29 July 2017

Pope Urban VIII

Pontiff whose extravagance led to disgrace

Caravaggio's portrait of the future Urban VIII
Caravaggio's portrait of the future Urban VIII
The controversial Pope Urban VIII died on this day in 1644 in Rome.

Urban VIII – born Maffeo Barberini – was a significant patron of the arts, the sponsor of the brilliant sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose work had a major influence on the look of Rome.

But in his ambitions to strengthen and expand the Papal States, he overreached himself in a disastrous war against Odoardo Farnese, the Duke of Parma, and the expenses incurred in that and other conflicts, combined with extravagant spending on himself and his family, left the papacy seriously weakened.

Indeed, so unpopular was Urban VIII that after news spread of his death there was rioting in Rome and a bust of him on Capitoline Hill was destroyed by an angry mob.

His time in office was also notable for the conviction in 1633 for heresy of the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had promoted the supposition, put forward by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, which was directly contrary to the orthodox Roman Catholic belief that the sun revolved around the earth.

A bust of Urban VIII sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1637-8
A bust of Urban VIII sculpted by
Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1637-8
Urban VIII was born to Antonio Barberini, a Florentine nobleman, and Camilla Barbadoro, in Florence in April 1568, moving to Rome after the death of his father in 1571 to be placed in the charge of his uncle, Francesco Barberini, who was part of the papal staff.

He was educated by the Jesuits, received a doctorate of law from the University of Pisa and, through the influence of his uncle, was appointed by Pope Clement VIII to be a papal legate to the court of King Henry IV of France.

He became rich overnight at the death of his uncle, who had some years earlier named him as his heir. He immediately bought a palace in Rome that he turned into a luxurious Renaissance residence.

He maintained his high status in the church under Clement VIII’s successor, Pope Paul V, who raised him to the order of the Cardinal-Priest, with the titular church of San Pietro in Montorio. On the death of Paul V’s successor, Pope Gregory XV, he was chosen as pope in 1623.

Only 56 when he began he reign, he was seen as an elegant, refined figure with an aristocratic bearing and regarded as an excellent debater. He also was skilled in writing Latin verse and was the author of a number of hymns and scriptural works.

Yet he was extraordinarily extravagant and with shameless nepotism appointed several members of his family to prominent positions in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini took on many commissions for Urban VIII
Gian Lorenzo Bernini took on many
commissions for Urban VIII
He elevated to Cardinal his brother Antonio Marcello Barberini and his nephews Francesco Barberini and Antonio Barberini. He also gave another nephew, Taddeo Barberini, the titles Prince of Palestrina, Gonfalonier of the Church, Prefect of Rome and Commander of Sant'Angelo.  The effect of this was that the wealth of the Barberini family grew massively.

Urban VIII’s sponsorship of Bernini was also extremely expensive, for all that it enriched the landscape of Rome for posterity.

In addition to having him sculpt several portrait busts of himself, Urban commissioned Bernini to work on the family palace in Rome, the Palazzo Barberini, the College of the Propaganda Fide and the Fontana del Tritone in the Piazza Barberini.

Urban appointed Bernini architect of St Peter’s in succession to Carlo Maderno. Many important additions were down to Bernini, including the gilt-bronze baldacchino over the tomb of St Peter and the colonnades enclosing the piazza in front of the basilica, which is considered his greatest architectural achievement.

Numerous members of the Barberini family also had their likenesses sculpted by Bernini, such as his brothers Carlo and Antonio. Urban also had Bernini rebuild the Church of Santa Bibiana and the Church of San Sebastiano al Palatino on the Palatine Hill.

Urban VIII’s spending extended to building the grandiose papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, fortifying the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, erecting the strategically located Fort Urbano at Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena, developing Civitavecchia, north of Rome, into a flourishing port with a military harbour, and enlarging the arsenal at Tivoli.

Bernini's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini is one of the sculptor's many famous works in Rome
Bernini's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini
is one of the sculptor's many famous works in Rome
With the acquisition of the Duchy of Urbino in 1626, he had established the Papal States as a compact, well-defended bloc dominating central Italy.

But then came the war against Odoardo Farnese, the Duke of Parma, which some historians blame on his nephews.

The conflict was rooted in a quarrel over questions of etiquette during the Duke’s visit to Rome in 1639. In revenge,  the nephews persuaded Urban to ban the export of grain from Castro, an ancient city controlled by the Farnese family in what is now northern Lazio, to the Papal States.

This deprived Farnese of an income he needed to pay the interest on his borrowings. The Duke's creditors complained to the pope, who took forcible possession of Castro in order to assure the payment. When the Duke still failed to meet his debts, Urban excommunicated him and deprived him of all his fiefs.

What Urban VIII had not foreseen was that the Farnese would enlist the support of Tuscany, Modena, and Venice in raising an army of about 3000 horsemen, who put the papal troops to flight. When Urban refused to accept proposed peace terms, hostilities were renewed and continued until the pope finally conceded defeat in March, 1644.

By then the debts of the Papal States had grown so huge that 80 per cent of their annual income was spent on paying the interest alone.

Urban VIII died disliked and in disgrace, his achievements as pope, such as denouncing the slave trade in the West Indies and Brazil, clearing the way for Jesuit missionaries to travel to South America, China and Japan and banning the use of tobacco in holy places – a decree that was repealed 100 years later – not given the recognition they deserved.

His tomb, sculpted by Bernini, is in St Peter’s Basilica.

The papal palace at Castel Gandolfo opens on to the town's main square, Piazza della Libertà
The papal palace at Castel Gandolfo opens on to the
town's main square, Piazza della Libertà
Travel tip:

Visitors to the town of Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills, overlooking Lago Albano in the area known as the Castelli Romani, can now go inside Urban VIII’s 17th century papal palace, which ceased to be a papal residence in 2016 at the behest of the incumbent Pope Francis, ending its centuries’ old role as the summer retreat for the pontiff.  Built on the site of what was once the residence of the Roman emperor Domitian, the palace was designed for Urban VIII by the then architect of St Peter’s, Carlo Maderno.

Tortellini are said to be shaped to represent a female navel
Tortellini are said to be shaped to represent a female navel
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Emilia is a town just to the east of Modena, straddling the ancient Via Emilia, the Roman road that ran from Piacentia (now Piacenza) to Ariminum (now Rimini) on the Adriatic coast. It is said to be the home of tortellini, the stuffed pasta supposedly created by an innkeeper to represent the navel of a female guest with whom he was particularly taken and whom he had spied upon while bathing.

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