For such a Holy City, notoriety marks the Vatican’s every nook and cranny – orgies, murders, scandals, you name it.
Ironic too that despite the Catholics’ loathing for the occult, the heart of Christendom took its name from the Latin “vatis”, “tellers of the future”.
For a fee, fortunetellers delivered oracles on Vatican hill in ancient times until the place became a cemetery for famous Romans, a sacred Necropolis, a City of the Dead.
Although the Vatican is home to the Pope, the Holy Father, Vicar of Christ, its original deity was pagan mother goddess Cybele, Magna Mater – Great Protector of Rome, invoked to keep out Hannibal of Carthage, the greatest enemy the Eternal City ever faced.
Yet barbarians sacked the city-state several times. Wars, fires and plagues ravaged its populace. Its landmarks still reek of blood after two thousand years.
On the way to St. Peter’s Basilica, today’s pilgrims cross the Bridge of the Holy Angels (Ponte Sant’ Angelo) over the Tiber River to the emperors’ tomb-turned-fortress, Sant’ Angelo.
Their ancient counterparts used the same bridge which Emperor Hadrian completed in 134 AD. Only in the olden days, Popes strung up carcasses of condemned men along this stretch, filling the city with their stench.
In his first year alone, Pope Sixtus V had more criminals’ heads impaled on spikes along the Ponte Sant’ Angelo than there were melons for sale in the markets of Rome.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
In the sixth century, the black plague ravaged Rome under Pope Saint Gregory I. Both the castle and the bridge took the name Sant’Angelo when St. Michael the Archangel appeared to the Pope in a vision, unsheathing his sword on the castle roof to mark the end of the pandemic.
The deaths didn’t stop though. During the 1450 jubilee, Ponte Sant’Angelo collapsed under the weight of pilgrim hordes stampeding to reach St. Peter’s. Hundreds drowned.
Holy Fathers rebuilt the bridge several times.
In the 15th century, Medici prince, Clement VII, the illegitimate son of Pope Leo X, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother, allocated the bridge’s toll income to line its length with stucco angels.
Pope Clement VII took refuge in the castle of Sant’ Angelo when Spanish King Charles V (father of Philip II, for whom the Philippines was named) besieged Rome, slaughtering 66,000 people in eight days, raping and torturing nuns to death in the worst sacking of the city. Some 147 Swiss guards died to protect His Holiness.
From the Castel, Clement “had to listen to the agonized screams of his poor flock” and watch as “the glory of Renaissance Rome was extinguished in blood.”
To reconcile with Charles V, the Pope crowned him as Holy Roman Emperor. However, the Pontiff refused to grant King Henry VIII’s divorce from the aunt of Charles V, Catherine of Aragon.
Intent on marrying his mistress, Anne Boleyn, to have a son and heir to his throne, Henry VIII broke off with the Catholic Church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Still, Clement VII was a patron of Benvenuto Cellini, the most important Mannerist artist. Before he ate a death cap mushroom, Clement finished constructing the bridge and has commissioned Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “The Last Judgment”, in the altar of the Sistine Chapel.
Nevertheless, Clement VII was not the first papal patron of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest artist of all time.
The credit belongs to Julius II, the “Warrior Pope”, a syphilitic old soldier who led his Catholic troops to battle in full armor and fathered a handful of children as a cardinal, but as a Pontiff was a great patron of the arts.
He was the grandson of a fisherman but his father, Pope Sixtus IV, sharpened his eye for art.
Sixtus IV commissioned the Sistine Chapel, the official private chapel of the popes, meeting place of the Conclave whenever a new pope is elected.
However, Sixtus also peddled indulgences and church offices “on an unparalleled scale,” appointed an 8-year-old boy as archbishop of Lisbon and began the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
His son, Julius II, demolished the over a thousand year-old St. Peter’s Basilica, which Emperor Constantine the Great built in the 4th century, and started the 120-year construction of the St. Peter’s we know today.
Julius II summoned Donato Bramante to serve as the basilica’s master architect and his kinsman, Raphael Sanzio, to fresco his new apartments- the “Stanze” or “Raphael Rooms”.
Julius II refused to occupy the Borgia Apartments, quarters of his enemy and predecessor, Pope Alexander VI, another lover of the arts, though he bought the papacy, was greedy for sex and gold and sired bastards.
At the same time, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to build his tomb after he saw the Pieta which the 23-year old Florentine sculpted.
La Pieta, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling Christ’s dead body, was the artist’s only signed piece. He carved his name on the Virgin’s sash when his work was attributed to someone else.
But when Michelangelo sculpted a marble statue of Julius II, the Pope asked, “What’s that under my arm?” “A Bible, your Holiness,” the artist replied. “What do I know of Bibles?” he roared, “I’m a warlord. Give me a sword instead.”
Michelangelo, 8 years older than Raphael and 23 years younger than Leonardo da Vinci, never liked his fellow artists. It didn’t help that he himself wasn’t easy to like, with his bad temper and untidy habits.
He slept in his paint-stained work clothes and smelly boots – just as Raphael painted him as a sulking Heraclitus in the foreground of his famous Stanze mural, the “School of Athens”.
Inevitably, Raphael and Michelangelo became fierce rivals.
Raphael and Bramante conspired to convince Julius II that Michelangelo should paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling to make him look bad. Painting is not Michelangelo’s forte. To accept the job is to risk his work appearing inferior versus Raphael. To refuse is to insult the Pope.
“They wanted to ruin me and Raphael had a good reason for all he had of art, he had from me,” Michelangelo wrote bitterly.
Against all odds, he toiled on the Sistine ceiling for four years – even after the money ran out. One time, he complained he hasn’t been paid for over a year. Yet he kept on painting.
At first, he hated it. He wielded the brush as he would a chisel. His paintings looked like sculptures. Only later did he start to enjoy his work.
And despite never having painted before, Michelangelo created one of the world’s most magnificent frescoes.
When he unveiled the Sistine ceiling in 1512, all of Rome turned up to see it. Now, 20,000 people a day admire his masterpiece.
Over two decades after finishing the ceiling, Michelangelo, aged 60, returned to paint his “Last Judgement” on the altar. It took him five years.
Remembering the sack of Rome, a dying Pope Clement VII suggested his theme. Problem was, critics found the nude figures “inappropriate” for a sacred place.
The fresco about the Redeemer’s second coming showed a naked Christ with a clean-shaven face borrowed from the sun god Apollo. His muscled body was that of Zeus’ son, Hercules, inspired by the Belvedere torso.
Michelangelo mixed pagan gods with Dante’s “Divine Comedy” personas and Christian saints brandishing instruments of their martyrdom – St. Catherine with her cogwheel, St. Sebastian with his arrows and St. Lawrence with the grate where he was roasted.
Weirdest of all, the artist painted himself as St. Bartholomew flayed alive, holding out his skin like a rubbery cast-off as he perched on a cloud.
Earlier, he hid another ghoulish self-portrait, as the severed head of Holofernes – the Assyrian General whom Jewish heroine Judith decapitated, in a pendentive of the Sistine ceiling.
On the altar, Michelangelo rendered his own version of Hell, peopled by blue and green-skinned devils sporting bulging muscles, animal horns and ears, with Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, taking condemned souls across the River Styx.
His most vicious critic, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, he painted as Minos, King of Hell, with donkey’s ears, draped with a snake gobbling up his penis.
Cesena complained to the Pope himself, who jested he had no power over Hell. So, the fresco stayed.
In all, Michelangelo worked for nine popes in his lifetime. Number eight, Paul IV, cut off his pension and initiated the Vatican’s fig leaf campaign – chopping off the manhood of nude artworks and covering them up.
Eventually, the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art. Mannerist artist Daniele da Volterra (nicknamed “Il Braghettone”, “the breeches maker”) painted over the genitalia of the master’s Sistine frescoes.
By mid-sixteenth century, Pope Innocent X (who promoted Manila’s Colegio de Santo Tomas to the rank of university) ordered all exposed penises of Roman sculptures in the Vatican to be chiseled off and replaced with metal fig leaves.
The systematic mutilation of art for religion continued through Pope Pius IX to the late 18th century.
Today, the statuary of the Vatican Museum remains full of marble honchos with foliage stuck between their legs. Guides conducting the Heretic Vatican Tour maintain thousands of chopped off penises have been stashed away in a vault in the Papal Apartments.
Michelangelo was lucky not to witness the atrocities. He died in 1564, after a brief illness, a few weeks short of his 89th birthday and was buried, in accordance with his wishes, in the Basilica di Santa Croce, in Florence, his beloved birth city.
He died single – and gay, though scholars debate on his real sexuality to this very day. The great artist wrote hundreds of sonnets to pretty boys – models, servants and companions although at age 63, he fell for Vittoria, a “saintly widow” in her late 40’s whom he described as “a man in a woman”.
Michelangelo had the last laugh too. He outlived the Italian Renaissance, his artistic style evolving from High Renaissance to stylized Mannerism. He even outlived his rival, Raphael, by 44 years.
Raphael died on Good Friday, on his 37th birthday, contracting a fever for two weeks after a night of “excessive sex with his mistress”.
His still incomplete masterpiece, the “Transfiguration of Christ”, was placed beside his body as he lay in state and he was interred in Rome’s Pantheon, as he requested.
(To be continued.)