Roma caput mundi: Rome's local antiquities as symbol and source

Christian, Kathleen (2018). Roma caput mundi: Rome's local antiquities as symbol and source. In: Christian, Kathleen and de Divitiis, Bianca eds. Local antiquities, local identities: Art, literature and antiquarianism in Europe, c. 1400-1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 57–78.




Rome’s local identity in the post-classical era has been shaped by its status as caput mundi. The arrival of outsiders to see Rome’s ancient wonders was a constant in the city’s medieval history, offering symbolic confirmation that its status as centre of the world would continue unchallenged, as a source of pride for the city’s nobility and communal government, but above all for the papacy, whose identity as an institution was bound up with rituals confirming the submission of the outside world – in the form of pilgrimage to Rome’s basilicas, or emperors’ visits to Rome to receive their crowns. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, Rome’s status as caput mundi could no longer be taken for granted. The papacy had suffered grave setbacks with the Schism, the rise of rival powers on the Italian peninsula, the diversion of papal resources towards unsuccessful attempts to further papal interests in the Romagna, and a general unease about their institutional authority. In response, the popes increasingly adopted the methods of their secular rivals, aggressively asserting their role as institutional successors to the Roman emperors; while this strategy eroded their religious authority, with fateful consequences during the Reformation, it secured their status as rulers of Rome, allowing them to redefine the city in their quasi-imperial terms

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