Until the election in 1471 of Cardinal Francesco della Rovere, former General of the Franciscan Order, who took the name Sixtus IV, the popes of the early Renaissance, if without zeal for spiritual renewal, had maintained on the whole nominal respect for the dignity of their office. Sixtus introduced the period of unabashed, unconcealed, relentless pursuit of personal gain and power politics. He had attained prominence as a preacher and lecturer in theology at the universities of Bologna and Pavia, and as General of the Franciscans had acquired a reputation as an able and severe administrator. As a friar, he was supposedly chosen Pope in reaction to the worldliness of his predecessor, Paul II, a Venetian patrician and former merchant. In fact, he owed his election rather to the skillful maneuvering of the ambitious, unprincipled and very rich Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, soon to acquire the papal tiara for himself. Borgia’s support of Sixtus was in itself something of a character reference, and history has recognized the link by calling them, together with Innocent VIII, who came in between, the “three evil geniuses.”
The Franciscan’s gown concealed in Sixtus a hard, imperious, implacable character; a man of strong passions and a large, poor and exigent family. He proceeded to enrich its members and, using all the resources now at his command, to endow them with high office, papal territories and titled spouses. Upon taking office, he shocked public opinion by appointing as Cardinals two of his eleven nephews, Pietro and Girolamo Riario, both in their twenties, who rapidly became notorious for mad and spendthrift behavior. Before he had finished, Sixtus had conferred the red hat on three more nephews and a grandnephew, made another a Bishop, married four nephews and two nieces into the ruling families of Naples, Milan, Urbino, and to Orsinis and Farneses. Non-clerical relatives were placed in high positions of civil power as Prefect of Rome, Governor of Castel Sant’ Angelo and to governorships of several of the Papal States with access to their revenues. He raised nepotism to a new level.
He packed the College of Cardinals with his personal appointees, creating no fewer than 34 in his thirteen-year papacy, although the College had been fixed at 24, and leaving at his death only five not beholden to him for their appointment. He made an established practice of political selection for the purpose of favoring this or that prince or sovereign, often choosing lords or barons or younger sons of great families without regard to merit or clerical qualification. He gave the archiepiscopal see of Lisbon to a child of eight and the see of Milan to a boy of eleven, both sons of princes. He so thoroughly secularized the College that his successors followed his example as if it were the rule. In the twenty years under Innocent VIII and Alexander VI, no fewer than fifty sees were given to youths under the canonical age for consecration.
Led by the wild behavior of Pietro Riario, the favorite nephew, whom the new fortunes of his family seem almost to have unbalanced, and augmented by the horde of newly rich della Roveres, the habit of unbridled extravagance became a fixed feature of the papal court. Cardinal Riario’s excesses reached a peak in 1480 at a saturnalian banquet featuring a whole roasted bear holding a staff in its jaws, stags reconstructed in their skins, herons and peacocks in their feathers, and orgiastic behavior by the guests appropriate to the ancient Roman model. Reports of the affair were all the more shocking at a time of general dismay caused by the Turks having actually landed on the heel of Italy, where they seized Otranto, although they were not to hold it long. The advance of the Turks since the fall of Constantinople was generally considered to have been allowed by God in punishment for the sins of the Church.
Licentiousness in the hierarchy was promoted but not initiated by the della Roveres; it was already a problem in 1460 when Pius II, in a letter to Cardinal Borgia, reproved him for a party he had given in Siena where “none of the allurements of love was lacking,” and “in order that lust be unrestrained,” the husbands, fathers and brothers of the ladies present were not invited. Pius warned of the “disgrace” to the holy office. “This is the reason the princes and powers despise us and the laity mock us.… Contempt is the lot of Christ’s Vicar because he seems to tolerate these actions.” The situation under Sixtus was not new; the difference was that while Pius was concerned to arrest the deterioration, his successors neither tried nor cared.
Antagonism slowly gathered around Sixtus, especially in Germany, where anti-Romanism born of resentment of the clerical appetite for money was now aggravated by the financial exactions of the Papal Curia, the administrative arm of the Papacy. In 1479 the Assembly of Coblenz despatched to Rome a gravamina, or list of grievances. In Bohemia, home of the Hussite dissent, a satiric manifesto appeared equating Sixtus with Satan priding himself on “total repudiation of the doctrine of Jesus.” Accustomed to carping from one source or another for fifteen centuries, the Church had grown too thick a skin to bother about such straws blown in on the wind from the Empire.
To ensure efficient collection of revenues, Sixtus created an Apostolic Chamber of 100 lawyers to supervise the financial affairs of the Papal States and the law cases in which the Papacy had a financial interest. He devoted the income to multiplying the estates of his relatives and to embellishing the external glories of the Holy See. Posterity owes to him the restoration of the Vatican Library, whose holdings he increased threefold and to which he summoned scholars to register and catalogue them. He reopened the Academy of Rome, invited men of renown to its halls, encouraged dramatic performances, commissioned paintings. His name endures in the Sistine Chapel, built at his command for the renovation of old St. Peter’s. Churches, hospitals, fallen bridges and muddy streets benefited from his repairs.
If admirable in his cultural concerns, he exhibited the worst qualities of the Renaissance prince in his feuds and machinations, conducting wars on Venice and Ferrara and an inveterate campaign to reduce the Colonna family, the dominant nobles of Rome. The most scandalous of his dealings was involvement in and possible instigation of the Pazzi plot to murder the Medici brothers. Allied to the Pazzi by complex family interests, he approved of or even shared in the conspiracy, or so it was widely charged and believed owing to the extremity of his reaction when the plot failed by half. In a rage at the violence of the Medicis’ revenge upon the Pazzi, which had included the hanging of an Archbishop in violation of clerical immunity, he excommunicated Lorenzo de’ Medici and all of Florence. This use of spiritual sanction for temporal motives, though certainly not new in Church practice, earned Sixtus wide discredit because of the harm done to the Florentines and their commerce and because of the suspicions it aroused of the Pope’s personal involvement. Pious Louis XI, King of France, wrote worriedly, “Please God that Your Holiness is innocent of crimes so horrible!” The idea of the Holy Father plotting murder in a cathedral was not yet acceptable, though before long it would hardly seem abnormal.
The internal health of the Church did not interest Sixtus, and all calls for a Council, which were rising insistently, he roughly rejected on the precedent of Exsecrabilis. Denial did not end the demand. In 1481 the noise of reform sounded close at hand. Archbishop Zamometic, an envoy of the Emperor, arrived in Rome, where he voiced harsh criticisms of Sixtus and the Curia. Imprisoned by order of the Pope in Castel Sant’ Angelo, he was released by a friendly cardinal and, though knowing the risk, relentlessly returned to his theme. He published a manifesto calling on Christian princes to summon a continuation of the Council of Basle in order to prevent the ruination of the Church by Pope Sixtus, whom he accused of heresy, simony, shameful vices, wasting Church patrimony, instigating the Pazzi conspiracy and entering into secret alliance with the Sultan. Sixtus retaliated by placing the city of Basle under anathema, effectively closing it off to outsiders, and by once more throwing the defiant Archbishop into prison, where, apparently severely treated, he died, an alleged suicide, two years later.
Prison does not silence ideas whose time has come, a fact that generally escapes despots, who by nature are rulers of little wisdom. In the last year of his life, Sixtus turned aside a reasonable program submitted to him by the Estates General of Tours in France. Agitated by the eloquence of a passionate reformer, Jean de Rély, the assembly proposed reform concerning fiscal abuse, plural benefices and the hated practice of ad commendam, by which temporary appointments, often of laymen, could be made “on recommendation” without the appointee’s being required to fulfill their duties. One of those issues that arouse passion peculiar to their ages, ad commendam was a device that Sixtus could easily have prohibited, thereby earning himself immense credit with the reform movement. He was blind to the opportunity and ignored the program. A few months later he was dead. So rancorous had been his reign that Rome erupted in two weeks of riot and plunder led by soldiers of the Colonna faction he had attempted to smash. Unlamented, Sixtus IV had achieved nothing for the institution he had headed except discredit.