The Exhibition    The Making of Modern-day Rome

Modern Rome’s urban redevelopment and architecture began midway through the fifteenth century, after the city had put behind it the crisis-ridden 1400s of the Great Schism, and after asserting the Pontiffs’ power over Church lands in predominance over Rome’s municipal magistrates. The mediaeval capital of a small temporal state that entertained intense political relations with the major powers of the day gradually began its transformation into a Renaissance city with one of Europe’s most attractive cosmopolitan courts. Famous painters, architects, sculptors, musicians and writers flocked to Rome to imbue the capital of Christianity with splendour and majesty, attracted by generous commissions handed out by pontiffs, high prelates and members of Rome’s aristocracy. Papal urban development gathered pace in the run-up to each Holy Year. When in the fourteenth century the interval between holy years was reduced to twenty-five, major architectural projects, artistic endeavours and the city’s urban layout all embarked on a rolling series of improvements. Papal plans for the city in the run-up to jubilees served a multitude of purposes: to improve how it worked as a city, its security and its aesthetics, as well as demonstrating the power and authority of the Apostolic See and the Church through Rome’s magnificence.

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Between the 1400s and the 1600s, Rome’s layout changed drastically as a result of work on the City walls, the road network, bridges and aqueducts. The first overarching project, conceived by Nicolas V for the Jubilee of 1450, addressed a need to reorganize the Vatican area, which remained the focus in Sixtus’ IV renewal plan for 1475. As well as restoring churches and palazzos and undertaking major architectural intervention, Sixtus IV attended to the city’s road network and the routes followed by pilgrims. His flagship project was Ponte Sisto, which he built to reduce traffic over Ponte Sant’Angelo – at that time the only bridge over the Tiber in the vicinity of the Vatican. He created the Borgo Sant’Angelo area to facilitate access between Castel Sant’Angelo and San Pietro. For the 1500 Jubilee, Alexander VI built Via Alessandrina, a road that was later swallowed up by Via della Conciliazione. During the mid-1500s, it became vital to build links between places of worship in a city characterized by the Counterreformation, confraternities and huge processions. For the 1575 Jubilee, Gregory XIII built what today is known as Via Merulana, between St Mary Major and St John Lateran in a part of town that had fallen into neglect after the papal seat had quit it for the Vatican. Sixtus V (1585-1590) went on to remodel the area as part of his far-reaching urban redevelopment plan. The long straight roads between Rome’s most important churches and basilicas that Sixtus brought in were the hallmark feature of the city until a new wave of redevelopment plans arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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For the Pope and for Rome’s most important families, a Jubilee was a perfect opportunity to “decorate” the town: to gussy up its streets, palazzos and places of worship. Often these works went beyond clean-ups and restoration to extend to heavy enterprises like fortifying foundations, at a time when many churches were taking on increasing importance within the city’s devotional and liturgical framework. The most important Basilicas, as well as small churches and chapels, had their interiors enriched with sacred furnishings and works of sculpture and painting, some of which are among the world’s greatest masterpieces – for example, canvases commissioned from Caravaggio in July 1599 for the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi: the Vocation and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, which were ready by 1600, and Saint Matthew and the Angel, which was completed for 1602. Aristocrats’ palazzos, especially the ones that belonged to the families of Roman-born popes, benefitted during Holy Years from commissions for major amendments and refurbishments. Sometimes nearby piazzas were upgraded with fountains and water features, one example being Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Fountain of the Four rivers in Piazza Navona. Fountains were a favourite embellishment in Baroque Rome, representing the monumental part of upgrades to the Roman aqueduct system, which was a major aspect of papal plans to improve urban amenities and ensure that the City functioned as well as it could.

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