by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sixtus V's Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 10 April 1993
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Domenico Fontana presents his plans for the Vatican Library to Sixtus V, by Pietro Facchetti, late 1580s



'I know of only one man who is worthy of my hand,' said Elizabeth I, 'and that man is Sixtus V.'

Born into obscure rural poverty south of Ancona in 1520, and a shepherd in his boyhood, in 1585 Sixtus realized his father's wildly optimistic conviction that his son Felice was destined for the papacy. Legend has it that Sixtus affected senile physical incapacity during the conclave, only, upon election, to draw himself up to his full height, hurl aside his crutches and announce to the aghast cardinals that from that moment on his word was to be their command.

As it was, Sixtus ruled for just five years before his death - but during that time this iron-willed visionary applied his boundless energy to bring order to the most lawless and dangerous city in Europe, to restructure the Church and the Papal State, and so to transform the city that the Rome we see today still indelibly bears his mark - as this excellent exhibition at Palazzo Venezia of artworks, drawings, plans and models admirably demonstrates (until 30 April).

Rome's chronic disorder was primarily the fault of its turbulent aristocracy and the gangs of ruffians they retained and protected. While a cardinal, Sixtus himself had narrowly escaped injury or worse at their hands, and his only nephew had been stabbed to death in an ambush instigated by his own wife Vittoria Corombona and her brother, a bravo in the pay of the Duke of Bracciano, who married her straight after - the whole doleful, 'true-life' drama reaching the English stage in the form of Webster's The White Devil.

The new pope applied the novel concept that for every crime there would be a punishment, and soon, their ranks reduced by regular executions, the murderous swaggerers who had for decades terrorised the city and killed even policemen with impunity, were cleared from the streets.

As a builder and town planner, Sixtus ushered in the age of Baroque in Rome, finding in the architect-engineer Domenico Fontana (1453-1607) the man with the stamina and know-how to execute his grandiose schemes according to a near-impossible timetable.

Rome was littered with massive toppled obelisks from Egypt - a permanent reminder of the technological superiority of a pagan civilisation. Italy's artist-engineers had, without success, been designing machines to re-erect these monoliths for well over a hundred years. Within months, Fontana had raised the 120-foot obelisk in St Peter's Square, and went on to raise three others: before the Lateran Palace, at Santa Maria Maggiore and in Piazza ädel Popolo.

St Peter's itself, domeless and after over two decades of inactivity popularly regarded as unfinishable, acquired its present immense cupola in less than two years. The columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were restored and crowning statues, of St Peter and St Paul respectively, placed atop them - emphasising the triumph of Christianity over the ancient world. The Vatican's priceless library, much of it stored in damp vaults, was installed in Fontana's new Vatican Library. Significantly, this new temple of learning was built in the court between the Palace and the Belvedere, a space previously used for celebratory jousts and revels.

Meanwhile, new avenues were opened up, shops and markets created and ports on the coast constructed, pestilential marshes drained, and clean water supplies channelled into the city. Programmes for the poor were instituted and hospices built. The city's bewildering transformation is well conveyed by Angelo Grillo, a priest, returning there in 1595: 'I am in Rome, but I no longer find Rome here: there are so many new buildings, streets, piazzas, fountains, obelisks and other extraordinary marvels... that I can hardly find a trace of the old Rome I left behind.'

Sixtus was sufficiently of his age not to miss the opportunity to enrich and advance members of his own family (as the Venetian ambassador sniffily reported of Sixtus's almost equally strong-willed sister Camilla, who ran the papal household: 'Having been a washerwoman, she lives the life of a noblewoman and a lady of quality.'). And the great works were financed by increasing the sale of offices and incurring enormous debts. Yet arguably, no pontiff, before or after, ever achieved so much of lasting value in so short a time.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024