The Eternal City

Council of Trent (1545-1563), Cattedrale di San Vigilio- Photo: Wikipedia.

The Council of Trent met the first time on 13 December 1545 and ended in 1563. The choice to meet in Trent, equidistant from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III, was symbolic: the Counter-Reformation needed a pragmatic solution and above all answers to the protestant challenge. Charles V expected a moderate and accommodating attitude in order to unite Germany successfully in the Catholic faith, the Pope, on the contrary, needed clear and effective measures. The result of the Council was somewhere between. The Counter-Reformation was more than just a reaffirmation of the old and in many aspects answers were given to the (dissatisfied) believers.

The Council was a relative success. Modernization, growing professionalism of the education of priests and professional standards of behavior of the clergy went together with more dogmatic confirmations on faith, decrees of doctrine and discipline. The Pope and the more pragmatic Emperor, who fought in this period against the armies of the Lutheran league, could be satisfied.

One important lesson was drawn: professionalism of the church was urgently needed, but caused an important change in relations between the Church and  believers. The Church should have to promote the faith and the message actively. Medieval art has been hierarchical previously and the new message was presented in baroque style. The Counter-Reformation had to be presented by appealing to emotions and senses of the public. The Church understood the power of images and introduced the Counter-Reformation in a fashionable baroque presentation. This presentation distinguished the Catholic Church from the Calvinist public discipline, austerity and severity. Rome should become the glorious centre of the church, expressing the splendor and elevation of the Church and the Papacy. A city full of statues of martyrs, apostles, saints, church fathers as an act of resistance against the Protestant iconoclasts. Rome experienced a renaissance.

The first time Rome changed into a building excavation was 1600 years before, when August changed Rome into a city of marble, a model for cities in the whole empire. After the fall of the Western Roman empire and the sack of Rome in 410 AC the city tumbled down and went, partly, to ruins. In 325 AC at the Council of Nicea (held after the conversion of Constantine and the empire), the bishops chose Rome as administrative and spiritual capital of the catholic church.

The status of Rome as capital of the empire, the city where apostle Paul had died and the city with the largest Christian community lived, was given the first place, before Alexandria and Jerusalem as honorary city. The organization of the Church resembles the imperial Roman hierarchy and the choice was more than symbolic. During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation Rome was not only the capital of the Catholic church, but also capital of the papal state and in this capacity a European city. Ancient Roman writers and poets called her the eternal city (urbs aeterna), but in the sixteenth century the splendor was relatively modest and the sack in 1527 was visible everywhere.

This changed after the Council of Trent, when Rome was rebuilt. The splendor and glorification of Rome and the Church contrasted with the grim religious and political situation in Europe however. The dogmatic religious discussions, the intolerance of the professionalized Catholic clergy and their protestant counterparts and the (dynastic) interests of European sovereigns and city states escalated finally in the devastating Thirty Years War. The Peace of Westphalia sealed the fate of Rome as centre of European Christianity, a second blow after the schism with the Greek Orthodox Church in 1054. (Source: E. Cameron, Ed., Early Modern Europe (Oxford 2001).