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The papacy in the middle of the 9th century
The Vatican becomes a castle and a holy pope a fortification builder
When in August 846 seventy-five Saracen ships appeared at the mouth of the Tiber, around 11,000 men and 500 horses fell on the districts of Rome on the right bank of the Tiber, eleven thousand men and five hundred horses fell on the districts of Rome to the right of the Tiber, completely sacking the church of St Peter outside the wall of Aurelius as well as the basilica of St Paul and taking prisoner all those who had not fled, ‘including the inhabitants of the monasteries, men and women’ (Annales Xantenses), the contemporaries saw it as a punishment of Providence against the corruption that was invading Rome.
After the surprise attack, it was the defeat, the disgrace provoked by Saracens and pagans, which inflamed the faithful. Why had Saint Peter not been better defended? A capitulary blames the sins of Christianity and points out the remedies: to fight against one’s wickedness, against the sins of the flesh and the theft of the ecclesiastical patrimony! In addition, Lothair I ordered alms to be collected throughout the empire and imposed a special tax for the reconstruction of the church of St Peter and its protection, to which the emperor and his brothers contributed ‘not a few pounds of silver’.
In the meantime, Pope Sergius II had died. And on the very day of his death, his successor was elected: a Roman, educated from childhood in the Benedictine monastery of St Martin and an ‘exemplary religious’ (Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche). It was Leo IV (847-855), who after a six-week interpontificium was consecrated pope, and again without imperial approval, which had been necessary since 824. It seems that the crisis caused by the Arab pirates didn’t permit any delay, although the oath of allegiance to the emperor was subsequently demanded of him.
Pope Leo IV and the Fire in the Borgo. The fresco is believed
to have been designed by Raphael, but was likely painted
by Giulio Romano and others in Raphael’s workshop
between 1514 and 1517 when Pope Leo X was pontiff—Ed.
This saintly father achieved a reputation as a master builder of fortifications that can be said to have lasted until the present day. He transformed the suburbs of Rome on the right bank of the Tiber, the entire neighbourhood of the Vatican, into a castle in an undertaking that was important for centuries. It was a plan that Leo III had already been contemplating, but which only Leo IV brought to fruition. In a work of years, personally inspected by him on foot or horseback, he reinforced the old city walls, created new fortifications and thus became the creator of the civitas leonina, to which he modestly gave his name ‘city of Leon’. Between 848 and 852 he built a wall almost forty feet high and as many feet thick, reinforced with 44 towers.
The work of fortifying required abundant materials and numerous workers, who had to contribute to cities and monasteries of the Papal State, dominions and militias. But the papal stronghold also cost large sums of money, which came mainly from the Frankish Empire—something the papal biographer completely omits—on the orders of the very obliging Lothair, with the strange effect that it was due to the pope and his position vis-à-vis the emperor!
The devastated St Peter’s was again lavishly decorated. On the high altar were placed sheets of gold enamelled with precious stones, each weighing 216 pounds; a gold cross, embossed with pearls and emeralds, weighed 1,000 pounds, and a silver ciborium or baldachin over the altar weighed 1,606 pounds. As St Paul’s and many temples, even in the provinces, were also expensively decorated, it could be seen how immensely rich the Church was, for which collections were already being made everywhere because of its ‘poverty’ (as they still are today).
It is understandable that the ‘sons of Satan’, who came from Sardinia, appeared at the mouth of the Tiber as early as 849, long before the fortification of Leon was erected. At last, they had seen what was hidden in those Christian temples and what was piled up at St Peter’s. ‘The imagination cannot comprehend the richness of the treasures piled up there’ (Gregorovius).