Modern rome

Letizia Norci Cagiano de Azevedo


1One cannot speak of modern Rome for Montesquieu (the Rome he knew in 1728-1729 during his extended travels through Europe, the image of which was to influence his future work) without taking into account the expectations that motivated this erudite magistrate, a lover of ancient Rome, prior to his trip to Italy. He doubtless, at the time of this trip, idealized the citizens of republican Rome and had a vision of the City that was to be completely upset by his Roman experience.

2His travel notes remain the best source of information on his stay in Rome and on the development of a critical and dynamic vision of the eternal city that was to find an echo in Mes pensées and the Spicilège and was subsequently to influence his great works, Considerations and The Spirit of Law. In the first pages of the Travels devoted to Rome, we find observations that contrast with the classical vision of the capital of the Republic and the Empire: the people are base and idle, the government weak and inept, the great monuments in ruin, and the countryside desolate. These are the results of an eternal decadence that began, as Montesquieu later noted, at the moment when Rome began recklessly to extend her possessions (Romans, i-ix).

3Seen from above, the city appeared sparsely populated (the inhabited part represented but a fraction of the area enclosed by the wall of Aurelian: about 140,000 inhabitants compared to the million estimated in the Augustinian era: Voyages, p. 338), whereas the surrounding areas, once so lush, as was shown by the cult of the nymph Egeria at the gates on Rome, were empty and unsanitary (p. 296). The reasons were to be found in the progressive abandonment of agriculture since the decline of the Roman empire: "the lack of agriculture produced the polluted air and the polluted air has since prevented its repopulation" (p. 271). Only the charming villages of the Castelli Romani (which Montesquieu visited in company with abbé Cerati) were spared by the malaria that brought with it serious demographic problems. This subject, which returns frequently in various forms in the Travels, was anticipated in Rhedi's letters on depopulation (LP, 108-117) and is also developed in Reflections on the inhabitants of Rome [English text in David W. Carrithers and Philip Stewart, Montesquieu: Discourses, Dissertations, and Dialogues on Politics, Science, and Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 94-97] read to the Bordeaux Academy in December 1732, and represents an important step in the elaboration of the theory of climates which was to dominate books XIV-XVII of The Spirit of Law.

4The depopulation of the countryside was partially responsible for the poor economic and commercial situation of the Pontifical States (non-competitive price of grains, insufficient oleaginous production, etc.). The rest was owed to poor administration, the absence of effective commercial policies, the lack of manufactures, and contraband; but especially to indebtedness, to squandering of the rich pontifical revenues, to emoluments and expenditures designed to obtain prestige for the pope's family and protégés during the period of his reign (Voyages, p. 249, 253, 334, 338, 343).

5The singularity of the pontifical government, run by a pope destined to reign for a few years and often elected in function of political and power interests, was a source of reflections which Montesquieu elaborated over time. In Rome, his critical mind was honed by frequentations that presented him with arguments for weighing the politics of the popes. Interior politics on the one hand, from nepotism to question of impunity ("In Rome there is nothing so convenient as churches for praying to God and committing murder" (Voyages, p. 258; see also p. 242-243 et 334), to the venality of offices, the intrigues of the curia, indulgence for the moral laxity of the clergy and the people (see for example ibid., p. 283, but also The Spirit of Law, XXIII, 29 on the reasons for the idleness of the people). But also foreign affairs, where the pope revealed all his weakness, equally from the viewpoint of religious authority: "in olden times the popes had much greater authority outside their own state, but less inside; the vicar of Jesus Christ was greater and the prince was smaller (Voyages, p. 252).

6But Montesquieu's darts during his stay in Rome particularly targeted the current pope, Benedict XIII, whose flaws he clearly describes: the paltry economic management which was starving the people while corruption was gaining ground, and his narrow-mindedness in the spiritual and political domains. "He has no awareness of how the world goes. His world is the kingdom of Naples and the ecclesiastical state" (Voyages, p. 245). Thus he takes no account of the opinions of cardinals , nor of the authority of the Holy Office (p. 255, 257). Several times Montesquieu relates the pitiless judgments circulating in Rome about the reigning pope (see p. 254-256, p. 271, and Volpilhac-Auger 2009) and at his death exclaims: "Give us a pope with a sword like that of St. Paul"! (OC, t. XVIII, letter 359, to Cerati, 1 March 1730).

7Nevertheless, the portrait of the pontiff emerges in the Travels via a series of brushstrokes which, while making clear his petty and contradictory aspects (he "likes only the extraordinary in small things the way others like the extraordinary in large ones. He acts only on his fantasies", p. 253), also underscore his ascetic vocation (under Benedict XIII he finds "Rome as sad as it is holy", p. 284) and the perseverance of his intentions: "he is indefatigable; three years ago he baptized some Jews. He performed the ceremonies with the ancient customs; there was an icy wind, yet he remained with his head uncovered for three hours at St. Peter's gate. […] That day he forgot he had said mass that morning, and said it twice, for he is always going forward" (p. 253).

8Montesquieu nourished his fascination with these subjects and still others in his conversations with the elite of the society he frequented in Rome. These were the heirs of Clement XI, such as Cardinal Albani, who entertained his project of restoring luster to Christian Rome through the recuperation, valorization, and transmission of the "monuments" of ancient civilization (Pommier 2007). Montesquieu was interested in the cardinal's rich collection of statues, which would be purchased a few years later, in 1733, by Clement XII, who was to expose them to the public in the Palazzo Nuovo on the Campidoglio. The reorganization and cataloguing of the collection were to be entrusted to the learned Giovanni Bottari (who, with Cardinal Passionei, was involved in the placing of The Spirit of Law on the Index and then showed much consideration for Montesquieu: see OC, t. VII), a Jansenist sympathizer and friend of Gaspare Cerati and Antonio Niccolini, whom Montesquieu had already met in Florence and whom he met up with again in Rome where they introduced him into the circle of Cardinal Corsini, the future pope Clement XII (despite Montesquieu's contrary expectations: Voyages, p. 324-325). There they talk about current events, books, religion, and politics, when conversations with the old Cardinal Alberoni, once very powerful, lead Montesquieu to look into a not-so-distant past which influenced the current Roman situation: the Italian war, the politics of the French court and its "Spanish affair" (p. 275-277; Pensées no 632). The Roman encounters also allow him to let his imagination travel to the exotic places on which Rome still exerted a certain influence thanks to the missionary work of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith: in its Roman see lived Father Foucquet, back from China, a source of endless stories.

9But the person he frequented the most assiduously was Cardinal de Polignac, then minister of the king of France, who initiated him to the activities of Roman artists and antiquarians and represented an inexhaustible source of information on the Curia and its intrigues, on foreign policy, and in particular on relations with France and the interminable controversies over the bull Unigenitus. This is a recurring theme in Montesquieu's work and is still present in his mind in the last years of his life (Mémoire sur le silence, OC, t. IX). We find echoes of the political discussions of Rome in Mes pensées and especially in the Spicilège, certain fragments of which relate the opinions of Polignac, Foucquet, Albani and still others (see Spicilège, notably p. 430-456); but also, to be sure, in the intense correspondence which Montesquieu maintained with certain members of the intellectual elite like Gaspare Cerati and Antonio Niccolini.

10Another source of considerations is the presence in Rome of the English Pretender, James Edward Stuart, an object of espionage (Philipp Stosch, a famous art collector, was said to be among those who were supposed to keep an eye on him: Voyages, p. 262) and at the center of diplomatic intrigues and incidents (p. 326-327). Montesquieu visited his wife, Marie Clémentine Sobieski, and his two children. We do not know whether he also managed to meet the Pretender; he in any case sketches the portrait of that man marked, in irremediable contrast, by weakness and obstinacy: "He appears sad and pious; he is said to be weak and headstrong" (p. 281).

11The enlightened and cosmopolitan elite which Montesquieu frequented in Rome represented an infinitesimal though significant percentage of Roman society, and contrasted strongly with the other inhabitants: the lower classes ("their spirit inclines them only to beg alms and cause mischief": Voyages, p. 249); the great princely families which, with some exceptions, lived in arrogant and provincial isolation ("that comes from not having traveled": p. 324; see also p. 261-262). Among the costs of social presence, the Romans preferred to spend on the construction of palaces and the accumulation of works of art rather than giving lunches and banquets ("A misery of Rome is that not a single cardinal spends more than two thousand French livres on his table": p. 248). This attitude surprised numerous French travelers of the time; Montesquieu explains it as a habit of sobriety which, for various reasons, had replaced the gastronomical excesses of the Ancients Romans (Réflexions sur les habitants de Rome, OC, t. IX, p. 80; Pensées, nos. 665 and 682). Finally, the clergy, made up for the most part of "men who merely pass, and in the process make their fortune and enter the government and become its principal heads" (Voyages, p. 252; see also p. 261). The damage caused by the excessive wealth of the clergy was to elicit many reflections in The Spirit of Law.

12The reiterated criticism dealing with the customs of the Roman people, clergy, and princes contrasts with the interest and admiration manifested for Roman art and antiquities. On top of ancient Rome, Christian Rome developed in a disordered manner into a suggestive and contradictory amalgam in constant evolution, giving rise to a powerful expressiveness. In Rome "the stones speak" (p. 277); and yet the eye of Montesquieu on the vestiges is devoid of any lyricism. The stones tell the history, describe the tastes and habits ("The Romans had few windows; their houses were dark, because they cared little for them. They conducted all their business in public, in public places, under the porticos": p. 252); they reveal techniques of construction and urbanistic solutions (see the description of the Palatine with its references to recent and still unpublished research by Francesco Bianchini, or the description of the particular architecture of what was called the Temple of Expectation [Mausoleum of the Gordiani], which had become "a place for the lambs made to sleep there", or again the considerations on the techniques for fabricating the Cardinal Albani's porphyry urns: p. 254, 322 and 247); they convey an esthetics ("nothing more lovely than the sumptuous portico of the Forum Trajanum in the middle of which the Trajan column was found": p. 289). The stones are precious witnesses which are nevertheless fated to deteriorate ("the porphyries and other hard marbles, a kind that is being lost, are seeing their surfaces reduced"; the Villa Adriana is laid waste "because the owners, who are the Count Foede and the Jesuits, treat it like Goths and Tartars": p. 254 and 334), or expatriation ("the new Rome is selling the old one parcel by parcel"; Cardinal Albani "is selling twenty-five thousand crowns' worth of statues to the king of Poland; another house is presently selling thirty-five thousand worth": p. 290 and 249). In Rome, Montesquieu developed a critical consciousness with respect to the fate of ancient monuments: "there ought to be a law in Rome that the principal statues shall remain in place and can be sold only with the houses where they are located, on pain of confiscation of the house and others of the seller's effects. Otherwise Rome will be completely despoiled" (p. 249). Nevertheless, neither the laws of protection that had already existed since the Renaissance nor his own indignation prevent him from following with interest Cardinal de Polignac's acquisitions for his Paris collection (Norci Cagiano, 2022). This interest of his less for the testimony of a civilization at its apogee than for an evolving historical process is developed in the Considerations, where the grandiose history of Rome is reduced to the role of an episode of history (Volpilhac-Auger 2013 and Jean Ehrard 1986).

13Modern Rome, with its paintings, statues, architecture, and collections of precious stones and curiosities, is an inexhaustible source of wonderment, but also for educating the eye. In Rome Montesquieu met up again with the Englishman Hildebrand Jacob, with whom he had discovered the pleasures of painting in Vienna and who had stimulated his artistic sensitivity (Ehrard 1965, p. 75 and ff.). Jacob's teachings are at least in part at the origin of numerous observations made by Montesquieu on color, claire-obscure, proportions, and the techniques of painting, sculpture, and architecture, which he applied to the most important Roman works of art (see for example the gallery of Carracci, Raphaël, the Pantheon, St. Peter's, and the Farnese Hercules, in Voyages, p. 264-265, 268-269, 264-265, 268-269, 296, 321-322, and 323), which in part converge in the theories of the Essay on Taste. Illustrious companions contribute as well to the training of his eye: Cardinal Albani, the sculptors Edme Bouchardon, who accompanied him to the Villa Borghese, and Lambert Sigisbert Adam, who instructed him on the sculpting techniques of Bernini, whom in any case Montesquieu did not particularly appreciate (Voyages, p. 285, 292, and 293). But these guides played a marginal, though indispensable, role, in the judgments of Montesquieu, who on several occasion expresses his personal tastes concerning architecture, painting, and sculpture, judgments that are sometimes surprising in their conviction and enthusiasm. We can note, for example, his ability to appreciate the functional coherence in the apparently capricious architecture of Borromini (p. 320, 322; Norci Cagiano 2018), or yet again the genius that allows Michelangelo to undermine the rules: "No one ever knew art better than Michelangelo; no one made lighter of it. There are few of his architectural works in which the proportions are precisely retained; but with an exact knowledge of whatever can please, he seemed to have a different art for each work (Essai sur le goût. Des règles , added section 1).

14In painting, he appreciated the variety of colors and figures, important for eliciting curiosity, on condition they not create effects of confusion but possess the true order and simplicity of nature. Such is the case of the galleries of the Carracci in the Palazzo Farnese (Voyages, p. 264-265), but especially in the paintings of Raphael, who elicits Montesquieu's greatest admiration: "What perfect design! What beauty! How natural! It is not painting, it is nature itself [… ;] it seems that God uses the hand of Raphael in order to create" (ibid., p. 273).

15Visits to Roman churches, each one different, with their treasures of painting and sculpture and their ingenious architecture, contribute to the theories of esthetic pleasure laid out in the Essay on Taste, in particular the one dealing with the role played by curiosity in surprise when they are provoked by proportions and the subordination of the parts to the whole. One theory that can remind us of the Preface to The Spirit of Law which discusses the necessary relations which link the " infinite diversity of laws and ways”. Roman works of art equally lead him to reflect on the beauty of perfect scale and proportions, which does not at first strike one, but emerges little by little when one goes deeper into it: such is the case of the architecture of St. Peter’s, or of paintings of Raphael’s ( Essai sur le goût , "Progression de la surprise"; OC, t. IX, p. 504). And that was also one of the surprises which Rome held in store for the traveler.

16Esthetic pleasure was stimulated as well by the theatre performances which Montesquieu attended during Carnival (Norci Cagiano 2001). On stage illusion is complete: the settings, the simulated combats, castrati dressed as women, enthrall and enchant the spectators ("a young Englishman, thinking that one of these [castrati] was a woman, fell madly in love with her": Voyages, p. 261). But the theatres themselves, where lively, passionate spectators crowded together, constituted a spectacle: "The theatres are always full. Abbés go there to study their theology; all kinds of people flock there, to the last bourgeois crazy about music" (p. 261); and the Italians, in contrast to Frenchmen, "always want new music. Their operas are always new" (p. 260).

17Montesquieu apparently allowed himself to be swept up by the illusory pleasure in spectacles which, when the brief carnival season was over, was offered by religious ceremonies: "The priests of Rome have even managed to make devotion delectable with the continual music that is in the churches, and which is excellent" (Pensées, no. 387). And even if he says, in his Pensées, "I cannot get used to the voice of castrati" (no. 388), he still must recognize its wonderment: "I have seen the ceremonies of Holy Week. What gave me the most pleasure was a Miserere so singular that the voices of the castrati seem to be organs" (Voyages, p. 297). Indeed it was precisely the contrast between habit and novelty, with the discovery of unexpected impulsions, that made all of Rome such a fascinating spectacle.

18"[O]ne is always sure to please the spirit by putting before it many things or more than it had hoped to see" ( Essai sur le goût , "De la curiosité"; OC, t. IX, p. 491); and Rome certainly answers to this need. Giovanni Macchia speaks of the power of the eros which this civilization emanates from its forms: works of art, costumes, traditions, landscapes (Viaggio in Italia, p. xiv). But Rome is also the open field of those contradictions that can either abase or exalt; the everyday and the eternal are placed side by side, within reach. In Rome "women do not set the tone", but the priests (Voyages, p. 257); in Rome "everyone is there as in a hotel where they are accommodated for the time they need to stay there" (p. 252). Pettiness, corruption, and poor government do not keep Rome from remaining not only "the loveliest city in the world" but also "an eternal city", "the metropolis of a large part of the world", "an immense treasure assembled from unique pieces", where everyone "thinks he is at home" (Voyages, p. 302, 257) and where the government "is as gentle as it can be"(Pensées, no. 387). In this city, life is, in sum, agreeable: "Rome is a most agreeable place; everything is entertaining and you never finished looking" (Voyages, p. 277). The less intense rhythms also give the visitor time to study: the murmur of fountains, the sublime music, the sensual delight elicited by beauty: all this contributes to the well-being of daily life and that multiform, contradictory, and paradoxical vision of the eternal city which, beyond the experience of a stay in Rome, was to influence thoughts and writings for years to come.



Viaggio in Italia, éd. et trad. Giovanni Macchia et Massimo Colesanti, Bari: Laterza, 1971.

Voyages, OC, t. X, Jean Ehrard dir., with the collaboration of Gilles Bertrand, 2012.


Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu critique d’art, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

Le Muse Galanti: la musica a Roma nel Settecento, Rome: Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 1985.

Storia e ragione, Alberto Postigliola dir., Naples: Liguori, 1986 (a colloquium entirely devoted to Romans: see notablyk Jean Ehrard, "Rome enfin que je hais… ?", p. 23-32, and Pierre Rétat, "Images et expression du merveilleux dans les Considérations ", p. 207-218, reprinted in Pierre Rétat: sous le signe de Montesquieu, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, 2019, on line []).

Françoise Waquet, Le modèle français et l’Italie savante (1660-1750), Rome: École Française de Rome, 1989.

Letizia Norci Cagiano, "I presidenti e le dame: Montesquieu e de Brosses a Roma nel primo Settecento", in La Strenna dei Romanisti, Rome, 2001, p. 369-382.

Naples, Rome et Florence: une histoire comparée des milieux intellectuels Italiens (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles), under the direction of Jean Boutier, Brigitte Marin, and Antonella Romano, Rome: École Française de Rome,2005.

Du goût à l’esthétique: Montesquieu, Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Pessac: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007.

Édouard Pommier, "Roma triumphans!", in Roma Triumphans ? L’attualità dell’antico nella Francia del Settecento, Letizia Norci Cagiano dir., Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2007, p. 3-24.

Les Philosophes et leurs papes, Jan Herman, Kris Peeters and Paul Pelckmans dir., Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2009: see in particular Letizia Norci Cagiano, "La comédie était possible en 1740: le président de Brosses et la politique culturelle des papes, "p. 109-121, and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, "Le pape et son vizir: le pouvoir des papes chez Montesquieu", p. 81-96.

Volpilhac-Auger Catherine, "Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence", Dictionnaire Montesquieu, 2013 []

Eleonora Barria-Poncet, L’Italie de Montesquieu, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2013.

Letizia Norci Cagiano, « Architetture barocche nell’opera letteraria di Montesquieu, prima e dopo l’esperienza italiana », dans L’architecture du texte, l’architecture dans le texte, Macerata, EUM, 2018, p. 369-385.

Letizia Norci Cagiano, "L’attualità dell’antico a Roma. I Francesi e la politica culturale dei papi nel Settecento", dans L’invenzione del passato nel secolo XVIII, Rome, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2022.

Bibliographical reference

Norci Cagiano de Azevedo Letizia , “Modern rome”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: