BBC iPlayer offers another opportunity to see writer and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s exploration of how Rome rose from squalor in the 14th century to become the permanent home of the Holy See and Il Papa.
In the this, the third episode, Sebag Montefiore gamely hops about on scaffolding to demonstrate how the Borgias made Rome great again with a massive building project.
We poke about dark corners of the Vatican and discover the original St Peter’s Basilica built by the Emperor Constantine, which Pope Julius II destroyed in an act of sacrilege in order to build an even better St Peter’s. Flash forward 120 years and 20 popes to find out how that costly little idea went.
We marvel at Raphael and Michelangelo – and take a look at a few souvenir stalls to demonstrate how indulgences were sold to raise money for the papacy, much to the disdain of many of the populace of Rome. Cue one Martin Luther, the Sack of Rome, the Catholic Reformation and the pathway to how Rome became not just Catholic, but Roman Catholic.
It is a gorgeous, sunny trip to the Eternal City, taking in some of the most beautifully decorated buildings like the Villa Farnese – and some fine examples of pagan art and sinful behaviour laid out in spectacular frescoes, before the Catholic Reformation puts an end to all the licentiousness and demands the artful use of fig leaf, plus the religious ecstasy of the sculptor Bernini.
It is not always a pretty story – the persecution of Jews and homosexuals is interwoven with the story of Rome, along with what we would now consider to be the sexual exploitation of women. But sometimes beauty is not all it seems…
Eventually the name of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini crops up – and we learn how under his regime the Vatican State was created to resolve the issue of a power watershed between the papacy and the State.
Rome: A History of the Eternal City – The Rebirth of God’s City is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.