The lives of great men oft remind us that a man’s character can be formed after his demise. If a ruler coddles the chroniclers about him they may lift him to posthumous sanctity; if he offends them they may broil his corpse on a spit of venom or roast him to darkest infamy in a pot of ink. Paul II quarreled with Platina; Platina wrote the biography upon which most estimates of Paul depend, and handed him down to posterity as a monster of vanity, pomp, and greed.
There was some truth in the indictment, though not much more than might be found in any biography untempered with charity. Pietro Barbo, Cardinal of San Marco, was proud of his handsome appearance, as nearly all men are. When elected pope he proposed, probably in humor, to be called Formosus—good-looking; he allowed himself to be dissuaded, and took the title of Paul II. Simple in his private life, yet knowing the hypnotic effect of magnificence, he kept a luxurious court, and entertained his friends and guests with costly hospitality. On entering the conclave that elected him he, like the other cardinals, had pledged himself, if chosen, to wage war against the Turks, to summon a general council, to limit the number of cardinals to twenty-four and the number of papal relatives among them to one, to create no man a cardinal under thirty years of age, and to consult the cardinals on all important appointments. Paul, elected, repudiated these capitulations as nullifying time-honored traditions and powers. He consoled the cardinals by raising their yearly revenue to a minimum of 4000 florins ($100,000?). He himself, coming of a mercantile family, relished the security of florins, ducats, scudi, and gems that held a fortune in a ray of light. He wore a tiara that outweighed a palace in worth. As cardinal he had kept the goldsmiths busy with orders for jewels, medals, and cameos; these, and costly relics of classic art, he had collected in the sumptuous Palazzo San Marco which he had built for himself at the foot of the Capitol.* With all his acquisitiveness he stooped to no simony, repressed the sale of indulgences, and governed Rome with justice if not with mercy.
He is worst remembered by his quarrel with the Roman humanists. Some of these were secretaries to the pope or the cardinals; most of them filled less dignified positions as abbreviatores— writers of briefs, or keepers of records, for the Curia. Whether as a measure of economy, or to rid the Collegium Abbreviatorum of the fifty-eight Sienese whom Pius II had appointed to it, Paul disbanded the whole group, gave its work to other departments, and left some seventy humanists jobless or reduced to less lucrative posts. The most eloquent of these dismissed humanists was Bartolommeo de’ Sacchi, who took the Latin name Platina from his native Piadena near Cremona. He appealed to the Pope to re-employ the dismissed men; when Paul refused he wrote him a threatening letter. Paul had him arrested, and kept him for four months in Sant’ Angelo, bound with heavy chains. Cardinal Gonzaga secured his release; but Platina, Paul thought, would bear watching.
The leader of the humanists in Rome was Iulio Pomponio Leto, allegedly the natural son of Prince Sanseverino of Salerno. Coming to Rome in youth, he attached himself to Valla as a disciple, and succeeded him as professor of Latin in the university. He became so enamored of pagan literature that he lived and had his being not in the Rome of Nicholas V or Paul II, but in that of the Catos or the Caesars. He was the first to edit the agricultural classics of Varro and Columella, and he sedulously followed their precepts in tending his vineyard. He remained content in learned poverty, spent half his time among the historic ruins, wept at their spoliation and desolation, Latinized his name to Pomponius Laetus, and walked to his classroom in ancient Roman dress. Hardly any hall could hold the crowd that gathered at dawn to hear his lectures; some students came at midnight to secure a place. He despised the Christian religion, denounced its preachers as hypocrites, and trained his scholars in the Stoic rather than the Christian morality. His home was a museum of Roman antiquities, a meeting place for students and teachers of Roman lore. About 1460 he organized them into a Roman Academy, whose members took pagan names, gave such names to their children in baptism, exchanged the Christian faith for a religious worship of the genius of Rome, performed Latin comedies, and celebrated the anniversary of Rome’s foundation with pagan ceremonies in which the officiating members were termed sacerdotes, and Laetus was called pontifex maximus. Some enthusiastic members dreamed of restoring the Roman Republic.40
Early in 1468 a citizen laid before the papal police a charge that the Academy was plotting to depose and arrest the Pope. Certain cardinals supported the charge, and assured the pontiff that a rumor in Rome was predicting his early death. Paul ordered the arrest of Laetus, Platina, and other leaders of the Academy. Pomponius wrote humble apologies and professions of orthodoxy; after due chastening he was released, and resumed his lecturing, but with such careful conformity that when he died (1498) forty bishops attended his funeral. Platina was tortured to elicit evidence of a conspiracy; no such evidence was anywhere found, but Platina, despite a dozen letters of apology, was kept in prison for a year. Paul decreed the dissolution of the Academy as a nest of heresy, and forbade the teaching of pagan literature in the schools of Rome. His successor allowed the Academy to reopen reformed, and gave the penitent Platina charge of the Vatican Library. There Platina found the materials for his graphic and elegant biographies of the popes (In vitas summorum pontificum); and when he came to Paul II he took his revenge. His indictment might with more justice have been reserved for Sixtus IV.