Raised in poverty at Sarzana, Tommaso Parentucelli somehow found means to attend the University of Bologna for six years. When his funds ran out he went to Florence and served as tutor in the homes of Rinaldo degli Albizzi and Palla de’ Strozzi. His purse replenished, he returned to Bologna, continued his studies, and received at twenty-two the doctorate in theology. Niccolò degli Albergati, Archbishop of Bologna, made him controller of the archiepiscopal household, and took him to Florence to attend Eugenius IV in the Pope’s long exile there. In these Florentine years the priest became a humanist without ceasing to be a Christian. He developed a warm friendship with Bruni, Marsuppini, Manetti, Aurispa, and Poggio, and joined their literary gatherings; soon Thomas of Sarzana, as the humanists called him, was aflame with their passion for classical antiquity. He spent almost all his income on books, borrowed money to buy costly manuscripts, and expressed the hope that some day his funds would suffice to gather into one library all the great books in the world; in that ambition the Vatican Library had its origin.9 Cosimo engaged him to catalogue the Marcian Library, and Tommaso was happy among the manuscripts. He could hardly know that he was preparing himself to be the first Renaissance pope.
For twenty years he served Albergati in Florence and Bologna. When the Archbishop died (1443) Eugenius appointed Parentucelli to succeed him; and three years later the Pope, impressed by his learning, his piety, and his administrative ability, made him a cardinal. Another year passed; Eugenius passed away; and the cardinals, deadlocked between the Orsini and Colonna factions, raised Parentucelli to the papacy. “Who would have thought,” he exclaimed to Vespasiano da Bisticci, “that a poor bell ringer of a priest would be made pope, to the confusion of the proud?”10 The humanists of Italy rejoiced, and one of them, Francesco Barbaro, proclaimed that Plato’s vision had come true: a philosopher had become king.
Nicholas V, as he now called himself, had three aims: to be a good pope, to rebuild Rome, and to restore classical literature, learning, and art. He conducted his high office with modesty and competence, gave audience at almost any hour of the day, and managed to get along amicably with both Germany and France. The Antipope Felix V, realizing that Nicholas would soon win all Latin Christendom to his allegiance, resigned his pretensions and was gracefully forgiven; the rebellious but disintegrating Council of Basel moved to Lausanne and dissolved (1449); the conciliar movement was ended, the Papal Schism was healed. Demands for reform of the Church still came from beyond the Alps; Nicholas felt incapable of achieving that reform in the face of all the office-holders who would lose by it; instead he hoped that the Church would regain, as the leader in the revival of learning, the prestige that she had lost at Avignon and in the Schism. Not that his support of scholarship was motivated by political ends; it was a sincere, almost an amorous passion. He had made arduous trips over the Alps in search of manuscripts; it was he who had unearthed at Basel the works of Tertullian.
Now, dowered with the revenues of the papacy, he sent agents to Athens, Constantinople, and divers cities in Germany and England to seek and buy or copy Greek or Latin manuscripts, pagan or Christian; he installed a large corps of copyists and editors in the Vatican; he called almost every prominent humanist in Italy to Rome. “All the scholars in the world,” wrote Vespasiano in fond exaggeration, “came to Rome in the time of Pope Nicholas, partly of their own accord, partly at his request.”11 He rewarded their work with the liberality of a caliph thrilled by music or poetry. The subdued Lorenzo Valla received 500 ducats ($12,500?) for putting Thucydides into Latin dress; Guarino da Verona received 1500 ducats for translating Strabo; Niccolò Perotti 500 for Polybius; Poggio was put to translating Diodorus Siculus; Theodorus Gaza was lured from Ferrara to make a new translation of Aristotle; Filelfo was offered a house in Rome, an estate in the country, and 10,000 ducats to render into Latin the Iliad and the Odyssey; the Pope’s death, however, prevented the execution of this Homeric enterprise. These rewards were so great that some scholars—mirabile dictu— hesitated to accept them; the Pope overcame their scruples by playfully warning them: “Don’t refuse; you may not find another Nicholas.”12 When an epidemic drove him from Rome to Fabriano he took his translators and copyists with him, lest any of them should succumb to the plague.13 Meanwhile he did not neglect what might be called the Christian classics. He offered five thousand ducats to anyone who would bring him the Gospel of St. Matthew in the original tongue. He engaged Gianozzo Manetti and George of Trebizond to translate Cyril, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and other patrological literature; he commissioned Manetti and aides to make a new version of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek; this, too, was frustrated by his death. These Latin translations were hurried and imperfect, but they for the first time opened Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Diodorus, Appian, Philo, and Theophrastus to students who could not read Greek. Referring to these translations, Filelfo wrote: “Greece has not perished, but has migrated to Italy—which in former days was called Greater Greece.”14Manetti, with greater gratitude than accuracy, calculated that more Greek authors were translated during the eight years of Nicholas’ pontificate than in all the preceding five centuries.15
Nicholas loved the appearance and form as well as the contents of books; himself a calligraphist, he had his translations written carefully upon parchment by expert scribes; the leaves were bound in crimson velvet, secured by silver clasps. As the number of his books mounted—finally to 824 Latin and 352 Greek manuscripts—and these were added to previous papal collections, the problem arose of housing the five thousand volumes—the largest store of books in Christendom—in such a way that their complete transmission to posterity might be assured. The construction of a Vatican Library was one of Nicholas’ dearest dreams.
He was a builder as well as a scholar, and from the outset of his pontificate he had resolved to make Rome worthy of leading the world. A jubilee year was at hand in 1450; a hundred thousand visitors were expected; they must not find Rome a shabby ruin; the prestige of the Church and the papacy required that the citadel of Christianity should confront pilgrims with “noble edifices combining taste and beauty with noble proportions,” which “would immensely conduce to the exaltation of the chair of St. Peter”; so Nicholas, on his deathbed, apologetically explained his aim. He restored the walls and gates of the city, repaired the Acqua Vergine aqueduct, and had an artist construct an ornamental fountain at its mouth. He engaged Leon Battista Alberti to design palaces, public squares, and spacious avenues shielded from sun and rain by arcaded porticoes. He had many streets paved, many bridges renewed, the Castle of Sant’ Angelo repaired. He lent money to prominent citizens to help them build palaces that would be an ornament to Rome. At his bidding Bernardo Rossellino renovated Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni Laterano, San Paolo and San Lorenzo fuori le mura—outside the walls—and the forty churches that Gregory I had designated as stations of the cross.16 He made majestic plans for a new Vatican Palace that, with its gardens, would cover all the Vatican hill, and would house the pope and his staff, the cardinals, and the administrative offices of the Curia; he lived to complete his own chambers (later occupied by Alexander VI and called the Appartamento Borgia), the library (now the Pinacoteca Vaticana), and the rooms or stanze later decorated by Raphael. He brought Benedetto Bonfigli from Perugia, and Andrea del Castagno from Florence, to paint frescoes—now lost—on the Vatican walls; and he persuaded the aging Fra Angelico to return to Rome and paint in the Pope’s own chapel the stories of St. Stephen and St. Laurence. He planned to tear down the old and crumbling basilica of St. Peter, and raise over the Apostle’s tomb the most imposing church in the world; it was left for Julius II to take up this audacious aim.
All this, he hoped, could be financed from the proceeds of the jubilee. Nicholas announced this as a celebration of the restored peace and unity of the Church, and the sentiment went well with the peoples of Europe. The migration of pilgrims from every quarter of Latin Christendom was of unprecedented magnitude; eyewitnesses compared it to the movement of myriads of ants. The crowding in Rome was so extreme that the Pope limited to five, then three, then two days the maximum length of any visitor’s stay. On one occasion two hundred persons were killed in a crush that swept many into the Tiber; Nicholas thereafter tore down houses to widen the approaches to St. Peter’s. As the pilgrims brought rich offerings, the financial returns from the jubilee exceeded even the Pope’s expectations, and covered the expense of his new buildings and his outlay for scholars and manuscripts.17 The other cities of Italy suffered a shortage of money because—a Perugian complained—“it all flowed into Rome”; but in Rome the innkeepers, moneychangers, and tradesmen profited hugely, and Nicholas was able to deposit 100,000 florins ($2,500,000?) in the bank of the Medici alone.18 The countries beyond the Alps rumbled with discontent at the efflux of gold into Italy.
Even in Rome some disaffection troubled the new prosperity. Nicholas’ government of the city was enlightened and just from his point of view, and he had made a concession to republican hopes by nominating four citizens who were to appoint all municipal officials and control all taxes levied in the city. But the senators and nobles whose class had ruled Rome during the Avignon papacy and the Schism fretted under the papal government, and the populace resented the transformation of the Vatican into a palace fortress secure against such assaults as had driven Eugenius from Rome. The republican ideas preached by Arnold of Brescia and Cola di Rienzo still agitated many minds. In the year of Nicholas’ accession a leading burgher, Stefano Porcaro, made a fiery speech demanding the restoration of self-government. Nicholas sent him into comfortable exile as podesta of Anagni, but Porcaro found his way back to the capital, and raised the cry of liberty before an excited carnival crowd. Nicholas banished him to Bologna, but left him full freedom except for the necessity of daily showing himself to the papal legate there. Nevertheless the undiscourageable Stefano managed, from Bologna, to organize a complicated plot among three hundred of his followers in Rome. On the feast of the Epiphany, while the Pope and the cardinals were at Mass in St. Peter’s, an attack was to be made on the Vatican, its treasury was to be seized to provide funds for establishing a republic, and Nicholas himself was to be taken prisoner.19 Porcaro secretly left Bologna (December 26, 1452), and joined the conspirators on the eve of the planned attack. But his absence from Bologna was noted, and a courier brought warning to the Vatican. Stefano was traced, found, and imprisoned, and on January 9 he was beheaded in Sant’ Angelo. The republicans denounced the execution as murder, the humanists condemned the plot as monstrous infidelity to a benevolent pope.
Nicholas was shaken and changed by the discovery that a large section of the citizenry looked upon him as a despot, however benevolent. Harrowed with suspicion, embittered by resentment, tortured by gout, he aged rapidly. When news came to him that the Turks had entered Constantinople over the corpses of 50,000 Christians, and had turned St. Sophia into a mosque (1453), all the glory of his pontificate seemed a fitful vanity. He appealed to the European powers to join in a crusade to recapture the fallen citadel of Eastern Christianity; he called for a tenth of all the revenue of Western Europe to finance the effort, and pledged a tenth of papal, Curial, and other ecclesiastical revenues; and all war between Christian nations was to cease on pain of excommunication. Europe hardly listened. People complained that money raised by previous popes for crusades had been used for other purposes; Venice preferred a commercial entente with the Turks; Milan took advantage of Venetian difficulties by retaking Brescia; Florence looked with satisfaction on Venice’s loss of Eastern trade.20 Nicholas bowed to reality, and the lust of life cooled in his veins. Worn out with futile diplomacy, and punished for the sins of his predecessors, he died in 1455, at the age of fifty-eight.
He had restored peace within the Church, he had restored order and splendor to Rome, he had founded the greatest of libraries, he had reconciled the Church and the Renaissance. He had kept his hands free from war, had avoided nepotism, had struggled to turn Italy from suicidal strife. Amid unprecedented revenues he himself had led a simple life, loving the Church and his books, and extravagant only in his gifts. A grieving chronicler expressed the feeling of Italy when he described the scholar Pope as “wise, just, benevolent, gracious, peaceable, affectionate, charitable, humble… endowed with every virtue.”21 It was the verdict of love, and Porcaro might have demurred; but we may let it stand.