Power Made Visible: Pope Sixtus IV as Urbis Restaurator in Quattrocento Rome

Article excerpt

A single medal, commemorating the completion of the bridge, the Ponte Sisto, captures the duality of Pope Sixtus IV's (Francesco della Rovere, 1471-1484) official role as spiritual leader and his chosen role as urban renovator. The medal features a profile portrait of Sixtus surrounded by the words "SEXTVS IIII PONT MAX SACRICVLTOR," while on the back a three-line inscription above a small image of the Ponte Sisto (fig. 1) proclaims "CVRA / RERVM / PVBLICARVM." The obverse depicts Sixtus as the high priest of Christendom, while the reverse shows the pontiff as the caretaker of urban projects. This article explores what the medal makes visible: within his extensive patronage of art, Sixtus commissioned public works that advertised his refurbishment of Rome while communicating the message of his secular and sacred authority to observers throughout the Eternal City. The Capitoline Museum, Aqua Vergine, Ponte Sisto, the Vatican Library, and newly paved streets not only built upon and recalled ancient power and history, but they also publicly proclaimed the success of Sixtus' papacy. By extending his vision to all of Rome (see map, fig. 2) and not just particular areas of the city, as his papal predecessors had, the pope exhibited a new supremacy.1 In restoring the grandeur of ancient Rome, Sixtus claimed both temporal and spiritual importance.

Fifteen hundred years before Sixtus became pope, the emperor Augustus restored temples, built a new forum in the Campus Martius, founded Latin and Greek libraries in a wing of his imperial residence on the Palatine Hill, and paved several major roads. By fashioning himself as Urbis Restaurator, Sixtus aligned himself more with this tradition than with the example of his papal predecessors.2 Sixtus commissioned projects similar to those completed by Augustus: he built churches, established the Latin and Greek libraries in the Vatican Palace, paved major streets and piazzas, constructed the Ponte Sisto, and reconstructed the Aqua Vergine. Contemporary eulogists drew parallels between Sixtus and the illustrious emperor, sometimes praising the pope as being the reincarnation of Augustus himself.5 The humanist Ludovico Lazzarelli extolled the pope's achievements in relation to ancient leaders, "For you repair churches once deformed in ugly ruins. You stretch out new bridges, and even pave streets, that Agrippa took up, which Augustus had from this time encouraged! You [Sixtus] repair the waters of the Fountain Vergine."4 The urbanism of Sixtus recalled the classical city, wrote Raffaelo Maffei, since the pontiff "made Rome from a city of brick into stone just as Augustus of old had turned the stone city into marble."5 The poet Aurelio Brandolini echoed this sentiment, and congratulated Sixtus for surpassing the ancient Rome rulers:

But Sixtus dared this and he alone ordered old Rome to rise up again; no, actually he himself founded a new Rome!

This man returned beauty to the city and he removed the old ruins and he laid out in all directions a road of baked brick.

He built a famous work of a bridge and he restored churches, many to be sure, but he built still more new ones.

He collected books of the ancients, he collected books of recent writers.

He himself brought back the Aqua Vergine to the Campus Martius.

And what those and others did in 1500 years, this man himself accomplished in ten years.

Father Romulus, yield! All ancients, yield!6

Just two days into his reign, Sixtus began his civic renovation program when he attempted to protect the public property of Rome by proclaiming that no type of column or marble statuary could be moved for other uses.7 Early in his papacy, the pontiff repaired several ancient temples that long ago had been turned into churches, cleaned the Cloaca Maxima in the Foro Boario, issued new conservation laws, and commissioned the restoration of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.), thought to be of Constantine, in front of the Lateran. …