The Tough Pope and His Great Works

Five centuries ago, on December 13, 1521, in Le Grotte, now Grottammare, a charming town on the Adriatic coast in the Marche region, was born the tough pope: Sixtus V, whose original name was Felice Peretti.

The great Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791–1863) celebrates him in one of his gracious sonnets:

Among all those who have held the place
Of God’s vicar, there had never been seen before
Such a quarrelsome, tough, crazy
Pope as Pope Sixtus[1]

Felice was born into a humble family, originally from Montalto Marche. The future pope will always be linked to his popular origins and his fellow-countrymen, granting them gifts and privileges. Entering the Order of Friars Minor Conventual at the age of 13, at 27 he became a doctor in theology in the town of Fermo. Four years later he was connected with Cardinal Michele Ghislieri, the future Pope Pius V (1504-1572), who consecrated him bishop in 1566 and created him cardinal in 1570. Elected pope by acclamation on April 24, 1585, Sixtus V ruled for just five years with the utmost vigor.

Reviewing these years in brief, the tough pope eradicated the serious problem of banditry; he implemented the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and in 1586 the number of Cardinals was fixed by him to 70; in the field of international relations he maintained the vital freedom for the Church and fought the Protestant infection.

His trusted architect, Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), to change the face of Rome in just five years. His major works were these: he erected four ancient obelisks surmounted by crosses (the Vatican Obelisk, the Flaminian Obelisk, the Esquilino Obelisk and the Lateran Obelisk); he crowned the two triumphal columns of imperial Rome (the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Trajan’s Column) with statues of Saints Peter and Paul, apostles, respectively; he completed the dome of St. Peter’s and had his Sistine Chapel built in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he is buried today; he ordered the expansion of the Vatican Apostolic Library, where you can admire the wonderful Sistine Hall, decorated by some of the greatest painters of the time; he built the very important aqueduct, called Acqua Felice, solving the problems of water distribution in the center of Rome; he built the current Lateran Palace and expanded the papal residence of the Quirinal. Struck by fevers, he died at the Quirinale on the evening of August 27, 1590, at the age of sixty-eight.

While the Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office dedicated to him two stamps, we want to recall two events that affect music. The first concerns the Orchestra and Choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia: “these two institutions, because of their history, the quality of their musical skill and their typically ‘Italian’ sound represent Rome and Italy in the global musical arena.”[2] On May 1, 1585, with the bull Ratione congruit,  Sixtus V established the Congregazione dei Musici sotto l’invocazione della Beata Vergine e dei Santi Gregorio e Cecilia (The Congregation of Musicians under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Gregory and Saint Cecilia) which would have so much importance in Roman musical life — thus linking among its patrons alongside the woman of the Magnificat the two musical saints par excellence. The great Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was also part of that Congregation, which lasted until the 18th century. In the 19th century it revived, dividing into two branches, for “secular” music with the name of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; and for “sacred” music with the name of Associazione Italiana Santa Cecilia.[3]

The raising of the obelisk in 1586
The second event is certainly a memorable event which took place in the Year of Grace 1586: the transportation of the Neronian obelisk from where it was located near the Sacristy in the center of St. Peter’s Square, and its raising. The undertaking, which took 800 men, 160 horses, 40 windlasses and dozens of ropes, is documented by Domenico Fontana. The day of September 10, when the works are finished, was marked by a solemn procession. Bishop Bartolomeo Ferratino junior celebrated mass at the altar set up near the obelisk.[4] The “spire” was blessed with the singing of the Cappella Giulia (St. Peter’s singers in Rome), conducted Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Fontana himself, after having listed the psalms and the  recited prayers, recounts:

And then the Bishop gave the Cross to the Deacon, who, helped by clerics, lifted it up, and while it was pulled up, the Hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt [“The banners of the King go forth”]. was sung till the verse O crux ave Spes unica in hoc solemni tempore, [“Hail O Cross our only hope”] and when the Cross was placed on the top of the Spire, the Deacon holding it by the foot, while it was supported by the builders, everyone downstairs knelt down, and the Singers sang: O crux ave spes unica in hoc solemni tempore, etc., finishing the Hymn, and the trumpets gave a sign of joy.[5]

Further on, the author names all the participants in the procession: the Mansionari (priests reciting Mass for the soul of a benefactor), the Chaplains, the Beneficiary Clerics, the Beneficiaries. After these Mr. Giovan Pietro Prenestini with eighteen Singers came.[6]

Here is Palestrina, of which Sixtus V is great admirer and patron, conducting his own Vexilla regis for 4 voices. Taken from the hymn text by Venantius Fortunatus (530-607) in which Christ, who reigns from the height of that throne of love and not of dominion that is the Cross, is exalted, this version was published by the Prince of Music in the grandiose collection of 45 Hymni totius anni (hymns for the whole year) dedicated precisely then to the happily reigning tough pope. “This work” — the composer writes in the Latin dedicatory —

Whatever it may be, I offer to your holiness with all humility. As the matter itself has always been deeply appreciated by your holiness, so I hope that my care for it will be approved, if not for the artistic ability, at least for the intention and the attempt. Rome, April 16, 1589.[7]

Poor Pierluigi with only eighteen singers facing St. Peter’s Square: what a consolation for those of us who have to perform this music in the open air!

How many things to remember and how many to enjoy, thanks to a humble boy born 500 years ago and who became Sixtus the Fifth! Indeed Sixtus the Last — Belli docet

Because not too soon
Another pope may have the whim
Of naming himself Sixtus the Sixth![8]


Photos: wikipedia commons.

[1] I sonetti romaneschi di G. G. B., a cura di L. Morandi, Vol. 3, Città di Castello 1886, p. 266.

[2] Benedict XVI, Address, October 1, 2020.

[3] Cf. John Paul II, Homily, September 21, 1980

[4] D. Rezza & M. Stocchi, Il capitolo di San Pietro in Vaticano dalle origini al XX secolo, Edizioni Capitolo Vaticano, 2008, p. 330.

[5] D. Fontana, Della trasportatione dell’obelisco vaticano et delle fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V. Libro primo, Roma 1590, p. 33 verso.

[6] D. Fontana, Ibidem, p. 34 verso.

[7] In L. Bianchi, Palestrina: nella vita, nelle opere, nel suo tempo, Fondazione Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1995, p. 226.

[8] G. G. Belli, ibídem.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...