by Roderick Conway Morris

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When Sixtus IV Needed a Painter

By Roderick Conway Morris
FORLÌ, Italy 11 May 2011
Vatican Museums, Rome
Angel playing the viol by Melozzo da Forli, 1472-75



Melozzo da Forlì was much admired by his contemporaries. He made it on to the list of the dozen most illustrious artists of the age compiled in 1494 by the mathematician Luca Pacioli; Raphael's father, Giovanni Santi, described him in verse as unsurpassed in his mastery of perspective; and he was declared by another humanist, Jacopo Zaccaria, 'a painter incomparable in all Italy.'

His fame rests principally on a detached fresco from the Vatican Library showing Sixtus IV with his nephews, and a set of frescoed figures from a 'Christ in Glory' scene with musical angels and apostles, rescued from an apse (demolished in the 18th century) of the Santi Apostoli church in Rome.

For an artist to maintain a reputation on so little surviving work is remarkable. Much has been lost, including his frescoes in the San Biagio church in Forlì, destroyed by German bombs in 1944. The current exhibition in his birthplace, curated by Daniele Benati, Mauro Natale and Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, offers a welcome chance to ponder Melozzo's abiding fascination. It is also the first time the papal library fresco has been loaned by the Vatican.

Melozzo was born in Forlì, in northeastern Italy near Bologna in 1438, but we know little else about his early life. By around 1460 the artist was in Rome, where he executed his two earliest known works, images of St. Mark the Evangelist and the fourth-century Pope Mark, both in this exhibition. These paintings, on canvas, seem originally to have been facets of a processional banner. The figures already display Melozzo's later trademarks: strongly modeled sculptural volumes, a low viewpoint, and a confident, creative grasp of perspective and foreshortening.

The 18th-century art historian Luigi Lanzi lamented that 'so rare a genius should not have a proper historian, who would have described his travels and works.' And his movements before and during the 1460s and early 1470s remain uncertain. He was clearly aware of the latest developments in painting, perspective and art theory, and drew on various sources of inspiration in central Italy, especially in Le Marche, where Piero della Francesca was a major presence. But Melozzo apparently ventured as far north as Padua and Mantua, where he evidently saw works by Mantegna in situ.

The context in which Melozzo's art matured is amply represented in the first sections of the exhibition by relevant contemporary works of, among others, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Signorelli - all of whom would later figure along with Melozzo on Luca Pacioli's list.

The election of Francesco della Rovere as Sixtus IV in 1471 saw the arrival of a pontiff determined to exercise his temporal as well as spiritual power.

In preparation for the Jubilee of 1475 he reconstructed a long-ruined Roman bridge, renamed after him the Ponte Sisto, which allowed the creation of a one-way system whereby the crowds of pilgrims arrived at the Vatican by the Ponte Sant' Angelo and left by the newly opened bridge. He rebuilt the great Santo Spirito hospital and Santa Maria del Popolo basilica and began the process of modernizing the city by opening up broad streets. His most famous architectural achievement, however, was the building of the Sistine Chapel.

Sixtus's predecessor Nicholas V had founded the Vatican Library, but it was Sixtus who brought the project to full fruition, expanding its holdings to 3,498 codices by 1481. Libraries were becoming not just places of study but also symbols of intellectual prestige, and Sixtus clearly intended to use the new library to put the Vatican firmly on the European map as a center of the new learning.

He also chose the library as the place to commemorate his various secular achievements and the founding of the Della Rovere dynasty. He saw in Melozzo the ideal artist to present both these in a single, unified picture - an image that was indeed to immortalize this pope and his family.

In Melozzo's large fresco Sixtus is shown enthroned, and kneeling before him is his newly appointed librarian, the humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina. The librarian points downward to a trompe l'oeil marble slab with a Latin verse inscription composed by Platina, eulogizing the pope as a builder of 'temples, roads, squares, walls, bridges' and for reviving the library itself, which had formerly 'languished in neglect.'

Before Sixtus stand the pope's three favorite nephews: Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, Giovanni della Rovere and Girolamo Riario. Giuliano, placed in the honored position closest to Sixtus and almost at the dead center of the fresco, was to go on to become pope Julius II and patron of Raphael and Michelangelo; Giovanni was to become the Lord of Senigallia in Le Marche; and Girolamo, Lord of Imola and then Forlì.

The setting is no less potently symbolic: a lofty, illusionistic classical temple with a coffered, embossed and gilded ceiling, supported by enormous arches and pillars clad in rare colored marbles, the first two great columns with noble carved capitols and faces adorned with intricate patterns of oak branches, leaves and acorns (the family name 'rovere' means 'oak').

The handsome looks of the papal nephews and Platina are paralleled by Melozzo's beautiful golden-haired musical angels in the sections rescued from the demolished SS. Apostoli apse (now also at the Vatican). Two of them are displayed in the exhibition along with two apostles, who are also given fine facial features by the artist.

Whereas the attractive papal family had a clear propaganda element, the enchanting angels reflect current neo-Platonic ideas of physical beauty as a reflection of the divine. For these are very human angels, intermediaries between mortals and the celestial realm. As the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote, beauty was 'a certain grace, alive and spiritual. This from the divine sphere first infuses itself in the Angels, then in the souls of humans.'

When he went to the Vatican, Melozzo found himself working alongside Antonio di Benedetto Aquilio, known as Antoniazzo Romano, a native of the city, who in 1478 was instrumental in promoting the interests and raising the status of artists: he was one of three artists behind Sixtus IV's renewal of the statutes of the Compagnia di San Luca, the reformed painters' guild, which Melozzo joined in the same year.

Melozzo decisively influenced Antoniazzo, whose markedly more traditional style consequently began to reflect more the latest advances in art. As a result, a number of his works in Rome were later attributed to Melozzo. Antoniazzo worked with both Domenico Ghirlandaio and Melozzo on further fresco decorations for the Vatican Library.

Antoniazzo's panels here are an unexpected revelation of the exhibition. While he maintained certain old practices, such as gold-leaf backgrounds, his figures in his 'San Vincenzo Ferrer' and 'San Vincenzo di Saragozza, Santa Illuminata and San Nicola di Tolentino,' have a gentle luminosity, delicate sense of poise and are wonderfully natural in their portraiture.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023