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The “Long” Trecento: Rome Without the Popes, c. 1305–1420

Claudia Bolgia, University of Edinburgh
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2016–2017


Unknown draftsman, seventeenth century, Pope Urban V, reproduction of an image formerly in Arezzo (from the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo). Royal Library, Windsor, RL 8937. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The art of Rome, from antiquity to modern times, has attracted major scholarly interest, with the significant exception of one period: the Trecento. All of the seminal art-historical works on medieval Rome end around 1305, while studies of the Renaissance tend to begin only after 1420. Behind this omission lies the traditional assumption that the absence of Pope Clement V (1305–1314) from Rome and the subsequent gradual establishment of the Curia in Avignon resulted in a diaspora of major patrons (popes and cardinals), which, in turn, led to a lengthy hiatus in commissions and artistic production lasting until the end of the Great Schism (1420).

My project challenges this prevailing interpretation, not only by seeking to demonstrate that Rome continued both to attract artists and to export art but also by exploring the dramatic change in patronage and agency—and thus in the function and use of art—in a period of rapid political, social, juridical, and cultural transformations. This research also explores the relationship among Rome, the Italian city-republics, and the great courts of Europe in order to reassess the role of Rome’s visual culture in expressing (as well as shaping) contemporary society in a period crucial to the formation of early modern Europe.

During my first term at CASVA I completed two essays on Trecento Rome, both for publication in 2017: “In the Footsteps of Saint Peter: New Light on the Half-Length Images of Benedict XII by Paolo da Siena and Boniface VIII by Arnolfo di Cambio in Old Saint Peter’s,” in Benedict XII and His Context, edited by Irene Bueno, and “The Sepulchral Monument of Adam Easton in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere: The Celebration of an English Cardinal between Tradition and Innovation,” in Adam Easton: Monk, Scholar, Theologian, Diplomat and Cardinal, edited by Deirdre Jackson. Findings detailed in these essays will serve as the basis for broader discussions in my book in preparation, “The ‘Long’ Trecento: Rome without the Popes, c. 1305–1420.” In addition, I investigated artistic patronage in Rome during earlier (thirteenth-century) papal “absences” that foreshadowed the Avignon period. Discussion with CASVA fellows and curators at the National Gallery of Art as well as the assistance of specialists in the image collection (particularly Gregory Most, Missy Lemke, and Andrea Gibbs) have been invaluable.

I devoted the spring term to drafting the second chapter of my book, provisionally entitled “Absence and Presence.” In it, I explore how the popes used art by “remote control” (that is, from Avignon) to “materialize” their presence and legitimize their authority in Rome at the time of their severely criticized absence. What was the civic response to such manifestations of authority and claims to leadership, and how was art deployed to give visual and physical expression to such responses? I address these questions first of all by examining changes in portraiture, from the reactionary image of Benedict XII as vicarius Christi to the innovative depictions of Urban V with the attributes of Good Government. Second, I argue that icons and relics were reclaimed by the various forces competing for control of Rome, charged with civic or papal values, and installed in monumental tabernacles designed not only to promote the worship of their inhabitants but also to compete as visual manifestations of the authority and legitimacy of their commissioners.

In the course of my research, I identified an interesting phenomenon that began to emerge during and after the 1360s: the papacy’s appropriation of modes of expression typical of city governments in parallel with the civic appropriation of forms of artistic expression typical of the papacy. The opportunity to undertake short research trips to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where I discovered several disjecta membra of Trecento Rome, was a significant additional benefit.

By concentrating on specific cases, I was able to gain insight into the way in which the study of the art of Trecento Rome can shed new light on contemporary culture, politics, and society while illuminating our understanding of earlier and later works of art whose full significance has hitherto remained elusive. Overall, the research undertaken at CASVA during this academic year has led me to conclude that the art of fourteenth-century Rome is a missing link in a chain of continuity and change, one that can no longer be overlooked.