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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Four Popes that Built Rome

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Four popes – and one bishop - shaped the Rome we see today. The popes of the della Rovere, Farnese, Borghese, and Barberini families each placed their own mark on the art and architecture of the city. Despite a shocking level of graft, familial self-promotion, and sexual impropriety, these four popes and their families account for a large part of why Rome is unlike any other city.

We wouldn’t have Rome if it wasn’t for the Roman Empire, but we wouldn’t have the Vatican without the church’s first bishop, Saint Peter. It all started with a church built on the site of his death, the Basilica of Saint Peter. The Vatican complex grew around that church. Today the Vatican City State is an independent mini-country with its own security, post office, bureaucrats, and government buildings, self-governed by the Holy See. This one-hundred-and-twenty-acre state within the confines of Rome became its own entity in 1929 as part of a deal brokered between the King of Italy, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and the Catholic Church led by Pope Pius XI. Creating a separate entity resolved territorial and governance issues after the unification of Italy.

Pre-Roman the area was known as Vatica by the Etruscans, hence its name. Originally a marshy wetland, it was drained to construct Roman villas and a circus, an outdoor entertainment center. Caligula (r. 31-41 CE) and Nero (r. 54-68 CE) built a long oval or rectangular shaped chariot race track for entertainment on the Vatica. The Circus of Nero was within a stone’s throw from today’s St. Peter’s. Romans liked to bring back monumental and luxury objects from their conquests, and transporting an obelisk from Egypt was an appropriate way to mark a victory. The obelisk currently in St. Peter’s square is from Heliopolis and was first placed in the middle of the Circus and later moved to its current location. The Circus also became a place for executions and Christian martyrdom. Just across the street from the Circus was a Roman cemetery. There is adequate evidence to situate the Vatican complex and even St. Peter’s slightly adjacent or directly over the Circus and cemetery, which brings us to the first leader of the church, Peter.

A fisherman from Bethsaida, he was also known as Simon Peter. Jesus also called him Cephas which means rock or stone. Whether that meant he was rough around the edges or stable like a rock is disputed. According to the Gospel of John it was Peter who sliced off the ear of the High Priest’s servant out of anger when Jesus was arrested, as well as denying knowing Jesus three times when questioned. Jesus appeared to Peter first of the twelve disciples following the resurrection, which theologically established him as the leader of the followers. He was instrumental in evangelizing and communicating with other like-minded followers as the movement grew. He was seen as a galvanizing figure.

He was in Rome by approximately 42 CE (although the evidence is not hard fast), working with a growing but small community of followers in an environment increasingly hostile to new religious beliefs. He was crucified about 64 CE purportedly in the Circus of Nero. After the disastrous 64 CE fire in Rome which caught Nero off guard, Christians were a target for persecution. Although his death is not mentioned in scripture, and the facts are far from secure, legend says he asked to be crucified upside down as he did not deserve to die in the same way as Jesus. If true, Peter’s dying view might have been the Heliopolis obelisk.

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, 1600-1601, photo Gerriann Brower.
Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, 1600-1601, photo Gerriann Brower.

Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, began a church on the site where Peter was slain with the high altar over his place of death. Begun in the early fourth century, it went through many iterations. Excavations in the mid twentieth century found human remains in the crypt under the high altar with bones of a male aged in his early sixties from the first century. Believers presume these to be the remains of St. Peter, along with other martyrs. The proximity of the Circus of Nero, gravesite, and construction of the Basilica of St. Peter lends credibility to these assumptions.

Matthew (16:18-19) affirms Peter’s leadership when Jesus said “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It is this passage that lends itself to artistic depictions of Peter holding a set of keys on or near a rock, symbolizing the church. This creates a direct transfer of leadership from Jesus to Peter to the pope.

The della Rovere

Rome was a decaying city during the Middle Ages. The della Rovere family decided to breathe life back into the city and its in habitants. If we time travelled back to the late 1400s, we would hardly recognize Rome. After the end of the Roman empire the city fell into decline and was no longer a major political or military player. The center of powers shifted to other cities. Rome was in a dilapidated state, with broken down buildings, swampy land, and poor or non-existent infrastructure. By comparison Florence was considered the more sophisticated and modern city.

Once thriving with one million inhabitants, there were now merely 50,000 people. Partially to blame was the 1378 -1417 Great Schism, when different factions of cardinals elected opposing popes, all claiming to be the true pope. Papal authority was diminished with the pope residing in France for some time. Rome once again became the home to the papacy in the second half of the fifteenth century.

There were two popes from the della Rovere family who put Rome back on the map. Sixtus IV (1414-84) and Julius II (1443-1513) enhanced their own family’s wealth and status while re-imagining Rome with art and architecture. It was under their guidance that Rome regained status as an art and power center. This was also a time of discovery and appreciation of Greco-Roman art. Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House), which had become buried underground, was discovered during Julius II’s reign as well as important sculptures. These rediscoveries had an enormous impact on artists seeking to emulate the classical arts.

Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere) began his life in northern Italy, and entered the Franciscan order when he was about ten years old. The church essentially was his family. He was well educated with a doctorate from Padua and ambitious enough to bring the della Rovere family into a position of influence. The Papal States were like a small kingdom, and the pope was like the king. Unlike other parts of Europe, Italian nobility was not land based on inherited wealth but founded on accumulated family wealth initially from banking or commerce and then invested in land. For the Papal States, the church was the business that brought in the money. The territory of the Papal States cut through central Italy. Essentially the pope had dual roles, as ruler of this land, and as a religious leader for the church. Their territory consisted of Bologna in the north and south along the Adriatic coast to Campagna and west to Rome.

One way to create family wealth is to elevate male relatives to the college of cardinals – which he freely did. The cardinals held considerable sway politically and socially, plus they were rich, given their large stipends to fund lavish lifestyles. Six della Rovere nephews were made cardinals, including Giuliano della Rovere, who became Pope Julius II (r 1503-13).

Upon his election in 1471 Sixtus IV began to revamp Rome. We can thank the della Rovere for much of the Vatican complex, especially the Sistine Chapel, named so as Sisto means Sixtus in Italian. Sixtus IV was a political opportunist and schemer who in 1478 was involved in an attempt to oust the Medici from Florence by assassinating Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. Known as the Pazzi conspiracy, only Giuliano perished from his stabbing wounds. The Medici rounded up those involved and hung them – including the archbishop of Pisa. Rome and Florence declared war against each other, with a peace declared in 1480.

It was only after this fiasco that Sixtus decided to fresco the interior walls of the Sistine, which was begun in 1473. He called the best and the brightest artists to complete eighteen frescoes. Botticelli and Perugino were among the Tuscan artists summoned to Rome. Perugino’s Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter is one of those frescoes on the wall, usually overlooked by visitors turning their heads upward to Michelangelo’s ceiling. Born in the town of Perugia, Pietro Vannucci (c. 1450-1523), or Perugino, was by today’s standards a conservative artist who followed tradition and was eventually surpassed by his pupil, Raphael. His composition is stable, evenly balanced, and without drama. Religious figures are dignified.

Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, c. 1480-82, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, c. 1480-82, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are three horizontal planes to provide organization. The foreground with key figures, the middle ground with smaller sized figures and the three architectural structures. A calm landscape with blue sky and a few clouds opens up beyond the piazza. The foreground scene is straight out of scripture with Christ presenting a large key to a humbled and kneeling St. Peter. The domed building in the background surely represents the church with its modernity and solid form. Two triumphal arches flank the red domed building. The three buildings are perfect in proportion and appear new and in top Renaissance form, not in ruins. In the background to the left is a scene from Matthew 22:21 in which some set out to entrap Jesus with a trick question. Jesus replies “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” To the right a number of lads are winding up ready to throw fast balls as they aim at Jesus. They accuse him of blasphemy; however, he escapes. Establishing the lineage of Jesus from the Old Testament to the New Testament along with the authority of the pope is the main idea of the Sistine Chapel wall and ceiling frescoes.

The ambitiousness of the della Rovere is nothing short of amazing. It would have been enough to build and start to decorate the Sistine Chapel. Sixtus was especially devoted to the Virgin Mary and issued a papal bull settling the contentious issue of Mary as Jesus’ mother in consideration of her humanness and therefore sinful nature. The end result was the Immaculate Conception which determined she was born without original sin. Sixtus built two churches in her name, Santa Maria del Popolo (St. Mary of the People) and Santa Maria della Pace (St. Mary of Peace).

Santa Maria del Popolo is tucked in the northern part of the historic center with the expansive Borghese Gardens to the east. Pilgrims entered the city from the gate near the church, and building a new della Rovere church by the entry was not only a part of his publicity plan, but a place for the family to be buried. Today the church houses magnificent art including Caravaggio paintings in the Cerasi Chapel. Santa Maria della Pace is a small church by Piazza Navona. Allegedly a miracle occurred when some men fighting threw a rock and it hit a frescoed column of the Virgin. It began to bleed. This was heralded as a great sign. This miracle caused the church to be rebuilt under Sixtus and dedicated to the Virgin. All this happened at the same time Sixtus needed peace with Florence as he had failed to oust the Medici by assassination or through war. Rebuilding the church as a sign of peace helped change the narrative from losing to winning peace.

Julius II had years of practice as a cardinal in politicking, building new churches, acquiring palaces, and commissioning art. Once elected in 1503, he had a few clear goals: establish Rome as the premier Christian city, increase the territory of the papal states, subdue and control enemies, and enrich family members through benefices. The arts represented their family’s power and ambition while reinforcing papal authority. The oak leaf is their symbol and is frequently found in decorative elements. In addition, the della Rovere endeavored to rid the Papal States and surrounding territories in Italy of foreign rule, particularly the French. His earned a nickname of the Warrior Pope for his temperament and aggression. These popes may look old and infirm in portraits but they were fierce and competitive.

At the beginning of Julius’ reign, most of the population lived in the Campo Marzio (Campus Martius) by the bend of the Tiber. Neighborhoods were squalid and dangerous. Crime was rampant. He became the law-and-order pope and lessened the chaos of urban Rome. Michelangelo was stunned when he traveled from his native Florence to Rome to work for Julius. Crumbled ruins were everywhere. Walls surrounded the eleven plus mile circumference of the city, but one could hardly call it a city since much of it was uninhabited.

Julius was a bit of a loose cannon. He defied tradition and made bold decisions. One decision was to enlarge the papal palace and join the country house called the Belvedere to the palace, which is now the long corridors of the Vatican museums. This was not an easy architectural task. Not finished until long after he died, it created what visitors see today as they walk through the museum complex. He created the equivalent of an artistic transformation by first calling Michelangelo to Rome in 1503 to create his tomb project, in 1508 to paint the Sistine Ceiling, and then Raphael in 1509 to paint the series of papal rooms called the Stanze.

In his efforts to drive the French out of the Papal States he acted as military commander on the front lines. Supposedly he beat his cardinals with a cane when they balked at following him through deep snow. He was successful in forcing the French troops to retreat. He also grew a beard – a first for a pope of that era. As many artists found out, he was demanding and unwavering in his pursuits.

The most momentous decision Julius made for Rome was to rebuild St. Peter’s. Discussions about a new church had been bantered about for decades, but Julius decided to appoint an architect and start planning. It would take one-hundred-seventy years to complete St. Peter’s with ten papal architects, and under the direction of more than twenty popes.

Raphael, Liberation of St. Peter from Prison, 1513, Stanza d’Eliodoro, Vatican, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.
Raphael, Liberation of St. Peter from Prison, 1513, Stanza d’Eliodoro, Vatican, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.

Raphael’s frescoes in the papal apartments occurred simultaneously with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling painting. Michelangelo locked down his chapel as he didn’t want onlookers, but Raphael snuck in, as did a few others. Both were executing frescoes that would shape the art world for decades, if not centuries. Raphael became a favorite of Julius and gained many commissions through important contacts. Portrait painting of the elite ensued. Raphael painted a portrait of Julius II in 1511. He also included a portrait of Julius in the Liberation of St. Peter from Prison. St. Peter was chained in prison when an angel appeared and woke Peter, instructing him to get up and leave. The chains fell off and freed Peter. Raphael painted Julius as Peter – an unusual move – but symbolic of his victory over the French. Raphael’s composition is brilliantly conceived in three scenes around the room’s window. The divine light is rendered dramatically and is one of the most commanding scenes in the sixteen Stanze frescoes.

Following Julius II’s death Rome was ruled mostly by the Medici for about two decades. 1527 was a pivotal year in the history of Rome when the city was invaded, sacked, and looted by anti-papal troops, mostly Germans. Plundering of churches and homes continued for eight months. Conflict had been brewing for years between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII, as well as between Protestants and Catholics. Those who could fled Rome, including Michelangelo. The pope remained a prisoner in Castel Sant’Angelo until he could flee. Thousands were killed or murdered. Half the population left. It was a turning point for the church and the city. Economically devastated, smoldering from fires, and unstable, Rome was humiliated. When the pope did return in fall of 1528 life was very different. Artistically, the church turned towards more orthodox interpretations in an effort to shore up its belief system.

The Farnese

The next consequential pope for the building of Rome was Paul III, Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549). One might think post Sack of Rome popes might rethink the nepotism, lavish lifestyles, and over the top artistic commissions. It didn’t happen. Paul was keen to undertake many projects, and with Michelangelo as his papal artist/architect/sculptor, there was no end to his ideas. Elected at age sixty-six, most thought he would be short-lived. He served longer than any other pope in the sixteenth century.

The Farnese family wormed their way into the papal circles and power. He was not without shortcomings. Outwardly Paul signaled that he wanted sincere reform in the church, but his actions betrayed his intentions to enrich the Farnese clan. Paul’s ancestors were military commanders that fought for the papacy and were awarded with land and titles that allowed them to marry into nobility. Paul’s ecclesiastical career was boosted intentionally or unintentionally by his beautiful sister, Giulia (1475-1524). In 1493 she became the mistress of Pope Alexander VI, from the Borgia family. That same year he was made cardinal deacon and a few years later made bishop. He was not yet ordained as a priest. By 1500 Paul was a father. His mistress gave birth to four children, three sons and a daughter. Julius II, who also had a child before becoming pope, legitimized two of the children. The other two were legitimized later by Pope Leo X.

After Paul attained the papacy, he in turn made his two grandsons cardinals. One grandson, Alessandro (1520-89), was made cardinal in 1534 at age 14. Known as the Gran Cardinale, he also had a daughter during his ecclesiastical career. The wealth from becoming cardinal was astounding depending on which territories the pope assigned to the cardinal. The Gran Cardinale received two of the richest territories, Avignon in France and Monreale in Sicily. He received church income of about 76,000 scudi in 1571. For comparison, Michelangelo received about 6,000 scudi for painting the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

In 1536, just two years after election, Paul commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement. At more than two thousand square feet, it was Michelangelo’s last large fresco. There are nearly four hundred figures and it took him five years to complete. He complained about how difficult it was to fresco in his sixties. After completion there were multiple criticisms about religious figures’ nudity in light of church reform and need for decorum. After Michelangelo’s death an artist reconfigured a few poses and painted some gauzy fabric around the loins of saints. He became known as the “pants painter.”

Michelangelo began his final fresco of his career in 1542. Two sizable frescoes, the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, were made for the pope’s private chapel, named the Pauline Chapel. However, the biggest project, one that would occupy him for the remainder of his seventeen years, was assuming responsibility for St. Peter’s as supreme architect in 1546 at age seventy-one. He was involved secondarily or for design purposes in numerous other Farnese projects including the exterior of the Palazzo Farnese, and the Campidoglio square design on Capitoline Hill. Paul and Michelangelo got along very well, as they came from the same Florentine Medici circles in their youth. Michelangelo asked his nephew to send Tuscan wine and pears to Rome, which he shared with Paul.

Paul strove to restore Rome as a first-class city. However, troubles were brewing and Paul did little to stem the tide of resistance with Protestant revolt in Northern Europe, public fatigue with ongoing nepotism, and outrageous papal wealth. He unenthusiastically convened the Council of Trent to address church reform, an effort that would drag on until 1563. He did make some positive changes to the church structure. The Jesuits were a new order with emphasis on direct help for the poor and parishes. They soon became a teaching order, opening a university with education as their mission. Paul gave official recognition to the Society of Jesus, as they are known, in 1540. Other Farnese family members built the Church of Il Gesù, the Most Holy Name of Jesus, in honor of the Jesuits. It was consecrated in 1584. The interior is a Baroque burst of energy from the seventeenth century complete with a trompe l’oeil ceiling painting and stucco extravaganza.

Michelangelo was not the only beneficiary of Farnese patronage. The Venetian painter Titian was eager to attain Farnese patronage. Partly this was competition with Michelangelo and for personal benefit. Rome’s inner circle was tight. Michelangelo was an insider and Titian was an outsider. Titian’s son Pomponio was also an ecclesiastic and Titian sought to enhance Pomponio’s career. By ingratiating himself with the Farnese he would earn another important patron and be in a position to ask for a benefice for his son. The way to arrange for this was by painting some portraits for the Farnese. He started with grandson Ranuccio, and conveyed that he was available to paint other Farnese family members, and even the cats. Titian never received the ecclesiastical benefice for his son but the Farnese had their portraits painted, but not of the cats.

Titian, Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, 1545-6, Museo Nazionale Di Capodimonte, Naples, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Titian, Pope Paul III and his Grandsons, 1545-6, Museo Nazionale Di Capodimonte, Naples, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Titian completed Farnese portraits in the 1540s, including one of Paul III in 1543. A few years later Titian painted a group portrait. The painting is an intriguing threesome of Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro, and Ottavio Farnese, one of the three grandsons who married legitimately to carry on the family line. Paul is seated, turning towards Ottavio, with his right hand on a table. Ottavio is caught in an awkward pose of bowing to the pope with his hat removed. Paul turns his head to make eye contact while Ottavio looks downward.

The seventy-seven-year-old pope looks bent over and frail, but the glance and firm look show his steel. The Gran Cardinale makes eye contact with the viewer. Is that a look of hope on his face that he would someday be pope? He is youthful and well-groomed. Much has been made about the body language of the three men: Ottavio’s submissive posture, the pope’s age and sternness, and Alessandro’s expression. Did Ottavio interrupt papal business between grandfather and grandson or is he a hanger-on who wanted to please the pope? The painting is unfinished. The pope’s right hand and throne back are barely sketched in. These details go unnoticed with the psychological intrigue Titian created. We don’t know if the Farnese refused the painting because it did not meet their expectations or if Titian left it unfinished as the benefice for his son never materialized. Cardinal Alessandro never became pope and their influence in Roman circles dwindled over time.

The Borghese

The decades following the Farnese were filled with strife and violence, with bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, especially in Northern Europe. Political tensions were high throughout Europe. Popes in the last fifty years of the sixteenth century were mostly short-lived and occupied with revolts. Camillo Borghese (1552-1621) heralded from a Sienese family with experience in governing and legal affairs. Elected in 1605, he took the name of Paul V. Much had changed since Paul III ruled. The split between religious beliefs was real and permanent. The church was less influential over princes and kings. Paul V was strict and authoritarian and felt the need to exert church authority in a more orthodox manner. Theologically his main purpose was to maintain strict control over the domain of the church. Artistically it was to finish St. Peter’s. Personally, it was to create a lineage of Borghese riches. He succeeded in all three.

Paul V did not have any children, which was an improvement from past behaviors, but one that didn’t continue for future popes. Today the name Borghese is difficult to evade in Rome. There are two family residences in Rome, the Palazzo Borghese (the Borghese family is still alive) and the Villa Borghese. The Villa Borghese is the well-known gallery of priceless art surrounding by expansive public gardens. The villa was a day or summer residence. The palazzo, only about one mile from the villa, was the main residence for the family. Paul V also expanded the papal summer palace, the Palazzo del Quirinale mainly for the purpose of governing the papal states. Paul V lived in the Quirinale the last eight years of his life, and it has housed many popes, kings of the Italy, and is now the home of the President of the Italian Republic.

Paul V did curb nepotism a bit. The one recipient of the cardinalship during his tenure, his nephew Scipione Borghese, lived a grandiose lifestyle. Cardinal Scipione (1576-1633) was a cruel and vengeful hedonist. He received a stipend of about 140,000 scudi a year to support his art patronage and lifestyle. A tailor made about 42 scudi a year. He is best known for his patronage of paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Bernini. He constructed the Villa Borghese in 1606 by buying up vineyards on what was then the outskirts of Rome. The villa became a center for the erudite to gather and for social occasions. Scipione had a real eye for young talent (and young men) and filled the villa with masterpieces. Oddly enough he did not particularly support religious art but had an interest in collecting antiquities. Of the villas and palaces remaining in Rome from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is one of, if not, the best.

Basilica of St. Peter, Rome, photos Gerriann Brower. Exterior with Borghese inscription, the Heliopolis obelisk in the piazza, and the interior with the Baldacchino.

It seems Paul V let his nephew live his life with little interference. Paul was busy with other projects. He continued city improvement projects to widen streets, provide new housing and markets, and expand living areas in the Trastevere. St. Peter’s continued to dominate architectural projects, this time with Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) as the chief architect. He changed Michelangelo’s nave plan from a smaller central plan to a longer nave which would accommodate more people.

The façade was started in the early 1600s and he mostly left Michelangelo’s design features intact. The structure was finished in 1612 although interior decorative elements were completed later. The pope credited himself by inscribing “Paulus V Borghesius Romanus” on the frieze of the façade. St. Peter’s ceased to be a construction site and was open to the public and for services at the high altar. The church was built directly over the old St. Peter’s, although there was much consternation about the removal and destruction of the old church and its building materials.

The Barberini

Maffeo Barberini’s family hailed from Tuscany and gained their riches in the cloth and textile industry, then investing in land. His parents had three boys, which by tradition meant the eldest would marry and carry on the family line while the other two would pursue ecclesiastical careers. Fortunately, Maffeo (1568-1644) had an uncle who became the papal treasurer and apostolic legal expert. The uncle became an important mentor for the future pope, educating him at a Jesuit college. Maffeo received the cardinalship from Paul V. He fancied art, poetry, and high culture while working in the papal court as a diplomat in France. He was elected pope in 1623 at the youthful age of fifty-five. He chose the name Urban VIII.

While still a cardinal Maffeo made fast friends with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a rising star as a sculptor and architect. When elected he secured Bernini’s talents to design the interior of St. Peter’s. If Michelangelo can be credited with the dome and exterior of St. Peter’s, Bernini can be credited with the interior and piazza. Bernini and Urban were close friends, what we would call today a bro-mance. Bernini had unlimited access to staff, materials, and resources. Bernini’s first objective was to design and construct the high altar over the tomb of St. Peter.

The challenge is making the structure work within the vast spatial dimensions of St. Peter’s. He designed four twisted bronze columns with a canopy. Four angels are atop the canopy. Called the Baldacchino, work began on it in 1624 and lasted nearly ten years. It is not only a focal point in the space but serves as a religious purpose for the consecration of the body and blood of Christ. On this monument as well as other Barberini artworks you can see clusters of three bees, the symbol of the Barberini family. Bernini’s brilliance is that the visitors can see through the Baldacchino to the apse of the church. It does not stop the eye from seeing the entirety of the church as you move about. It fits well with the monumentality of the interior space yet the darker bronze contrasts with the light grey interior.

There’s a famous saying in Rome that goes something like this: “What the Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberini did.” The Barberini spent outrageous amounts of money on St. Peter’s and art for their own collection which drained the papal coffers. However, the saying pertains specifically to Urban’s direction to strip the bronze off the Roman Pantheon to use for the Baldacchino structure. Bronze was a particularly expensive material. Defacing ancient monuments was not looked upon kindly by the Romans.

Pietro da Cortona, Portrait of Pope Urban VIII, 1624-27, Sacchetti Collection Capitoline Museums, Rome, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Pietro da Cortona, Portrait of Pope Urban VIII, 1624-27, Sacchetti Collection Capitoline Museums, Rome, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bernini and his studio were responsible for so much more inside and outside of St. Peter’s. Huge statues of saints in the four corners of the crossing are of Bernini’s design. He was also responsible for Cathedra Petri. Thought to be the actual relic of the chair of St. Peter, it is housed in a throne in the apse, surrounded by golden rays of light bursting through to the wall with stucco rays emitting from Michelangelo’s window. The throne represents the mother church, the bishop St. Peter, and the supremacy of the pope. The golden throne floats in space and acts as a reminder of the power of the saints and the direct lineage from St. Peter to the current pope.

Following Urban’s death, Bernini continued to work on St. Peter’s under Pope Innocent X for about ten more years. By about 1667 the Rome you see today was finalized with few exceptions. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) and Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) in Piazza Navona, the Piazza of St. Peter’s, and other fountains were completed under Alexander VII.

If you tour Rome, look for the heraldic symbols of the popes’ families on fountains, statues, and in paintings. It helps to identify the era and the patron. Oak leaves, acorns, and trees symbolize the della Rovere. Michelangelo included acorns and oak leaves in the Sistine ceiling. The Farnese have six fleur-de-lis or irises which are decorative elements on the exterior of the Palazzo Farnese. The Borghese logo is the dragon and eagle, which are found in great numbers on the exterior of the Villa Borghese. The Barberini originally were identified with horseflies, but modified them to bees. There are bees on the chair of Urban VIII's portrait by Pietro da Cortona. A wild guess by some is that there are 10,000 instances of Barberini bees on various Roman artworks.


Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Penguin, 1990.

Majanlahti, Anthony. The Families that Made Rome. Pimlico, 2006.

McKitterick, Rosamond and John Osborne, et. al., editors. Old Saint Peter’s, Rome. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Mormando, Franco. Bernini: His Life and His Rome. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.

Verstegen, Ian F., editor. Patronage and Dynasty: The Rise of the della Rovere in Renaissance Italy. Truman State University Press, 2007.

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