Amiable, indecisive, subject to stronger-minded associates, Sixtus’ successor was a contrast to him in every way except in equally damaging the pontificate, in this case by omission and weakness of character. Originally named Giovanni Battista Cibo, the son of a well-to-do Genoese family, he was not at first designated for an ecclesiastical career, but he entered it after a normally misspent youth during which he fathered and acknowledged an illegitimate son and daughter. No sudden conversion or dramatic circumstances propelled him into the Church, other than the accepted fact that to someone with the right connections the Church offered a substantial career. Cibo reached a bishopric at 37 and office in the Papal Curia under Sixtus, who, appreciating his malleable nature, made him one of his stable of Cardinals in 1473.
Elevation to the Papacy of this rather dim and mediocre person was the unplanned outcome, as often occurred when two fiercely ambitious candidates blocked each other’s chances. The two, each of whom was subsequently to realize his ambition, were Cardinal Borgia, the future Alexander VI, and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the most able of Sixtus’ nephews, the future Julius II. As domineering and contentious as his uncle, but more effective, Giuliano, known as the Cardinal of St. Peter in Vincoli, could not as yet gather the votes of a majority of the College. Nor could Borgia, despite bribes of up to 25,000 ducats and promises of lucrative promotion spread among his colleagues. As the Florentine envoy reported home, Cardinal Borgia had a reputation for being “so false and proud that there is no danger of his being elected.” In this impasse the rivals saw a danger of the election of Cardinal Marco Barbo of Venice, widely respected for his high character and strict principles, who would undoubtedly have limited the scope for a Borgia or a della Rovere and might even have contemplated reform. When Barbo came within five votes of election, Borgia and della Rovere joined forces behind the unassuming Cibo, indifferent to the affront to reformers of electing a pope with acknowledged children. Awarded their combined votes, their candidate was duly crowned as Innocent VIII.
As Pope, Innocent was distinguished chiefly by his extraordinary indulgence of his worthless son Franceschetto, the first time the son of a pope had been publicly recognized. In everything else he succumbed to the energy and will of Cardinal della Rovere. “Send a good letter to the Cardinal of St. Peter,” wrote the envoy of Florence to Lorenzo de’ Medici, “for he is Pope and more than Pope.” Della Rovere moved into the Vatican and within two months raised his own brother Giovanni from Prefect of Rome to Captain-General of the Church. Innocent’s other promoter, Cardinal Borgia, remained as Vice-Chancellor in control of the Curia.
Riches for Franceschetto, who was both greedy and dissolute, given to roaming the streets at night with bad companions for lewd purposes, absorbed Innocent’s primary attention. In 1486, he succeeded in arranging his son’s marriage to a daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici and celebrated it in the Vatican with a wedding party so elaborate that he was obliged, owing to chronic shortage of funds, to mortgage the papal tiara and treasures to pay for it. Two years later he staged an equal extravaganza, also in the Vatican, for the wedding of his granddaughter to a Genoese merchant.
While the Pope indulged himself, his more business-minded Vice-Chancellor created numerous new offices for apostolic officials for which the aspirants were required to pay—evidence that they looked forward to remunerative returns. Even the office of Vatican Librarian, hitherto reserved for merit, was put up for sale. A bureau was established for the sale of favors and pardons at inflated prices, of which 150 ducats of each transaction went to the Pope and what was left over to his son. When pardons instead of death penalties for manslaughter, murder and other major crimes were questioned, Cardinal Borgia defended the practice on the ground that “the Lord desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he live and pay.”
Under this regime and the influence of its predecessor, the moral standards of the Curia melted down like candle wax, reaching a stage of venality that could not be ignored. In 1488, halfway through Innocent’s tenure, several high officials of the papal court were arrested, and two of them executed, for forging for sale fifty papal bulls of dispensation in two years. The extreme penalty, intended to display the moral indignation of the Pope, served to underline the conditions of his administration.
Swamped beneath the influx of Sixtus’ cardinals, who included members of Italy’s most powerful families, the Sacred College was a stage of pomp and pleasure. While a few of its members were worthy men sincere in their calling, the majority were worldly and covetous nobles, ostentatious in their splendor, players in the unending game of exerting influence in their own or their sovereigns’ behalf. Among the relatives of princes were Cardinal Giovanni d’Aragona, son of the King of Naples, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, brother of Ludovico, regent of Milan, Cardinals Battista Orsini and Giovanni di Colonna, members of the two rival and forever-feuding ruling families of Rome.
Cardinals at that time did not have to be priests—that is, qualified by ordination to administer the sacraments, and celebrate communion and the spiritual rites—though some of them might be. Those appointed from the episcopate, the highest level of the priesthood, continued to hold their sees, but the majority belonged to the officialdom of the Church without priestly function. Drawn from the upper ranks of the hierarchy, who were increasingly involved in administration, diplomacy and the financial business of the Church, they came from the Italian ruling families or, if foreigners, were usually more courtier than cleric. As secularization advanced, appointments went more frequently to laymen, sons and brothers of princes or designated agents of monarchs with no ecclesiastical careers behind them. One, Antoine Duprat, lay chancellor of Francis I, made a Cardinal by the last of the Renaissance six, Clement VII, entered his cathedral for the first time at his funeral.
As the popes of this period, using the red hat as political currency, enlarged the number of cardinals both to increase their own influence and to dilute that of the College, the cardinals collected plural offices—each involving another case of absenteeism—to augment their incomes, accumulating abbeys, bishoprics and other benefices, although by canon law only a cleric had the right to revenues and pensions derived from the goods of the Church. Canon law, however, was elastic like any other, and “by way of exception” allowed the Pope to grant benefices and pensions to laymen.
Regarding themselves as princes of the realm of the Church, the cardinals considered it their prerogative, not to mention their duty, to match in dignity and splendor the princes of the lay realm. Those who could afford to lived in palaces with several hundred servants, rode abroad in martial attire complete with sword, kept hounds and falcons for hunting, competed when they paraded through the streets in the number and magnificence of their mounted retainers, whose employment provided each prince of the Church with a faction among Rome’s persistently riotous citizens. They sponsored masques and musicians and spectacular floats during Carnival; they gave banquets in the style of Pietro Riario’s, including one by the opulent Cardinal Sforza which a chronicler said he could not venture to describe “lest he be mocked as a teller of fairy tales.” They gambled at dice and cards—and cheated, according to a complaint by Franceschetto to his father after he had lost 14,000 ducats in one night to Cardinal Raffaele Riario. There may have been some substance to the charge, for on another night the same Riario, one of Sixtus’ many nephews, won 8000 ducats gaming with a fellow Cardinal.
To arrest the thinning of their influence, the cardinals insisted as a condition of Innocent’s election on a clause restoring their number to 24. As vacancies appeared, they refused consent to new appointments, limiting Innocent’s scope for nepotism. The pressure of foreign monarchs for places, however, forced some openings, and among Innocent’s first selections was his brother’s natural son, Lorenzo Cibo. Illegitimacy was a canonical bar to ecclesiastical office which Sixtus had already overlooked on behalf of Cardinal Borgia’s son Cesare, whom he started on the ecclesiastical ladder at age seven. Legitimizing a son or nephew became routine for the six Renaissance popes—yet another principle of the Church discarded.
Of the few he was allowed, Innocent’s most notable appointment to the Sacred College was Franceschetto’s new brother-in-law, Giovanni de’ Medici, age fourteen, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In this case it was not Innocent’s desire but the great Medici’s pressure that made a Cardinal of the boy for whom his father had been procuring rich benefices since he was a child. Tonsured, that is, dedicated to the clerical life, at age seven, Giovanni had been made Abbot at eight with the nominal rule of an abbey conferred by the King of France, and at eleven, named ad commendam to the great Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, since which time his father had pulled every wire at his command to secure a cardinalship as a step toward the Papacy itself. The young Medici was to fulfill his planned destiny as the fifth of the six popes of this story, Leo X.
After complying with Lorenzo’s wish, Innocent, firm for once, insisted that the boy must wait three years before taking his place, devoting the time to the study of theology and canon law. The candidate was already more learned than most, Lorenzo having seen to a good education by distinguished tutors and scholars. When at last in 1492, Giovanni at sixteen took his place as Cardinal, his father wrote him a serious and significant letter. Warning of the evil influences of Rome, “that sink of all iniquity,” Lorenzo urged his son “to act so as to convince all who see you that the well-being and honor of the Church and the Holy See are more to you than anything else in the world.” After this unique advice, Lorenzo does not neglect to point out that his son will have opportunities “to be of service to our city and our family,” but he must beware the seductions to evil-doing of the College of Cardinals, which “is at this moment so poor in men of worth.… If the Cardinals were such as they ought to be, the whole world would be better for it, for they would always elect a good Pope and thus secure the peace of Christendom.”
Here, expressed by the outstanding secular ruler of the Italian Renaissance, was the crux of the problem. If the cardinals had been worthy men they would have elected worthier popes, but both were parts of the same body. The popes were the cardinals in these sixty years, elected out of the Sacred College and in turn appointing cardinals of their own kind. Folly, in the form of absorption in shortsighted power struggles and perverse neglect of the Church’s real needs, became endemic, passed on like a torch from each of the Renaissance six to the next.
If Innocent was ineffectual, it was partly owing to the perpetual discord of the Italian states and of the foreign powers as well. Naples, Florence and Milan were generally at war in one combination or another against each other or some smaller neighbor; Genoa “would not hesitate to set the world on fire,” as the Pope, himself a Genoese, complained; the landward expansion of Venice was feared by all; Rome was a chronic battleground of the Orsini and Colonna; lesser states often erupted in the hereditary internal conflicts of their leading families. Though on taking office, Innocent earnestly wished to establish peace among the adversaries, he lacked the resolution to bring it about. Energy often failed him owing to recurrent illness.
The worst of his troubles was a campaign of brutal harassment periodically deepening into warfare by the unpleasant King of Naples, whose motive seems no more precise than simple malignity. He began with an insolent demand for certain territories, refused payment of Naples’ customary tribute as a papal fief, conspired with the Orsini to foment trouble in Rome and threatened appeal to that awful weapon, a Council. When the barons of Naples rose in rebellion against his tyranny, the Pope took their side, upon which Ferrante’s army marched on Rome and besieged it, while Innocent sought frantically for allies and armed forces. Venice held aloof but allowed the Pope to hire its mercenaries. Milan and Florence refused aid, and for convoluted reasons—perhaps a desire to see the Papal States weakened—opted for Naples. This was before Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine ruler, made family connections with Innocent, but these were not always decisive. In Italy, partners one day were antagonists the next.
The Pope’s appeal for foreign aid against Ferrante aroused interest in France based on the worn-out Angevin claim to Naples, which, despite the disasters of previous pursuit, the French Crown could never bring itself to relinquish. The shadow of France frightened Ferrante, who suddenly, just when his siege of Rome had brought the city to desperation, agreed to a treaty of peace. His concessions to the Pope, which seemed amazing, were better understood when he later violated all of them, repudiated the treaty and returned to aggression.
He addressed the Pope with scorn and open insults while his agents stirred rebellion in the various Papal States. Endeavoring to cope with uprisings and conflicts in many places at once, Innocent vacillated and procrastinated. He drew up a Bull to excommunicate the King and Kingdom of Naples, but shrank from issuing it. The envoy of Ferrara reported comments in 1487 on “the pusillanimity, helplessness and incapacity of the Pope,” which if not dispelled by some infusion of courage, he said, would have serious consequences. These were averted when Ferrante in another total about-face called off the war and offered an amicable settlement, which the Pope, despite all his humiliations, was only too glad to accept. To seal the brittle friendship, Ferrante’s grandson was married to Innocent’s niece.
Such were the combats of Italy, but though essentially frivolous and even meaningless, they were destructive, and the Papacy did not escape their consequences. The most serious was a lowering of status. Throughout the conflict with Naples the Papal States were treated like a poor relation and the Pope personally with diminished respect, reflecting Ferrante’s insolence. Pamphlets distributed by the Orsini in Rome called for the Pope’s overthrow, calling him a “Genoese sailor” who deserved to be thrown into the Tiber. Encroachments by the foreign powers on papal prerogatives increased, with the national churches filling benefices with their own appointees, withholding revenues, disputing obedience to papal decrees. Innocent was lax in resistance.
He built the famous villa and sculpture gallery on Vatican hill, named the Belvedere for its superb view over the Eternal City, and commissioned frescoes by Pinturicchio and Andrea Mantegna, which have since disappeared, as if to reflect their sponsor’s place in history. Innocent lacked the time, funds and perhaps interest for much else in the patronage of arts, or for the pressing problem of reform. His concern in that sphere was concentrated on the least of its needs, crusade.
Public opinion, it is true, believed in crusade as the great restorative. Preachers to the Vatican who came by invitation about twice a month to address the court as Sacred Orators invariably included crusade in their exhortations. It was the Holy Father’s duty and an essential part of his office, they reminded the incumbent, to bring peace among Christians; Pax-et-Concordia was the purpose of pontifical government. An end to strife among the Christian nations was the most frequent plea of the Orators, invariably coupled with a call to turn the arms of the Christian kings against the infidel. Only when dissuaded from their wars could the secular rulers unite against the common enemy, the Turk, the “beast of the Apocalypse,” in Nicholas of Cusa’s words, “the enemy of all nature and humanity.” Offensive war against the Turks, it was argued, was the best defense of Italy. Constantinople and the Holy Places and other lost Christian territory could be regained. Religious unity of mankind under Christianity was the ultimate goal, and this too required the defeat of the Sultan. The whole enterprise would lift the Church from sin and initiate—or alternatively crown—reform.
Innocent made strenuous efforts to engage the powers in crusade, as had Pius II even more devotedly when the impact of the fall of Constantinople was still fresh. Yet the same deficiency which defeated Pius and others before him, disunity among the European powers equal to that among the princes of Italy, remained. “What mortal power,” Pius had written, “could bring into harmony England and France, Genoese and Aragonese, Hungarians and Bohemians?” Neither Pope nor Emperor could any longer exert supremacy. Who then could persuade discordant and even hostile powers to join in a common venture? Without overall command and a single discipline, any army large enough to be effective would dissolve in its own chaos. Beyond these difficulties, a more fundamental impulse was missing: not defense but offense and an aggressive faith had inspired the first crusades. Since then, Holy War had lost credibility when trade with the infidel was profitable and Italian states negotiated regularly for the Sultan’s aid against each other.
Nevertheless, Innocent, on the basis of what he took to be consent by the Emperor, announced crusade in a Bull of 1486, decreeing at the same time a tithe on all churches, benefices and ecclesiastical persons of all ranks, which may have been the real purpose. In the following year he succeeded in convening an international congress in Rome which went through the motions of planning objectives, discussing strategy, designating routes of march, commanders and size of national contingents. In the end, no forces ever assembled much less departed from the shores of Europe. The failure has been ascribed to the outbreak of civil conflict in Hungary and a renewal of dispute between France and the Empire, but these are pretexts for the absent impulse. No Holy War was to glorify Innocent’s pontificate. Instead, by a reverse twist, the Papacy came to an unnatural accommodation with the enemy of Christianity in the remarkable case of Prince Djem.
A brother of the Sultan and a defeated but still dangerous contender for the Ottoman throne, Djem had escaped fraternal revenge and taken refuge across the gulf of creed with the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. Though originally founded for fighting the infidel, the Knights were sufficiently broadminded to recognize in Djem a valuable prize and to reach an agreement with the Sultan to keep him out of belligerent action in return for an annual subsidy of 45,000 ducats. The Grand Turk, as Djem became known, at once became a lever coveted by all. Venice and Hungary, France and Naples, and of course the Papacy vied for him. After a temporary sojourn in France, Djem was won by the Pope together with his suhsidy at the price of two cardinalships, one for the Grand Master of Rhodes and one for a candidate of the French King.
Innocent’s intention was to use Djem as a means of war on the Sultan, on a vague understanding that if assisted to his throne by the Christians, Djem would withdraw Turkish forces from Europe including Constantinople. Even if this had been believable, it is not clear how replacing one Moslem with another constituted Holy War.
The Grand Turk’s arrival in Rome in 1489 was met with royal honors, sumptuous gifts, the Pope’s white palfrey for his mount and escort by Franceschetto to the Vatican. An excited if puzzled populace packed the streets along his path, gazing in wonder in their belief that they were witnessing the fulfillment of a familiar prophecy that the Sultan would come to Rome to live with the Pope, heralding the descent of universal peace. Pope and cardinals received in audience the tall white-turbaned guest of gloomy countenance occasionally relieved by a savage glance from half-closed eyes. He was housed with his suite in the Vatican, apartments reserved for royal guests and “provided with pastimes of all sorts such as hunting, music, banquets and other amusements.” Thus the Grand Turk, brother of the “beast of the Apocalypse,” took up his abode in the house of the Pope, the heart of Christendom.
Diplomatie maneuvers continued to swirl around him. The Sultan, fearing a Christian offensive with Djem as its spearhead, opened overtures to the Pope, sent envoys and the gift of a precious Christian relic, the Holy Spear, supposed to have pierced the side of Christ on the cross, which was received with immense ceremony in Rome. His brother’s presence in papal custody at least served to restrain the Sultan, while Djem lived, from further attack on Christian territory. To that extent Innocent achieved something, but lost more. The general public was bewildered by the relationship, and papal status was compromised in the public mind by the strange comity extended to the Grand Turk.
Innocent’s bouts of illness grew more frequent until the end was apparent in 1492. Summoning the cardinals to his deathbed, he asked forgiveness for his inadequacy and exhorted them to choose a better successor. His dying wish suffered the same futility as his life. The man the cardinals elected to Saint Peter’s chair proved as close to the prince of darkness as human beings are likely to come.