VII. INNOCENT VIII: 1484–92

The failure of Sixtus was confirmed by the chaos that ruled Rome after his death. Mobs sacked the papal granaries, broke into the banks of the Genoese, attacked the palace of Girolamo Riario. Vatican attendants stripped the Vatican of its furniture. The noble factions armed themselves; barricades were thrown up in the streets; Girolamo was forced to quit his campaign against the Colonna and lead his troops back to the city; the Colonna recaptured many of their citadels. A conclave was hastily assembled in the Vatican, and an exchange of promises and bribes49 between Cardinal Borgia and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere secured the election of Giovanni Battista Cibò of Genoa, who took the name of Innocent VIII.

He was fifty-two; tall and handsome, kindly and peaceable to the point of complaisant weakness; of moderate intelligence and experience; a contemporary described him as “not wholly ignorant.”50 He had at least one son and one daughter, probably more;51 he acknowledged them candidly, and after taking priestly orders he led an apparently celibate life. Though the Roman wits wrote epigrams about his children, few Romans held it againt the Pope that he had been so fertile in his youth. But they raised eyebrows when he celebrated the marriages of his children and grandchildren in the Vatican.

In truth Innocent was content to be a grandfather, to enjoy domestic affection and ease. He gave Politian two hundred ducats for dedicating to him a translation of Herodotus, but for the rest he hardly bothered his head about the humanists. He continued leisurely, and quite by proxy, the repair and adornment of Rome. He engaged Antonio Pollaiuolo to build the Villa Belvedere in the Vatican gardens, and Andrea Mantegna to paint frescoes in a chapel adjoining it; but for the most part he left the patronage of letters and art to magnates and cardinals. In a similar mood of genial laissez-faire he entrusted foreign policy first to Cardinal della Rovere, then to Lorenzo de’ Medici. The powerful banker offered his richly dowered daughter Maddalena as a bride for the Pope’s son Franceschetto Cibò; Innocent was agreeable, and signed an alliance with Florence (1487); thereafter he allowed the experienced and pacific Florentine to guide the papal policy. For five years Italy enjoyed peace.

The age of Innocent was amused by one of the strangest comedies in history. After the death of Mohammed II (1481) his sons Bajazet II and Djem fought a civil war for the Ottoman throne. Defeated at Brusa, Djem sought to escape death by surrendering to the Knights of St. John in Rhodes (1482). Their Grand Master, Pierre d’Aubusson, held him as a threat over Bajazet. The Sultan agreed to pay the Knights 45,000 ducats yearly, ostensibly for Djem’s maintenance, actually as an inducement not to set up Djem as a pretender to the Turkish sultanate and a useful ally in a Christian crusade. To better safeguard so lucrative a prisoner, d’Aubusson sent him to Knightly custody in France. The Sultan of Egypt, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, Ferrante of Naples, and Innocent himself all offered large sums to d’Aubusson to transfer Djem to their care. The Pope won because, in addition to ducats, he promised the Grand Master a red hat, and helped Charles VIII of France to secure the hand and province of Anne of Brittany. So, on March 13, 1489, the “Grand Turk,” as Djem was now called, was escorted in princely cavalcade through the streets of Rome to the Vatican, and received courteous and luxurious imprisonment. Bajazet, to ensure the honorable intentions of the Pope, sent him three years’ salary for the upkeep of Djem; and in 1492 he dispatched to Innocent what he assured him was the head of the lancet that had pierced the side of Christ. Some cardinals were skeptical, but the Pope arranged that the relic should be brought from Ancona to Rome; when it reached the Porta del Popolo he himself received it and bore it in solemn ceremony to the Vatican. Cardinal Borgia held it aloft for the people’s reverence, and then returned to his mistress.

Despite the Sultan’s contribution to the support of the Church, Innocent found it troublesome to make ends meet. Like Sixtus IV and most of the rulers of Europe, he replenished his coffers by charging fees for appointment to office; and finding this lucrative, he created new offices to sell. By raising the number of papal secretaries to twenty-six, he realized 62,400 ducats; he increased to fifty-two the plumbatores whose heavy task was to place a leaden seal on papal decrees, and received 2500 ducats from each appointee. Such practices might have been no worse than selling annuity insurance, had it not been that the incumbents reimbursed themselves not merely by their salaries but by candid venality in their functions. For example, two papal secretaries confessed that in two years they had forged more than fifty papal bulls granting dispensations; the angry Pope had the men hanged and burned for stealing beyond their station (1489).52 Everything in Rome seemed purchasable, from judicial pardons to the papacy itself.53 The unreliable Infessura tells of a man who committed incest with his two daughters, then murdered them, and was let off by paying eight hundred ducats.54 When Cardinal Borgia was asked why justice was not done, he is reputed to have answered: “God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should pay and live.”55 The Pope’s son, Franceschetto Cibò, was an unprincipled scoundrel; he forced his way into private homes “for evil purposes”; he saw to it that of the fines levied in the ecclesiastical courts of Rome a substantial portion should go to himself, and he spent his spoils in gambling. One night he lost 14,000 ducats ($350,000) to Cardinal Raffaelle Riario; he complained to the Pope that he had been cheated, and Innocent tried to recover the sum for him; but the Cardinal professed to have already used up the sum on the immense Palazzo della Cancelleria that he was building.56

The secularization of the papacy—its absorption in politics, war, and finance—had filled the college of cardinals with appointees noted for their administrative ability, their political influence, or their capacity to pay for their hats. Despite his promise to keep the College down to twenty-four members, Innocent added to it eight men most of whom were eminently unsuited to such a dignity; so the cardinalate was conferred upon the thirteen-year-old Giovanni de’ Medici as part of a bargain with Lorenzo. Many of the cardinals were men of high education, benevolent patrons of literature, music, drama, and art. A few of them were saintly. Several had taken only minor orders, and were not yet priests. Many of them were frankly secular; their political, diplomatic, and fiscal duties required them to be men of the world, capable of meeting on a level of knowledge and subtlety the similar officials of Italian or transalpine governments. Some of them imitated the Roman nobles, fortified their palaces and retained armed men to protect themselves from these nobles, and the Roman mob, and other cardinals.57* Perhaps the great Catholic historian Pastor is a bit too severe on them, in view of their secular functions:

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s low estimate of the College of Cardinals in the time of Innocent VIII was unfortunately only too well founded.… Of the worldly cardinals Ascanio Sforza, Riario, Orsini, Sclafenatus, Jean de la Balue, Giuliano della Rovere, Savelli, and Rodrigo Borgia were the most prominent. All of these were deeply infected with the corruption that prevailed in Italy amongst the upper classes in the age of the Renaissance. Surrounded in their splendid palaces with all the most refined luxury of a highly developed civilization, these cardinals lived the lives of secular princes, and seemed to regard their ecclesiastical garb simply as one of the adornments of their rank. They hunted, gambled, gave sumptuous banquets and entertainments, joined in all the rollicking merriment of the carnival-tide, and allowed themselves the utmost license in morals. This was especially the case with Rodrigo Borgia.58

The disorder at the top reflected and enhanced the moral chaos of Rome. Violence, thievery, rape, bribery, conspiracy, revenge were the order of the day. Each dawn revealed, in the alleys, men who had been killed during the night. Pilgrims and ambassadors were waylaid, were sometimes stripped naked, as they approached the capital of Christendom.59 Women were attacked in the streets or in their homes. A piece of the True Cross, encased in silver, was stolen from the sacristy of Santa Maria in Trastevere; later the wood, shorn of its setting, was found in a vineyard.60 Such religious skepticism was widespread. Over five hundred Roman families were condemned for heresy, but were let off with fines; perhaps the mercenary Curia of Rome was preferable to the mercenary and murderous inquisitors who were now ravaging Spain. Even priests had their doubts; one was accused of substituting, for the words of transubstantiation in the Mass, his own formula: “O fatuous Christians, who adore food and drink as God!”61 As the end of Innocent’s pontificate approached, prophets appeared who proclaimed impending doom; and in Florence the voice of Savonarola was rising to brand the age as that of Antichrist.

“On September 20,” 1492, says a chronicler, “there was a great tumult in the city of Rome, and the merchants closed their shops. People who were in the fields and vineyards returned home in haste, because it was announced that Pope Innocent VIII was dead.”62Strange stories were told of his dying hours: how the cardinals placed Djem under special guards lest Frances-chetto Cibò should appropriate him; how Cardinals Borgia and della Rovere had almost come to blows beside the deathbed; and the dubious Infessura is our oldest authority for the report that three boys died from giving too much of their blood in a transfusion designed to revive the failing Pope.63 Innocent bequeathed 48,000 ducats ($600,000?) to his relatives, and passed away. He was buried in St. Peter’s, and Antonio Pollaiuolo covered his sins with a splendid tomb.

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