The status of the Church was lowest in Italy. In 1342 Benedict XII, to weaken the rebellious Louis of Bavaria, confirmed to all the despots of the Lombard cities the authority they had assumed in defiance of Imperial claims; Louis, in revenge, gave the Imperial sanction to the despots who had seized the Papal States.16 Milan openly flouted the popes. When Urban V sent two legates to Milan (1362), bearing bulls of excommunication to the Visconti, Bernabò compelled them to eat the bulls—parchment, silken cords, and leaden seals.17 Sicily, ever since its “Vespers” (1282), had remained in open enmity to the popes.
Clement VI engaged an army to recapture the Papal States, but it was his successor, Innocent VI, who for a time restored them to obedience. Innocent was almost a model pope. After indulging a few relatives with appointments, he determined to stop the current of nepotism and corruption. He put an end to the epicurean splendor and wasteful outlay of the papal court, dismissed the horde of servants that had ministered to Clement VI, scattered the swarm of place seekers, ordered every priest to reside in his benefice, and himself led a life of integrity and modesty. He saw that the authority of the Church could be restored only by liberating her from the power of France and returning the papacy to Italy. But a Church alienated from France could hardly maintain herself without the revenues that had formerly come to her from the Papal States. Innocent, a man of peace, decided that these could be reclaimed only by war.
He entrusted the task to a man with the fervent faith of a Spaniard, the energy of a Dominic, and the chivalry of a Castilian grandee. Gil Alvarez Carrillo de Albornoz had been a soldier under Alfonso XI of Castile, and had not abandoned war on becoming archbishop of Toledo; now, as Cardinal Egidio d’Albornoz, he became a brilliant general. He persuaded the republic of Florence—which feared the despots and brigands that surrounded her—to advance him the funds to organize an army. By clever and yet honorable negotiation, rather than by force, he deposed one after another of the petty tyrants that had seized the Papal States. He gave to these states the “Egidian Constitutions” (1357) that remained their basic law till the nineteenth century, and that provided a workable compromise between self-government and allegiance to the papacy. He outwitted the famous English adventurer John Hawkwood, took him prisoner, and threw the fear if not of God at least of the papal legate into the condottieri. He recovered Bologna from a rebellious archbishop, and persuaded the Visconti of Milan to make their peace with the Church. The way was now open for the popes to return to Italy.
Urban V continued the austerity and reforms of Innocent VI. He labored to restore discipline and honesty in the clergy and at the papal court, discountenanced luxury among the cardinals, checked the chicanery of the lawyers and the extortions of the moneylenders, punished simony, and won to his service men of excellence in character and mind. He maintained at his own expense a thousand students in the universities, founded a new college at Montpellier, and supported many savants. To crown his pontificate he resolved to restore the papacy to Rome. The cardinals were horrified at the prospect; most of them had their roots and affections in France, and were hated in Italy. They begged him not to heed the pleas of St. Catherine or the eloquence of Petrarch. Urban pointed out to them the chaotic condition of France—its king a prisoner in England, its armies shattered, the English conquering the southern provinces and coming ever nearer to Avignon; what would a victorious England do to a papacy that had served and financed France?
So on April 30, 1367, he sailed from Marseille, joyously escorted by Italian galleys. On October 16 he entered Rome amid the wild acclaim of the populace, the clergy, and the aristocracy; Italian princes held the bridle of the white mule on which he rode; and Petrarch poured out his gratitude to the French Pope who dared to live in Italy. It was a desolate though happy Rome: impoverished by its long separation from the papacy, half of its churches deserted and decayed, St. Paul’s in ruins, St. Peter’s threatening at any minute to collapse, the Lateran palace but recently destroyed by fire, palaces rivaling the tenements in dilapidation, swamps where there had been dwellings, rubbish lying ungathered in the squares and streets.18 Urban gave orders and allotted funds for rebuildingthe papal palace; unable to bear the sight of Rome, he went to live at Montefiascone; but even there his memories of luxurious Avignon and beloved France made him miserable. Petrarch heard of his hesitations, and urged him to persevere; St. Bridget of Sweden predicted that he would die soon if he left Italy. The Emperor Charles IV sought to strengthen him, gave the Imperial sanction to the papal recovery of central Italy, came humbly to Rome (1368) to lead the Pope’s horse from Sant’ Angelo to St. Peter’s, served him at Mass, and was crowned by him in a ceremony that seemed happily to heal the old strife of Empire and papacy. Then, on September 5, 1370, perhaps yielding to his French cardinals, and saying that he wished to make peace between England and France, Urban embarked for Marseille. On September 27 he reached Avignon, and there, on December 19, he died, clothed in the habit of a Benedictine monk, lying on a miserable couch, and having ordered that all who cared to enter should be admitted, so that all might see how vain and brief is the splendor of the most exalted man.19
Gregory XI had been made a cardinal at eighteen by his genial uncle Clement VI; on December 29, 1370, he was ordained a priest, and on December 30, aged thirty-nine, he was elected pope. He was a man of learning, in love with Cicero; fate made him a man of war, and consumed his pontificate in violent revolt. Urban V, fearing that a French pope could not yet trust Italians, had named too many Frenchmen as legates to govern the Papal States. Finding themselves in a hostile environment, these prelates had built fortresses against the people, had imported numerous French aides, had taxed exorbitantly, and had preferred tyranny to tact. At Perugia a nephew of the legate pursued a married lady so voraciously that in trying to escape him she fell from a window and was killed. When a deputation demanded punishment for the nephew, the legate replied, “Why all this fuss? Do you mistake a Frenchman for a eunuch?”20 By a variety of means the legates earned such hatred that in 1375 many of the states rose against them in successive revolutions. St. Catherine made herself the voice of Italy, and urged Gregory to remove these “evil pastors who poison and devastate the garden of the Church.”21 Florence, usually an ally of the papacy, took the lead of the movement, and unfurled a red flag bearing in golden letters the word Libertas. At the beginning of 1375 sixty-four cities had acknowledged the pope as their civic as well as their spiritual head; in 1376 only one remained loyal to him. It seemed that all the work of Albornoz was undone, and that central Italy was again lost to the papacy.
Gregory, prodded by the French cardinals, charged the Florentines with being the head of the revolt, and ordered them to submit to the papal legates. When they refused he excommunicated them, forbade religious services in their city, and declared all Florentines to be outlaws, whose goods might be seized, and whose persons might be enslaved, by any man anywhere. The whole structure of Florentine commerce and finance was threatened with collapse. England and France at once laid hands upon the Florentines and their property there. Florence responded by confiscating all Church property in its territory, tearing down the buildings of the Inquisition, closing the ecclesiastical courts, jailing—in some cases hanging—obstinate priests, and sending an appeal to the people of Rome to join the revolution, and end all temporal power of the Church in Italy. While Rome hesitated, Gregory despatched to its leaders a solemn promise that if the city remained loyal to him he would return the papacy to Rome. The Romans accepted the pledge, and kept the peace.
Meanwhile the Pope had sent to Italy a force of “wild Breton mercenaries” under the command of “the fierce Cardinal Legate Robert of Geneva.”22 Robert waged the war with incredible barbarity. Having taken Cesena with the promise of an amnesty, he put every man, woman, and child there to the sword.23 John Hawkwood, leading his mercenaries in the service of the Church, slew 4000 in Faenza on suspicion that the town intended to join the revolt. St. Catherine of Siena was shocked by these brutalities, by the mutual confiscations, by the cessation of religious services in so much of Italy. She wrote to Gregory:
You are indeed bound to win back the territory which has been lost to the Church; but you are even more bound to win back all the lambs which are the Church’s real treasure, and whose loss will truly impoverish her…. You must strike men with the weapons of goodness, love, and peace, and you will gain more than by the weapons of war. When I inquire of God what is best for your salvation, for the restoration of the Church, and for the whole world, there is no other answer but the word Peace! Peace! For the love of the Crucified Saviour, Peace!24
Florence invited her to be one of its envoys to Gregory; she went, and took the occasion to condemn the morals of Avignon; she was so outspoken that many called for her arrest, but Gregory protected her. The mission had no immediate result. But when word reached him that unless he came soon Rome would join the revolt, Gregory—perhaps moved also by Catherine’s pleas—set out from Marseille, and reached Rome on January 17, 1377. He was not unanimously welcomed; the appeal of Florence had stirred oldrepublican memories in the degenerate city, and Gregory was warned that his life was unsafe in the ancient capital of Christendom. In May he retired to Anagni.
And now, as if at last yielding to Catherine, he turned from war to diplomacy. His agents encouraged the populace of the cities, who longed for peace with the Church, to overthrow their rebel governments; and to all towns that returned to his allegiance he promised self-government under a papal vicar of their own choice. City after city accepted these terms. In 1377 Florence agreed with Gregory to let Bernabò Visconti arbitrate their dispute. Bernabò, having persuaded the Pope to give him half of any penalty he might lay upon Florence, bade the city pay an indemnity of 800,000 florins ($20,000,000) to the Holy See. Deserted by her allies, Florence angrily submitted; but Pope Urban VI reduced the penalty to 250,000 florins.
Gregory had not lived to see his victory. On November 7, 1377, he returned to Rome. He had been an invalid even in Avignon, and had not borne well his winter in central Italy. He felt the approach of death, and feared that the conflict between France and Italy for possession of the papacy would tear the Church to pieces. On March 19, 1378, he made arrangements for the speedy election of his successor. Eight days later he died, longing for le beau pays de France.25