PAPAL INSTABILITY IN ROME circa 1415 - by Alison Fleming

Kempe was in Rome at a particularly fractious time for the papacy. There was no pope officiating, John XXIII having gone to Constance in 1414, hoping to find backing from the Council's delegates to legitimize his reign.  What did Rome look like in 1415? For other Italian cities, the early 1440s (the Quattrocento) places us in the Early Renaissance. Rome in 1415, however, was still very much a late medieval city. Political turmoil retarded its emulation of the artistic and economic changes taking place in other centers of Italy. 

The major issue was papal patronage.  In 1309, pressured by the French, the Pope had changed his residence to Avignon. In 1377, Gregory XI, urged by St. Catherine of Siena, returned to Rome. Then followed a period of claims and counterclaims, resulting that in 1415, the year of Kempe’s visit, there were three claimants to the papal throne: John XXIII (1410-15) and Gregory XII (1406-15) representing Italian factions and Benedict XIII (1394-1424) supported by Avignon.  The Council of Constance, convened to both combat heresies and put an end to the papal schism, demanded abdication of all three pretenders (F. Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, A. Hamilton (trans), London, 1906; rep. New York, 1967, vol. 6/2, 623-52).  The Council of Constance elected Oddo Colonna pope.  He was consecrated Martin V in 1417 in the cathedral of Constance, but only entered Rome Sept. 20, 1420.  With a Concordant between the papacy and Germany, England, France and Spain, Martin V (1417-31) could begin a serious reform of the Roman states. 

In 1420, just a few years after Kempe’s visit, Martin V (1417-31) began his reign by establishing permanent residence in Rome,. In fact, Martin designated 1423 a Jubilee year, to inaugurate his return. The physical state of the once-glorious “city of gold” was in a state of chaos akin to the state of the Papacy. A Papal Bull of Martin V, dated 1425, provides a good description of early 15th century Rome that Margery Kempe experienced.

“Many citizens and inhabitants of Rome and its territory, that is, butchers, fishmongers, shoemakers, farmers, and other artisans who live right in the most beautiful places of the city and pursue their trades there have been throwing and illicitly hiding entrails, viscera, heads, feet, bones, blood, and skins besides, rotten meat and fish, refuse, excrement and other fetid and rotting cadavers into the streets, alleys, piazzas and other public and private places. Also many citizens and inhabitants heaping ill upon ill have dared boldly and sacrilegiously to occupy, alienate, usurp, ruin and reduce to their own use streets, alleys, piazzas, public and private places both ecclesiastical and profane.” James Ackerman: “The Planning of Renaissance Rome, 1450-1580”, in Rome in the Renaissance, The City and the Myth, ed. P.A. Ramsey, Binghamton NY, 1982, p. 4.
Little modern research has been done on this period in Rome (between the glorious mosaics of Cavallini and Torriti in the late Duecento, and the innovative city planning and rebuilding of Pope Nicholas V).  Ackerman (see above) describes Rome in this period as “a small, decaying town of 17,000 inhabitants living in huts, lean-to’s, and hovels scattered about in disorder among the ruins of antiquity. There were no publicly maintained streets; mud and garbage made vehicular traffic virtually impossible.” Clearly, the Eternal City had suffered with the compromised economic status of the Papacy.

Much of the renovation of the city was initiated by Pope Nicholas V (1447-55), especially in the area around the Vatican, where the seat of the Papacy is now located. The ancient aqueducts had fallen into decay, the first one being repaired in 1453. Narrow medieval streets were paved and widened under Sixtus IV (1471-84). But all of this happened decades after Kempe’s visit. In a Bull of 1427, Martin V had ordered the renovation of many churches, including St. John Lateran and the Lateran Palace, St. Pauls' outside the walls, and the portico of St. Peter’s. The specific monuments he selected imply a continuity with much earlier papal patronage, dating back to the 4th century.