Thursday, April 2, 2015


MELOZZO DA FORLI'S Vatican Library fresco

Sometime between 1480 and 1481 Melozzo da Forli painted a fresco for Pope Sixtus IV in the original rooms of the Vatican Library (it has been transferred to canvas and is now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana).
In this wonderful image Melozzo imagines a huge 3-bay coffered room behind the space of the original Latin library wall. Six layers of space that have nothing to do with the actual architecture of the Latin Library are created here, but if we wondered about its original location, the Latin inscription at the bottom would identify the library for us. Starting from the front of the fictive pilasters which are furthest forward in the picture plane, the painter paints a central hall leading to an arched corridor with well-lit windows. He suggests first the beige marble floor on which the chair rests; inset into that is the indented carved plaque of the Latin inscription. Beyond the floor is the first room or bay in which five figures appear in front of the first set of faux-marble pilasters. The sixth figure on the right behind the chair stands between the first row of pilasters and the second row. There is another implied bay behind him and then the space of the finishing corridor. 
        The six layers of receding space count the acorn pilaster furthest forward in the picture surface and do not include the indented surface of the plaque. In spite of the deep space produced by the painter, the six men in the painting are presented almost as bas-relief figures near the foreground, and since they do not seem to communicate with one another, they can almost be read as separate portraits within the six receding spaces produced by the painter. One can imagine that Melozzo requested separate posing days for each man, to give each his due, but in a sense, he gave each his due in the six spatial depths. The six men jockey for papal power like divas waiting for their cue on a stage. These are specific portraits meant to identify individuals in the papal court.
Pope Sixtus IV, whose family name was Francesco della Rovere, is the man seated furthest right, age 66 in 1480. He wears a red cope over a white gown and has a red velvet cap (camauro that indicates he is Pope) lined with white ermine.The chair in which he sits is covered with red velvet and tassels, and his hands rest on the finials of the armrests. Like the one exposed finial of the back of the chair, the finials of the armrests are in the shape of large acorns (symbols of the oak tree,"rovere" in Italian) for Sixtus' family name, Della Rovere ("of the oak tree" or "from the oak tree" (since acorns fall "from" the oak)).  The border pilasters of the fresco include the oak leaves and acorns as well.
He who held most power got to sit down in the Renaissance, but the chair in which Sixtus sits is so
self-referential, it becomes his throne and the room his audience hall. The Pope looks straight ahead and is serious, while his hands suggest a certain nervousness about the others in the room. The four standing men are his nephews, and the kneeling man is his librarian, Platina, appointed in 1475.
Platina is furthest forward since his blue gown drapes over the stair with the plaque. He points with his
right index finger to the Latin inscription in the plaque, which presumably he wrote. Platina's real name was Bartolommeo Sacchi, but since he was from the town of Piadena near Cremona, people called him Piadena or Platina. He would have been around 59 at the time of this fresco. A Latin scholar who published the first printed cookbook as well as a history of the popes written in Latin (Vitae Pontificum, published first in 1479,) his kneeling shows his gratitude to the Pope who made him librarian. His inscription for Sixtus reads:

in Latin:

in English: (my free-hand translation except for the last two elegant lines translated by David Handforth):
Wise Sixtus, you built a city of new churches and orphanages, roads, squares, fortifications, bridges,
You repaired the virgin waters of the Trevi acqueduct,
You recreated safe harbors for seamen
And encircled the Vatican with walls.
Yet the city is further in your debt for the library that languished in squalor
Is now to be seen in a place of renown.

Platina is certainly paying homage through genuflection and through words of praise for the man who has given him the job of Vatican Librarian. His Latin inscription recounts all the wonderful improvements Sixtus has made to the city of Rome (and perhaps Ostia) during his tenure. Sixtus became Pope in 1471 at the age of 57, so one might imagine this fresco dating from his accession year. But since the inscription lists several accomplishments already carried out, and since Platina, the kneeling man, was named Librarian only in 1475, the fresco is more likely to date from many years into Sixtus' reign, after many of the building projects initiated by Sixtus could have been completed and Platina named Librarian. (The Vatican Library in this period was the first public library of Rome, theoretically accessible to all.) Platina had reason to be grateful for his job to Sixtus. He had been imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo during the years 1464-65 by the pope before Sixtus, Pope Paul II, known as Barbo, because Barbo did not approve of Platina's humanistic interests

If we look at Platina's face, his expression is one of resignation and recognition of all the trials he had to endure before being granted the privilege of serving as papal librarian; his jaw is tight, his lips closed, as he knows how dangerous speaking his mind has been:
He doesn't look at Sixtus; he knows his duty and obligation to his employer, and though he is probably the most erudite person in the painted room, he goes through the writing, kneeling, pointing as gestures
to indicate homage to the power of papal politics and recognition of its potential trauma. Platina here shows the wear of experience; he looks older than 59. His wry smile has been perfected through duress. Older and wiser he presents himself, but it is clear from his sad eyes that the honor of the title of Librarian does not make up for the suffering endured in prison. He has survived to a more humanistic papacy in the presence of Pope Sixtus, but he has never gotten over the indignities thrown at his thinking by Pope Paul II.
The identities of the other four figures in the painting are:
As the writer of the major monograph on Melozzo da Forli, Nicholas Clark, has so astutely pointed out,
the two men on the left are wearing the necklaces of the secular power of the condottieri, while the two other standing men have tonsured heads and wear the robes of ecclesiastical office.  All four are related by birth to Sixtus as offspring of Sixtus' siblings. The furthest left, Giovanni della Rovere,
a condottiere with long black hair, here dressed in a red robe, wears the chain of the office of Prefect of Rome (Clark, 82); he eventually marries into the Montefeltro family and assures Sixtus of power over the city state of Urbino. Giovanni is the son of Sixtus' brother. Giovanni is also the brother of the man in the middle, Giuliano della Rovere, who becomes the future Pope Julius II in 1503. Giovanni is also named Duke of Sora, another papal territory, in 1457. He seems older here than his 23 years in 1480.
                Girolamo Riario, 37, in fur-lined blue robe, wears a chain for the title of Captain General of the Church, condottiere for the papal armies, an honor bestowed on him by Sixtus in 1471.
Handsome, and Sixtus' favorite, Girolamo is related to Sixtus through his mother, Bianca, who was Sixtus' sister. In 1473 Girolamo is married off to Caterina Sforza, a marriage that gives Sixtus access to the city states of Forli and Imola when he puts Girolamo in charge of them in 1473 and 1480 respectively.  Girolamo is also one of the men responsible for the Pazzi Conspiracy to get rid of the Medici in Florence in 1478, two years before the painting is begun. Sixtus had designs on Florence as a city-state to add to the Papal States, but Lorenzo the Magnificent survives the assassination attempt, and Sixtus' desires are thwarted. Girolamo has escaped punishment for his part in the plot and is still serving Sixtus in the painting's image. Girolamo is first cousins with both Giovanni and Giuliano della Rovere and stands between them here.

Giuliano della Rovere, also 37, the large red-robed figure in the center of the painting is perhaps even more important in this painting than Sixtus or Platina because he is destined eventually to become pope, too, POPE JULIUS II, in 1503. Julius II is the pope who commissions the Sistine Ceiling from Michelangelo, who begins the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome, who solidifies the Papal States with wars he fights in person on horseback, and who plagues Michelangelo's later years with the project for his tomb ("la tragedia della tomba," the tragedy of the tomb, as Michelangelo describes it in a letter). Michelangelo's MOSES is sculpted for Julius' tomb. All of this art patronage is years ahead of him in this painting, however. He knows that in order to become Pope, he must bide his time and pay homage to his uncle. He seems to look at Sixtus and yet beyond him, too.
       If we continue the mapping of papal power for Sixtus IV in the persons of these men, Giuliano della Rovere represents Rome and Ostia for Sixtus, since Sixtus has made him Cardinal of St. Peter's in Chains and Bishop of Ostia.
       Giuliano wears the red robe of cardinal, and appears to hold a petition in his hand for his uncle. He faces the same direction as his brother, Giovanni, a stance that links them in their relation to Sixtus. Giuliano's profile in reverse from a medal cast later in his papal reign, seems to be just an older version with curlier hair of Melozzo's image of him:

The last figure on the right and behind Sixtus is the youngest.
Raffaelle Riario was 16 when Sixtus IV made him a cardinal of San Giorgio in Velabro in Rome; in 1480 (in the painting) he would have been 19, but he does not wear the robe of a cardinal but rather that of a papal pronotary. He has the blush of youth on his cheek here and is anxious to please. His tonsured head marks him as a priest. He was born in 1461 and is a student at the University of Pisa when called by his uncle to become a cardinal. He may be the youngest man in the painting, but he is clearly meant to follow in the pope's footsteps as he appears in profile resembling Sixtus right behind his figure here.(He, too, later becomes a patron of Michelangelo in Rome after he discovers Michelangelo has produced what this Raffaelle had thought was an antique statue of Cupid.) Raffaelle Riario's mother, Violante, was the sister of Girolamo, the other standing figure in a blue robe here; their blue robes connect them then. His mother was first cousins with the standing Della Rovere brothers because their father and her mother were brother and sister. Thus Raffaelle is first cousin-once removed to Giovanni and Giuliano and is directly nephew to Girolamo Riario. He is, therefore, the only great-nephew of Sixtus in the painting.
         To help visualize Sixtus' family relations in the painting here is a short family tree:

In reward for their familial loyalty and services, Sixtus gives each of the men in the painting territories to own; in return they provide power and information for Sixtus from those territories. Here is a map of the city-states Sixtus controlled through these men:
GIULIANO - ROME (St. Peter in Chains), OSTIA
RAFFAELLE - ROME (San Giorgio in Velabro)

All of the men except for Sixtus, then, are indebted to the Pope for their careers and they owe him allegiance and protection. Since Sixtus himself had initiated the conspiracy to murder the Medici brothers in Florence, he has reason to be wary himself by 1480 and wants bodyguards as well as territorial spies. The painting depicts him with his back to the wall of the pilaster, so that no one can surprise him; the space in front of him is filled with protective towers of men, all of whom face different directions in order to make sure, like Secret Service agents, all lines of sight are covered.
            The result is a very uneasy painting, where the various relatives and employees vie for position and power with ambition and mistrust while also looking out for the most powerful man who is seated. And yet, apart from Platina, they are all related. They should feel more reassured by the presence of family, but the lack of communication and the bodies turned in different angles all contribute to the tension of the scene. The family members compete for space in the painting as they must have competed for attention from the Pope in real life.

In its original location, with large wooden reading shelves with manuscripts on either side, examples of which can be seen in this earlier documented painting of Sixtus in the library and in a photo of the slanted reading shelves in another Renaissance library, the painting would have been understood as an enlarged manuscript page in the library.

The portraits are arranged by the artist on a large-scale manuscript page, with the Latin text below, much like the dedication pages painted by Melozzo's contemporaries for ecclesiastical texts:

or perhaps the dedicatory page for Sixtus from the manuscript of Platina's own History of the Popes actually in the Vatican Library, even today:
More colorful than Platina's actual manuscript, and more complimentary to the Pope and his protectors, Melozzo's painted wall-page serves as the artist's own dedicatory poem to Sixtus. Since Melozzo and the viewer are the only people to face toward the back of the fictive hall he has built, we, too, become, with the artist, papal bodyguards for all the manuscripts originally on this side of the wall. When the fresco was in the library, the urgency of our required presence would have been more intense. Would we measure up to Sixtus' designs on power? Melozzo certainly did.

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