Patrons of the Arts: Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644)

Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Barberini in 1568, was the son of a Florentine nobleman. Because of the untimely death of his father when only aged three, his mother brought him to Rome where he was put under the care of his uncle, a protonotary apostolic. Educated by the Jesuits, he was named a papal legate by Pope Clement VIII and would eventually be made archbishop by the same.  Upon the death of his uncle, he inherited his uncle's estate and procured a palace in Rome. Pope Paul V made Maffeo Barberini a cardinal and, following the death of Pope Gregory XV, with the support of Cardinal Medici and Farnese, Maffeo Barberini was elected pope at the age of 56, taking the name of Urban VIII. The Venetian envoy at Urban VIII's election described him as one "exceptionally elegant and refined... and [of] exquisite taste."

As patrons of the arts, the Barberini family in general have certainly and indelibly left their mark on Rome -- and Urban VIII was no exception -- and even in his own regard, Urban VIII was known as a skilled writer of classical Latin verse, composing hymns -- though his reform of the hymns of the breviary are subject to some criticism it should be noted.

Tapestry: "Urban VIII Consecrates St. Peter's Basilica" -- A tapestry from a series marking noteworthy events in the life of Pope Urban VIII, produced by the workshop of Urban VIII's nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

It is perhaps his patronage of the famed sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, however, that successive generations and lovers of Rome may have Urban most to thank for, for it was under his pontificate that a number of significant works were commissioned by him from Bernini -- both civic and ecclesiastical -- and it was Urban VIII who gave Bernini prominent, influential offices related to St. Peter's and Rome generally, including commissions of two of Bernini's (and St. Peter's) most recognizable works, the "cathedri Petri" and baldacchino of St. Peter's Basilica. It is not an over-exaggeration to say that the St. Peter's (and the Rome) you know and love wouldn't be the same without Bernini's influence -- and thus, by extension, without Urban VIII. 

The great "baldacchino" of Bernini (said to be made from copper beams taken from the Pantheon) and the "cathedra Petri" of Bernini seen behind. Aside from the facade itself, these are two of the most iconic aspects of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
In addition to St. Peter's, Urban VIII also had various Roman churches restored, such Santa Bibiana, San Sebastiano al Palatino and Santi Cosma e Damiano, and he was known to have commissioned eminent painters both in his time as cardinal and pope, such as Caravaggio ("Sacrifice of Isaac") and Nicolas Poussin. 

"Sacrifice of Isaac," Caravaggio.

Santa Bibiana - a baroque renovation commissioned by Pope Urban VIII for the Holy Year of 1625

Palazzo Barberini in Rome

Ceiling of Santa Cosma e Damiano -- one will note the arms of Pope Urban VIII. Under Urban VIII, the floor was raised seven metres to prevent water problems, while the facade was given a barqoue treatment. On the interior, the main arch was widened, new side chapels and a new high altar added, along with the carved wooden ceiling shown here.
While Urban VIII is often remembered for his promotion of the Barberini family and the unfortunate matter of Galileo, it is his contributions toward and his keen sense of the importance of art and beauty (as well as art patronage) which is one of his best and most lasting contributions -- one which, even down to our very day, cannot be avoided.

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