- Reviving the Eternal City: Rome and the Papal Court, 1420–1447 by Elizabeth McCahill
Reviving the Eternal City is a very welcome addition to the limited number of studies in English that consider the first half of the fifteenth century in Rome. Here the focus is the humanists, men devoted to classical learning and generally frustrated at having to earn a living to support their habit. Through an array of the works they produced at the papal court, Elizabeth McCahill has produced a rich and rewarding insight into the relationships that made the Roman papal machine work. The problematic papacies of Martin V and Eugenius IV are established as the threshold between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Well before Nicholas V, there were signs that the city would be reborn, its future deeply rooted in its classical past. [End Page 600]
Each of the six chapters views papal Rome through the work of writers or humanists. Niccolò Signorilli’s Descriptio urbis Romae, the main focus of chapter 1, flatters Martin V by stressing Rome’s permanence. As a member of the upwardly mobile nobiles, Signorilli had a great deal to lose if the popes deserted their city again. Chapter 2 turns to humanists’ attempts to ingratiate themselves with powerful patrons at the papal court by celebrating—and selling—their new humanist curriculum. At the same time they bemoaned their lot at the papal court: Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) described the inferior wine served to curialists while the pope enjoyed the best. Who would want to be a prince, Matteo Vegio argues, when all they can do is make enemies? Overall, whether prince or servant, the human condition finds more failure than fortune. It was ever thus.
Humanists did not merely observe but helped shape the reforming agenda led by Pope Eugenius IV. But very often they appear as both partisans and as critics. In chapter 3 Leon Battista Alberti and Poggio Bracciolini represent “the curial humanist as an elegant tightrope walker” (p. 96). They were, at one and the same time, irreverent critics and loyal servants of the Church. Chapter 4 examines the thorny issues of reform. Although humanists described clerical abuses and immorality, they also celebrated and promoted models of the personal reform (in membris) that balanced conciliar focus on the pope (in capite). But as a result, McCahill suggests, reform was destined to fail at an institutional level. Chapter 5 turns to the rich area of papal ceremony, and in particular the void it often filled between the myth and reality of the Renaissance papacy. Codifying and preserving the long tradition of curial ceremonial, the humanists improved the liturgies and protocols that continue to bear on the public performance of papal power to this day. Chapter 6 continues the argument that papacy and humanists were interdependent: the popes needed Rome’s classical past, and the humanists needed the popes to believe in their agenda.
Reviving the Eternal City is a great deal more than the story of the scholars who sought to earn a living at the papal court. It provides a useful overview of two neglected papacies, a rich insight into the key sources for Renaissance Rome and an astute analysis of humanist writings. McCahill wears her erudition lightly; her book is a pleasure to read and will be as essential to students as it is to professors. [End Page 601]