Martin V, though himself a Roman, could not go at once to Rome; the roads were held by the condottiere Braccio da Montone; Martin thought it safer to stay in Geneva, then Mantua, then Florence. When at last he reached Rome (1420), he was shocked by the condition of the city, by the dilapidation of the buildings and the people. The capital of Christendom; was one of the least civilized cities in Europe.
If Martin continued a characteristic abuse by appointing his Colonna relatives to places of income and power, it may be because he had to strengthen his family in order to have some physical security in the Vatican. He had no army, but upon the Papal States, from every side, pressed the armed forces of Naples, Florence, Venice, and Milan. The Papal States, for the most part, had again fallen into the hands of petty dictators who, though they called themselves vicars of the pope, had assumed practically sovereign powers during the division of the papacy. In Lombardy the clergy had for centuries been hostile to the bishops of Rome. Beyond the Alps lay a disordered Christendom that had lost most of its respect for the papacy, and grudged it financial support.
Martin faced these difficulties with courage and success. Though he had inherited an almost empty treasury, he allotted funds for the partial rebuilding of his capital. His energetic measures drove the brigands from the roads and Rome; he destroyed a robber stronghold at Montelipo, and had its leaders beheaded.18 He restored order in Rome, and codified its communal law. He appointed one of the early humanists, Poggio Bracciolini, to be a papal secretary. He engaged Gentile da Fabriano, Antonio Pisanello, and Masaccio to paint frescoes in Santa Maria Maggiore and St. John in the Lateran. He named men of intellect and character, like Giuliano Cesarini, Louis Allemand, Domenico Capranica, and Prospero Colonna, to the college of cardinals. He reorganized the Curia to effective functioning, but found no way to finance it except by selling offices and services. Since the Church had survived for a century without reform, but could hardly survive a week without money, Martin judged money to be more urgently needed than reform. Pursuant to the Frequens decree of Constance, he called a council to meet at Pavia in 1423. It was sparsely attended; plague compelled its transference to Siena; when it proposed to assume absolute authority Martin ordered it to dissolve; and the bishops, fearing for their sees, obeyed. To soothe the spirit of reform Martin issued (1425) a bull detailing some admirable changes in the procedure and financing of the Curia; but a thousand obstacles and objections arose, and the proposals faded in the quick oblivion of time. In 1430 a German envoy to Rome sent to his prince a letter that almost sounded the tocsin of the Reformation:
Greed reigns supreme in the Roman court, and day by day finds new devices… for extorting money from Germany under pretext of ecclesiastical fees. Hence much outcry… and heartburnings;… also many questions in regard to the papacy will arise, or else obedience will at last be entirely renounced, to escape from these outrageous exactions of the Italians; and this latter course, as I perceive; would be acceptable to many countries.19
Martin’s successor faced the accumulated problems of the papacy from the background of a devout Franciscan monk ill equipped for statesmanship. The papacy was a government more than a religion; the popes had to be statesmen, sometimes warriors, and could rarely afford to be saints. Eugenius IV was sometimes a saint. True, he was obstinate and dourly inflexible, and the gout that gave him almost constant pain in his hands helped his sea of troubles to make him impatient and unsociable. But he lived ascetically, ate sparingly, drank nothing but water, slept little, worked hard, attended conscientiously to his religious duties, bore no malice against his enemies, pardoned readily, gave generously, kept nothing for himself, and was so modest that in public he seldom raised his eyes from the ground.20 Yet few popes have earned so many foes.
The first were the cardinals who had elected him. As the price of their votes, and to protect themselves from such one-man rule as that of Martin, they had induced him to sign capitula— literally, headings—promising them freedom of speech, guarantees for their offices, control over half the revenues, and consultation with them on all important affairs; such “capitulations” set a precedent regularly followed in papal elections throughout the Renaissance. Furthermore, Eugenius made powerful enemies of the Colonna. Believing that Martin had transferred too much Church property to that family, he ordered restoration of many parcels, and had Martin’s former secretary tortured almost to death to elicit information in the matter. The Colonna made war upon the Pope; he defeated them with soldiery sent him by Florence and Venice, but in the process he aroused the hostility of Rome. Meanwhile the Council of Basel, called by Martin, met in the first year (1431) of the new pontificate, and proposed again to assert the supremacy of the councils over the popes. Eugenius ordered it to dissolve; it refused, commanded him to appear before it, and sent Milanese troops to attack him in Rome. The Colonna seized the chance for revenge; they organized a revolution in the city, and set up a republican government (1434). Eugenius fled down the Tiber in a small boat pelted by the populace with arrows, pikes, and stones.21 He found refuge in Florence, then in Bologna; for nine years he and the Curia were exiles from Rome.
The majority of the delegates to the Council of Basel were French. They aimed, as the bishop of Tours frankly said, “either to wrest the Apostolic See from the Italians, or so to despoil it that it will not matter where it abides.” The Council therefore assumed one after another the prerogatives of the papacy: it issued indulgences, granted dispensations, appointed to benefices, and required that annates should be paid to itself and not to the pope. Eugenius again ordered its dissolution; it countered by deposing him (1439) and naming Amadeus VIII of Savoy as Antipope Felix V; the Schism was renewed. To complete the apparent defeat of Eugenius, Charles VII of France convened at Bourges (1438) an assembly of French prelates, princes, and lawyers, which proclaimed the supremacy of councils over popes, and issued the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges: ecclesiastical offices were henceforth to be filled through election by the local chapter or clergy, but the king might make “recommendations”; appeals to the Papal Curia were forbidden except after exhausting all judicial possibilities in France; the collection of annates by the pope was prohibited.22 This Sanction in effect established an independent Gallican Church, and made the king its master. A year later a diet at Mainz adopted measures for a similar national church in Germany. The Bohemian Church had separated itself from the papacy in the Hussite revolt; the archbishop of Prague called the pope “the Beast of the Apocalypse.”23 The whole edifice of the Roman Church seemed shattered beyond repair; the nationalistic Reformation seemed established a century before Luther.
Eugenius was rescued by the Turks. As the Ottomans came ever nearer to Constantinople, the Byzantines decided that Constantinople was worth a Roman Mass, and that a reunion of Greek with Roman Christianity was an indispensable prelude to securing military aid from the West. The Emperor John VIII sent an embassy to Martin V (1431) to propose a council of both churches. The Council of Basel despatched envoys to John (1433), explaining that the Council was superior in power to the pope, was under the protection of the Emperor Sigismund, and would procure money and troops for the defense of Constantinople if the Greek Church would deal with the Council rather than with the Pope. Eugenius sent his own embassy, offering aid on condition that the proposal of union should be laid before a new council to be called by him at Ferrara. John decided for Eugenius. The Pope summoned to Ferrara such of the hierarchy as were still loyal to him; many leading prelates, including Cesarini and Nicholas of Cusa, abandoned Basel for Ferrara, feeling that the matter of prime importance was the negotiation with the Greeks. The Council at Basel lingered on, but with mounting exasperation and declining prestige.
The news that Christendom, divided between the Greek and the Roman Churches since 1054, was now to be united stirred all Europe. On February 8, 1438, the Byzantine Emperor, the Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople, seventeen Greek metropolitans, and a large number of Greek bishops, monks, and scholars, arrived at Venice, still partly a Byzantine city. At Ferrara Eugenius received them with a pomp that must have meant little to the ceremonious Greeks. After the opening of the Council various commissions were appointed to reconcile the divergences of the two Churches on the primacy of the pope, the use of unleavened bread, the nature of the pains of purgatory, and the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and/or the Son. For eight months the pundits argued these points, but could come to no agreement. Meanwhile plague broke out in Ferrara; Cosimo de’ Medici invited the Council to move to Florence and be housed at the expense of himself and his friends; it was so ordered; and some would date the Italian Renaissance from that influx of learned Greeks into Florence (1439). There it was agreed that the formula acceptable to the Greeks—that “the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father through the Son” (ex Patre per Filium procedit)— meant the same as the Roman formula, “proceeds from the Father and the Son” (ex Patre Filioque procedit); and by June 1439 an accord was reached on purgatorial pains. The primacy of the pope led to hot debates, and the Greek Emperor threatened to break up the Council. The conciliatory Archbishop Bessarion of Nicaea contrived a compromise that recognized the universal authority of the pope, but reserved all the existing rights and privileges of the Eastern churches. The formula was accepted; and on July 6, 1439, in the great cathedral that only three years before had received from Brunellesco its majestic dome, the decree uniting the two Churches was read in Greek by Bessarion and in Latin by Cesarini; the two prelates kissed; and all the members of the Council, with the Greek Emperor at their head, bent the knee before that same Eugenius who had seemed, so recently, the despised and rejected of men.
The joy of Christendom was brief. When the Greek Emperor and his suite returned to Constantinople they were met with insults and ribaldry; the clergy and population of the city repudiated the submission to Rome. Eugenius kept his part of the bargain; Cardinal Cesarini was sent to Hungary at the head of an army to join the forces of Ladislas and Hunyadi; they were victorious at Nish, entered Sofia in triumph on Christmas Eve of 1443, and were routed at Varna by Murad II (1444). The antiunion party in Constantinople won the upper hand, and the Patriarch Gregory, who had supported union, fled to Italy. Gregory fought his way back to St. Sophia, and read the decree of union there in 1452; but from that time the great church was shunned by the people. The antiunion clergy anathematized all adherents of union, refused absolution to those who had attended the reading of the decree, and exhorted the sick to die without the sacraments rather than receive them from a “Uniate” priest.24 The patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem repudiated the “robber synod” of Florence.25 Mohammed II simplified the situation by making Constantinople a Turkish capital (1453). He gave the Christians full freedom of worship, and appointed as patriarch Gennadius, a devoted foe of unity.
Eugenius returned to Rome in 1443, after his legate general, Cardinal Vitelleschi, had suppressed the chaotic republic and the turbulent Colonna with a ferocity unequaled by the Vandals or the Goths. The Pope’s stay at Florence had acquainted him with the development of humanism and art under Cosimo de’ Medici, and the Greek scholars who had attended the Council of Ferrara and Florence had aroused in him an interest in the preservation of the classic manuscripts that the imminent fall of Constantinople might forfeit or destroy. He added to his secretariat Poggio, Flavio Biondo, Leonardo Bruni, and other humanists who could negotiate with the Greeks in Greek. He brought Fra Angelico to Rome, and had him paint frescoes in the Chapel of the Sacrament at the Vatican. Having admired the bronze gates that Ghiberti had cast for the Florentine Baptistery, Eugenius commissioned Filarete to make similar doors for the old church of St. Peter (1433). It was significant—though already it aroused hardly any comment—that the sculptor placed upon the portals of the chief church in Latin Christendom not only Christ and Mary and the Apostles, but Mars and Roma, Hero and Leander, Jupiter and Ganymede, even Leda and the swan. In the hour of his victory over the Council of Basel Eugenius brought the pagan Renaissance to Rome.