State Theatre

Peter Burke

  • The Rome of Alexander VII: 1655-1667 by Richard Krautheimer
    Princeton, 199 pp, £16.80, November 1985, ISBN 0 691 04032 X
  • Firearms and Fortifications: Military Architecture and Siege Warfare in 16th-century Siena by Simon Pepper and Nicholas Adams
    Chicago, 245 pp, £21.25, October 1986, ISBN 0 226 65534 2

Art and Power. The connections between the two have come to preoccupy political historians and art historians alike in the last few years. ‘Culture and society’, the slogan of the 1960s, has been almost effaced – for better or worse, or for both – by ‘the politics of culture’. Political historians are coming to take paintings, poems and buildings more seriously as part of their evidence, while art historians are increasingly concerned with replacing the artifacts they study in their political settings.

The advantages of this ‘political turn’ are clearly illustrated in a new study by Professor Richard Krautheimer. His interest in the iconography of architecture goes back a long way – he published an article on the subject in 1942. His well-known studies of Early Christian and Byzantine architecture and his book on Medieval Rome impinge on politics at a number of points. However, his concern with the ‘political aims’ of building programmes and even with ‘art as a tool of politics’ is particularly clear in his latest book, which focuses on Rome in the middle of the 17th century, in the age of Bernini and Pope Alexander VII.

Written with a marvellous economy and clarity in a prose at once elegant and colloquial, sound in its scholarship, and penetrating in its judgments, stripped bare of superfluities and going straight to essentials, this book is a fine example of the late style of a major historian and of his capacity to relate great works of art to the social and political world surrounding them. The illustrations are well chosen, well reproduced, and there are more than a hundred of them. The book is a pleasure to handle and to read. My only regret is that it is not longer and that it does not develop its political analysis a little further.

‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ Stalin’s brutal question reveals more about himself than it does about the Papacy, and his successors probably know the answer better than he did. All the same, the question is a useful reminder of the anomalous position of the Popes and of the difficulties they have encountered over the centuries in combining the roles of temporal and spiritual leader, king and priest – ‘two powers in one body’, as an anonymous 17th-century writer once put it. As a temporal ruler Alexander VII controlled only a mini-state with about a million inhabitants, about a twentieth of the size of the France of Louis XIV. There was a Papal Army – commanded by Alexander’s brother, Mario Chigi – which was large enough to be a serious drain on the Papal revenues but too small to be taken seriously by the European powers. On the other hand, despite the losses incurred during the Reformation, the spiritual domains of the Popes remained vast. The Papacy was a power to be reckoned with, however difficult this power was (and is) to define. As a leader the Pope was charismatic and bureaucratic, dignified and efficient, local and universal rolled into one.

This is not – or not simply – a case of modern scholars failing to catch this particular butterfly in their net of categories. Contemporaries, such as the Venetian ambassadors to Rome, were also well aware of the problem of the Pope’s two bodies. The polarities and ambiguities of the role were also expressed in Papal rituals. Some of the rituals stressed the Pope’s majesty, or even his empire (for ‘the Pope is the true Emperor,’ as the Medieval saying went, while Julius II was often compared to Julius Caesar). Visitors, however high their status, kissed the Pope’s feet, ‘adoring’ him like a god. Carried in a litter, cheered by crowds, he was the image of an absolute monarch. He was described as a priest-king, a second Melchisedech, or even as ‘Our Lord’. Other rituals, however, introduced the theme of humility: the Pope as servant of the servants of God, walking barefoot in procession or washing the feet of ordinary people on Maundy Thursday.

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