He began with excellent measures. He forgave the cardinals who had staged the anticouncil of Pisa and Milan; that threat of schism ended. He promised—and kept his promise—to refrain from touching the estates left by cardinals. He reopened the Lateran Council, and welcomed the delegates in his own graceful Latin. He effected some minor ecclesiastical reforms, and reduced taxes; but his edict calling for larger reforms (May 3, 1514) encountered so much opposition from the functionaries whose incomes it would abate that he made no strenuous effort to enforce it.9 “I will think the matter over,” he said, “and see how I can satisfy everybody.”10 This was his character, and his character was his fate.
Raphael’s portrait of him (Pitti), painted between 1517 and 1519, is not as well known as that of Julius, but that was partly Leo’s fault: there were in this case less depth of thought, heroism of action, and worth of inner soul to give majesty to the outward face and frame. The representation is merciless. A massive man, of more than medium height, and much more than medium weight—the indignity of obesity concealed under a fur-trimmed robe of velvet white and cape of scarlet red; hands soft and flabby, here shorn of the many rings that normally adorned them; a reading glass to help shortsighted eyes; round head and plump cheeks, full lips and double chin; large nose and ears; some lines of bitterness from the nose to the corners of the mouth; heavy eyes and slightly frowning brow: this is the Leo disillusioned with diplomacy, and perhaps soured with the unmannerly Reformation, rather than the lighthearted hunter and musician, the generous patron, the cultivated hedonist whose accession had so gladdened Rome. To do him justice the record must be added to the picture. A man is many men, to divers men and times; and not even the greatest portraitist can show all these features in one moment’s face.
The basic quality in Leo, born of his fortunate life, was good nature. He had a pleasant word for everybody, saw the best side of everybody except the Protestants (whom he could not begin to understand), and gave so generously to so many that even this profuse philanthropy, involving heavy drafts on Christian purses, shared in causing the Reformation. We hear much of his courtesy, his tact, his amiability, his cheerful temper even in sickness and pain. (His fistula, repeatedly operated upon, always returned, and sometimes made locomotion an agony.) So far as he could, he let others lead their own lives. His initial moderation and kindliness yielded to severity when he discovered some cardinals plotting against his life. At times he was relentlessly hard, as with Francesco Maria della Rovere of Urbino and Gianpaolo Baglioni of Perugia.11 He could lie like a diplomat when he had to, and now and then bettered the instruction of the treacherous statesmanship that enmeshed him. More often he was humane, as when he forbade (in vain) the enslavement of American Indians, and did his best to check the Inquisitorial ferocity of Ferdinand the Catholic.12 Despite his general worldliness he fulfilled conscientiously all his religious duties, observed the fasts, and recognized no inherent contradiction between religion and gaiety. He has been charged with saying to Bembo: “It is well known to all ages how profitable this fable of Christ has been to us”; but the sole authority for this is a violent polemic work, The Pageant of Popes, written about 1574 by an obscure Englishman, John Bale; and the freethinking Bayle and the Protestant Roscoe alike reject the story as itself a fable.13
His enjoyments ranged from philosophy to buffoons. He had learned at his father’s table to appreciate poetry, sculpture, painting, music, calligraphy, illumination, textiles, vases, glass—all the forms of the beautiful except perhaps their source and norm, woman; and though his enjoyment of the arts was too indiscriminate to be a guide to taste, his patronage of artists and poets carried on in Rome the magnanimous traditions of his ancestors in Florence. He was too easygoing to take philosophy to heart; he knew how precarious all conclusions are, and did not bother his head with metaphysics after his college days. At meals he had books read to him, usually of history, or he listened to music. There his taste was sure; he had a good ear and a melodious voice. He kept several musicians at his court, and paid them lavishly. The improvisatore Bernardo Accolti (called Unico Aretino because of his birth in Arezzo and his unequaled facility in impromptu poetry and music) was able, with the fees that Leo paid him, to buy the little duchy of Nepi; a Jewish lute player earned a castle and the title of count; the singer Gabriele Merino was made an archbishop.14 Under Leo’s care and encouragement the Vatican choir reached an unprecedented degree of excellence. Raphael rightly pictured the Pope as reading a book of sacred music. Leo collected musical instruments for their beauty as well as their tone. One was an organ adorned with alabaster, and judged by Castiglione to be the loveliest that he had ever seen or heard.
Leo liked also to keep at his court a number of jesters and buffoons. This accorded with the custom of his father and of contemporary kings, and did not altogether shock a Rome that loved laughter only next to wealth and venery; to our hindsight it seems offensive that jests light or coarse should have echoed through the papal court while the Reformation raged in Germany. It amused Leo to see one of his monk buffoons swallow a pigeon at a mouthful, or forty eggs in succession.15 He received with pleasure from a Portuguese embassy a white elephant—brought from India—which genuflected thrice on meeting His Holiness.16 To bring him a person whose wit, deformity, or imbecility could refresh his mirth was an open sesame to his heart.17 He seems to have felt that to indulge in such diversions now and then would distract him from physical pain, relieve his mind of cosmic worries, and prolong his life.18 There was something disarmingly childlike about him. Occasionally he would play cards with cardinals, allow the public to sit in as spectators, and then distribute gold pieces to the crowd.
Above all other amusements he loved to hunt. It controlled his tendency to corpulence, and allowed him to enjoy the open air and the countryside after being a prisoner of the Vatican. He kept a large stable, with a hundred grooms. It was his custom to devote nearly all of October to the chase. His physicians highly approved of his addiction, but his master of ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, complained that the Pope kept his heavy boots on so long that “no one can kiss his feet”—at which Leo laughed heartily.19 We get a kindlier view of the Pope than in Raphael’s picture when we read how the peasants and villagers would come to greet him as he passed along their roads, and would offer him their modest gifts—which were so handsomely returned by the pontiff that the people eagerly awaited his hunting trips. To the poor girls among them he gave marriage dowries; he paid the debts of the sick or aged, or the parents of large families.29 These simple folk loved him more sincerely than the 2000 persons who made up his menage at the Vatican.*
But Leo’s court was no mere focus of amusement and hilarity. It was also the meeting place of responsible statemen, and Leo was one of them; it was the center of the intellect and wit of Rome, the place where scholars, educators, poets, artists, and musicians were welcomed or housed; the scene of solemn ecclesiastical functions, ceremonious diplomatic receptions, costly banquets, dramatic or musical performances, poetical recitations, and exhibitions of art. It was without question the most refined court in the world at that time. The labors of popes from Nicholas V to Leo himself in the improvement and adornment of the Vatican, in the assemblage of literary and artistic genius, and of the ablest ambassadors in Europe, made the court of Leo the zenith not of the art (for that had come under Julius) but of the literature and brilliance of the Renaissance. In mere quantity of culture history had never seen its equal, not even in Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome.22
The city itself prospered and expanded as Leo’s gathered gold flowed along its economic arteries. In thirteen years after his accession, said the Venetian ambassador, ten thousand houses were built in Rome, chiefly by newcomers from northern Italy following the migration of the Renaissance. Florentines in particular crowded in to pick plums from a Florentine pontificate. Paolo Giovio, who moved in Leo’s court, estimated the population of Rome at 85,000.23 It was not yet so fair a city as Florence or Venice, but it was now by common consent the hub of Western civilization; Marcello Alberini, in 1527, called it “the rendezvous of the world.”24 Leo, amid amusements and foreign affairs, regulated the importation and price of food, abrogated monopolies and “corners,” reduced taxes, administered justice impartially, struggled to drain the Pontine marshes, promoted agriculture in the Campagna, and continued the work of Alexander and Julius in opening or improving streets in Rome.30 Like his father in Florence, he providedcircenses as well aspanem— engaged artists to plan gorgeous pageants, encouraged the masked festivities of Carnival, even allowed Borgian bullfights to be staged in St. Peter’s square. He wished the people to share in the happiness and jollity of the new Golden Age.
The city took its cue from the Pope, and let joy be unconfined. Prelates, poets, parasites, panders, and prostitutes hurried to Rome to drink the golden rain. The cardinals—dowered by the pontiffs, and above all by Leo, with innumerable benefices that sent them revenues from all parts of Latin Christendom—were now far richer than the old nobility, which was sinking into economic and political decay. Some cardinals had an income of 30,000 ducats a year (1375,000,).31 They lived in stately palaces manned by as many as three hundred servants32 and adorned with every art and luxury known to the time. They did not quite think of themselves as ecclesiastics; they were statemen, diplomats, administrators; they were the Roman Senate of the Roman Church; and they proposed to live like senators. They smiled at those foreigners who expected of them the abstinence and continence of priests. Like so many men of their age, they judged conduct not by moral but by esthetic standards; a few commandments might be broken with impunity if it was done with courtesy and taste. They surrounded themselves with pages, musicians, poets, and humanists, and now and then dined with courtly courtesans.33 They mourned that their salons were normally womanless; “all Rome,” according to Cardinal Bibbiena, “says that nothing is wanting here but a Madonna to hold a court.”34 They envied Ferrara, Urbino, and Mantua, and rejoiced when Isabella d’Este came to spread her robes and feminine graces over their unisexual feast.
Manners, taste, good conversation, appreciation of art were now at their height, and patronage was opulent. There had been cultivated circles in the smaller capitals, and Castiglione preferred the quiet coterie of Urbino to the cosmopolitan, noisier, flashier civilization of Rome. But Urbino was a tiny island of culture; this was a stream, a sea. Luther came and saw it, and was shocked and repelled; Erasmus came and saw it, and was charmed to ecstasy.35 A hundred poets proclaimed that the Saturnia regna had returned.