The Roman Papal and Cardinal Tombs
PD Dr. Arne Karsten / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

From simple floor slabs to masterpieces of fine art.

Dr. Arne Karsten on the Roman papal and cardinal tombs.

Anyone visiting St. Peter's Basilica in Rome today can hardly escape the fascination of the building with its monumental furnishings. In addition to works of art dating back more than 500 years, there are also numerous papal tombs scattered throughout the building as signs of remembrance. Dr. Arne Karsten, a lecturer in modern history at Bergische Universität, has studied the significance of these tombs, which still pose many questions for posterity.
The scientific examination of grave monuments seems rather morbid, but for historian Arne Karsten it is a very obvious occupation, because, he says, the beginnings of human history are actually marked with grave monuments. His students then promptly answered his question about prominent tombs with the Egyptian pyramids. "The Egyptian pyramids are nothing more than tombs," Karsten says, "they're reminders of rulers who have been dead for a long, long time."

The "Requiem" project

Karsten had already lived in Rome for two years and was nearing the end of his dissertation. His research on the 17th-century art patronage of popes and their relatives had meant that he already knew his way around Rome's churches. In particular, the abundance of tombs always caught his eye. "I was very impressed by the variety of burial vaults of all kinds for all kinds of people in all kinds of formats and finishes." From simple floor slabs to masterpieces of fine art, the enormous amount of artwork opened up a new line of research for him that can be reduced to the simple sentence for the average person: Why are there so many tombs in Rome? Together with his colleague Philipp Zitzlsperger, now professor of art history at the University of Innsbruck, he wanted to examine the works of art as documents of social history and the history of mentality. This is how the project "Requiem - The Roman Papal and Cardinal Tombs of the Early Modern Period" came about, which he began at the Institute for Art and Image History at the Humboldt University in Berlin and has been leading in Wuppertal since 2009.

Why are there so many tombs in Rome?

The multitude of tombs in Rome cannot be explained by religious reasons, Karsten says. "Christianity is an otherworldly religion of redemption. The real thing comes after death. Salvation or eternal damnation follow life in this world, as eternal life in the afterlife. And for this eternal life, signs of triumph, magnificent tombs are rather counterproductive, that is inner-worldly vanity. That's glory-seeking, those are all things that Christianity, theologically speaking, rejects." Thus, he said, theologians throughout history have also invariably criticized tombs. A simple floor slab might still be permissible, he said, but the erection of glittering busts of the deceased, allegories of virtue, or even inscriptions proclaiming achievements in this world clearly do not belong in the realm of theology. So the search for an explanation continued and finally found itself in the meaning of the tomb for posterity. "By establishing one's own family status through the memory of a famous ancestor, and by demonstrating to posterity: Look, already our ancestor, Pope X, or Cardinal Y lived and accomplished great things in such and such years," Karsten explains, "therefore we, his descendants are also entitled to play our role in the Roman aristocracy."

The history of tombs from 1420 to 1798

The project "Requiem" examines the Roman papal and cardinal tombs in the period between 1420 and 1798. The limitation to just these years has to do with church history. "In 1417 ends the great Western schism that led to the fact that for a time there were even several popes. This was preceded by a period of Babylonian exile of the Church, when the popes resided in Avignon. In 1420, with Martin V, (Pope from 1417-1431) the papacy finally returned to Rome and then also permanently established its secular rule in the Papal States until 1798, when the Papal States temporarily perished as a result of the French Revolution."

The researcher's question determines the answers he discovers

Working on a project in an interdisciplinary way brings together many scholars whose specialized questions continue to uncover new mysteries. Karsten reports on art historians who ask where certain figures come from, whether there are traditions of representation, what art historical developments can be observed, and which artists were involved or what models they worked from. The social historians, on the other hand, are concerned with the families. How influential were they? In which churches did they have tombs built? "Or we ask mentality-historically about the inscriptions," he explains. "That's where the deeds of the deceased are described. What are those deeds? Is there mention of piety, generosity, caring for the poor? Or are they professional career moves?" The latter is often found, the scholar knows. "If the uncle was, for example, papal ambassador in Paris or legate in Bologna and thus head of the papal administration in the second most important city of the Papal States," he explains, these career steps often ended up making him a cardinal or even pope, and that in turn increased the prestige of the descendants.

The greatest mass murder of the dead in European history

St. Peter's Basilica, as we know it today, was built between 1506 and 1612. Its predecessor, Old St. Peter, built in 324 A.D. by Constantine the Great over the presumed tomb of St. Peter, was demolished under Pope Julius II, and with it over 150 tombs of popes and cardinals. This massive act of destruction could almost be described as mass murder of the dead. "Contemporaries also massively criticized this," explains Karsten, "the old St. Peter's Church, which goes back to the Constantinian era, was an El Dorado of hundreds of tombs from the Middle Ages, reaching back to the early times of Christianity. With the old church, not all, but the vast majority of these ancient memorial monuments were demolished. This was an act of great impiety." Although there are isolated tomb fragments in the Vatican grottoes today, he said, ultimately only one pope's tomb `survived.' Through the intervention of Pope Innocent VIII's influential family, his tomb was not destroyed and was transferred to the new St. Peter's Basilica. Isolated papal tombs can still be found in surrounding churches because church leaders felt connected to them. "Since the completion of the new St. Peter's Basilica, most of the popes have been buried there since the 17th century."

Cardinal wills regulate the burial place

Some graves are very simple, while others are monumental. This is due, on the one hand, to the last will of the deceased or sometimes simply to the financial possibilities, the researcher knows. "As part of the Requiem Project, we have been able to look at preserved cardinal wills in Rome that have been preserved since 1626. And they always begin with the formula soon as I have given my soul back to God, the following shall happen after my death..." First, the ceremony of the dead is then described with the burial of the body and the desire for a pompous grave or a simple tombstone.
However, he said, there are also cases in which the family overrides the dead person's wishes. "There is a papal nephew, Antonio Barberini (1607 - 1671)," Karsten reports. "He wants a tombstone with only one word on it: Peccator (a sinner). But that didn't stop his descendants from building a huge burial chapel in a village church on their estate south of Rome about a hundred years later, where he is reburied and, with all the art of the time, with bust, etc., family prestige is placed above the wishes of the individual. That's where the big, traditional family is shown and Uncle Antonio is kidnapped posthumously, so to speak."

Moral concepts change or eliminate gravestones

There have been changes to individual grave markers from time to time. For example, one of the figures in the tomb of Alexander VII was originally nude. This was the Veritas figure, which was executed according to Bernini's plans as late as the 1670s. "However, just a few years later, the more austere Pope Innocent XI. Bernini to put a bronze robe on the figure."
The example of the tomb of the mistress of Borgia Pope Alexander VI (1492 - 1503), Vanozza de` Cattanei, also shows how moral concepts in Rome could change in the long term. The mother of four papal children, Lucretia, Juan, Cesare and Jofré, had a tomb slab in the prominent church of Santa Maria del Popolo until the 17th century. "It also said that she was the Cardinal's mistress and everyone knew that was Pope Alexander VI. Later, this tomb slab was taken down by order of Clement VIII. Fragments have survived."

As in ancient Egypt, tomb work began while the popes were still alive

Famous sculptors such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680) created colossal tombs such as that of Urban VIII or Alexander VII, which they were commissioned to do during the popes' lifetimes, creating not only precious works of craftsmanship but also regular tomb designs. "This was a new idea," Karsten says. "It's the question of how the tomb relates to the surrounding space. There are brilliant solutions there, and Bernini is a real virtuoso. If a tombstone then also conveys messages beyond what is physically visible, that is, reveals information about the nature, goals and even politics of the deceased, tombstones become highly complex vehicles of meaning." Particularly encapsulated messages made the memorial buildings into witty, artistic works.

The impressive open-air tomb in St. Peter's Basilica

Karsten has often been asked the question about his favorite tomb, and he doesn't always give the same answer. "Right now," he says, "my favorite would be the tomb of Pope Alexander VII by Bernini in St. Peter's Basilica, because the artist is at the height of his skills there, of conveying subtle pictorial messages." What is fascinating about this monument is the construction of a free-standing tomb that is not actually allowed to exist in St. Peter's Basilica. Free-standing tombs are freestanding monuments that the viewer can walk around. Some popes would have tried to enforce such a tomb for themselves. "Free in space, that's how kings lie," Karsten says, and that's also a major reason why the old St. Peter's Basilica was torn down. "Julius II, who starts this new building, he wants to have a huge tomb by Michelangelo that just literally breaks the frame. He fails with it, and some successors also. The reason: if one of the popes starts to build such a huge thing for himself, the equality of office is questioned. What does Bernini do? He sticks, formally speaking, to the decorum, preserves the form and takes a niche. But in the niche he builds a pedestal in the center and around the pedestal, in perspective, four figures, so that no one can say anything. But because of the fact that these female figures appear on four sides, it has become a free tomb. That is spirit and wit. It plays with visual habits." What's more, the highlight of this structure is a door set centrally toward the back. When you open it, glistening daylight shines through the tomb. "Death comes out of the light. It's very impressive."
Tombs like Alexander VII's have impressed people throughout the ages. Princes of the church even then knew how to use knowledge convincingly, even in sculpture. Pope Julius II, who was responsible for the new construction of St. Peter's Basilica, put it this way: "Scientific knowledge is silver to the bourgeoisie, gold to the nobility, and gems to princes."

Uwe Blass (interview from12.01.2022)

PD Dr. Arne Karsten (*1969) studied art history, history and philosophy in Göttingen, Rome and Berlin. From 2001 to 2009 he was a research assistant at the Institute for Art and Image History at Humboldt University Berlin. Since the winter semester of 2009, he has been teaching as a junior professor, and since his habilitation in 2016, as a private lecturer in modern history at Bergische Universität.

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