At about the time Columbus discovered America, the Renaissance—which is to say the period when the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter—was in full flower in Italy. Under its impulse the individual found in himself, rather than in God, the designer and captain of his fate. His needs, his ambitions and desires, his pleasures and possessions, his mind, his art, his power, his glory, were the house of life. His earthly passage was no longer, as in the medieval concept, a weary exile on the way to the spiritual destiny of his soul.
Over a period of sixty years, from roughly 1470 to 1530, the secular spirit of the age was exemplified in a succession of six popes—five Italians and a Spaniard* —who carried it to an excess of venality, amorality, avarice, and spectacularly calamitous power politics. Their governance dismayed the faithful, brought the Holy See into disrepute, left unanswered the cry for reform, ignored all protests, warnings and signs of rising revolt, and ended by breaking apart the unity of Christendom and losing half the papal constituency to the Protestant secession. Theirs was a folly of perversity, perhaps the most consequential in Western history, if measured by its result in centuries of ensuing hostility and fratricidal war.
The abuses of these six popes were not born full blown from the high Renaissance. Rather they were a crown of folly upon habits of papal government that had developed over the previous 150 years deriving from the exile of the Papacy in Avignon through most of the 14th century. The attempted return to Rome resulted in 1378 in a Schism, with one Pope in Rome and one in Avignon, and with the successors of each, for over half a century, claiming to be the true Pope. Thereafter each country’s or kingdom’s obedience to one claimant or the other was determined by political interests, thus thoroughly politicizing the Holy See. Dependence on lay rulers was a fatal legacy of the Schism because rival popes found it necessary to make up for divided power by all kinds of bargains, concessions and alliances with kings and princes. Because income too was divided, the Schism commercialized as well as politicized the Papacy, making revenue its primary concern. From this time, the sale of everything spiritual or material in the grant of the Church, from absolution and salvation to episcopates and abbeys, swelled into a perpetual commerce, attractive for what it offered yet repellent for what it made of religion.
Under the heady humanism of the Renaissance, the popes, once the Holy See was definitively restored to Rome in the 1430s, adopted as their own the values and style of the piratical princes of the Italian city-states. Opulent, elegant, unprincipled and endlessly at odds with each other, the rulers of Italian life were, by reason of their disunity and limited territorial scope, no more than potentates of discord. In reproducing their avarice and luxury, the six popes did no better than their models and, because of their superior status, usually worse. Pursuing the spoils of office like hounds on a scent, each of the six, who included a Borgia and two Medicis, was obsessed by ambition to establish a family fortune that would outlive him. In this pursuit each in turn plunged into the temporal politics of the time, which meant into an incessantly shifting series of combinations, intrigues and maneuvers without permanent interest or guiding principle and regulated only by what appeared to be the balance of power at the moment. As the political balance was fragile and fluctuating, these arrangements were in a constant state of reversal and betrayal, allowing, indeed requiring, the exercise of deals, bribes and conspiracies as a substitute for thought or program.
The dominating political factor of the period was the repeated invasions of Italy, in league with one or another of the Italian states, by the three major powers—France, Spain and the Hapsburg Empire—competing for conquest of the peninsula or part of it. While the Papacy engaged to the hilt in this struggle, it lacked the military resources to make its role decisive. The more it took part in the temporal conflicts with consistently pernicious result, the more impotent among the monarchs it revealed itself, and in fact became. At the same time it shrank from the obvious task of religious reform because it feared loss of authority and of opportunity for private gain. As Italians, the Renaissance popes shared in the process that made their country the victim of war, foreign oppression and lost independence; as Vicars of Christ, they made their office a mockery and the cradle of Luther.
Was there a feasible alternative? The religious alternative in the form of response to the persistent cry for reform was difficult to achieve, owing to the vested interest of the entire hierarchy in corruption, but it was feasible. Warning voices were loud and constant and complaints of papal derelictions explicit. Inept and corrupt regimes like those of the terminal Romanovs or the Kuomintang cannot generally be reformed short of total upheaval or dissolution. In the case of the Renaissance Papacy, reform initiated at the top by a head of the Church with concern for his office, and pursued with vigor and tenacity by like-minded successors, could have cleansed the most detestable practices, answered the cry for worthiness in the Church and its priests and attempted to fill the need of spiritual reassurance, possibly averting the ultimate secession.
In the political sphere, the alternative would have been a consistent institutional policy consistently pursued. If the popes had directed their energies to that end instead of dissipating their efforts in the petty paths of private greed, they could have maneuvered the hostilities of the secular powers in the interests of the Papal States. It was not beyond them. Three of the six—Sixtus IV, Alexander VI and Julius II—were able and strong-willed men. Yet none, with the qualified exception of Julius, was to exercise a trace of statesmanship or be lifted by the prestige of Saint Peter’s chair to an appropriate view of political responsibilities, much less spiritual mission.
The moral capacity and attitudes of the time might be said to have made the alternatives psychologically impossible. In that sense, any alternative not taken can be said to be beyond the grasp of the persons in question. That the Renaissance popes were shaped and directed by their society is undeniable, but the responsibility of power often requires resisting and redirecting a pervading condition. Instead, the popes succumbed, as we shall see, to the worst in society, and exhibited, in the face of mounting and visible social challenges, an unrelieved wooden-headedness.
Reform was the universal preoccupation of the age, expressed in literature, sermons, pamphlets, songs and political assemblies. The cry of those in every age alienated by the worldly footing of the Church and a yearning for a purer worship of God, it had become widespread and general since the 12th century. It was the cry Saint Francis had heard in a vision in the church of San Damiano, “My house is in ruins. Restore it!” It was dissatisfaction with materialism and unfit clergy, with pervasive corruption and money-grubbing at every level from the Papal Curia to the village parish—hence the cry for reform of “head and members.” Dispensations were forged for sale, donations for crusade swallowed up by the Curia, indulgences peddled in common commerce so that the people, complained the Chancellor of Oxford in 1450, no longer cared what evils they did because they could buy remission of the penalty for sin for sixpence or win it “as a stake in a game of tennis.”
Dissatisfaction was felt with absenteeism and plural holding of benefices, with the indifference of the hierarchy and its widening separation from the lower clergy, with the prelates’ furred gowns and suites of retainers, with coarse and ignorant village priests, with clerical lives given to concubines and carousing, no different from the average man’s. This was a source of deep resentment because in the common mind if not in doctrine priests were supposed to be holier as the appointed intermediaries between man and God. Where could man find forgiveness and salvation if these intermediaries failed in their office? People felt a sense of betrayal in the daily evidence of the gulf between what Christ’s agents were supposed to be and what they had become. Basically, in the words of a sub-prior of Durham, people were “starved for the word of God,” and could not obtain from unworthy ministers of God the “true faith and moral precepts in which the soul’s salvation consists.” Many priests “have never read the Old Testament, nor scarcely the Psalter-Book” and many came to the pulpit drunk. Rarely visiting their sees, prelates provided the minor clergy with no training or teaching or religious leadership so that they often did not know their own duties or how to conduct the rituals or give the sacraments. Although criticism of the clergy by lay preachers was forbidden, it was a subject that could be counted on to delight a congregation. “If the preacher just utters a word against priests or prelates, instantly the sleepers awake, the bored become cheerful … hunger and thirst are forgotten” and the most wicked see themselves as “righteous or holy compared to the clergy.”
By the 14th century, protest had taken form and found a voice in the dissident movements of Lollards and Hussites, and in communal lay groups like the Brethren of the Common Life, where genuine piety found a warmer home outside the official Church. Here, many of the doctrinal dissents that were later to mark the Protestant revolt were already being expressed: denial of transubstantiation, rejection of confession, of the indulgence traffic, of pilgrimages and of the veneration of saints and relics. Separation from Rome was not unthinkable. In the 14th century, the famous doctor of theology William Ockham could envisage the Church without a pope and in 1453, a Roman, Stefano Porcaro, led a conspiracy aimed at total overthrow of the Papacy (although it seems to have been more political than religious in origin). Printing and growing literacy nourished dissent especially through direct acquaintance with the Bible in the vernacular. Four hundred such editions appeared in the first sixty years of the printing press, and anyone who could read could find in the lore of the Gospels something missing from the hierarchy of his own day gowned in their purple and red.
The Church itself talked regularly of reform. At the Councils of Constance and Basle in the first half of the 15th century, renowned preachers harangued the delegates every Sunday on corrupt practices and loose morals, on simony in particular, on failure to generate the saving instrument of Christian revival, a crusade against the Turks, on all the sins that were causing the decay of Christian life. They called for action and positive measures. The Councils held endless discussions, debated countless proposals and issued a number of decrees dealing mainly with disputes between the hierarchy and Papacy over distribution of incomes and allocation of benefices. They did not reach down, however, to the places of basic need in such matters as bishops’ visitation of their sees, education of the minor clergy, reorganization of the monastic orders.
The higher clergy were not solidly indifferent; among them were abbots, bishops, even certain cardinals who were earnest reformers. The popes too made intermittent gestures of response. Programs of reform were drawn up by order of both Nicholas V and Pius II in the 1440s and 1460s preceding the six of this study, in the latter case by a dedicated reformer and preacher, the German Cardinal and legate Nicholas of Cusa. On presenting his plan to Pius II, Nicholas said that the reforms were necessary “to transform all Christians beginning with the Pope into the likeness of Christ.” His fellow reformer, Bishop Domenico de Domenichi, author of a Tractatus on reform for the same Pope, was equally unsparing. It was useless, he wrote, to uphold the sanctity of the Papacy to lawless princes because the evil lives of prelates and Curia caused laymen to call the Church “Babylon, the mother of all fornications and abominations of the earth!”
At the conclave to elect a successor to Pius II in 1464, Domenichi summarized the problem that should have earned the attention of Sixtus and his successors: “The dignity of the Church must be reasserted, her authority revived, morals reformed, the Curia regulated, the course of justice secured, the faith propagated,” papal territory regained and, as he saw it, “the faithful armed for Holy War.”
Little of this was to be accomplished by the six Renaissance popes. What frustrated reform was the absence of support, if not active dislike, for it by a hierarchy and Papacy whose personal fortunes were embedded in the existing system and who equated reform with Councils and the devolution of papal sovereignty. Throughout the century since the uprising of Hus, a religious revolution was in the making but the rulers of the Church failed to take notice. They regarded protest merely as dissent to be suppressed, not as a serious challenge to their validity.
Meanwhile a new faith, nationalism, and a new challenge in the rise of national churches were already undercutting Roman rule. Under the political pressure and deals made necessary by the Schism, the power of appointment, the essential source of papal power and revenue—which the Papacy had usurped from the local clergy, where it originally belonged—was gradually surrendered to the lay sovereigns or exercised at their dictation or in their interests. It had largely been lost already in France and England under forced arrangements with their rulers, and was to be further surrendered in this period to the Hapsburg Empire, Spain and other foreign potentates in the course of various political bargains.
To an unusual degree in the Renaissance good walked with evil in a wondrous development of the arts combined with political and moral degradation and vicious behavior. Discovery of classical antiquity with its focus on human capacity instead of on a ghostly Trinity was an exuberant experience that led to a passionate embrace of humanism, chiefly in Italy, where it was felt to be a return to ancient national glories. Its stress on earthly goods meant an abandonment of the Christian ideal of renunciation and its pride in the individual undermined submission to the word of God as conveyed by the Church. To the extent that they fell in love with pagan antiquity, Italians of the ruling class felt less reverence for Christianity, which, as Machiavelli wrote in The Discourses, makes the “supreme felicity to consist in humility, abnegation and contempt of things human,” whereas pagan religion found the chief good in “grandeur of the soul, strength of body and all the qualities that make men redoubtable.”
New economic enterprise, following the depression and miseries of the fading Middle Ages, accompanied humanism in the second half of the 15th century. Many explanations have been offered for this recovery: the invention of printing immensely extended the access to knowledge and ideas; advances in science enlarged understanding of the universe, and in applied science supplied new techniques; new methods of capitalist financing stimulated production; new techniques of navigation and shipbuilding enlarged trade and the geographical horizon; newly centralized power absorbed from the declining medieval communes was at the disposal of the monarchies and the growing nationalism of the past century gave it impetus; discovery of the New World and circumnavigation of the globe opened unlimited visions. Whether these were cause or coincidence or a turn of the tide in the mysterious ebb and flow of human affairs, they marked the beginnings of the period that historians call Early Modern.
Within these sixty years Copernicus worked out the true relationship of the earth to the sun, Portuguese vessels brought slaves, spices, gold dust and ivory from Africa, Cortés conquered Mexico, the Fuggers of Germany, investing profits from the wool trade in commerce, banking and real estate, created the wealthiest mercantile empire of Europe while the son of their founder, called Jacob the Rich, distilled the spirit of the time in his boast that he would continue to make money as long as there was breath in his body. His Italian counterpart, Agostino Chigi of Rome, employed 20,000 men in the branches of his business at Lyons, London, Antwerp and—undeterred from doing business with the infidel as long as it was lucrative—at Constantinople and Cairo. Having taken Constantinople in 1453 and advanced into the Balkans, the Turks were regarded much like the present Soviet Union as the overshadowing menace of Europe, but however fearful the alarms, the Christian nations were too immersed in conflict with one another to reunite in action against them.
In Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile joined their kingdoms in marriage, reintroduced the Inquisition and expelled the Jews; Francis I of France met Henry VIII on the Field of the Cloth of Gold; Albrecht Dürer flourished in Germany, Hieronymus Bosch and Hans Memling in Flanders. Erasmus, welcomed in courts and capitals for his skeptical wit, was the Voltaire of his time. Sir Thomas More, toward the end of the sixty years, published Utopia, while Machiavelli, his opposite spirit in Italy, took a darker view of humanity in The Prince. Above all in Italy art and literature were honored as the supreme human achievement and, in being honored, produced an extraordinary fecundity of talent from Leonardo to Michelangelo to Titian and a host of others second only to the greatest. Literature was ornamented by Machiavelli’s works, by Francesco Guicciardini’s great History of Italy, by the comedies and satires of Pietro Aretino, by Ariosto’s extravagantly admired epic poem Orlando Furioso on the struggle between Christians and Moslems, by Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.
Strangely, the efflorescence in culture reflected no comparable surge in human behavior but rather an astonishing debasement. Partly, this was owed to the absence in Italy of central authority in a monarch, which left the five major regions—Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papal States—plus the minor city-states like Mantua, Ferrara and the rest, in unrestrained and unending mutual conflict. Since the title to power of the ruling princes had originated in the degree of violence the founders had been ready to exercise, the measures they took to maintain or extend their sway were similarly uninhibited. Seizures, poison plots, treachery, murder and fratricide, imprisonment and torture were everyday methods employed without compunction.
To understand the popes we must look at the princes. When the subjects of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, ruler of Milan, murdered him in a church for his vices and oppressions, his brother, Ludovico il Moro, threw the heir, his nephew, into prison and seized the rule of Milan for himself. When the Pazzi family of Florence, antagonists of Lorenzo de’ Medici the Magnificent, could endure the frustrations of their hatred no longer, they plotted to murder him and his handsome brother Giuliano during High Mass in the cathedral. The signal was to be the bell marking the elevation of the Host, and at this most solemn moment of the service, the swords of the attackers flashed. Giuliano was killed but Lorenzo alertly saved himself by his long sword and survived to direct a revenge of utter annihilation upon the Pazzi and their partisans. Assassinations were frequently planned to take place in churches, where the victim was less likely to be surrounded by an armed guard.
Most unpleasant of all were the kings of the Aragon house who ruled Naples. Ferrante (Ferdinand I), unscrupulous, ferocious, cynical and vindictive, concentrated all his efforts until his death in 1494 on the destruction of his opponents and in this process initiated more harm to Italy through internecine war than any other prince. His son and successor, Alfonso II, a brutal profligate, was described by the contemporary French historian Comines as “the cruelest, worst, most vicious and base man ever seen.” Like others of his kind he openly avowed his contempt for religion. The condottieri on whom the princes’ power rested shared the sentiment. As mercenaries, who fought for money, not loyalty, they were “full of contempt for all sacred things … caring nothing whether or not they died under the ban of the Church.”
Rulers’ habits could not fail of emulation by their subjects. The case of a physician and surgeon of the hospital of St. John Lateran, all the more grisly for being reported in the unemotional monotone of John Burchard, master of ceremonies of the papal court, whose daily record is the indispensable source, reveals Renaissance life in Rome. He “left the hospital every day early in the morning in a short tunic and with a cross bow and shot everyone who crossed his path and pocketed his money.” He collaborated with the hospital’s confessor, who named to him the patients who confessed to having money, whereat the physician gave these patients “an effective remedy” and divided the proceeds with his clerical informer. Burchard adds that the physician was subsequently hanged with seventeen other evil-doers.
Arbitrary power, with its inducements to self-indulgence and unrestraint and its chronic suspicions of rivals, tended to form erratic despots and to produce habits of senseless violence as often in the satellite rulers as in the great. Pandolfo Petrucci, tyrant of Siena in the 1490s, enjoyed a pastime of rolling down blocks of stone from a height regardless of whom they might hit. The Baglioni of Perugia and Malatesta of Rimini recorded sanguinary histories of feud and fratricidal crime. Others like the d’Este of Ferrara, the oldest princely family, and the Montefeltri of Urbino, whose court Castiglione celebrated in The Courtier, were honorable and well-conducted, even beloved. Duke Federigo of Urbino was said to be the only prince who moved about unarmed and unescorted or dared to walk in an open park. It is sadly typical that Urbino was to become the object of naked military aggression by one of the six popes, Leo X, who wished to acquire the duchy for his own nephew.
Alongside the rascals and the scandals, decency and piety existed as ever. No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society. Many people of all classes in the Renaissance still worshipped God, trusted in the saints, wanted spiritual reassurance and led non-criminal lives. Indeed, it was because genuine religious and moral feeling was still present that dismay at the corruption of the clergy and especially of the Holy See was so acute and the yearning for reform so strong. If all Italians had lived by the amoral example of their leaders, the depravity of the popes would have been no cause for protest.
In the long struggle to end the chaos and dismay spread by the Schism and to restore the unity of the Church, laymen and churchmen resorted to the summoning of General Councils of the Church, supposed to have a supremacy over the Holy See, which that institution, whoever its occupant, violently resisted. Throughout the first half of the 15th century, the conciliar battle dominated Church affairs, and although Councils succeeded at last in establishing a single pontiff, they failed to bring any of the claimants to acknowledge conciliar supremacy. Successive popes gripped their prerogatives, dug in their heels and by virtue of divided opposition maintained their authority intact, though not unquestioned. Pius II, better known as the admired humanist and novelist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, had been a Council advocate in his early career, but in 1460 he delivered as Pope the fearsome Bull Exsecrabilis threatening to excommunicate anyone who appealed from the Papacy to a General Council. His successors continued to regard Councils as hardly less dangerous than the Turk.
Reestablished in Rome, the popes became creatures of the Renaissance, outshining the princes in patronage of the arts, believing like them that the glories of painting and sculpture, music and letters, ornamented their courts and reflected their munificence. If Leonardo da Vinci adorned the court of Ludovico Sforza at Milan and the poet Torquato Tasso the court of the d’Este at Ferrara, other artists and writers flocked to Rome, where the popes were lavish in patronage. Whatever their failings in office, they bequeathed to the world immortal legacies in the works they commissioned: the Sistine ceiling by Michelangelo, the Vatican stanze by Raphael, the frescoes for the Cathedral Library in Siena by Pinturicchio, the Sistine wall frescoes by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli. They repaired and beautified Rome, which, deserted during the Avignon exile, had dwindled to unkempt and underpopulated shabbiness. They uncovered its classical treasures, restored churches, paved the streets, assembled the incomparable Vatican Library and, as the crown of papal prestige—and, ironically, the trigger of the Protestant revolt—initiated the rebuilding of St. Peter’s with Bramante and Michelangelo as architects.
Through visible beauties and grandeur, they believed, the Papacy would be dignified and the Church exert its hold upon the people. Nicholas V, who has been called the first Renaissance Pope, made the belief explicit on his deathbed in 1455. Urging the Cardinals to continue the renovation of Rome, he said, “To create solid and stable conviction there must be something that appeals to the eye. A faith sustained only by doctrine will never be anything but feeble and vacillating.… If the authority of the Holy See were visibly displayed in majestic buildings … all the world would accept and revere it. Noble edifices combining taste and beauty with imposing proportions would immensely exalt the chair of St. Peter.” The Church had come a long way from Peter the fisherman.