One Enormous Room

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Trent: What Happened at the Council by John O’Malley
    Harvard, 335 pp, £20.00, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 06697 7

‘I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.’ It’s one of the great historical putdowns: the patrician Whig punchline to Kenneth Clark’s scrutiny of Counter-Reformation art and architecture in his incomparable TV series Civilisation, before he turns from the camera and walks away down the considerable length of the Map Room in the Vatican, an Englishman abroad. His stroll is accompanied by a splendid Monteverdi setting of ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’. Well endowed with a sense of irony, Clark would have enjoyed letting that music make its own comment: the Venetian grandees who enjoyed Monteverdi’s Vespers were proud of being good Catholics, but like many good Catholics before or since, they had no time for the pope.

Counter-Reformation Rome had plenty of enormous rooms, its skyline punctuated by brand new palaces built by cardinals who sailed through the reforms of the Council of Trent serenely unreformed. ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ seemed to be true of them. But one enormous room had made a world of difference to the medieval Western Church of the Latin Rite, not least that section which remained loyal to the bishop of Rome. John O’Malley illustrates the room in his superb new history of the Council of Trent: the nave of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trent, a bishopric in the foothills of the Dolomites. In that grand setting, seated on an amphitheatre specially erected for the delegates, the episcopal Fathers of the Council completed the work of an assembly two decades in the planning and nearly two more in its deliberations, punctuated by noises off: fears of plague, continent-wide war, assassination, torrential rains, not to mention Protestantism.

Santa Maria Maggiore was the last and best prepared of a sequence of stately chambers that formed the backdrop for ill-tempered and frequently aimless debates between 1545 and 1563 in the city of Trent. The bishops and their attendant theologians were not above exchanging open abuse. During one argument about justification by faith, the Bishop of La Cava wrenched at the beard of the Cretan Bishop of Chironissa and Melopotamos, who had said that he was either a knave or a fool for sounding a bit like Martin Luther on justification. It is amazing that anything got done at all, and indeed more than once the whole event nearly ended in disarray. For some of the period covered by the council’s gestation and deliberations, the pope was formally at war with Europe’s other most senior Catholic, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, or with Charles’s son Philip II of Spain. Pierluigi Farnese, the eldest son of one pope during this time, was widely accused of raping a 24-year-old bishop, hastening the unfortunate young man’s death (Farnese was later murdered by subordinates of Charles V), while another Holy Father, a former principal papal legate at the council, made his teenage rentboy lover a cardinal. It might seem appropriate that the council’s official physician, Girolamo Fracastoro, named and was the first to provide a detailed diagnosis for syphilis; contemporary churchmen would have provided him with plenty of case-studies for his epic poem on the subject (starring a shepherd boy called Syphilus).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] I have drawn on Katharine Lualdi’s essay ‘Persevering in the Faith: Catholic Worship and Communal Identity in the Wake of the Edict of Nantes’, Sixteenth Century Journal 35 (2004).