Transcript: 370. Ingrid Rowland on Rome in the Renaissance

For our finale of the Italian Renaissance series we're joined by Ingrid Rowland, to speak about art, philosophy, and persecution in Renaissance Rome.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: In this series, I have focused a lot on Florence and Padua, which are the two Italian cities that people most associate with philosophy in the Renaissance. And I've touched on some other cities like Bologna, because when I talked about the teaching of medicine there, and Milan as a rival to Florence. But I haven't said that much about Rome, actually. And so I was wondering if you could just start out by telling us how the intellectual and philosophical climate of Rome differed from those cities in like the 15th, 16th centuries.

Ingrid Rowland: Rome, unlike those cities, has a complete interruption of its normal social and cultural life when the popes leave Rome in 1308. Officially, the popes are supposed to be back in Rome by 1386, but in practical terms, it's not until well into the 15th century that the Rome that we think about is the head of Catholicism, home of the Curia. All of that has been terribly interrupted in the 14th century, and so it has to reconstruct itself. And what that means is that cultural life in Rome for about a century is almost completely interrupted. The artists go up to Avignon, where the pope is. Artists can't get commissions, and it's to the benefit especially of Florence that these things happen. I think a lot of what makes Florence happen in the 15th century is its swift recovery from the Black Death. Rome on the other hand is completely decimated. It's already without the popes. And so what it means is that philosophy in Rome has to virtually reconstruct itself over the course of the 15th century and then develop in the 16th century, and does it explicitly under the umbrella of the church so that what happens in Rome happens with the restoration of the popes to the city and the following of the Curia, which takes really from about 1417 to the mid-15th century. By 1450, Rome has become again the Christian capital.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So that's a very strong contrast, obviously, with somewhere like Florence. So in a way, Florence is booming while Rome is struggling.

Ingrid Rowland: Yeah, and it's really noticeable in not only philosophy but, say, art because there are no artists in Rome getting jobs. And therefore, if you want to be a pope and turn your city into a cultural capital, Florentine artists or artists from elsewhere who've gravitated to Florence are your easiest way of getting top-notch producers.

Peter Adamson: That's really interesting. One reason why people think of Florence so immediately when they're thinking about philosophy in the Renaissance is the supposed Platonic Academy. And we have discussed whether that was a thing or not. It's certainly true that there were a bunch of Platonists in Florence, especially one thinks here of Marsilio Ficino. But there actually was also an academy, so-called academy, at Rome involving figures like Angelo Colocci and Pomponio Leto. So I was wondering if you could also tell us something about that group.

Ingrid Rowland: Yes, unlike the Florentines, the Roman Academy is almost living the ancient life. The people who joined the Roman Curia are highly educated in the classics, and the excitement about Rome is that you can live among the ruins. And so the so-called Roman Academy, I think, in a way is a gentleman's club, but in a society that's so rigidly hierarchical as the Church and the Renaissance in Italy, where everybody dresses according to their rank, everything's terribly prescribed. And so the Academy gives you a kind of transversal, non-hierarchical way to associate and pretend that you're a Christian with Christian enlightenment, but living like an ancient. So what they create with the Roman Academy is the ideal world in their mind, Christian spirituality grafted onto the elegance of the classical way of life. And so they dress up in togas, go out into the ruins. They would both venerate classical statues and say mass, which a lot of them were qualified to do. Giles of Viterbo, the head of the Augustinian order, at one point says when he's been doing that table levitation inside the Sybil's cave in Cuma outside Naples, and he said, "we were not less pious for having done this." The way they could get away with all of it is that, to their mind, God had set up ancient wisdom to make it possible for humanity to understand the Christian message when it came along, more or less at the same time as the Roman Empire. And if you don't have Jewish tradition to tell you what a Messiah is, it doesn't matter if one happens because nobody knows what's going on. And in the same way, the Trinity depends completely on Platonic doctrine or Plotinus re-reading Platonic doctrine. And therefore, without ancient philosophy to back up Trinitarian doctrine, you're not going to understand the nature of God either. This is the way they think about things, that ancient Rome is the precursor to enlightened Christian Rome, and they're having a lot of fun pretending they're ancient, but knowing that they're not.

Peter Adamson: That sounds like a commonality then between the Roman Academy and the Florentine Academy, this intense combination of classical antiquity and love for classical antiquity, including pagan philosophers like Plotinus on the one hand, and still Christian piety on the other hand. I mean, Marsilio Ficino is a priest, for example.

Ingrid Rowland: They really don't have a hostility to it. It's not threatening to them at that point. It's rather a fulfillment of the entire course of history, as far as they can tell.

Peter Adamson: It seems though that an obvious difference between the environment in Rome and the environment in a place like Florence, or really anywhere other than Rome, is that in Rome you have the looming presence of the papacy, which of course is right there in the shape of the Vatican. So, how did Roman humanism respond to that? Are they getting a lot of commissions or financial support from the papacy? Are they put under pressure by the popes? How does that work out?

Ingrid Rowland: They're certainly almost entirely subsidized by the popes. And so, a good deal of the philosophy that's generated in Rome goes towards justifying its status as a Christian capital. Why God always meant for this religion that began in the Holy Land to end up in Italy - all of that has to be justified. And so, there's a vested interest among the popes themselves and among the humanists to say why they are where they are and why this is of crucial importance.

Peter Adamson: But are they more susceptible to pressure from the papacy because they're literally right there in the same city? So, for example, do they have to worry more about censorship or being put on the Index, when the Index comes along in the mid-16th century?

Ingrid Rowland: When the Index happens, they will, I think there's not much pressure before that. There's kind of a collective spirit. And that means, for example, that right around the turn of the 15th into the 16th century, there was a Dominican friar who created a whole series of textual and physical forgeries telling tales about how the popes were really descended from the god Janus, and that Janus was really not just an Etrusco-Roman god, but in fact, Noah, who after the flood had landed in Italy and started the Golden Age. And so, there are all sorts of crazy theories that everybody seems to subscribe to without much dissension until the Lutheran Reformation comes along. And so, people who used to be completely in harmony furthering the popes suddenly do start fracturing along national and ideological lines. But it's not really until the challenge of the Lutheran Reformation. I think everybody's too busy building up Rome as a capital before. There's a remarkable unanimity in the way that people think.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting because I guess I think of humanism as being already from early on in the 15th century, pretty allied to the cause of historical critical scholarship. So if you think about Lorenzo Valla debunking the claims of the popes in the donation of Constantine, is that just an exception? Is he not concretely outside the Roman humanist circles or what?

Ingrid Rowland: I think as Anthony Grafton showed in his book, Forgers and Critics, the problem is that this Dominican forger, Annius of Viterbo, was such a clever antiquarian scholar himself that he almost invented the standards for humanist criticism of the late 15th, early 16th century while exploiting it to put forth something that we now think is mostly untrue. So it's an ironic and therefore fascinating and really amusing situation. And everybody believed it. So you've got the sacrifice of Noah as the culmination of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling because Noah is the first pope. You have Bramante doing the first Doric architecture, but he doesn't think it's Doric. It's Etruscan architecture. There's just this collective, we might say insanity - certainly peculiar thought that's there for a short time and then is dissipated and then everything goes much more along a normal track that we can recognize. But it's as if for about 50 years, Rome is this enclave of millennial thought, literally millennial or half millennial thought.

Peter Adamson: So which 50 years is that roughly?

Ingrid Rowland: From about the fourth in 1471 and then going into, say, the excommunication of Luther in 1521.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so that whole section around the turn of the 16th century then?

Ingrid Rowland: Yeah, and it's characterized by a fairly uniform idea of what antiquity was, that antiquity, both its Jewish and its pagan aspects are like the mosaic from the fifth century in the Church of Santa Sabina, the ancestry of the Church, the Church of the Gentiles and the Church of the Jews. And so you've got that. You have considerable tolerance for Jews, certainly by any standard of before and after. You have this belief in Etruscan heritage and the certainty that Noah was the first pope and that the pagan gods in the most extreme formulation of this were really guardian angels, which is what Giles of Viterbo, the Augustinian prelate, says explicitly. It's really, when you start looking at it, unbelievable because it just sounds as if they're all going to be clapped into the inquisitorial slammer, but they get away with it because the popes all believe it.

Peter Adamson: That's amazing. I guess we could say that just as in Florence, the humanists are supporting the claims and legitimacy of the Medici. So the same thing is happening in Rome with the humanists supporting the claims and legitimacy of the popes. Something you just mentioned there is the Sistine Chapel, which I suppose will leap to mind for a lot of people when they think of the Vatican. In your book about 16th century Rome, which I guess we should mention is called The Culture of the High Renaissance, you say something about the Sistine Chapel that really struck me. You say that it makes the layered Neoplatonic view of the world something that anyone can begin to grasp. I was wishing you'd said more about that, so could I get you to say more about that right now?

Ingrid Rowland: I know that when I wrote that, I was thinking about the first time I saw Raphael's School of Athens, which was in a little book that I got as a present for my ninth birthday. I got a whole series of little paperback art books. It wasn't even the whole School of Athens. It was most of it, but I could tell that that was a painting of people who were exactly where they should be. I think the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the same thing, where you see this colossal construction but you understand that everybody in that construction is in the right place and that it makes this completely harmonious, titanic structure that somehow you're a part of. There's something so human about both what Michelangelo's doing for Julius II and what Raphael's doing for Julius II that somehow even a kid can understand that this is a grand design. There's a great clarity of composition with both of them, and the composition is built on the idea that the world is layered. It's that way that they present layering in a way that doesn't look chaotic or scary. That rather looks inviting and it makes you feel that you're not just a cog in a great machine, but you're really part of something beautiful and wonderful and creative.

Peter Adamson: I guess ideas of harmony that come from the Pythagorean aspect of the Neoplatonic tradition would also be relevant here?

Ingrid Rowland: Very much so. There's in the corner of the School of Athens a wonderful image of a balding man, who must be Pythagoras, because he's looking at a tablet held by an angelic-looking boy - probably an angel in disguise, and it's got a Pythagorean diagram. Interestingly, Giorgio Vasari, when he went through there, described this figure as Saint Matthew instead of Pythagoras. I wonder what he was on when he looked at it.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, although it sort of goes back to what you were saying before about the confusion and medley of Christian and pagan culture, that it's possible to confuse Pythagoras for a Christian saint. That says a lot.

Ingrid Rowland: My Dutch friend, Bram Kempers, has actually tried to argue that it is Saint Matthew and that this is all perfectly fine.

Peter Adamson: What about architecture in Rome? Do you see that also as being strongly influenced by the Platonic tradition?

Ingrid Rowland: It's influenced above all, I think, by this Etruscan myth. I actually have come to believe that the way we look at classical architecture now is completely forged in the 15th and 16th century in Rome between the time of Leon Battista Alberti around 1450 and Raphael around 1519. In that period, an eclectic international style that was ancient Roman architecture that went from Hadrian's Wall in Britain down to the Sudan and off to India, all of that suddenly becomes Italianized. You get the invention of the so-called classical orders, which never existed until they're enunciated by Raphael in 1519. Doric, Ionic, Corinthian become standard instead of serving suggestions. Vitruvius almost becomes an apologist for the popes as he'd been an apologist for Augustus. I think Rome has had an absolutely determining effect on the way we understand classical architecture and theorize about classical architecture. It all has to do with a pope who's a temporal leader, but at the same time has a spiritual mission. It goes specifically to building St. Peter's because the idea of rebuilding St. Peter's was to make it so beautiful that Muslims and Jews would walk into it and become Christian on the spot.

Peter Adamson: Does it? Do we know if that ever worked?

Ingrid Rowland: There have been some art historians who've converted. It works for some people.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Before we come to an end, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a specific figure who you've worked on quite a bit whose name is Giordano Bruno, who already covered him here on the podcast. He's actually not from Rome. It would have been nice if he was because this would have been so much easier to get him into here smoothly. My excuse is that he was executed in Rome as a heretic in 1600. I thought we could start there. Maybe you could give us some context for his execution and understanding it by saying something more generally about inquisition and how it affected intellectual activity in 16th century Italy.

Ingrid Rowland: Yes, there have been inquisitions around. The Spanish Inquisition goes back, in fact, to the 15th century and pope Sixtus V actually wrote to Tomas de Torquemada and said, 'why don't you tone it down,' without any success. Ironically, one of the people who really participated most avidly in this whole mindset of Renaissance Rome where the ancient world and the Jews are part of this great heritage was the person who founded the Roman Inquisition in 1542, Pope Paul III, who was made a cardinal by the Borger pope, Alexander VI in 1493. It's the most unlikely person on the face of it to suddenly establish an inquisition along the Spanish lines, but Paul was deathly afraid of Protestantism. Normally, what the Inquisition was looking for in the 1540s going into 1560s, 1570s, especially in Rome, were instances of Protestantism, trying to make sure that people stayed on the non-Reformation side of the Protestant Reformation. Eventually, the mandate spread so that love potions and more vernacular, casual expressions of not-quite-Christianity came under their purview. Bruno's problem is that he becomes interested both in Protestantism - he was a Calvinist briefly, he was a Lutheran for a while, he was excommunicated not only as a Catholic but also as a Calvinist and Lutheran - so that he had a great gift for annoying people, while also being fantastically curious about every aspect of philosophy and theology. He was in fact arrested in Venice and was denounced by his host in Venice. He was supposed to be teaching the art of memory, and then his host wrote a scathing letter to the Venetian Inquisition saying, 'he's for, and he said all of these things.' It turns out Bruno not only was a brilliant writer and thinker, he was also a brilliant hurler of invective, much of which he probably didn't even know he was saying it when he said it, but he blasphemed like a stevedor. What this man did is simply quote some of his blasphemies, send them to the Inquisition, and once that juridical mechanism gets going, it's extremely hard to stop it. A lot of what happens in the Inquisition is in the hands of lawyers, and in practical terms Bruno blasphemed enough things to get him in trouble with the Venetian Inquisition. Normally people didn't spend very much time in inquisitorial prison. Bruno spent two years because they really just didn't know what to do with him. The more they talked to him, the more they realized he'd been traveling all over Europe, that he'd met Protestants of every kind, Anglicans, Calvinists, Lutherans. He tried twice to get back into the church in both cases, appealing to Jesuits, one in Paris and one in Venice. He's all over the map, religiously, at a time that people are not supposed to be all over the map. They're supposed to be rooted in one tradition.

Peter Adamson: You actually quote him in the book as when he's arrested and he's going to be put on trial. He says to his inquisitors, "you may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it." I was wondering, is that just tough talk on his part, or do you think he was right that there might be real misgivings about persecution, even amongst the persecutors, never mind in broader society? I mean, is this something where the inquisitors were really nervous about what they were doing, do you think?

Ingrid Rowland: Yeah, I think they were. And I think particularly the first Jesuit who ever became an inquisitor, Robert Bellarmine, who was brought on to Bruno's trial. The thing is that Bruno, as a Dominican, had been trained in inquisitorial methods, so he knew how to do it himself. And I've always thought that the arguments between... Bellarmine was brought in as the best theologian available to the Catholic side, but Bellarmine himself had almost run into problems with the inquisition because he believed that space was fluid, so that he himself was unorthodox in his thoughts. And he was really brought in to checkmate Bruno at a time when Bellarmine's a Jesuit who's living the life in this brand new order, and Bruno's been in prison for seven years. And in those conditions, they're brought face to face. And I think Bellarmine was haunted the rest of his life for what he did. There is also a letter that's an eyewitness report of Bruno's execution by burning at the stake alive rather than being discreetly strangled beforehand. And so it was an extraordinarily brutal execution. It was carried out at dawn. And what the pope, Clement VIII, specifically feared was a Protestant backlash, because enough people thought that Bruno was Protestant, that there was some legitimate doubt about how the Protestant powers would respond to this.

Peter Adamson: Actually, something that's already come out from what you've said here in this discussion about Bruno, like his traveling around in Europe, but also comes out very strongly in your book about him, is how integrated he is with what's going on in Northern Europe. Not just the Reformation itself and his flirtation with various formed versions of Christianity, but also his intellectual influences, because he draws on Copernicus, which is, I suppose, the most famous example, but he's also influenced by people like Erasmus and Nicholas of Cusa. Would you say that he, in some sense, represents a kind of interweaving of historical and philosophical developments between Italy and Protestant Europe in this period?

Ingrid Rowland: Yeah, I think so. He tries very hard to be a peacemaker. And the problem is, he's so cantankerous, so that what he wants with his heart and what he says with his mouth are often at odds. The transcripts of how he talks to his partners in inquisitorial prison... where he'll start insulting them. So one of them's reading the Brevieria, and he says, "why are you reading that piece of garbage?" And then he'll point out the window and say, "look at the stars, they're all worlds." And so he'll go from most insane swearing to these celestial visions of incredible beauty that it made him hard to handle, and he really remains a standing challenge to any idea of orthodoxy. 


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