Patrick Reyntiens on an unmissable exhibition which powerfully evokes the genius of Counter-Reformation Rome THE GENIUS 01. Rom:1592 — 1623", the exhibition now at the Royal Academy until the 16th April 2001 and after that at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome itself is the result of monumental effort in research and compilation.
Probably the best way of seeing it — in the context that would replicate the atmosphere of the Rome at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries — would be to go to High Mass at the Brompton Oratory, have a good lunch at the Ritz and then see the myriad pictures at the Royal Academy.
The Papacy from (say) 1570 to 1630 was in a very mixed situation. The benefits of the Roman revival are fairly easy to point out. On the plus side there had been a thorough redefinition of the antique and apostolic doctrines of the Church at the Council of Trent; there had been anaccurate reform of the calendar in accordance with sidereal observations; and Gregory XIII (Buoncompagno from Bologna) Pope from 1572 to 1585 had seen the successful revision of Canon Law, the construction of the Piazza Navona, and the thorough reform of the education system throughout Europe through the agency of the Jesuits.
The newly established orders of Theatines and Oratorians were revivifying the life of the Church. There was an abundance of new art and marvellous new music. The general social and religious ceremonial was magnificent (as, for instance, described by John Evelyn in his visit to Rome some 30 years afterwards.) The price paid for all this was, however, enormous. Disorder, brigandage, murder, pillage, to say nothing of budget deficits, under Gregory XIII had got completely out of hand. The next Pope, one of the greatest popes of all time, in the short time allotted to him, did much to put things quite straight. Sixtus V (Peretti, 1585-1590) completed the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica, the greatest feat of civil engineering the world had ever seen, erected five of the 10 monolithic obelisks that the C:acsars had brought to Rome from Egypt. The largest of these, outside St John Lateran, of solid red granite, is some 115 feet in height and 10 foot square at the base and weighs 450 tons.
Another, in St Peter's Square, weighed nearly as much. Both these were erected within the first year of his papacy (1586) and are referred to with some dismissal by Shakespeare, in his Sonnet no. 146 of 1588. The pyramids built up with newer might /To me are nothing novel, nothing stranger'. Elizabethans, not knowing either, made no difference between a pyramid and an obelisk.
Sixtus also initiated townplanning in Rome for the first time in western Europe since the Caesars, by bargeing enormous new thoroughfares straight through the city stretching between the five Stational Churches. All property bordering these roads had to be given, under penalty, the best designed and up-to-date classical facades.
Sixtus's enormous achievements, not excluding the complete reform of the papal exchequer, leading to a surplus for the first time in over a hundred years and his savagery towards all criminals laid the foundations on which "The Genius of Rome" was built. Sixtus also restored a generous supply of fresh spring-water to the centre of Rome in the re-erection of the aquaduct of Septimius Severus, naming it "Acqua Felice"; It exists still and its waters are still the purest and most delicious for making the famous Roman coffee of our own day.
But there is another, more spiritual, side to the predicate of this magnificent exhibition. That is the belief in the divine mission of the Catholic Church an its obligation, under God, to gather all activities which are life-enhancing and beneficial to mankind into the shelter of its protection. And here we must note that there is a direct link between the doctrine of the Real Presence, the Eucharist, and the acceptance without reserve of the bond between the physicality of life and its spiritual content. Hence the extremely "fleshy" emphasis in much of the painting on view. For, in spite of its appalling and obvious disadvantages, Rome was a marvellous place to be in during the latter 16th and early 17th centuries.
Everything was moving, was developing, and the city was indeed the centre of civilisation. The incessant patronage by some two dozen highly placed and princely families throughout Rome pushed painting, sculpture and architecture to the most developed state seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire. There were not many Englishmen
around. They did not come from what then was described by Shakespeare (in Sonnet 93, written in 1585) a land of "Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang". To artists of the Netherlands, those who were still Catholic in religion, escaping from the spiritual and cultural structures of the Calvinist Netherlands, the lure and reassurance of Rome with its originality and fecundity and encouragement, was irresistible.
The marvellous thing about this exhibition is that, possibly for the first time, we can see the interaction of Flemish and Italian painting. The Breughels, Paul Bril, Gerrit van Honthurst, the wonderful Adam Erlsheimer (from the Rheinland, revered by Rubens) and many others from the Netherlands were blissfully happy to be able to paint in Rome, sell their pictures and meet everybody that otherwise they would not have dreamed of.
PETER PAUL RUDENS and Antony van Dyke were comfortable, and indeed some of Rubens pictures painted in his early 20s, are astonishing in their restrained and sophisticated colouring. Simon Vouet learnt much in Rome, returning to France to become court painter to Louis XIII. The Bolognese painters, all the generations of Carraccis and their followers, came to Rome in droves and revitalised the art of the turn of the century with their realism and truth.
The route from Bologna to Rome, come to think of it, was very easy, since at that time the Holy See owned Bologna, its environment and its univer sity. Above all Michaelangelo da Caravaggio, from the north, near Milan, with his vision of complete realism and original use of highly dramatic fighting in the posing figures, influenced the course of painting in western Europe for the next 200 years.
The last gallery in the Royal Academy is devoted to the large, overtly religious altarpieces which collectively demonstrate the prime purpose of all the painting we have hitherto seen in the preceding galleries. Domenichino, Guercino, Pietro da Dortona, Lanfranco, Barocci, all contribute.
The message is that the Church has to make certain that everybody, not just the snobs or the cognoscenti, but everybody, realises that the world is a marvellous place, life can be heroic and wonder ful, and that the three theological virtues of Faith. Hope and Charity, linking each one of us to Christ the Saviour of the world, the Son of God Himself, are the normative ideals and goals in our existence, however much incidental sin tries continuously to upset the apple-cart. That is why Rome, in spite of enormous faults, was a happy, dynamic and inventive place just the place to be in fact during the years under review in this truly stupendous exhibition.
And incidentally, just to complete your day, on the way home you might seriously consider going to Benediction in the Oratory, Brompton Road. This would help towards putting the whole exhibition at the Royal Academy, and the life it expresses, into full and perfect context.