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.

Krautheimer has little to say about ritual itself, but he is very much concerned with its settings or stages. Indeed, a recurrent theme in his study is the idea of the theatre of power. As he remarks at the start, the word teatro was often used in 17th-century Italian to refer to grand architectural designs. The term could hardly have been more appropriate. Façades, squares and prospects were all ‘showpieces’ intended to surprise and impress the spectator; they turned the city into a theatre for performances such as processions or blessings; and – as the author remarks in the case of Piazza del Popolo – they were sometimes modelled on stage sets.

Alexander VII, who was elected Pope in 1655, came from a family of Sienese patricians and he was well aware of the need to make a good impression on the world, fare bella figura. In the days when he was Monsignor Fabio Chigi, his carriage of black velvet, decorated with silver, was of a splendid modesty which revealed its owner to be at once unworldly in outlook and high in status. As a cardinal, he was employed on diplomatic missions and represented the Pope at the Congress of Münster, where the Thirty Years’ War was finally negotiated to a close. He was a man of wide interests, scholarly, literary and artistic – Krautheimer’s judgment that he was ‘decidedly no intellectual’ may err on the side of severity. Like his ancestor Agostino Chigi, who had employed Raphael and Baldassare Peruzzi to decorate his villa, Alexander was a great patron of the arts. He does not seem to have cared very much for painting, but he loved architecture. He kept a wooden model of Rome in his bedroom, ‘as if’ (the Genoese envoy remarked with some asperity) ‘there were nothing more important to him than embellishing the city.’ His unpublished diary, which Krautheimer has studied with care, reveals his architectural obsession, and his impatience, in considerable detail. Alexander was, of course, fortunate enough to be Pope at a time when architects of the calibre of Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona were all working in Rome. Although he avoided Borromini as far as possible, he appreciated the work of the other two.

Alexander’s concern with Rome took some extremely practical forms. He wanted to straighten the main streets and clear the clutter of stalls away into ‘shopping centres’, as Krautheimer calls them. ‘Three times I’ve ordered that florist away from the porch of the Pantheon’ runs one entry in the diary, revealing both the Pope’s concern for detail and the limits to his power. The proliferation of coaches – 883 of them as early as 1594 – had created parking problems, around the fashionable church of Sta Maria della Pace, for example, problems which Pietro da Cortona did his best to solve in his plan for the reconstruction of the church and its piazza. The colonnades of Piazza San Pietro which Alexander commissioned from Bernini were intended to provide shelter from sun and rain alike.

Practical considerations were, however, secondary to prestige. What really interested Alexander was the greater glory of God, the Papacy, the Chigi family and its most illustrious representative. In the 16th century, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had FARNESIUS inscribed in huge Roman capitals on the facade of the Church of the Gesu. In the early 17th century, Pope Paul V had his family name, BORGHESIUS, inscribed in equally large letters on St Peter’s, although he had not been responsible for most of the rebuilding. Alexander VII’s self-advertisement appears rather less blatant, but this was due less to his natural diplomacy than to the accident of his dying before he could have the Pantheon redecorated, with his name around the rim of the oculus. He allowed himself to be represented as a second Alexander the Great, as in the superb drawing by Pietro da Cortona now in the British Museum.

Yet it was the image of the Papacy and the city with which Alexander was most concerned. His constructions were intended to restore modern Rome to its ancient splendour, to turn it into (or reveal it as) the New Jerusalem. The streets which he improved were especially those ‘travelled by high-placed visitors to Rome and to his own presence’. The references to the improvements in guidebooks directed to the same illustrious foreigners reinforced the message. The new façade for Santa Maria della Pace was among other things (as the inscriptions on it reveal) a monument to Alexander’s policy of encouraging the war against the Turks. The Pope’s contribution to St Peter’s was above all to create a ‘dignified approach’, a crescendo and a climax to a pilgrimage to the centre of the universe, the sacred mountain – one of the inscriptions on the colonnade is a quotation from the Bible, ascendamus in montem Domini. The curving porticoes, as Bernini remarked, symbolise the encircling arms of the Church. One might go a little further and suggest that Piazza San Pietro symbolised the universal sheepfold, the idea of world empire, ‘one flock and one shepherd’, which had long been associated with the millennium. The Academy of the Intronati, poets from Alexander’s home town, had made flattering references to such a world empire on the occasion of the Pope’s election.

Given the date, the triumphalism of Piazza San Pietro was perhaps a little forced. The secession of Protestant Europe was a major defeat for the Church. The Congress of Münster, which Fabio Chigi had attended, was another. As Krautheimer puts it, Alexander ‘should have known and probably did know deep down fully well that the Church was no longer a political power of the first magnitude.’ He frustrated Mazarin’s plan to turn the Church of the Trinita dei Monti into a monument to the glory of Louis XIV, but he had to tread carefully. To pick a quarrel with a super-power such as France was, as one contemporary wrote, ‘a bad game for the Popes who have only the two raised fingers’. It is possible, however, that a sense of inferiority or insecurity underlies all grandiose political statements, whether their medium is literature or architecture. As Harold Lasswell once put it in a pioneering analysis of propaganda, ‘when thought is taken about ways and means of sowing conviction, conviction has already languished.’

The Pope’s projects were of course monstrously expensive. ‘Of matters financial and economic,’ Krautheimer remarks, ‘Alexander appears to have been both innocent and heedless.’ At his death, the Papal State was deep in debt. The colonnades outside St Peter’s cost about a million scudi, at a time when a skilled worker in the construction industry would support his family on about fifty scudi a year. Pasquino probably voiced the feelings of ordinary Romans in the famous lines posted on the statue in 1648: ‘we don’t want steeples and fountains. What we want is bread, bread, bread, bread.’ Yet Alexander built even more grandly than his predecessors. Krautheimer does not forget to discuss criticisms of the Pope’s plans for the transformation of Rome and opposition on the part of taxpayers and owners of houses subject to compulsory purchase so that streets could be widened or squares enlarged. He does not assume that the city was an ideal place to live in. In a chapter entitled ‘The Other Side of the Medal’ he quotes a manuscript memorandum to Alexander by a certain Lorenzo Pizzati, describing Rome as a ‘pigsty’, and as ‘a Babel, where one lives in constant noise’. It is also easy to imagine the feelings of the florist after three expulsions from the porch of the Pantheon.

There is, of course, much more to say about the economic and social problems of Rome, and about Papal finances in the middle of the 17th century, than Krautheimer can accommodate in one short chapter. Some of what needs to be said has in fact been said in a recent doctoral thesis on ‘Popes, Prelates and Bureaucrats’ by Pieter Rietbergen of the University of Nijmegen. The section which Rietbergen devotes to Alexander, Bernini and the colonnades is full of fascinating detail about the logistics of the project and its cost (half the annual revenue of the Church in the Pope’s reign). His discussion of the decision-making process at the Papal court is also of considerable relevance to historians of architecture. To what extent did Alexander, an absolute monarch with a passion for architecture, take the key decisions himself? Both Rietbergen and Krautheimer note the importance of the Oratorian Virgilio Spada, an ‘éminence grise in Rome on building activities’ according to one, while the other sees him as ‘the Colbert to Alexander’s Louis XIV’. What Rietbergen emphasises much more than Krautheimer, however, is the Pope’s need to take into account the views of the cardinals, especially the members of the powerful Congregazione della Reverenda Fabrica di San Pietro, whose records he has studied in detail.

Both scholars agree on the importance of the link between art and power, and see the ‘theatre’ of Piazza San Pietro as a kind of symbolic compensation for the decline of the Papacy as a temporal power. So it may be illuminating to juxtapose their work with another fairly recent study which also makes a good deal of the metaphor of the theatre but presents a very different view of the relation between art and politics. Clifford Geertz’s Negara (1980) is concerned with what the author calls ‘the theatre state in 19th-century Bali’, with spectacle and ceremony. However, Geertz’s central argument is a critique of Walter Bagehot and of all who believe that the function of the ‘dignified’ parts of government is to serve the ‘efficient’ ones or that ritual is a means of mystification. In Bali, so he claims, the relationship was the other way round. ‘Power served pomp, not pomp power.’ Whether or not this claim is valid for Bali or for the other polities of South-East Asia is a matter for the specialists to settle; but what about the West? More than one monarchy in 17th-century Europe might usefully be regarded as a theatre state, from the England of the early Stuarts (especially as analysed by Stephen Orgel), to the Spain of Philip IV and the France of Louis XIV (at least after his permanent move to Versailles), but the Papacy has the best claim of all. Leaving aside such possibly more superficial analogies as the sacred mountain, the immobile ‘icon king’, the umbrellas and the high priest carried in a chair, we are left with a ruler of the highest possible status but little direct political power. The problem with the analogy between the theatre states of Rome and Bali is that Alexander and other 17th-century Popes did want to exercise political power, did want to influence the Treaty of Westphalia, for example, as well as to bless the people from the loggia of St Peter’s. Hence it is difficult to see Papal rituals and their splendid Baroque settings as other than a means to an end. In Western culture, at least, the idea of a distinction between the dignified and the efficient parts of government – how many divisions has the Pope? – and the idea of ritual as mystification are traditional ones, as readers of Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld (to say nothing of the Stoics) will be well aware. For a long time now they have been shaping the attitudes of the participants in what it is customary to call ‘mere’ ritual. They are part of the data.

The relation between art and power is also the theme of a new book on 16th-century Siena, but it is viewed from a very different angle, that of the Renaissance bastion. Simon Pepper and Nicholas Adams are concerned with military architecture and siege warfare. Like Richard Krautheimer, they are art historians concerned to place art in context. Their study of the bastions designed for Siena by the architect Baldassare Peruzzi resembles Krautheimer’s work on the Bernini colonnades in its emphasis on what they call the ‘enormous investment in building materials, labour and professional skill’. They, too, discuss opposition to building projects, notably the protest against Charles V’s project for a citadel in Siena, a protest which led to revolt and to the siege of 1554-5. However, they deliberately refrain from analysing the symbolic function of the fortifications. What interests them, by contrast, is what they call, not altogether happily, the ‘actual function’ of the fortifications, by which they mean their performance under fire. Inspired by the work of Sir John Hale in particular, they have gone to the archives of Siena and Florence and turned themselves into military historians, capable of discussing with precision and plausibility such technical matters as the rate of fire of artillery, and of providing a detailed narrative of the bombardments, assaults and other events of the siege.

Pepper and Adams present some conclusions of considerable interest to historians of war. They argue that the impact of artillery on warfare was still somewhat erratic, that in consequence Medieval fortifications were still useful in defence, and that the change from the ‘civilian all-rounder’ to the specialist designer of military architecture has been dated too early. Ironically enough, the contribution of the two authors to the history of art is somewhat less satisfactory. It is true that the 87 illustrations are an essential part of their argument and that they make some perceptive observations on Vasari’s frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio as sources for the history of the Sienese siege. They also raise interesting questions about the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and between individual and collective productions: the trouble is that they do not pursue these problems very far. And a study which claims to be multi-disciplinary can scarcely afford to neglect the fortress as symbol. Why, after all, did the Sienese protest so vigorously against the Spanish citadel?