After the fall of the Western Roman empire in the fifth century, the city itself also experienced a descent into decadence. The Roman citizens felt little attachment for their history and so the city was left to disintegrate due to looting. The Church schism in the 14th. century caused the Popes to move to Avignon which was the final blow to the wealth and power of Rome.
The papacy returned to Rome in 1420 and during the next centuries the Popes led the way in rebuilding the city and carving out the Papal States centred on Rome. Through the sale of church offices and income from taxes in the Papal States the Popes gained economic power and control of the city during the Renaissance. The rich Florentine banker family, the Medici, financed the papacy in return for the opportunity to manage the Vatican bank. They also named 4 Popes from the family: Pope Leo X, his first cousin Pope Clement VII, Pope Pius IV, born Giovanni Angelo Medici and Pope Leo XI born Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici.
Scholarship returned to Rome through the Vatican library which was set up by the bibliophile Pope Nicholas V in 1451 and also financed by the Medici. When Constantinople fell in 1453 he was able to enhance the collection with many Greek volumes without owners. This was the beginning of the transformation of Rome into a Renaissance city which drew strength from its glorious past.
While the city reascended to the splendour it had had in Roman times the Papacy, with the election of Sixtus IV in 1471, fell into moral degradation. Sixtus practised a policy of filling the Vatican posts with family members, some from his own illegitimate children referred to as his 'nephews'. (This coined the word 'nepotism'.) He was also involved in the attempted assassination of Lorenzo di Medici in 1478 in Florence when both families clashed for power in the Vatican. This papal mafia rule became a model for future Popes throughout the Renaissance and led to impoverished moral authority yet political and economic strength.
Sixtus IV redesigned and rebuilt Rome widening streets, destroying the ruins and building the Sistine chapel (1473 to 1481) which is named after him. It was to be the official chapel of the ruling Pope. It's fame derives from the frescos decorating its side walls, ceiling and altar wall. During his reign Sixtus IV had a group of famous Renaissance painters including Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli decorate the side walls with the Life of Moses and Christ with some papal portraits.
In 1503 Pope Julius II, nephew of Sixtus IV, was elected, choosing his name in emulation of Julius Caesar. He saw his main task as the restoration of the Papal States, ruined by the Borgia popes. To achieve this he engaged in winning several wars against other Italian States and the French crown. Machiavelli described him as an ideal prince.
However, he did little to clean up the corruption in the papacy. As a cardinal he fathered at least one illegitimate daughter, Felice. He named four members of his family cardinals. He was also elected Pope by buying the position in an act of simony. (One of his first acts when voted Pope was to make simony an offence in papal elections.)
However, Pope Julius was also the patron of inspirational artistic masterpieces. Renaissance artists flocked to Rome to obtain papal patronage for their art and among them were Michelangelo, Bramante and Rafael, all working for Julius. He charged Bramante with designing the first model of the new St Peter's basilica, Rafael with celebrated mural frescoes in his new appartments and Michelangelo with his tombstone and painting a new ceiling in the Sistine chapel.
Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo decorated the ceiling with biblical frescoes. He was chosen to paint the chapel ceiling because of his fame in working on the dome of St. Peter's basilica. The Sistine Chapel represents a pivotal period in art history: the High Renaissance. Under Michelangelo's leadership, the style of painting changed dramatically from the dense detail of Masaccio to the more abstract designs of Leonardo da Vinci.
The ceiling was originally decorated with a blue starlit sky similar to the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. The plan was to paint the twelve apostles on the ceiling which traditionally only depicted figures, not dramatic scenes. This project can still be seen in the 12 male and five female prophets placed around the edges of the ceiling. However Michelangelo decided to fill the central spine with nine scenes from Genesis(see image): 3 scenes show the Creation, 3 stories portray Adam and Eve and there are 3 tales of Noah. Below the prophet scenes there are small figures of the 40 generations of Christ's ancestors, beginning with Abraham. Michelangelo completed the project in less than 4 years with an interruption between 1510 and 1511 when he was not paid.
The artist painted the central ceiling stories in inverse order to the bible account by beginning with Noah above the entrance door and moving towards the altar through the Adam and Eve myth and finally to the Creation story. This movement along the ceiling parallels the increasing complexity of the work. The earlier Noah figures use devices from previous works like La Pietà in a display of conservative techniques. The first figures are static and the scenes are small-scale. Increasingly self-confident, Michelangelo did away with preparatory guides such as drawings and reference marks on the plaster. The later figures also display more dynamic movement and complex expression. In the scene showing the creation of Eve, God and Adam are compressed into a small space, despite their grandeur. This has been interpreted as a move away from the Renaissance model of harmony towards the next generation of artists, the Mannerists.
The High Renaissance period, when Michelangelo lived and worked, drew on knowledge from Classic Antiquity, principally the ancient Greeks. Thinkers looked back for inspiration to Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Cosimo I de Medici resurrected platonic philosophy in the form of Neoplatonism by instituting the Florentine Platonic Academy of which Michelangelo was a student and which translated Plato's writings into Latin. The 3rd. century philosopher Plotinus had set the basis for Neoplatonism by promoting the idea that all souls seek to return to the One. Michelangelo also believed that the artist's function was to bring pre-existent forms out of material:
“the greatest artist has no conception which a single block of marble does not potentially contain within its mass, but only a hand which obeys the mind can accomplish that”
Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, from John Hopkins School of Medicine, suggested in 2010 that Michelangelo had concealed three anatomical images in God's neck in the Genesis scene "Separating Light from Darkness". The artist had had a lifelong interest and practical experience in anatomical studies and the suggestion is that he depicted this knowledge secretly in his artwork, inspired by his Neoplatonist beliefs. In a complex reading of the same scene the authors also suggest that the artist has even hidden allusions to Plato's Allegory of the Cave.
The Last Judgment