Friday, May 06, 2011

Rome Restores the Counter-Reformation

Rome has recently seen the restoration and cleaning of four major monuments of the Counter-Reformation, the era which gave the historical center of the city many of its most beautiful and useful features. Following the order in which the monuments themselves were built, the first is a project of one of the most important Popes in the history of the city, Sixtus V, (Felice Peretti di Montalto, April 1585 – August 1590). During his reign, much of the plan of the city center was laid out as we have it today, including the broad avenues that link several of the major basilicas. He also gave Rome its second new aqueduct since ancient times, called the Acqua Felice from his baptismal name. This new water supply, completed in the second year of his pontificate, made possible the re-population of a large tract of the city known for a centuries as the “uninhabited quarter”; covering the higher parts of the hills of Rome, it had been mostly abandoned after the breaking of the ancient aqueducts during the wars of the sixth century.

The terminus of the Acqua Felice is the Fountain of Moses, by the architect Domenico Fontana, better know for one the era’s greatest engineering feats, the removal of an ancient obelisk from the south side of St. Peter’s Basilica to the large space in front of it. The Moses Fountain has never been popular, partly for the way the oversized attic stage stands out of proportion to the rest of the structure, but much more so for the truly awful statue of Moses in the central niche.

This graceless lump by Leonardo Sormani and Propsero Antichi suffers all the more from the inevitable comparison with an earlier Moses by Michelangelo; the recent removal of years of grime from passing traffic makes only a very slight improvement. Like all such monumental fountains, the Acqua Felice was not simply decorative, but meant to be used as the local water supply; the balustrade was originally meant to keep animals out of the water for people, but there was also a separate trough for animals, two large basins for washing clothes, and a ladies’ bath house, enclosed for privacy.

The second restoration is that of the Monte di Pietà, very close to the Fraternity of St. Peter’s Roman parish, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. A “monte di pietà” (mount of piety) was a type of pawn-broking firm, once very common in Italy, which enabled people to borrow money without usury; a large capital was amassed from pious donations (and often from legal fines as well), and lent out in small sums in exchange for the deposit of an item of value. Interest was not charged, but a small fee was paid to cover administrative expenses; the size of Rome’s monte indicates how successful it was. The original structure of the later 16th century was enlarged in the early 17th century by Carlo Maderno, who also served for many years as chief architect of St. Peter’s; it is not a particularly interesting building, and the bell tower, attributed to Borromini, has not yet been restored.

The façade, however, does contain a beautiful niche with an image of the dead Christ in His tomb, sadly marred by the two modern lights mounted directly onto the coffin.

The Roman Baroque of the mid-seventeenth century is dominated by three names who tower above all their contemporaries, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, and Francesco Borromini. The last of these was a Swiss native, who came to work at St. Peter’s alongside his distant relative Maderno in 1619. Among the many projects he would do in Rome over nearly half a century was the Oratorio dei Filippini, the house, library and semi-private oratory of the congregation founded by St. Philip Neri in the previous century.

The concavity of the newly cleaned façade and the eclectic mix of bowed cornices in different patterns are typical of the Borromini’s unique style, which is happily more appreciated in our own times than in previous generations. Mariano Armellini, whose 1891 book "Le Chiese di Roma" (The Churches of Rome) remains an indispensable source of information, refers to the façade as the “bizarre construction of a bizarre architect”.

The Chiesa Nuova and the Oratorio dei Filippini together form an interesting contrast between the style of Borromini and those of his contemporaries.

Another project of Carlo Maderno was the rebuilding of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the site of Rome’s second largest cupola after that of St. Peter’s. This was the spiritual home of one of the most important Italian orders of the Counter-Reformation, the Theatines, founded by St. Cajetan of Thiene in 1524. The unique charism of this congregation, the very first order of Clerks Regular, was to live with no endowments, and accept only those alms and donations spontaneously offered by the faithful, without asking or begging like the mendicants; hence their official name, the Clerks Regular of the Divine Providence. Like the Franciscans and Dominicans before them, admiration for their apostolic works and their voluntary poverty attracted many benefactors; the property on which the church was built was donated by the Duchess of Amalfi, and the nephew of Pope Sixtus V, Card. Alessandro Peretti di Montalto, paid for the rebuilding of the church with a spectacularly large donation. The church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle itself predates the Oratory; the façade, however, also just recently cleaned, is not the work of Maderno, who died in 1629, but of Carlo Rainaldi, completed between 1655 and 1663.

In taking these photographs, I found it difficult to work around the passing traffic and modern constructions, a fact which highlights one of the major problems in the preservation of Rome's artistic treasures. The modernization of the city since it became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy 150 years ago has unfortunately been very hard on works such as these. Many of Italy’s smaller cities, such as Siena, have been able to preserve their historical centers by keeping them largely closed to motor traffic; this would be very difficult to do in Italy’s capital, which is also its most populous and most visited city. The modern streets of the center, such as the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, on which the Chiesa Nuova, the Oratory and Sant’Andrea della Valle now sit, were built before the motor age; as an unintended consequence of their construction, we now have cars and buses running right next to some of the most beautiful fountains, palaces, and churches. As a result, the façades are constantly absorbing exhaust fumes, and require very frequent cleaning and maintenance. When I first visited Rome in the summer of 1995, the Fountain of Moses had just been cleaned; before the most recent restoration, it was covered in black grime, and will likely be so again before too long.

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