There are a few cities in Europe where ancient ruins still occupy significant plots of urban real estate. Rome and Athens come immediately to mind. Rome is very nearly perfect in its display of the three tiers of history over the last 5000 years. There are monumental ruins around almost every corner, some of them reaching back to the Etruscans, who were there before the Romans. Just as frequently, there are examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture that mark major turning points in European history after the Empire. Finally, there is evidence of the modern world of commerce in every possible space between the historical monuments.
In four trips to Rome, from the early 60s to the turning of the millennium, I have tried to construct a historical grid and populate it with images from the past. My reports on ancient Rome and its movies will be found in the final segment of MovieJourneys (see Roman Empire).
In 1999, my wife and I stayed in a hotel nearby the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. It was a surprise to discover that this church has claims to greater age and importance than Saint Peter’s on Vatican Hill. The preeminence of The Lateran Basilica is a Catholic matter, of course, having to do with its role as the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is actually the Pope. Saint Peter’s, on the other hand, is merely a church that is convenient to the residence of the Pope. Meanwhile, it sets records for tourist dollars and high-profile Vatican events. Of the four major basilicas in Rome, the one that most resembles the interior design of the original St. Peter’s is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
The original structures for both of these now monumental landmarks were begun under the reign of Constantine I, who died in 337 as the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. Each of these iconic buildings has earned the honor of a plundered Egyptian obelisk in the square at the front of the building. The first Saint Peter’s Basilica was partly built with stones quarried from the Colosseum. For a re-creation of the interior of the old Basilica, see Brother Sun, Sister Moon below. It expanded and flourished until the 15th century when its decaying walls required a complete tear-down and replacement with the present building. The new basilica was consecrated in 1626 after being topped with the dome designed by Michelangelo. The artist had been on the property for many years before this, painting the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
This movie was not universally loved, in fact it flopped at the box office, but it comes close to being ideal for this website. Many critics were moved to find new ways of saying it was like watching paint dry. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo was the lightning rod for most of the criticism. He was best known for turning in arrogant and egotistical performances, but I felt this made him the perfect casting choice. Why try to find an actor who can fake arrogance when you’ve got the real thing? Rex Harrison is more colorful as Pope Julius II but there were times when it seemed like he was doing My Fair Lady: Why can’t a painter be more like a Pope? What is best about this film is its backdrop. Great care was given to creating the environs of Renaissance Italy with special attention to the Sistine Chapel. Beneath the surface, the relevant dynamics of this period are in place. The secular power of the Vatican, the penchant of Pope Julius to wage war to win strength for the papal states, the flourishing of the arts in this time of cultural transition, and the contempt of the nobility for the individual artist: it is all there. If you have made it this far in MovieJourneys, you might now I enjoy the challenge of sorting out what is real and what is Hollywood distortion in this movie. Wikipedia offers little help with it’s cursory treatment of the movie, but there is good information in its biographical entry on Michelangelo.
The Borgias (2011-13 TV Series)
If you find you have a lot of extra time for TV watching, or if, like me, you are homebound and need to find productive ways to use your TV time, you might like to study the lives of the Borgias. Patriarch of his family, Rodrigo Borgia, was the most famous of the deplorable Popes of Renaissance Rome. With the help of his family, he brought the already notorious papacy to new levels of depravity. It would take the Vatican some time to regain its dignity and to redefine its power in a strictly spiritual sense. In the year 2011, two production companies mounted ambitious miniseries on the lives of the Borgias.
Best-known of the two was the Showtime series, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo. When the time came for me to write this segment of MovieJourneys, I thought of Jeremy Irons and found the series on Netflix. Well, it turns out that the project was designed for four seasons, each of them featuring roughly ten episodes. Luckily, I found that the fourth season had been canceled and my commitment was reduced. But just as quickly, I discovered that another company had produced a TV miniseries on the same subject in the same year, and it was available on Netflix. My purpose for telling you all of this is in the hope that you will appreciate my plan for distilling these endless hours of cable TV watching to a single paragraph, thereby saving you a marathon of TV watching.
In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope and installs his fractured family in the Vatican apartments. He requires his illegitimate children to masquerade as his niece and nephews, and he tolerates the presence of their mother though he has already taken up with a new mistress. Two of his children, Cesare (say Chaze-are-ay) and Lucrezia (say Lou-cretz-ya), will become famous for their rampant ambitions and ill-advised relationships. The Borgias make many enemies and endure many threats to their precarious sense of well-being.
Wikipedia provides an extensive list of historical inaccuracies under its entry for the first season of the Showtime series. Most egregious of these distortions, to me, was the decision to move the execution of Savonarola from Florence to Rome for the convenience of the plot. What is lost in this process is the confidence that anyone watching almost thirty hours of this beautifully packaged material can come away with anything more than entertainment value. The alternate series, still in production at this writing, gets a better report for authenticity. Rodrigo died in 1503 and was succeeded by Julius II, who compelled Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Pick your Pope: here is the alternate series, starring John Doman.
There are as well some procedural dramas at the modern Vatican and related settings, such as The Cardinal (1963), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), The Godfather Part III (1990), and The Da Vinci Code (2006) / Angels & Demons (2009).
Florence / Tuscany
The prototype for the dome of St. Peter’s can be found on the Duomo of Florence. This dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was the crowning achievement of early Renaissance architecture. It was consecrated in 1436, seventy years before the beginning of construction on the new St. Peter’s. The word “duomo,” incidentally, does not refer to the bump at the top of the building, but rather it comes from the Latin for “home,” as in domicile –the cathedral is the home of the bishop. The first cathedral of Florence was the Basilica of San Lorenzo, consecrated in 393, which today houses the famed Medici tombs with sculptures by Michelangelo. Florence began its life as a Roman city, but by the 15th-century it was the high watermark for the European model of Civilization.
On our first trip to Florence in 1994, it was a clear, sunny day and my wife and I were drawn immediately to the Duomo, also called Florence Cathedral. Without a local guide, we almost missed the sign for the little door leading to the stone stairs up the side of the cathedral, through the interior of the dome, and out to the “lantern” at the top. From there, we had a commanding view of the city that was the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo studied sculpture here under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici and departed for Rome in 1492, when Lorenzo died.
If our eyes had been keener, we might have been able to see the famous cathedral complex at Pisa just over 50 miles (83 km) to the west. But we would not have been able to see so far as the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which lies more than twice the distance to the southeast. The Basilica at Assisi is not a cathedral, but had its beginning in 1228 as a humble monastery built by Saint Francis and his ragtag band of followers. In the movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Francis and his followers make a pilgrimage to the old St. Peter’s basilica in Rome to petition the Pope.
Milan / Venice
Two splendid cathedrals to the north of Florence are Milan Cathedral or, Duomo di Milano, and The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark or, Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, in Venice. I passed through Milan in 1965 and remember its cathedral as the most stunning building I had ever seen. I was not thinking about photography back then and do not have adequate pictures. See Wikipedia. I was on my way to Venice and once I arrived, there was time to sit in cafés on the Piazza San Marco with someone I loved and regard the Byzantine-inspired cathedral that dominated the square. It was connected to the Doge’s Palace, which fronted on the Grand Canal. This was a magical time.
Today I am told that waves of tourists from cruise ships and the rising waters of the Adriatic have made the experience less reliable. Venice was once the pivot point of the Western world and now it is a world-class theme park. Still, even crass commercial movies like The Tourist (2010) can deliver enticing images of the faded glory of this city that lives by the sea. Once, the famed horses of Constantinople, pillaged during the Fourth Crusade, graced the front of the cathedral but they have been removed to the inside museum and replaced by simulations. I have found no movies that feature the cathedral on Piazza San Marco.
See Movie Archive for films about Venice.
One part of the journals I kept in the year 2003 was titled “Sicily: The 15 Dominations.” At roughly the halfway point in my world travels, I had become seriously interested in the effects of conquest on the places I had come to know, however briefly. Sicily seemed to me a microcosm of the process of displacement of one dynasty with another. Putting the best face on a legacy of subjugation, the Sicilians prefer to speak of a rich and diverse mix of cultural influences.
From the Caravan Journals: Sicily traces its history in a long series of invasions by foreign powers. It began in earnest with the Phoenicians, who founded Palermo in the 8th century BCE. Meanwhile, Greeks from Corinth were founding Syracuse on the west coast. A strong Greek tradition grew on this island, with surviving Greek temples standing as the cathedrals of the ancients. That ended when the Romans took Syracuse in 212 BCE. Roman Sicily was Christianized in 325 CE. The empire was overrun by the Vandals in 440. In 535, Sicily was restored to the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian, and re-Christianized in 600 AD under the rule of Constantinople. The year 827 saw the beginning of the Arab conquest. In 1091, after some ups and downs, Sicily became Christian again as a result of the Norman (Viking/French) invasion in 1091. The Normans were displaced by other European forces. Under Spanish rule, Jews and Arabs were expelled in 1492. Not until Garibaldi and the Resorgiamento (Independence) did there begin to be a sustained possibility of self-rule on this island. Further invasions came in World War II. Through all of this, the family systems of the Mafia, operating on the ancient energies of vendetta, grew in opposition to official repression.
The two primary cathedrals in the area of Palermo offer an especially vivid record of a fascinating layer in this wedding cake of cultures. The single century of Norman rule in Sicily (1091– 1194) coincided with the onset of the Crusades. The Normans, descendants of the Viking conquerors in France, used their adopted Roman Catholicism as the tip of the spear for driving Muslim influence out of Sicily. During the Arab occupation, the Bishop of Palermo had been forced to relocate from the old cathedral to a church in Monreale, nine miles outside of the city. When the Normans gained control of both sites, they instituted major building projects to establish the primacy of Latin Christianity on the island. There would be two cathedrals, one in Palermo and the other in Monreale. The chain of events leading to and from the Norman century is far more complicated than what is described in this brief chronology. What is most interesting about the two cathedrals, as they can be seen today, is their combination of architectural and decorative styles. Because there were few European craftsmen available for the renovation of these buildings, it was necessary to hire Muslim artisans to accomplish the obligatory murals and mosaics. The mix of western narrative, Byzantine iconography, and Islamic decoration is a living embodiment of a rich and diverse mix of cultural influences.
There is no Hollywood movie about the Norman conquest of Sicily, but the underlying development of the Mafia resistance to domination can be seen to advantage in The Godfather movies.
Cathedral Cities Related Posts:
- Cathedral Cities in the Movies: Italy
- Cathedral Cities in the Movies: France
- Cathedral Cities in the Movies: Germany
- Cathedral Cities in the Movies: British Isles