The sixteenth century dawned brilliantly for Rome as the centre of the High Renaissance. During its first quarter both Raphael and Michelangelo were busy there, the one at work on the frescoes of the Vatican apartments and the other on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was also placed in charge, by Leo X, of the removal of material from ancient monuments, in order to minimize the destruction of 'antique marbles, without regard to the inscriptions which are engraven thereon'. Such a safeguard was especially necessary since as architect he was also charged with securing stones for the new building of Saint Peter's.
After this bright flowering early in the century, Rome became once more a pawn in the struggle between foreign powers. The French kings and the Spanish Hapsburgs both claimed one or more of the Italian states as their rightful inheritance by descent or marriage. Their claims, in some cases, went back to situations created by the medieval struggles between Empire and Papacy; now, once more, both sides exerted pressure upon the popes. Fierce warfare broke out between Francis I of France and the Hapsburg emperor Charles V of Spain, in the course of which the imperial forces captured the city in 1527 and plundered it more mercilessly than in any sack save that of the Normans in 1084.
Again the city recovered, this time with no long period of decline. The Rome which rallied from this disaster was never again quite so gay, quite so pagan, as in the days of Julius II and Leo X. The city of the popes which emerged after the middle of the century was the baroque Rome of the Counter Reformation, whose buildings, sculpture, and painting alike were keyed to produce an exciting, dramatic, spectacular effect, meant for the service of the Christian religion but oddly harmonious with the more elaborate monuments of the ancient pagan capital.
Monuments spared by the sack were imperilled by the triumph which Charles V celebrated in Rome in 1536, on the pretext of his victory over the Turks in Tunisia the year before. For this occasion Paul III, then pope, had many changes made in the Forum through which the procession marched on its way to the Capitol, and a fresh wave of discovery-and destruction--passed over the city.
Meanwhile, as Rome became more and more the centre of the artistic as well as of the religious world, artists had begun those delightful, detailed sketches of her monuments which are the clearest and perhaps the most beautiful record of their appearance from the late fifteenth century onward. Among the earliest of these was a pupil or follower of Ghirlandaio, usually called the Anonymus Escurialensis from the name of the collection in which his sketchbook is preserved.
The drawings in this sketchbook, though done about 1491, betray a lingering trace of the Middle Ages in their tight outlines and meticulous detail. Occasionally, too, they suffer from an incomplete mastery of problems in perspective, already solved by leading painters of the time. But the artist observed keenly and drew firmly. The result is an outstanding document, of both topographical and artistic importance, showing Roman monuments as they looked on the eve of the New World's discovery.
The sketchbook of the Netherlander, Marten van Heemskerck, is outstanding among sixteenth-century drawings of Roman ruins. Van Heemskerck came to Rome in 1532, twelve years after Raphael's death, and remained there until 1535 or 1536, about the time Michelangelo began work on his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The emotions which drew him like so many others to the Eternal City, and his activities there, were recorded by his younger contemporary Carl van Mander: 'He went to Rome, for which place he had had a strong desire for a long time. . . . He made drawings from antiques and from the works of Michelangelo. He made many sketches of ancient ruins, architectural details, and interesting remains of ancient works that may be seen in great abundance in this city.' Northern fidelity to detail and a bold simplicity and grace acquired from Italy combine to make Van Heemskerck's drawings among the most accurate and the most attractive records of Roman monuments in the days of the Renaissance.