WANDERING through the eternal city last month, having given up on receiving any useful guidance from my map or well-meaning locals to get me to where I was staying, I chanced upon Piazza Navona. On a sweltering Roman afternoon, there could be no happier accident.
The main fountain in this magnificent square, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, was commissioned by Giovanni Battista Pamphilj when he became Pope Innocent X. The ornate mansion on one side of the square, the Palazzo Pamphilj, was also built to mark the occasion.
In those days, a new pope soon launched a piazza-fontana-palazzo-chiesa-building frenzy. Monuments to this legacy dot the country’s main cities and towns. Here, a statue by Michelangelo commissioned by this pope; there, a mansion built in another’s honour.
The spoils of ascending to the highest post in the church went beyond displays of bling in the form of real estate and art. Mistresses, siblings and distant relatives would snap up positions in the church. The corrupt links between the papacy and private wealth were most flagrantly expressed in the dealings of families such as the Medicis and the Borgias.
This is a world away from Italy’s current manifestation as a major eurozone democracy. But in another sense, the old themes are ever-present, with the country recently having to endure Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister. The curse of venal elites runs through the ages.