VI. SIXTUS IV: 1471–84

Of the eighteen cardinals who met to choose a new pontiff, fifteen were Italian, Rodrigo Borgia was Spanish, d’Estouteville was French, Bessarion was Greek. One participant later described the election of Cardinal Francesco della Rovere as due to “intrigue and bribery” (ex artibus et corruptelis)41 but this seems to have meant only that various offices were promised to various cardinals for their votes. The new pope illustrated the admirable equality of opportunity (among Italians) to reach the papacy. He was born of a peasant family at Pecorile, near Savona. Repeatedly ill as a child, he was consecrated to St. Francis by his mother in prayer for his recovery. At nine he was sent to a Franciscan convent, and later entered the Minorite order. For a while he served as tutor in the della Rovere family, whose name he took as his own. He studied philosophy and theology at Pavia, Bologna, and Padua, and taught them there and elsewhere to classes so crowded that almost every learned Italian of the next generation was said to have been his pupil.

When, at fifty-seven, he became Sixtus IV, his reputation was that of a scholar distinguished for learning and integrity. Almost overnight, by one of the strangest transformations in papal history, he became a politician and a warrior. Finding Europe too divided, and its governments too corrupt, for a crusade against the Turks, he decided to confine his secular efforts to Italy. There too, of course, he found division—in the Papal States the authority of the pope largely flouted by local rulers, in Latium a rule by noble violence ignoring the papal power, and in Rome a mob so disorderly that at his coronation it stoned his litter in anger at a crush caused by a stoppage of the cavalcade. Sixtus proposed to restore order in Rome, to reinvigorate legatine authority in the Papal States, and to bring Italy under the unifying rule of the pope.

Surrounded by chaos, distrustful of strangers, and subject to family affection, Sixtus appointed his avid nephews to positions of power and revenue. It was the prime curse of his pontificate that those whom he loved best proved worst, and took such venal advantage of their place that all Italy came to despise them. The favorite nephew was Pietro (or Piero) Riario, a youth of some charm—cheerful, witty, courteous, generous—but so fond of luxury and sensual delights that even the rich benefices bestowed upon him by the Pope failed to finance the tastes of this formerly mendicant friar. Sixtus made him a cardinal at twenty-five (1471), and gave him the bishoprics of Treviso, Senigallia, Spalato, Florence, and other dignities, with a total income of 60,000 ducats ($1,500,000?) a year. Pietro spent all, and more, on vessels of silver and gold, fine raiment, tapestries, embroideries, a pretentious retinue, expensive public games, and the patronage of painters, poets, and scholars. The festivities—including a banquet that lasted six hours—with which he and his cousin Giuliano welcomed to Rome Ferrante’s daughter Eleonora marked a height of extravagance hardly equaled there since Lucullus or Nero. Dizzy with power, Pietro made a triumphal tour of Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, and Milan, enjoying regal honors everywhere as a prince of the blood, displaying his mistresses in costly attire, and making plans to become pope on or before the death of his uncle. But on his return to Rome he died (1474) of his excesses at the age of twenty-eight, having spent 200,000 ducats in two years, and owing 60,000 more.42 His brother Girolamo was made commander of the papal armies and lord of Imola and Forli; we have already disposed of him there. Another nephew, Leonardo della Rovere, was made prefect of Rome; and when he died his brother Giovanni succeeded him. The ablest of these innumerable nephews was Giuliano della Rovere, who will require a chapter as Julius II; his life was reasonably decent, and he rose to the papacy over every obstacle by force of intellect and character.

The plans of Sixtus to strengthen the Papal States disturbed the other governments of Italy. Lorenzo de’ Medici, as we have before related, schemed to get Imola for Florence; Sixtus outplayed him, and replaced the Medici with the Pazzi as bankers for the papacy; Lorenzo tried to ruin the Pazzi, they tried to kill him. Sixtus agreed to the conspiracy but deprecated murder; “go and do what you will,” he told the plotters, “provided there be no killing.”43 The result was a war that lasted (1478–80) until the Turks threatened to overrun Italy. When that danger subsided, Sixtus was free to resume his liberation of the Papal States. Late in 1480 the Ordelaffi line of dictators died out at Forli, and the people asked the Pope to take over the city; Sixtus bade Girolamo govern Imola and Forli together. Girolamo suggested taking Ferrara next, and persuaded Sixtus and Venice to join in war upon Duke Ercole (1482). Ferrante of Naples sent troops to defend his son-in-law; Florence and Milan also helped Ferrara; and the Pope, who had begun his reign with plans for European peace, found that he had plunged all Italy into war. Harassed by Naples in the south, by Florence in the north, and by disturbances in Rome, Sixtus came to terms with Ferrara after a year of chaos and bloodshed. When the Venetians refused to follow suit he excommunicated them, and joined Florence and Milan in war upon his late ally.

The nobles of the capital had felt justified, by the example of a warlike pontiff, in renewing their exhilarating feuds. It was one of the polite customs of Rome to plunder the palace of a cardinal just elected to the papacy. In so handling the palace of one of the della, Rovere cardinals, a young aristocrat, Francesco di Santa Croce, had been wounded by a member of the della Valle family. The youth revenged himself by cutting the tendon of della Valle’s heel; della Valle’s relatives revenged him by cleaving Francesco’s head; Prospero di Santa Croce revenged Francesco by killing Piero Margani. The feud spread through the city, the Orsini and the papal forces supporting the Santa Croce, the Colonna defending the Valle. Lorenzo Oddone Colonna was captured, tried, tortured into a confession, and put to death in Sant’ Angelo, though his brother Fabrizio surrendered two Colonna fortresses to Sixtus in the hope of having Lorenzo spared. Prospero Colonna joined Naples in war on the Pope, ravaged the Campagna, raided Rome. Sixtus engaged Roberto Malatesta of Rimini to come and lead the papal troops, Roberto defeated the Neapolitan and Colonna forces at Campo Morto, returned to Rome victorious, and died of fever contracted in the Campagna swamps. Girolamo Riario took his place, and Sixtus officially blessed the artillery that his nephew directed against the Colonna citadels. But while the Pope’s spirit willed war, his body collapsed under the strain of successive crises. In June, 1484, he too came down with fever. On August 11 news came to him that his allies had made peace with Venice over his protests; he refused to ratify it. The next day he died.

Sixtus was in many ways a preview of Julius II, as Girolamo Riario rehearsed the career of Caesar Borgia. A stern imperial priest who loved war and art and power, Sixtus pursued his purposes without scruple or finesse, but with wild energy and unhesitating courage to the end. Like later warrior popes, he made enemies who tried to weaken his arms by blackening his name. Some gossips accounted for his lavish support of Pietro and Girolamo Riario by calling them his sons;44 others, like Infessura, called them his lovers, and did not hesitate to term the Pope “a sodomite.”45* The picture is bad enough without these incredible and unsupported allegations. After exhausting on his nephews the treasury that Paul II had left full, Sixtus financed his wars by selling ecclesiastical offices to the highest bidder. A hostile Venetian ambassador quotes him as saying that “a pope needs only pen and ink to get whatever sum he wishes”;47 but this is equally true of most modern governments, whose interest-bearing bonds correspond in many ways with the salary-bearing sinecures sold by the popes. Sixtus, however, was not content with this scheme. He kept throughout the Papal States a monopoly on the sale of corn; he sold the best abroad, and the rest to his people, at a goodly profit.48 He had learned this trick from the other rulers of his time, like Ferrante of Naples; presumably he charged no more than private engrossers would have done, since it is an unwritten law of economics that the price of a product depends on the gullibility of the purchaser; but the poor grumbled forgivably at the thought that their hunger fed the luxuries of the Riarios. Despite these and other devices for raising revenues, Sixtus left debts totaling 150,000 ducats ($3,750,000?).

A substantial portion of his revenues was spent on art and public works. He tried, unsuccessfully, to drain the pestilential marshes around Foligno, and at least dreamt of draining the Pontine swamps. He had the major streets of Rome straightened, widened, and paved; he improved the water supply; restored bridges, walls, gates, and towers; spanned the Tiber with the Ponte Sisto that bears his name; built a new Vatican Library, and the Sistine Chapel above it; founded the Sistine Choir; and rebuilt the ruined Hospital of Santo Spirito, whose main ward, 365 feet long, could accommodate a thousand patients. He reorganized the University of Rome, and opened to the public the Capitoline Museum that Paul II had established; this was the first public museum in Europe. During his pontificate, and largely under the direction of Baccio Pontelli, the churches of Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo were erected, and many others were repaired. In Santa Maria del Popolo Mino da Fiesole and Andrea Bregno sculptured a noble tomb for Cardinal Cristoforo della Rovere (c. 1477); and in Santa Maria in Aracoeli Pinturicchio pictured the career of San Bernardino of Siena in some of the finest frescoes in Rome (c. 1484).

The Sistine Chapel was designed by Giovannino de’ Dolci, simply and unpretentiously, for semiprivate worship by the popes and high ecclesiastics. It was beautified with a marble sanctuary screen by Mino da Fiesole, and by spacious frescoes recounting on the south wall scenes from the life of Moses, and on the north wall corresponding scenes from the life of Christ. For these paintings Sixtus called to Rome the greatest masters of the time: Perugino, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Cosimo Roselli, and Piero di Cosimo. Sixtus offered an additional reward for the best picture of the fifteen painted there by these men. Roselli, knowing his own inferiority in design, decided to stake all on brilliant coloring; his fellow artists laughed at his lavish spread of ultramarine and gold; but Sixtus gave him the prize.

The warrior pope brought other painters to Rome, and organized them into a protective guild under the aegis of St. Luke. It was for Sixtus that Melozzo da Forlì did his best work. Coming to Rome about 1472 after studying with Piero della Francesca, he painted in the church of Santi Apostoli a fresco of the Ascension which aroused the enthusiasm of Vasari; all but a few fragments of it disappeared when the church was rebuilt (1702f). Gracious and tender are the Angel and the Virgin of the Annunciation in the Uffizi Gallery, but finer still the Angeli musicanti— one with a viol, one with a lute—in the Vatican. Melozzo’s masterpiece was painted as a fresco in the Vatican Library, and was later transferred to canvas. Against the ornate pillars and ceiling of the Library six figures are portrayed with veracity and power: Sixtus seated, massive and regal; at his right the gay Pietro Riario; standing before him the tall dark Giuliano della Rovere; kneeling before him the high-browed Platina, receiving appointment as librarian; and behind him Giovanni della Rovere and Count Girolamo Riario; it is a living picture of an eventful pontificate.

In 1475 the Vatican Library contained 2527 volumes in Latin and Greek; Sixtus added 1100 more, and for the first time threw the collection open to the public. He restored the humanists to favor, though he paid them with preoccupied irregularity. He called Filelfo to Rome, and that warrior of the pen praised the Pope enthusiastically until his annual salary of 600 florins ($15,000) fell into arrears. Joannes Argyropoulos was invited from Florence to Rome, where his lectures on the Greek language and literature were attended by cardinals, bishops, and foreign students like Reuchlin. Sixtus also brought to Rome the German scientist Johann Müller—Regiomontanus—and commissioned him to correct the Julian calendar; but Müller died a year later (1476), and calendar reform had to wait a century more (1582).

It is remarkable that a Franciscan friar and professor of philosophy and theology should have become the first secularizing pope of the Renaissance —or, more precisely, the first Renaissance pope whose chief interest was to establish the papacy as a strong political power in Italy. Perhaps excepting the case of Ferrara, whose able rulers had faithfully paid their feudal dues, Sixtus was perfectly justified in seeking to make the Papal States papal, and to make Rome and its environs safe for the popes. History might forgive, as it has forgiven Julius II, his use of war for these ends; it might acknowledge that his diplomacy merely followed the amoral principles of other states; but it finds no pleasure in watching a pope conspire with assassins, bless cannon, or wage war with a thoroughness that shocked his time; the death of a thousand men at Campo Morto was a heavier loss of life than any battle yet fought in Renaissance Italy. The morality of the Roman court was further lowered by reckless nepotism and unblushing simony, and the costly indecent revels of his kin; in these and other ways Sixtus IV made straight the way for Alexander VI, and contributed—as he responded—to the moral disintegration of Italy. It was Sixtus who appointed Torquemada to head the Spanish Inquisition; Sixtus who, provoked by the virulence and license of Roman satire, gave the Inquisitors in Rome power to prohibit the printing of any book they did not like. At his death he might have admitted many failures—against Lorenzo, Naples, Ferrara, Venice—and even the Colonna were not yet subdued. Three significant successes he had achieved: he had made Rome a fairer and healthier city, he had given it invigorating drafts of fresh art, and he had restored the papacy to its place among the most powerful monarchies in Europe.

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