In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Papal Rome

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Rome in Transition
  • The Sack of Rome
  • Society
  • Architectural Studies
  • Economy
  • Art and Sculpture
  • Schooling and the University of Rome
  • Humanist Culture and Scholarship
  • Music, Theater, Court, Ritual, and Spectacle
  • The Mystique of Rome

Renaissance and Reformation Papal Rome
Frederick McGinness
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0053


No other city in Europe matches Rome in its traditions, history, legacies, and influence in the Western world. Rome in the Renaissance under the papacy not only acted as guardian and transmitter of these elements stemming from the Roman Empire but also assumed the role as artificer and interpreter of its myths and meanings for the peoples of Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times. At the time the popes left Rome for Avignon in 1308, the population of the once-fabled city of Rome and center of empire had shrunk in population to no more than thirty thousand from one of more than a million and a half at its height; its historic monuments and fabric for the most part lay in ruins. Yet in the view of western Europe, its importance lay in the relics of its Christian martyrs, above all in those of Saints Peter and Paul, the two pillars of the Christian faith. In 1420, when the popes returned to the city to live there permanently, and especially beginning with the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447–1455), Rome began at first a slow but soon accelerating process of urban, cultural, and economic renewal that propelled it even beyond the great cities of Renaissance Italy—Naples, Venice, Milan, and Florence. Under the patronage of the popes, whose wealth and income were exceeded only by their ambitions, the city became a cultural center for master architects, sculptors, musicians, painters, and artisans of every kind. By the early 16th century Rome had become recognized as the new center of culture and artistic achievement; in its splendor it would hold this primacy of place throughout the 17th century, despite some devastating setbacks, especially that of the Sack of Rome in 1527 by troops of the imperial army. In its myth and message, Rome had become the sacred city of the popes, the prime symbol of a triumphant Catholicism, the center of orthodox Christianity, a new Jerusalem. The abundant riches of Rome have led scholars to consider the city not merely under all the above aspects but, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries especially, its complex social history, economic patterns, political conflicts and struggles, and the many contradictions lying beneath the mystique of Rome as the urbs sancta et aeterna.

General Overviews

Few scholars set chronologically specific dates for the Renaissance in Rome, though most studies place it between the pontificates of Nicholas V (1447–1455) and Clement VII (1523–1534), some even more precisely between 1420 and 1527, with others allowing for leeway on either side, though more on the side of the modern era, the late Renaissance. Overviews in English are few, but the best is still Stinger 1998 for its depth and broad cultural reading of Rome, especially in the High Renaissance. Mitchell 1973 offers the newcomer a readable study though more narrowly confined to the first quartile of the 16th century. Pastor 1936–1953, while running to many volumes, far exceeds what might be considered as an overview but is still a crucial resource; rich, detailed, thorough, it runs through all the pontificates of this era. Gregorovius 2000–2004 (originally published 1872) has also weathered the years well for its reliable and detailed history of the city. Important to consider now is the Gouwens 1998 critique of what Kenneth Gouwens argues is the all too sharp distinction made by the scholars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries (except Fiorani and Prosperi 2000), who have been uncritically influenced by humanists living in Rome at the time who imagined the Rome of Leo X’s papacy as a “golden age” when compared with the sorry aftermath defined by the Sack of Rome in 1527.

  • Fiorani, Luigi, and Adriano Prosperi, eds. Roma, la città del papa: Vita civile e religiosa dal giubileo di Bonifacio VIII al giubileo di papa Wojtyla. Storia d’ Italia, Annali 16. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 2000.

    Vast exploration by many scholars into the multidimensionality of Rome under papal authority; the complex relationship between the city’s politics and religious dimensions, myths of the city, cultural icons, ceremonies, self-definition, businesses and bureaucracies, the papacy, cardinalate, social organization, Jewish life, pilgrimages, confraternities, and more.

  • Gouwens, Kenneth. Remembering the Renaissance: Humanist Narratives of the Sack of Rome. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004247390

    Thoughtful reevaluation of the Sack of Rome and its impact on the culture of Rome through the eyes of members of the Roman curia (Pietro Alcionio, Pietro Corsi, Jacopo Sadoleto, Pierio Valeriano); contextualizes the event and critiques the model of continuity and discontinuity positing an image of a High Renaissance under Leo X while depreciating the papacy of Clement VII.

  • Gregorovius, Ferdinand. History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages. 2d rev. ed. Translated by Annie Hamilton. 5 vols. New York: Italica, 2000–2004.

    Originally published over a hundred years ago (1872), in a distinctive cultural milieu, and from the perspective of a historian fiercely opposed to absolutist papal authority, it is still a standard history, a rich, readable, insightful narrative of the city in its many dimensions to 1527; lacks Richard Krautheimer’s insights into Rome’s significant cultural shifts but covers vast ground and political change.

  • Mitchell, Bonner. Rome in the High Renaissance: The Age of Leo X. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

    Readable, balanced, short introduction to Rome in the period 1503–1527; offers “an idea of what it was like to be a resident of Rome”; closes with the sack of the city; satisfactorily depicts the papal court and its culture, artistic programs, religious practices and behavior, politics and intrigue, Rome as a “boomtown,” and various personalities in the Rome of Leo X.

  • Pastor, Ludwig von. History of the Popes. Translated by F. I. Antrobus. 40 vols. London and St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1936–1953.

    Completed in the 1920s, von Pastor’s volumes begin with Martin V (1417–1431) emerging as sole pope after the Western (or Great) Schism and its resolution at the Council of Constance and ends with Pius VI (1799); chronicles the vast, rapid changes at Rome under the popes; examines politics and religious and cultural movements. Apologetic but a standard reference for all Renaissance popes.

  • Stinger, Charles L. The Renaissance in Rome. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    First published 1985. Reliable, substantial introduction to Renaissance Rome; rich, detailed presentation of many aspects of Rome, including its physical and spiritual topography, civic and papal power, issues of papal authority, papal ideology and propaganda, humanist culture and theology, and the mystique of Rome down to the sack in 1527 and beyond. The 1998 paperback edition offers an updated bibliographical survey.

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