The founder of the Piarist Order, José de Calasanz, left Spain in 1592 when Cervantes was struggling with an early draft of his novel, Don Quixote. Calasanz was born in 1557 in a small village in Aragon, one of eight children of the local blacksmith. Hagiographers have since tried to prove that he was of noble origins, but the fact remains that his father Pedro Calasanz (or de Calasanz) was one of two blacksmiths of Peralta de la Sal, a village of olive trees and vineyards, renowned locally for its salt pans. In later life Calasanz was knowledgeable about mules and donkeys, presumably an inheritance from helping his father in the smithy. From the age of thirteen, young José wanted to become a priest, and even when his only surviving brother was killed in a scuffle with local bandits, he refused to renounce his vocation, although he remained in the neighbourhood until the death of both parents. An acquaintance later described him as being “a tall man, of venerable presence, with a chestnut beard and a long pale face.”
Later portraits show a stern aquiline face with lean cheeks, and a strong physique that would enable him to climb on to roofs to fix heavy bells (and fall off—apparently pushed by a dark shadow—and survive) and to live to the exceptionally old age of ninety-one.
He pursued the customary path for a priest, studying canon and civil law and theology, and was ordained in 1575. He acquired a few sinecures as parish priest and visitor to various small villages, checking on the implementation of reforms introduced in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which were designed to help the Church fight back against the Protestant threat. Huguenot France was very close, and Calasanz’s duties involved a mixture of travel, supervision and administration. For instance, as master of ceremonies at Urgel cathedral he was responsible for ensuring that in this church—as in all others throughout Spain—prayers and processions were held for the success of the great Armada against England “to increase the Catholic faith, extirpate and punish the infidels and heretics.”
Then came the major change in his life. For reasons that are unclear in the documents, in 1592 Calasanz suddenly decided to set out for Rome, the Eternal City and seat of the Vatican. Whether he went in search of promotion up the next rung of the ecclesiastical ladder or because an inner voice told him his destiny lay there, or possibly because his superior, Andr’s Capilla, Bishop of Urgel, was obliged by the recent church reforms to send a proxy to report to the Vatican every four years, Calasanz set sail for Rome, probably traveling via the Balearics and the south of Sardinia, armed with a sheaf of letters of recommendation from his episcopal patrons.
At the end of the sixteenth century Rome was a city in crisis. Heavy taxation, floods, famines, epidemics and banditry had wreaked considerable damage on the metropolis and its surrounding countryside. A newsletter of October 1593 noted that, “around Rome the bandits become every day more insolent and more numerous.” Ten years earlier Michel de Montaigne had travelled through Europe and visited the city: “The approaches to Rome, almost everywhere, have for the most part a barren and uncultivated look, owing either to want of soil or what appears to me more likely, because this city has not many labourers and men who live by the work of their hands . . .”
Since Montaigne’s visit, a campaign against banditry headed by two renowned soldiers from Flanders had resulted in thousands of executions—the outlaws’ heads displayed on prominent city landmarks—but so long as the harvests continued to fail, there was little choice for the hungry and desperate but to turn to robbery and intimidation, or to migrate to the city.
As many as two in three of the population were not Roman citizens at all, but immigrants and passers-by. The city was more than just cosmopolitan—though the year Calasanz arrived, 1592, Cardinal Farnese noted that he could hear twenty-seven different languages spoken in the Jesuit refectory in Piazza Altieri—it was the centre of the world, with a great tolerance for foreigners. “They give least heed to strangeness and differences of nationality,” wrote Montaigne, “for by its nature it is a patchwork city of strangers; everybody there feels at home.” It was not the capital, but it was, in Calasanz’s own words, “head of all the other cities.”
It was also a tough and occasionally hungry city. Bread supplies only lasted for a few hours and queues formed each morning outside bakeries. The epidemics of the last few years had not affected only the poor. Four popes had been elected, enthroned and died in the past two years, and Calasanz arrived just in time for the tail end of the celebrations to elect Clement VIII, the rituals smoothly honed by too much recent practice. The conclaves and coronations had put further strain on the city’s resources, and one of these short-lived popes had even requested that ambassadors should not be sent to Rome to compliment him on his accession in an effort to conserve the limited food supplies. At the best of times it was an unproductive place, and Montaigne could see no industry or farming and very little trade: “It is a city all court and nobility. Everybody takes his share in the ecclesiastical idleness. There are no trading streets, or less than in a small town; it is nothing but palaces and gardens.” The Venetian ambassador, Paolo Paruta, described court life in 1595 as being “steeped in luxury and pleasure . . . The city and court of Rome are presently at the height of their greatness and prosperity, as anyone living there may see through clamorous examples of such pomp and splendour . . . the desire to live in great magnificence, with every convenience, is conjoined to the excessive wealth to do so.” The city depended for its wealth to a great extent on the cardinals, the clerics at the top of the food chain. When new cardinals were created, the number of important people in Rome increased, trade improved, job opportunities opened up, alms flowed once more.
It was en route for this great but troubled city that José de Calasanz, then aged thirty-six, disembarked, and joined the crowds of pilgrims, traders, travelers and refugees hastening along the Via Aurelia. There he would have been stopped and thoroughly searched by customs. Montaigne found that even the smallest articles of his apparel were well rummaged through, and his books were taken from him and kept for several months, but he probably came with much more luggage than Calasanz, who seems to have travelled very lightly.
Calasanz headed for the Piazza di Spagna in the heart of the Spanish quarter in the town centre. Once there, priests from one of the two Spanish churches helped him to find lodgings with a young canon. After a few weeks, however, relations with his new room-mate had become tense after Calasanz, returning home, heard a young lady hushing the canon saying, “Quiet, here comes the one who can’t stand women.” The new arrival, after making his views on the canon’s behaviour clear, decided to move out. More congenial rooms were available at the palace of Cardinal MarcAntonio Colonna in Piazza de’ Santi Apostoli, and Calasanz transferred his belongings there. Twenty years earlier Cervantes had enlisted with an earlier Colonna and sailed to defeat the Turks at the battle of Lepanto.
Cardinal Colonna was something of a throwback to the Renaissance princes, with his love of culture and luxury, and perhaps even some illegitimate children. He had twice been passed over for the papacy, but his main interests lay in the organization of the library of the Vatican, though he had some financial dealings in Spain, and his palace was a frequent port of call for traveling clerics. Among his duties, in committee with four other cardinals, lay the preparation of the Index of Prohibited Books, the next edition of which was due out in 1596. After a few months he appointed Calasanz his in-house theologian. The austere Spaniard seems to have coped with the sybaritic ways of the cardinal’s palace as he stayed for nearly ten years. Calasanz took his credentials to court, lodged his petitions at the Vatican, and waited for the slow curial wheels to grind in his favour. Meanwhile, as time passed with no result, he slipped out each day to explore the biggest city he had ever seen and found himself drawn to the teeming slums.
The destitute immigrants and impoverished visitors that gravitated towards Rome imposed great strain on the city’s infrastructure. Papal decrees and legislation against begging in the streets had little effect and the streets heaved with paupers, vagabonds and street children. Almost immediately after he arrived, Calasanz reported back to his Spanish friends, “Rome is very expensive and supplies are sparse. It has become the most expensive town in Italy, and the common folk suffer greatly.” Camillo Fanucci, a Roman writer, noted, “In Rome you see nothing but beggars, and they are so numerous that it is impossible to walk down the street without their thronging around you.” Rome was also a city under construction. New churches were being built, the new Vatican palace was completed in 1596, St Peter’s cupola had just been finished after 800 workmen had laboured day and night, before finally in November 1593—to the sound of the cannons of Castel SantAngelo and the church bells of Rome—raising into position the huge metallic sphere, which could hold sixteen people. Fountains and aqueducts had been installed throughout the city, work was underway on the Quirinal, on the Piazza Navona and on many other future landmarks. Classical remains were modified to enlist the support of Rome’s imperial heritage as the revived centre of Christianity; a statue of the Apostle Peter was placed atop Trajan’s column, obelisks were repositioned in strategically important piazzas such as St Peter’s. An ongoing project to improve Rome’s streets was underway, and in one year 121 streets were paved. The authorities also decided to have the roads cleaned weekly, and in 1599 untethered pigs were banned from running loose. A bewildered Benedictine abbot, trying to find his way around Rome in 1608 wrote: “Here I am in Rome, and yet I cannot find the Rome I know: so great are the changes in the buildings, the streets, the piazzas, the fountains, the aqueducts and the obelisks . . . that I cannot recognize nor find, so to speak, any trace of that old Rome which I left ten years ago.”
Apart from writing the occasional letter in support of his request for a highly paid benefice back home with few duties, and lobbying various powerful personalities for their assistance to this end, Father Calasanz found himself at a loose end. Four or five sinecures slipped out of his reach and, by 1599, after five years of sight-seeing and diligent networking at court, he had achieved almost nothing. This was not unusual; the poet Alessandro Tassoni, who spent most of his life as secretary to cardinals and prelates, including one of the Colonna, warned would-be supplicants that “the more affectionate and cordial the promises and proposals of the court of Rome seem to be, the more fraudulent and fallacious they are in fact.” And so it turned out to be. Calasanz’s applications for positions were mired in a morass of legal actions against rival claimants and others with more important and active patrons were invariably favoured.
The dissolute Cardinal Colonna died, but Calasanz stayed on in the palace along with a host of hangers-on, including a young painter later known as Caravaggio, who arrived in Rome in the same year as Calasanz and stayed in the Colonna palace until driven away by the menu. He complained it was all salad “which served as appetizer, entree and dessert.” Calasanz never complained about the food, and never mentioned his fellow house-guest.
Nevertheless, perhaps the luxury began to offend the priest for he joined several confraternities that offered a combination of personal spirituality and active good deeds. Calasanz helped sufferers of “putrid fever” in summer 1596, and lent assistance again when the Tiber flooded its banks at Christmas 1598, killing around 1,400 and destroying the bridge (whose fragments still sit in the Tiber) moments after the pope’s important nephew Pietro Aldobrandini had crossed. Membership of these confraternities may have brought him into contact with other influential Roman clerics, such as Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, Cardinal Cesare Baronio and Filippo Neri, all important figures working to revive religious spirituality in Rome at the time. For instance, Calasanz devoted much of his time to the Confraternity of the Twelve Apostles, whose main aims were the worship of the Holy Sacrament and helping poor families with alms and concrete assistance. The organization prided itself on “knowing where most neede [sic] is,” and around 1596 Calasanz became a visitor for the confraternity. His duties included at least two weekly visits to the poor and sick within his allocated district of Rome, then meetings to report back on progress to the other members, as well as input on fundraising initiatives. The contrast between his rooms at the Palazzo Colonna and the impoverished surroundings of those he visited in the course of his duties must have been striking.
Another organization Calasanz joined around 1600, and which was to provide a deciding impetus for his future, was the Confraternity of the Christian Doctrine. This group aimed to teach catechism to children (boys and girls) on Sundays and holidays, usually in rooms adjoining the local church. Visitors to Rome were impressed that educated and respected gentlemen, including various bishops and cardinals, should be “content to condescend to the capacities of infantes and babes” by spending their time teaching the rudiments of the Christian religion, and noted that though it might be tedious reading about such things, it was far less tedious than actually spending the time doing it. In April and May 1597 Calasanz visited Trastevere, one of Rome’s poorest quarters just over the Ponte Sisto, on behalf of the Confraternity of the Twelve Apostles, to get an updated list of sick and poor, and perhaps there he spotted a little school at the back of the church of Santa Dorotea.
Several churches provided these little parish schools but there was usually a small fee to pay. In the whole of the rest of Rome, with its population of just over 100,000, there were only fourteen publicly provided teachers, one for each ward of the city. The rich could afford private education, and even orphans and those living in institutions had facilities provided. Religious orders such as the Jesuits offered only catechism classes, or secondary education for future clergymen and noble;men. But ordinary poor children had few opportunities. Even the highly overstretched fourteen free teachers were so poorly paid that they usually charged pupils a weekly fee, thereby automatically excluding the very poorest. The families Calasanz visited in his charity work often had children who could not attend these local schools or the parish schools where even a nominal cost was out of their reach, and who had nothing to do but make mischief.
Calasanz convinced the parish priest at Santa Dorotea, Antonio Brandini, to accept poor children for nothing, promising to cover the costs himself. Reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, Christian doctrine and good manners were taught and pupils had only to provide a certificate of poverty from their parish priest to qualify for admission. It was a far cry from his earlier study of abstruse law and theology. Catholic sources date the first ever free public elementary school to this moment in autumn 1597. Of course, such schools had existed before, but Calasanz’s organization would grow bigger and spread further than others, thus ensuring him the title of “founder of Europe’s first free public, popular schools.” As recently as 1948 the pope made Calasanz the patron saint of all Christian schools.
Soon Calasanz was teaching in the Trastevere school for a few hours a week. The flood of Christmas 1598, which covered great swathes of the city in a deep layer of stinking mud, swept away twelve of the Tiber’s twenty mills and 550 cows on nearby meadows. Trastevere was badly affected, lying as it did so close to the river, and Calasanz realized that the meagre income he was still receiving from Spain was insufficient to guarantee the long-term survival of the little school. When the parish priest Brandini died in February 1600, two years after Calasanz had begun to teach there, the school was faced with closure. Meanwhile, Calasanz’s hopes of ecclesiastical promotion had evaporated. He had been awarded a useful, if small, benefice, but two other clerics had simultaneously been given the same post, and the matter proceeded to court. He assumed full responsibility for the school, but still lived at the Palazzo Colonna and trekked over the river Tiber each day.
After a lengthy and expensive court case Calasanz decided to renounce his claims to the disputed benefice. Instead he threw all his energies into his new job, which was fast becoming his life. The work was unremitting. After praying and preaching all day, Calasanz spent the evening training his fellow teachers and preparing the next day’s lessons, before cleaning and tidying all the classrooms. “Months passed,” wrote a colleague later, “during which he did not undress or lie down in a bed to sleep, but worn out and overcome by fatigue and sleep, at most he would lay down his head on a table, and so for a brief space of time clear his head of that extreme fatigue and necessity to sleep.”
After a time he saw the chance to rent rooms in the Campo de’ Fiori on the other side of the river and establish a new base for his school. Campo de’ Fiori was even then a major shopping area, selling everything from grain to crossbows, but it was also the place where the worst offenders against Catholic orthodoxy were punished. When the school opened its doors in March 1600, the ashes of Giordano Bruno, whose philosophical concepts were reviled as incoherent pantheism and who was burned in the centre of the square for heresy, were barely cold. Bruno, one of the most famous victims of the Inquisition, had been brought from the Tor di Nona prison, where, for six years, seven priests from different religious orders had tried in vain but “with great affection and much doctrine” to lead him away from his “thousands of errors and vanities.” These errors included support of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, denial of the Trinity, of transubstantiation and of the divine origin of Christianity, as well as his denunciation of Christianity as a degenerate form of religion. In the centre of the piazza, Bruno was stripped naked and tied to a stake, but continued to declaim against his accusers and to turn away from the crucifix held out to him. The spectacle over, the ashes swept away, Calasanz’s school opened a few yards away only two weeks later. Within a few days 500 pupils were attending what was becoming known as the Pious School. Very few of Calasanz’s letters have survived from this period and he makes no mention of this awkward event, although he and Bruno would have had many acquaintances in common. Gaspar Schoppe, for instance, whose special quick grammar system Calasanz would later commission for use in his schools, was present throughout most of Bruno’s interrogations, and watched the burning.
Calasanz had also finally moved out of the Colonna palace, where, since the death of his cardinal, he had been feeling increasingly surplus to requirements. More moves followed, nearer to Piazza Navona, considered the true centre of Rome, an area specializing in mattress-making, and paper and glove shops. Traders sold old books, artists exhibited their pictures, news sheets were on sale. In the adjacent Piazza Madama there was a flower and plant market on Wednesdays; on Thursdays and Fridays there was an animal market nearby where cattle, sheep and poultry were sold. The new school building provided “greenery and a courtyard—airy and with good rooms,” which meant Calasanz could take on more staff and pupils, and by 1602 there were 700 boys in the Rome school cared for by eighteen teachers, seven priests and eleven laymen.
The school’s fame began to spread. It was surprisingly well run, as a colleague later reminisced: “He organized things so well, especially the class distribution, that where many thought there must be confusion because of the huge multitude of children, seeing everything so well run they were very impressed.” The fourteen existing Rome teachers started to see the new school as a serious competitor and lodged an official complaint, as did the rector of the University of Rome, the Sapienza. Pope Clement was reported as saying, “We are very happy that you have started the Pious Schools. We had planned to do something similar—but then we got distracted by the war in Hungary . . . we are very pleased, very pleased indeed. We would like to come and see.” He was of course too busy but instead asked two famous cardinals, Silvio Antoniano and Cesare Baronio to drop by and lend their support, so firmly quashing any budding opposition from the local teachers.
Soon the Pope and the municipal authority both awarded the school small grants and though it was far from luxurious, the teachers all moved in together on site. As the numbers of pupils increased to nearly 1,200—perhaps 20 per cent of Rome’s entire population of boys—the teachers’ lodgings became more and more restricted. According to Father Alessandro Bernardini, soon to become involved in the school:
All the best rooms were used for classes, and very few remained for the inhabitants. So the teachers had to live in the upper rooms of the house, and used wooden partitions to make separate cells, in which they lived in great discomfort, especially in summer time, with many people in a small area.
The Pious Schools acquired the services of their own cardinal protector, first Ludovico Torres, later Benedetto Giustiniani, to represent their interests at the papal court—“so necessary in Rome,” as Calasanz pointed out. Benedetto Giustiniani was an extremely wealthy cardinal and, with his brother, Vincenzo, lived in a sumptuous palace, which they filled with the best art of the day. Many of Caravaggio’s most famous works adorned their walls. An English visitor, Robert Toste, wrote back to the Bishop of London in 1589 that he found the cardinal “somewhat hard favoured and black, his beard being of the same colour. Of sight he is spur blind and is low in stature, having a kind of odd fashion that when he talks with any he turns his head and looks as it were over his shoulder.” Calasanz was lucky to acquire the interest of a cardinal so well-placed and so well-intentioned and Giustiniani used his influence to good effect. The number of pupils continued to swell, and Calasanz managed to purchase a proper building, by the church of San Pantaleo, from Countess Vittoria Cenci.
The Cenci family’s notorious matrimonial affairs were already a cause célèbre throughout Rome. In September 1598 Count Francesco Cenci, a tough brute of a man, was found dead beneath the balcony of his castle of La Rocca in the Abruzzo, 100 kilometres from Rome. Bloody sheets, however, revealed that he had been murdered in his bed before being thrown over the edge, and members of his family were soon arrested. Though the count had apparently been sexually abusing his twenty-one-year old daughter Beatrice in front of his wife, Lucrezia, and had beaten both women and kept them imprisoned, this was not considered reason enough for mercy. On 10 September 1599 the beautiful young woman was beheaded along with her stepmother, just outside Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber. Her brother Giacomo was executed by having his flesh picked off with heated pincers and his head smashed with a hammer, before being quartered, while another brother, aged only fifteen, was forced to watch the destruction of his family before being taken to the galleys. Local public opinion (and later Shelley, Stendhal, Artaud and others) would tell of Beatrice’s beauty and dignity at her execution, and the justifiable defence of her virtue against the incestuous intentions of her evil father. However, when a few years later her relative Vittoria Cenci decided to take a more conventional route and sort out her separation from her husband in court, she was offered the palace adjacent to the church of San Pantaleo as partial recompense for the dowry of 14,000 scudi, which her wastrel husband no longer possessed in ready cash. She accepted, and sold the building on to the Pious Schools in September 1612. With its attached church dedicated to the patron saint of doctors on the site where a church had stood since 1216, the Pious Schools established their headquarters.
By now the fathers were “esteemed by the Holy Pope, by various cardinals and gentlemen of the court, and desired by the main cities both inside and outside Italy.” When he met Calasanz in town accompanying a group of children, Pope Paul V even stopped his litter and chatted to him at great length. As a token of his esteem, he even conceded them a water supply for the interior playground courtyard—free and for ever (until 1979 when the local council imposed a charge)—from the old aqueduct, which ran to the Trevi Fountain. In 1617 the group of fathers lobbied for and was awarded the status of a separate congregation, an entity with legal and religious rights in the papal city.
With the election of Pope Gregory XV in February 1621, the congregation saw a radical change of fortune. Aged sixty-seven and in poor health, the new pope already knew of the Pious Schools from Bologna, where one of Calasanz’s early collaborators had opened a similar institute. Indeed, he had stayed at the school in Narni for a few days when passing through the town. Pope Gregory’s private physician was Bernardino Castellani, a close friend of Father Calasanz and a great believer in the work of the order. He had recently insisted that Calasanz open a school in his own home town of Carcare in northern Italy. Even more to the point, Calasanz and the pope also shared the same barber, Messer Agostino. Father Calasanz realized he was now excellently placed to make progress. “Messer Agostino will be close to him every day and can pass him our letters, and give him my best regards!” he crowed. With barber and doctor whispering in his ear, Pope Gregory probably had no chance.
One of Gregory’s most important innovations was the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, aimed at fostering missionary activities in non-Catholic areas, and it is quite likely that he saw the Pious Schools as a useful tool for conversion in Protestant Europe. Within nine months the congregation had been elevated to the rank of a full religious order—the Order of Clerics Regular of the Pious Schools of the Poor of the Mother of God. Scolopi or Piarists for short. Clerics regular were a relatively new creation, comprising communities of priests who were meant to serve in the outside world, rather than in old-fashioned monasteries where their time would usually be taken up only with choir service and prayer. Father Calasanz, self-appointed father general, promised that the new organization would prove to be “very worthy, very noble, very deserving, very handy, very useful, very necessary, very natural, very reasonable, very pleasant, and very glorious.” He promised that his members would “live like angels in the world; in their senses without sensuality; in their flesh, with no carnal affection; from free men they will become subject; from sociable beings, solitary; they would keep themselves spiritual and heavenly.” The movement had begun. Within a few years there would be Piarist schools throughout Italy and further afield in central Europe. Local dignitaries—bishops, princes, doctors, cardinals, counsellors—requested foundations and provided suitable buildings. Before long there were more than forty schools.