The Election

San Pietro ad Vincula arrived back in Rome on 3 September 1503, after nearly ten years of self-imposed exile. He was honoured, reported the Venetian ambassador, as though he were the future pope.184 With him were 100 mounted crossbowmen supplied by the Bolognese, to protect him from ambush by Cesare Borgia’s men on his way to Rome. Initially, at least, he wanted to keep them with him, but they were not really needed, because Cesare Borgia had left Rome with all his troops the day before Vincula returned.

Cesare still had many men under his command, but his position was not a strong one. He later said that he had planned for every eventuality on the death of his father, except for the possibility that he himself would be gravely ill. Alexander and Cesare had both fallen ill on the same day: rumours circulating outside Rome had it that they had been poisoned by wine prepared by Cesare to kill the rich Cardinal Castellesi, which had been served to them by mistake. As they did not fall ill until a week after the party at which the poisoning was supposed to have taken place, a more likely explanation is that they both succumbed to a malarial fever that had already claimed the life of Cardinal Borgia-Lanzol on 5 August. Alexander died after about a week, on 18 August, while his much younger and stronger son was bedridden for several weeks.

Cesare had sufficiently recovered by the time his father died to give orders to his men, but his physical weakness helped embolden the cardinals to refuse to consider entering a conclave before all soldiers had withdrawn to a safe distance from the city. They did not want to choose a pope under pressure from Cesare, nor under pressure from the French and Spanish armies converging on the city. The French forces were making their way south in a rather leisurely way to confront the Spanish troops who now held most of the kingdom of Naples,185 while the Spanish commander, Gonzalo de Córdoba, was hurrying north to meet them. The Orsini were in arms, ready to take revenge on any Spaniard for the death of Paolo and Francesco Orsini at the hands of Cesare Borgia’s executioners in January 1503, and the Colonna were on guard against the Orsini.

With French and Spanish armies nearing Rome, a strong contingent of Spanish cardinals in the College and Louis XII’s chief minister, Cardinal d’Amboise - known as Cardinal Rouen - hurrying to Rome to take part in the conclave, there were real fears about how freely the cardinals would be able to make their choice of a new pope. Hence their refusal to consider entering the conclave before Rome was free of troops; hence too, perhaps, their decision to give time for those cardinals who were away from Rome to return for the election. At least three of them - Vincula, Ascanio and Rouen - came with the intention not only of participating in the conclave, but of trying to be elected themselves.

Vincula made no secret of his ambitions. The Ferrarese ambassador, Beltrando Costabili, heard that he had said he would do all he could to be pope this time, and that Rouen had no chance - as he would tell him when he arrived. If Rouen asked for his vote, he would give it to him only if he could show a list of enough cardinals who had promised him their votes to make him pope if Vincula added his own. Otherwise, he would say that he wanted to be pope himself.186 Vincula told the Venetian ambassador Giustinian that he felt that the King of France should not back another candidate for the papacy, because of the promises that Louis had made to him for some time.

‘I am here to look after my own interests, and not those of others, and I’m not going to give my vote to Cardinal Rouen, unless I see he has so many other votes that he could be elected without mine, which I don’t believe he’ll get.’ And he said he wanted to be a good Italian, and if he couldn’t be pope, would try to have a pope elected who would be good for the Christian religion and for the peace and tranquillity of Italy.

He also promised to bear in mind the interests of Venice, to which he declared himself to be very attached.187 A few days later, he discussed with Costabili the previous conclaves in which he had participated. When Sixtus had died, he said, he had wanted Cardinal Barbo to be pope, but the others hadn’t agreed. Innocent, ‘if he had not been good, wasn’t all that bad, but whatever he had been like, the one who had just died would have made him appear a saint.’ When Innocent had died, Vincula had wanted da Costa, who was ‘a good man’, to be elected. In any case, there was no fear that any more ‘barbari’ (non-Italians) would be chosen.188

Indeed, the Spanish cardinals had quickly recognized that there was no prospect of one of them being elected, and Rouen, soon after he had arrived, had to come to terms with the fact that there was little enthusiasm for electing him either: some feared, it was said, that he would transfer the seat of the papacy to France. He complained to Giustinian that many cardinals had sworn not to elect a Frenchman or a friend of the French king, having taken oaths and signed undertakings to this effect. Contracts for votes were being made, he said, which was a disgrace to the faith.189 According to the papal master of ceremonies, Johannes Burckhardt, Vincula was a leading conspirator.190 Assessments of the front runners varied, but the three most consistently mentioned were Vincula, Caraffa and another of the most senior and respected figures in the College, Piccolomini.

The cardinals, thirty-seven of them in all, entered the conclave on 16 September; Vincula was allotted cell number thirteen. As usual, reports of the powerplay in the conclave varied. At one stage, according to Giustinian, Vincula had gathered twenty-two votes; according to both Modenese sources and Giustinian, he was scotched by Ascanio, who had pressed his own candidacy, but to small effect. This seems to have taken place before the first formal vote. After revising and subscribing the electoral capitulations, the cardinals finally held the first scrutiny on 21 September. Vincula got most votes, fifteen, Caraffa fourteen and Rouen thirteen; Vincula gave both of them his vote, and received Caraffa’s in return, but not that of Rouen. 

The reports agree that after that, Rouen, recognizing that he had no hope of being elected himself, rallied support for Piccolomini, who had received only four votes in the scrutiny. Costabili reported that Vincula had tried to put forward da Costa to obstruct Piccolomini, but that the ambassadors who had the duty of guarding the conclave had warned the day before that the French army was anxious to pass Rome on its way to Naples, and that it would be unwise to delay the election much longer. Since Piccolomini, a quiet and scholarly character, was agreeable to everyone, Vincula’s bid to have his old friend elected failed.191

It was fortunate for him that it did, for Piccolomini died within a month of his election, while da Costa, aged eighty-four and considerably older than Piccolomini, lasted for some years yet. Piccolomini, who took the title Pius III in memory of his uncle Pius II, was aged sixty-eight, and was sick and frail, tortured by gout. On 30 September, Vincula ordained him priest, and on the following day, he consecrated him bishop. A more demanding ceremony, his coronation as pope, took place on 8 October. Within a week, Pius had been taken ill. He died on 18 October. It is likely that the cardinals had, in electing him, taken into account his age and state of health; the fact that he was unlikely to last long was one of the qualifications that had made him an acceptable compromise candidate. Nevertheless, they must have hoped that he would last rather longer than he did. Now they had their work to do all over again.

Much work may have been going on behind the scenes already, because the coming papal election would be accomplished at record speed. In defiance of the old saying that he who entered the conclave ‘as pope’ (that is, as clear favourite) would come out of it still a cardinal, Giuliano della Rovere was confident - justifiably, as it turned out - that his time had finally come, twenty-four hours before the conclave was opened.

From the day of Pius’s death he was clearly a front runner, and by the time that the funeral ceremonies were over and the conclave was due to open, he was the only one in the field. How had he managed to do this, within two months of returning to Rome after ten years in exile?

Bribery, the cynics said. He had promised so much to so many that he would have trouble in making all the promises good, Rouen commented after the election.192 This was not the carping of a disappointed rival, for Rouen, having recognized that he had no chance himself, had backed Vincula, and was in part responsible for his triumph. Venice had also backed him, and the Signoria had asked the Venetian cardinals to give him their votes. There were only two of them, not enough to have a crucial impact on the outcome. It was the Spanish cardinals who really held the key to success. It was their votes Vincula had needed; none of them had voted for him in the previous conclave. This had meant that he had had to come to terms with Cesare Borgia, who could command the votes of several of them who owed their promotion to his father.

Vincula’s bargain with Cesare and the Spanish cardinals was struck on 29 October, at a meeting in the papal palace.193 Rouen may have been present as well.194 While the fact that the meeting had taken place became known by the morning after, few details of what passed there emerged. Burckhardt heard that Vincula had promised that if he became pope, he would make Cesare captain of the papal forces and help him to maintain himself in his Romagnol dominions. In return, the Spanish cardinals promised to give him their vote.195

After this agreement became known, Vincula was a clear favourite in the betting in the banking quarter. That he should be outpacing all rivals so clearly did not please all his supporters, who feared that there would be a reaction. Vincula himself was wearied by the incessant bargaining, complaining to Giustinian: ‘See the problems which the mess Pope Alexander left behind him is leading to, with so many cardinals. Necessity forces men to do what they don’t want to do, so long as they’re in the hands of others; but once they’re free, they can behave differently.’196

Observers in Rome thought it an extraordinary conclave. No one could remember a cardinal entering a conclave with everyone, including himself, so confident that he would be elected. According to Machiavelli, who was in Rome at the time, Ascanio made a last ditch attempt to put up Cardinal Pallavicino as a competitor,197 but no one else reported any disagreements. Since the cardinals had already made up their minds whom they wanted to be pope, they agreed to cut the preliminary proceedings short, hear the Mass of the Holy Spirit, and get on with the election. They had already, on the evening of 30 October, as was customary, gone in a body to Vincula’s cell to tell him that they intended to elect him. When the scrutiny was held the next day, he was duly elected unanimously (he himself voted for Caraffa, da Costa and Rouen). After the results of the scrutiny were read out, the cardinals crowded round the new pope to congratulate him. He announced the title he would take: Julius II. He was seated in the papal chair and given the papal ring, the ‘fisherman’s ring’, of Pius III, but so confident had he been, that he had come prepared with his own ‘fisherman’s ring’ and took that instead. Seated on the altar, Julius received the reverences of the cardinals and others, and was then carried in the papal chair to St Peter’s for the singing of the Te Deum. It had been, and still is, the quickest conclave on record.

Bribery alone could not explain the speed and unanimity of this election, though it figures large in the explanation that Francesco Guicciardini, that most astute of political commentators of early Cinquecento Italy, suggested.

Great, certainly, was the universal amazement that the papacy should have been given up, without a dissenting voice, to a cardinal who was notorious for his very difficult nature, which everyone found formidable, and who, always unquiet, and having spent his life in continual turmoil, of necessity had offended many and aroused hatreds and enmities with many important men. But on the other hand, the reasons were clear why, having overcome all difficulties, he was raised to such an elevated position. Because, having been for a long time a very powerful cardinal, and owing to the magnificence in which he had always outshone all others, and to his rare spirit, he not only had many friends but also deep-rooted authority in the court, and he had gained the reputation of being a leading defender of ecclesiastical dignity and liberty. But much more influential in his promotion had been the excessive and infinite promises he made to cardinals, to princes, to barons and to anyone who could be useful to him in this business, of whatever they cared to ask. And besides, he had the means to distribute money and many benefices and ecclesiastical dignities, both of his own and those of others, because with the reports of his liberality many, of their own accord, vied to offer to put at his disposal their money, their name, their offices and their benefices; nor did anyone consider that his promises were much greater than, as pope, he could or should observe, because he had for a long time had such a name as a generous and truthful man that Alexander VI, bitterly critical of him in other ways, admitted he was a man of his word. This good repute he did not mind besmirching in order to obtain the papacy, knowing that no one can more easily deceive others than one who is accustomed to, and has a reputation for, not using deceit.198

Of course, Julius had made promises, lavish promises, promises that, as Rouen had predicted, he would find difficult to reconcile, difficult to keep. Most problematic of all would be the promises that he had made to Cesare Borgia. But since he had returned to Rome, he had had the opportunity to remind his colleagues of the force of his personality, of his vigour and determination. He had been a cardinal and an important political figure for over thirty years; he knew the world and its ways, and yet had preserved a reputation as one who defended the interests of the Church and would not willingly see her rights diminished. His years with the French had not deprived him of the reputation of being an independent man, and though he was expected to be a friend of France, which was the leading power in Italy, no one could fear that he would be a French puppet. It was still a gamble for the cardinals, for he was known to be quick-tempered, unpredictable, stubborn. But whatever else he might be, he would not be weak, and the papacy stood in need of a strong hand at that hour.

The political map of Italy had been irrevocably changed in the previous decade. As a cardinal, Giuliano della Rovere had helped to bring this about, encouraging the French to come into Italy and to press their claims to Italian territory. The incursions of the French had brought the Spanish into the peninsula, at first to help restore the Aragonese dynasty dislodged by the French from the kingdom of Naples, but then to take its place. At the time of Julius’s election, the French and Spanish armies were facing one another across the River Garigliano, near the northern borders of the kingdom - the real contest being who could keep their morale in the incessant rain and muddy bivouacs. To the north of the Papal States, the French were the masters of Milan, and the pole of power to which the smaller Italian states turned for protection. Among the states that found it hard to escape the force-field of French domination was Florence, now reduced to a second-rank power in Italy, weakened by the weary struggle to recover Pisa, which had been lost to her since Charles VIII’s invasion in 1494. 

Of the five powers that had formerly dominated Italy - Milan, Naples, Venice, Florence and the pope - only Venice and the pope still preserved their full independence of action and the ability to influence the course of events. It was France and, increasingly, Spain, that were the major players of Italian politics. Maximilian, King of the Romans (he could not properly be called Emperor because he had not been crowned by the pope), was ready to assert the Holy Roman Empire’s rights in Italy as well. His congenital poverty and fecklessness and indecision made it difficult for him to make his pretensions good, but, nevertheless, he had more weight in Italian affairs than any Emperor had had for a century.

The new balance of power in Italy had yet to be decided, and would not be for another thirty years. The task that faced Julius was to maintain the power and authority, temporal and spiritual, of the papacy in this uncertain new world. What remained of the spiritual authority of the papacy had been compromised by the scandals and cynicism of the Borgia pope and his family, and the restoration of the dignity and authority of the Church was one of the tasks that Julius was to set himself. But for him the dignity and authority of the Church were inextricably associated with the temporal power of the papacy, and throughout his pontificate, he saw his primary task in the defence of papal territory and the consolidation of papal control over the temporal government of that territory.

The major weak spot in the temporal authority of the papacy was still the tradition of semi-independence of many of the major towns and leading families of the northern Papal States. Cesare Borgia’s campaigns to eliminate the signorial dynasties of the Romagna and the Marche had cut a terrible swathe through their ranks, but were too recent for his new duchy of the Romagna, conferred on him by his father, to have snuffed out old political loyalties and habits. Within weeks of Alexander VI’s death, his son’s authority was crumbling away in his new duchy, and surviving members of the old families were coming back to try to revitalize their rule. Some found this easier than others. While Guidobaldo da Montefeltro recovered his duchy of Urbino with no trouble at all, the Malatesta of Rimini and the Manfredi of Faenza, who had already been in decline, had little prospect of reconstructing viable regimes. They needed protectors to help them to survive, but effective protectors were rather harder to find than they had been. Now there were no resident dukes of Milan or kings of Naples to provide troops and pensions. While the new master of Milan, Louis of France, was willing to accept major families such as the Este of Ferrara, or major cities such as Bologna, under his tutelage, he was not interested in propping up petty dynasties of signori in small Romagnol towns. Florence still wanted to exert influence in the region, but was hamstrung by the financial and military burden of the war with Pisa. Venice, the remaining traditional prop of the lords of the Romagna and the Marche, was very ready to lend an ear to appeals for help, even if the answer to those appeals was not what the remnants of once powerful families such as the Malatesta, the Manfredi or the Ordelaffi wanted to hear. The Venetians saw little advantage in trying to support these broken reeds when presented with what seemed a golden opportunity to take the Romagnol towns directly under Venetian rule.

So, ironically, for much of Julius’s pontificate, the greatest threat to the papacy that he perceived came, not from the ultramontane powers, but from the only other remaining independent Italian power of any substance, Venice. Hostility to Venice, and the obsessive urge to recover the territory that she had taken from the Church, would be the fulcrum of his policy for the first six years of his reign. 


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