Artists, when they have the opportunity to travel abroad, usually have a short list of "must see" cities. Paris, London, and New York of course, probably Venice, Florence, in the Far East, Kyoto, and without a doubt, Rome! Rome, the eternal city, home of St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, the Coliseum, the Forum, ancient Roman ruins, fountains at every street corner, churches on every block, sidewalk cafes lining the Via Veneto, the seven hills, the Vatican Museums, the trendy shops, the Catacombs...well...okay, you might skip the Catacombs. But there's little wonder they call it the eternal city--it would seem to take an eternity to see it all. That's Rome today.
Five hundred years ago you could have seen it all in a day and had time to throw back a few goblets of wine at a squalid little inn, hoping to rinse away the dust from your throat after a long day of dodging sheep, geese, dogs, street urchins, and a motley assortment of beggars, muggers and outright thieves. It would have been near the bottom of any artist's list of favourite cities to visit, and indeed, those who went there, went for one reason--the Church. The pope lived in Rome...well, really in sort of a suburb to the west on a hill called Vatican. No one in his or her right mind would have lived in Rome proper in those days. It was a filthy, squalid, damp, dump of a city overgrown with weeds, congested, old, and medieval in the worst sense of the word. The Renaissance may have been settling in on Vatican Hill but it was nowhere to be seen along the Via Veneto.
But when the church called, the stars of the Renaissance (sometimes reluctantly) came. Working for the church didn't pay well. The merchants of Venice or Florence offered far better wages and much more comfortable accommodations. But it was service to God as well as Pope that brought them, and inspired them to the kind of greatness that within little more than a hundred years made the city the number one place on earth to go and study art. The city changed too. When the popes no longer felt the need to lavish money on St. Peters, they began to look about them and to share the wealth, so to speak. The fountains, the churches, the piazzas, the ruins, all came to life as the city rediscovered itself. The French established an academy of art in Rome that was the grand prize in its yearly Salon competition, the Prix de Rome--the Prize of Rome. Today, Rome IS a prize, along with its Italian people, their culture, their music, their food, their ambience, and still the number one city in the world to go and study art.