WHEN Pope Nicholas V mounted the oldest throne in the world,* Rome was hardly a tenth of the Rome that had been enclosed by the walls of Aurelian (A.D. 270–5), and was smaller in area and population (80,000)1 than Venice, Florence, or Milan. Since the ruin of the major aqueducts by the barbarian invasions, the seven hills had been without a reliable water supply; some minor aqueducts remained, some springs, many cisterns and wells; but a large proportion of the inhabitants drank the water of the Tiber.2 Most of the people lived in the unhealthy plains, subject to inundation from the river and to malarial infection from the neighboring swamps. The Capitoline hill was now called Monte Caprino, from the goats (capri) that nibbled its slopes. The Palatine hill was a rural retreat, almost uninhabited; the ancient palaces from which it derived its name were dusty quarries. The Borgo Vaticano, or Vatican Town, was a small suburb across the river from the central city, and huddled about the decaying shrine of St. Peter. Some churches, like Santa Maria Maggiore or Santa Cecilia, were beautiful within but plain without; and no church in Rome could compare with the duomo of Florence or Milan, no monastery could rival the Certosa di Pavia, no town hall rose to the dignity of the Palazzo Vecchio, or the Castello Sforzesco, or the Palace of the Doges, or even the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. Nearly all the streets were muddy or dusty alleys; some were paved with cobblestones; only a few were lit at night; they were swept only on extraordinary occasions like a jubilee, or the formal entry of some very important person.
The economic support of the city came partly from pasturage and the production of wool, and the cattle that grazed in the environing fields, but chiefly from the revenues of the Church. There was little agriculture, and only petty trade; industry and commerce had well-nigh disappeared through lack of protection from brigand raids. There was almost no middle class—only nobles, ecclesiastics, and commoners. The nobles, who owned nearly all the land that had not fallen to the Church, exploited their peasantry without Christian compunction or hindrance. They suppressed revolt, and waged their feuds, with bravi— strong-arm ruffians kept in their employ and trained to beat or kill. The great families—above all the Colonna and the Orsini—seized tombs, baths, theaters, and other structures in or near Rome and turned them into private fortresses; and their rural castles were designed for war. The nobles were usual hostile to the popes, or strove to name and govern them. Time and again they created such disorder that the popes fled; Pius II prayed that any other city might be his capital.3 When Sixtus IV and Alexander VI warred against such men it was in a forgivable effort to win some security for the Papal See.
Normally the ecclesiastics ruled Rome, for they had the Church’s varied revenue to spend. The inhabitants were dependent upon that influx of gold from a dozen countries, upon the employment it enabled churchmen to provide, and upon the charity that it allowed the popes to dispense. The people of Rome could not be enthusiastic about any reform of the Church that would lessen that golden flow. Precluded from rebellion, they substituted for it a sharpness of satire unequaled elsewhere in Europe. A statue in the Piazza Navona, probably a Hellenistic Hercules, was/renamed Pasquino—perhaps from a nearby tailor—and became the bulletin board of the latest squibs, usually in the form of Latin or Italian epigrams, and often against the reigning pope. The Romans were religious, at least on occasion; they crowded to receive the papal blessing, and were proud to imitate ambassadors by kissing the papal feet; but when Sixtus IV, suffering from gout, failed to appear for a scheduled benediction they cursed him with Roman virulence. Moreover, since Eugenius IV had abrogated the Roman Republic, the popes were the secular rulers of Rome, and received the contumely usually awarded to governments. It was the misfortune of the papacy to be seated amid the most lawless population in Italy.
The popes felt themselves thoroughly justified in claiming a degree and area of temporal power. As the heads of an international organization they could not afford to be the captives of any one state, as they had been in effect in Avignon; so trammeled, they could hardly serve all peoples impartially, much less realize their majestic dream of being the spiritual governors of every government. Though the “Donation of Constantine” was a palpable forgery (as Nicholas admitted by hiring Valla), the donation of central Italy to the papacy by Pepin (755), confirmed by Charlemagne (773), was an historical fact. The popes had coined their own money at least as far back as 782,4 and for centuries no one had questioned their right. The unification of local powers, feudal or martial, in a central government was taking place in the Papal States as in the other nations of Europe. If the popes from Nicholas V to Clement VII ruled their states as absolute monarchs they were following the fashion of the times; and they could with reason complain when reformers like Chancellor Gerson of the University of Paris proposed democracy in the Church but deprecated it in the state. Neither state nor Church was ready for democracy at a time when printing had not yet begun or spread. Nicholas V became pope seven years before Gutenberg printed his Bible, thirty years before printing reached Rome, forty-eight years before the first publication of Aldus Manutius. Democracy is a luxury of disseminated intelligence, security, and peace.
The secular rule of the popes directly applied to what antiquity had called Latium (now Lazio), a small province lying between Tuscany, Umbria, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Beyond this they claimed also Umbria, the Marches, and the Romagna (the ancient Romania). These four regions together made a broad belt across central Italy from sea to sea; they contained some twenty-six cities, which the popes, when they could, ruled by vicars, or divided among provincial governors. Furthermore, Sicily and the whole Kingdom of Naples were claimed as papal fiefs on the basis of an agreement between Pope Innocent III and Frederick II; and the payment of an annual feudal fee by these states to the papacy became a major source of quarrels between theRegno and the popes. Finally the Countess Matilda had bequeathed to the popes (1107), as her feudal domain, practically all of Tuscany, including Florence, Lucca, Pistoia, Pisa, Siena, and Arezzo; over all these the popes claimed the rights of a feudal sovereign, but were rarely able to give effect to their claim.
Harassed by internal corruption, military and fiscal incompetence, and the confusion of European with Italian politics, and of ecclesiastical with secular affairs, the papacy struggled through centuries to preserve its traditional territories from internal usurpation bycondottieri, and from external encroachment by other Italian states; so Milan repeatedly tried to appropriate Bologna, Venice seized Ravenna and sought to absorb Ferrara, and Naples stretched tentative tentacles into Latium. To meet these attacks the popes seldom depended on their little army of mercenaries, but played the covetous states one against another in a balance-of-power policy, striving to keep any one of them from growing strong enough to swallow papal terrain. Machiavelli and Guicciardini rightly traced the disunion of Italy in part to this policy of the popes; and the popes rightly pursued it as their only means of sustaining their political and spiritual independence through their temporal power.
As political rulers the popes felt compelled to adopt the same methods as their secular compeers. They distributed—sometimes they sold—offices or benefices to influential persons, even to minors, to pay political debts, or to advance political purposes, or to reward or support men of letters or artists. They arranged marriages for their relatives into politically poweful families. They used armies like Julius II, or the diplomacy of deceit like Leo X.5 They put up with—sometimes profited from—a degree of bureaucratic venality probably no greater than that which prevailed in most governments of the time. The laws of the Papal States were as severe as those of others; thieves and counterfeiters were hanged by papal vicars as a more or less bitter necessity of government. Most of the popes lived as simply as the supposedly requisite display of official ceremony would permit; the worst tales we read of them were legends set afloat by irresponsible satirists like Berni, or disappointed place hunters like Aretino, or the Roman agents—e.g., Infessura—of powers in violent or diplomatic conflict with the papacy. As for the cardinals who administered the ecclesiastical and political affairs of the Church, they thought of themselves as senators of a wealthy state, and lived accordingly; many of them built palaces, many patronized letters or arts, some indulged themselves with mistresses; they genially accepted the easy moral code of their reckless time.
As a spiritual power the Renaissance popes faced the problem of reconciling humanism with Christianity. Humanism was half pagan, and the Church had once set herself to destroy paganism root and branch, creed and art. She had encouraged or countenanced the demolition of pagan temples and statuary; the cathedral of Orvieto, for example, had only recently been built with marbles taken partly from Carrara, partly from Roman ruins; a papal legate had sold marble blocks from the Colosseum to be burned for lime;6as late as 1461 the Palazzo Venezia had been begun with further spoliation of that Flavian Amphitheater; Nicholas himself, in his architectural enthusiasm, used twenty-five hundred cartloads of marble and travertine from the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, and other ancient structures to rebuild the churches and palaces of Rome.7 To reverse that attitude, to preserve and collect and cherish the remaining art and classics of Rome and Greece, required a revolution in ecclesiastical thought. The prestige of humanism was already so high, the impetus of the neopagan movement was so strong, her own leaders were so deeply tinged with it, that the Church had to find place for these developments in the Christian life, or risk losing the intellectual classes of Italy, perhaps later of Europe. Under Nicholas V she opened her arms to humanism, placed herself bravely and generously on the side, at the head, of the new literature and art. And for an exhilarating century (1447–1534) she gave to the mind of Italy such ample freedom—incredibilis libertas, said Filelfo8—and to the art of Italy such discriminating patronage, opportunity, and stimulus that Rome became the center of the Renaissance, and enjoyed one of the most brilliant epochs in the history of mankind.