window
The Church of Rome is depicted by the media as a museum of horrors. In the past it was even worse. But five hundred years ago a pope performed a miracle, which today the whole world admires. A lesson for the imminent conclave
by Sandro Magister
ROME, February 25, 2013 – The media in these days are vying to spread a depiction of the Church in lurid tones. All intrigues, greed, betrayal, sexual squalor. Benedict XVI is alleged to have given up, overwhelmed by this debasement. Which is claimed to have infected even the college of cardinals called to elect his successor.
This is a narrative that deliberately obscures the true identity of the pontificate that is about to come to an end, and what is at stake in the selection of the new pope. It is trying, but it will not succeed. Because at stake is the destiny of human civilization, as also the life of every single man. The addresses of Benedict XVI in Regensburg, in Paris, in Berlin, his homilies, his magisterium have opened an encounter between the Church and the modern world of historic impact, on the ultimate, foundational questions that are impossible to set aside.
Five hundred years ago exactly, precisely during these days, Julius II was dying, the pope who called Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine, the chapel in which the cardinals will soon close themselves up to elect the new pope.
Then as well, the Roman Church was full of sins and sinners, it was the Babylon described with horror by Martin Luther.
Before Julius II had been the reign of Alexander VI, whose secular name was Rodrigo de Borja and whose son Cesare had been the inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” And Julius II himself was a man at arms who even in advanced age, with sword in hand, mounted the assault on the fortress of Mirandola.
And yet when he faced his death on February 21, 1513, the chronicles describe him “with so much devotion and contrition that he seemed like a saint.”
And yet, in addition to the military campaigns and the political plots to guarantee the Roman Church autonomy and freedom from the powers of the era, pope Giuliano della Rovere [Pope Julius II] was the bearer of a grandiose theological and intellectual vision, of an unprecedented synthesis between the Christian faith and classical civilization, between “fides” and “ratio,” marvelously infused into masterpieces of art that today the whole world admires with wonder.
This is what remains of Pope Julius II. This is his true identity, his immortal message.
To this pope, on the anniversary of his death, February 21, “L’Osservatore Romano” dedicated an entire page, opening with a compelling portrait of him written by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums.
Because the Vatican Museums as well, in their initial nucleus, were the brilliant invention of Julius II. With the ancient statues placed in the gardens of the Belvedere by his trusted architect, Bramante. With the rooms of the papal apartment frescoed by Raphael overlooking those same gardens.
Revisiting the planning and birth of this first nucleus of the Vatican Museums means opening one’s eyes to a vision that few are able to see completely, but is still of exceptional breadth. And of extraordinary relevance, coinciding as it does with the principal outlines of the pontificate of Benedict XVI.
On Saturday, February 23, in concluding the spiritual exercises, Pope Joseph Ratzinger turned once again to the connection, very much dear to him, between reason and art, between truth and beauty, although it is contradicted “by the evil of this world, by suffering, by corruption”:
“The medieval theologians translated the word ‘logos’ not only as ‘verbum,’ but also as ‘ars’: ‘verbum’ and ‘ars’ are interchangeable. Only with these two words together does there appear, for the medieval theologians, the full significance of the word ‘logos.’ ‘Logos’ is not only a mathematical reason; ‘logos’ has a heart: ‘logos’ is also love. Truth is beautiful and truth and beauty go together: beauty is the seal of truth.”
In order to penetrate this vision with a broad view – which from Julius II arrives at Benedict XVI – nothing is needed other than to read the essay that follows, also taken from “L’Osservatore Romano” of February 21 and presented here in an expanded version.
The author is an art historian and a specialist on the topic. She has published through the Accademia dei Lincei an essay on the work of Giuliano della Rovere [Pope Julius II].
THE INDELIBLE SIGN LEFT BY THAT POPE
by Sara Magister
We are following the trail of a voyager of five hundred years ago. Even to his faraway country had come the fame of the garden of ancient statues created in the Vatican by Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Having traveled across Italy, he had crossed the Tiber at the Milvio bridge, which still resounded with the echoes of epic battles. His destination was preceded by a vast and solitary area green with the lawns that covered it. And there it was, at the top of the Vatican hill, the crenelated and austere outline of the Villa Belvedere.
Beside it was, in a monolithic tower, the entrance ordered by Pope Julius to permit visits to his collection without his being disturbed in his pontifical apartments. There was nothing there to give a hint of the wonders inside, but once one crossed the threshold of the tower, there was the first surprise: its square base turned into the unexpected circle of the helical staircase designed by Bramante, the pope’s architect. One must have been struck even more by the breezy classicism of the columns that delineated its ascent, and by the unprecedented dynamism of the structure. From the loggia open at the top, then, the sensation must truly have been that of dominating with one’s gaze the entire city of Rome.
Here was the level expanse of the garden, but its view was still hidden by the entryway, at the top of which was a severe inscription taken from the Aeneid by Virgil (VI, 258): “Procul este prophani,” stay away, O profane ones! They were the words spoken by the Sibyl to Aeneas, at his entrance into the netherworld, and for Pope Julius II they meant that only the one who listened and moved with respect, as in a sacred place, could proceed further.
And then there appeared the longed-for destination, and the emotions reached their peak. Suddenly there appeared a luminous secret garden, at the center of which sprouted trees of bitter Seville oranges arranged in neat rows along a pavement of brickwork. In 1510 the ambassadors of the court of Ferrara had seen the daunting Julius II plant those trees with his own hands, during the entire time of their audience. The wall that surrounded the garden was broken up at regular intervals by niches sunk into it and occupied by splendid ancient statues. From the northeast entrance one immediately saw among the trees the south wall of the courtyard, at the center of which stood the most beautiful works: the Laocoon, between the Apollo Belvedere and the Venus Felix. In the middle of the courtyard was the reclining effigy of the Tiber River, and in a corner a fountain in the shape of the sleeping Arianna.
Over everything reigned silence, filled only by the sound of the water and by the rustling of the branches, and the intoxicating fragrance of the Seville oranges completed the immersion of the senses. The perception of being in a special place, where time and space flowed in rhythms different from those of the everyday, must have been very clear if in August of 1512 the grandchild of Pico della Mirandola compared this unusual garden to the “bower of Venus and Cupid.” For a Neoplatonic philosopher of his level, it was inevitable to think of the garden of oranges inhabited by images of ancient gods in the “Primavera” by Botticelli.
But when during the banquets that were held there the words of the poets filled the silence, and the statues, as if they were alive, revealed the reason for their presence, then there truly took shape the perception that the great civilization of the ancients had been reborn, and that this miracle was taking place right here and only here: in the most intimate and sacred bosom of the Church of Rome, beside the tomb of the apostle Peter.
We now move to the pontifical apartment of those years. The study of Pope Julius II would later be called the “Stanza della Segnatura.” Here also was his little private library, from which it can be intuited that already five hundred years ago he maintained that science and faith were each the integration of the other, and that every other form of expression, like poetry and beauty, were privileged pathways to the knowledge of God, who has given us “mens” and “ratio,” the capacities of intuition and of reason, and who inspires us in every form of art. And this is what Raphael, behind the precise dictate of Julius II, had translated into images in that room, with extraordinary formal and conceptual clarity.
Seated at the table of his office, during spare moments the pontiff raised his eyes to the wall in front of him. Here around the window Raphael had painted Mount Parnassus, the kingdom of Apollo, of the Muses and of the poets. From here Julius II contemplated one of his great plans that Bramante was bringing into being: the monumental terraced garden of the Belvedere, which the pope called “Hortus,” with the intention of re-creating in the Vatican the ancient “Horti Romani.” These were the gardens where men of stature spent their free time, in a natural setting embellished with fountains, ancient statues, porticos and pavilions for banquets and poetic and theatrical performances. And it was also the context in which, already in the fifteenth century, efforts were being made to revive the ancient ideal of literary “otium,” as an alternative of repose to the daily toil of “negotium.” But no one before Julius II had succeeded in re-creating the ancient gardens of “otium” on a scale so grandiosely complex, unprecedented, and functional. At their summit was the Villa Belvedere, built by Pope InnocentVIII (1484-1492), the southern side of which had been extended with new structures like the gigantic niche with its fountain and the Antiquarium, the designated setting for the first Vatican collection, now called the “Cortile Ottagono.”
In the history of museography, the Antiquarium is among the first spaces constructed “ex novo” in order to host a collection of ancient works, in a context decorated with trees and fountains, and with a more or less public purpose. But what was its significance for Pope Julius II?
We return to his quarters and sit at his desk. Once again the answer is there, on the opposite wall. Through the open window, the view of the gardens of the Belvedere followed their terraced path until it was arrested at the upper section, where Bramante had given form to the Courtyard of the Statues. And here the gaze of the pontiff fell across the image of Mount Parnassus painted on that wall by Raphael. And this is just as it had to be, because to the eyes of the pope the two places, the painted and the real, coincided.
The Antiquarium had been conceived of as the treasury of poetry and art. It is no coincidence that the statue of the Apollo Belvedere, the god of the arts, was among its main protagonists, and that whoever visited such a special place must necessarily have borne a sacred respect. Contrary to what one might have expected, the collection of Julius II contained very few statues, it appears fewer than ten, while other Roman collections of the era had more than ninety. But the quality of the Vatican collection was unbeatable, because it had been formed not through a spasmodic accumulation out of the pure desire for personal possession, but as the fruit of a very strict selection, spread out over time, and also very much favored by Providence.
Already when he was a cardinal, moreover, Giuliano della Rovere had succeeded in obtaining what many reputed to be the most beautiful statue of antiquity, the Apollo Belvedere, which was found nearly intact in February of 1489 in a vineyard above Santa Pudenziana in Rome.
As pontiff, on January 14, 1506, on private land near Saint Mary Major there had taken place the most astonishing discovery of the Renaissance, that of the Laocoon. The chronicles of that time tell about the immense crowd of curiosity seekers that had flocked to that place: “All of Rome came streaming to that property day and night; it seemed like the jubilee.” Julius II had sent Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo there, who had recognized the Laocoon cited in the first century A.D. by Pliny the Elder as the most beautiful work of his time. Offering a sum that made any competition pale in comparison, the pope had made the Laocoon the first ancient statue to cross the threshold of his new pontifical buildings beyond the Tiber. In the reasons provided in the purchase document for the work, it was specified that it was the evident sign of the “majestas et gratia Romanorum,” where “gratia” was understood as the humanistic recovery of the ancient ideal that sees in aesthetic beauty the mirror of the moral qualities of the person depicted. We are in the spring of 1506, three years after the election as pontiff of Julius II.
But for some time the pope had been laying the groundwork for the future arrival of his collection, about which he had ideas that were more than clear, having experimented with them as a cardinal in his residence at the church of the Holy Apostles. It is well known, for example, that already in 1505 Bramante was at work installing the plumbing for the statue-fountains of the Antiquarium, although these would not arrive until 1512.
But a successful selection requires time, patience, and faith. Only in May of 1507 came the second work: the Hercules and Telephus, found intact near Campo de’ Fiori. Finally in October of 1508 the pope brought from Holy Apostles the Apollo Belvedere, and perhaps also the fragmentary Hercules and Antaeus and the statue of Venus and Cupid, called the Venus Felix. The sleeping Arianna, understood at the time as the dying Cleopatra, turns out to be the only statue acquired, and for not a little money, from another famous collection, that of the Maffei family, and already in August of 1512 it adorned a fountain whose waters fell into an ancient and storied sarcophagus. The statue of the Tiber River was also brought to the Vatican in February of 1512, shortly after its discovery near the church of Saint Mary above Minerva.
This is what can be reconstructed for now of the first nucleus of the Vatican collection. And these are still considered today the ancient masterpieces of the Vatican Museums, in spite of the million other pieces added over the following centuries.
What dictated such a triumphant selection? The critics now agree in maintaining that this came about partly in order to make the statues tell a story in poetic form. The collection of Julius II functioned, in fact, as a sophisticated mythological allegory, based on the poetry of Virgil. This, moreover, was what was stated by the inscription placed at the entrance to the courtyard, taken from the Aeneid. Its statues were seen as actors, in a space that intentionally resembled a theatrical setting, the symbolic meanings of which were activated and declared each time the poets made them perform.
The story was therefore told of the calling of that pontiff to the mission of restoring to the city and to the Church of Rome their universal centrality. Just as the ancient gods had invested the emperor Caesar Augustus with the mission of bringing to Rome a new golden age, so now after centuries of crisis Providence had called a new Julius to restore to Rome its ancient glory and to make it the radiant fulcrum of a new era of peace, order, prosperity, and, above all, civilization. And these were not empty words, because this was really happening in the most intimate and sacred bosom of the Holy See, beside the tomb of Peter, where, visiting the Antiquarium, one could see, hear, touch with the hand, even smell the fragrance of the rebirth of the universality of the “imperium” and of the civilization of the Romans.
Julius II, a man of action who had the gift of a very profound faith, felt really invested by God with this mission, from the time he was a cardinal. Already twenty years before his election as pontiff, in fact, he had used ancient art as an allegory for his universal plans for the rebirth of the Church of Rome. Only in his collection as a cardinal, in fact, can we recognize a precedent for such a revolutionary organicity of expressive intentions and modalities, and of such a universality of message. Because Julius II, contrary to the unjust accusations of megalomania, was a man who wanted to put all of his talents at the disposal of the Holy See and precisely to this desired to leave his work as an inheritance.
Not everyone has fully understood or accepted the messages that Julius II has expressed in this marvelous treasury of ancient art. But he has left his mark, and it is so indelible and of such power as to attract still today, as then, millions of travelers from every part of the world.
The newspaper of the Holy See that published the article:
The complete text of the reflection on truth and beauty given by Benedict XVI at the conclusion of the spiritual exercises on Saturday, February 23:
And his last Angelus as pope, on Sunday, February 20:
In the illustration, Pope Julius II at prayer. Detail from Raphael, “The Mass of Bolsena,” Stanze Vaticane, 1512.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.