The Renaissance Papacy

For the papacy as an institution, the Renaissance was not a golden age. As patrons of the visual arts, the Renaissance popes, their cardinals and courtiers left behind them works of such beauty that the modern visitor to Rome is inclined to think of them with indulgence. Visitors to Rome during the period from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century that is known as the Roman Renaissance generally looked upon the popes of the day and their court with a less benevolent eye, particularly if they had come to transact business with the papal bureaucracy, the curia. 

Even for those with the right connections at court, dealing with the officials of the curia could be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating business - secular governments usually retained ‘procurators’, experts in the ways of the papal administration, to steer their business through the obstacle course. Few looked to the papacy for spiritual leadership. There were reform movements in the Church of the fifteenth century, but secular governments played a greater role in sponsoring them than did the papacy. It was only in the later sixteenth century that the popes began to rise effectively to the challenge of Protestantism. 

Most of the energies of the Renaissance popes were absorbed by the politics of Italy, by diplomacy and warfare, by the desire to maintain and extend their temporal rule over the provinces of central Italy, stretching from the borders of the kingdom of Naples to the borders of Tuscany and Lombardy, and known as the Papal States. In this, as well as in his role as an outstanding patron of the visual arts, Julius II was the epitome of a Renaissance pope.

For all the failings of the Renaissance popes, the second half of the fifteenth century in fact was a period of revival in the fortunes of the papacy. During the fourteenth century the popes had been based at Avignon in southern France, largely because the disorder in their Italian dominions was so bad that they could not feel safe in Rome. When, after seventy years of ‘exile’, the seat of the papacy was moved back to Rome, a worse crisis soon followed, a schism in the Church that lasted for about forty years. 

It had begun in 1378 when a group of cardinals had seceded from the pope whom they had just helped to elect, Urban VI, because he had proved to be violent and overbearing, and had elected another, Clement VII. The powers of Europe divided their allegiance between the rival popes largely along the lines of the political divide between England and France, with the French and their allies backing Clement, who based himself at Avignon, and the English and their allies backing Urban, who stayed in Rome. The refusal of these popes, and of their respective successors, to give way to their rivals ultimately so troubled the cardinals of both obediences that many of them seceded, held a council at Pisa in 1409, declared both popes deposed and elected another. 

Unfortunately, since the popes refused to accept their deposition, the cardinals initially succeeded only in endowing Western Christendom with three popes at once. Still, their initiative had pointed the way to a possible resolution of the problem, and in 1414 a great general council of the Church meeting at Constance effectively solved it, by securing the resignation of two popes and depriving the third of most of his obedience, thereby clearing the way for the cardinals to elect a new pope, Martin V. The Avignonese pope stubbornly persisted in regarding himself as the true one until his death in 1423, but there was then a schism among the four cardinals whom he had left; the ‘pope’ whom three of them elected, Clement VIII, managed to hang on to some recognition in Aragon until 1429, when, for political reasons, the King of Aragon needed an agreement with Martin V, and Clement abdicated.

Then another problem arose. The Council of Constance had decreed that, in future, general councils should be held at regular intervals to review the state of the Church and take steps to promote necessary reforms. This idea did not appeal to Martin V and his successors. Martin summoned the councils at the prescribed intervals, though without great enthusiasm, and dissolved them as soon as he could. 

The proponents of the theory that a general council should share with the pope the governance of the Church, and that, indeed, it constituted the supreme authority in the Church, superior even to the pope in certain circumstances, did eventually overplay their hand. The council that met at Basle and began to do battle with Martin’s successor, Eugenius IV, even declared him deposed. The solitary cardinal who remained with it elected a former Duke of Savoy, Amadeus, who had retired from the world to a luxuriously equipped retreat to lead a contemplative life in the company of a few chosen companions. Amadeus was tempted from his seclusion by his ‘election’ as pope, and took the title Felix V, but he made little headway in gaining recognition from the European powers, while the action of the council in thus threatening to drag the Church into another schism discredited the conciliar movement.

By the time Francesco della Rovere, Pope Sixtus IV, uncle of Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, was elected to the papal throne in 1471, the conciliar movement within the Church had been defeated, though some proponents of its ideas remained. But the idea of summoning a general council to criticize, discipline, even depose the pope had become established as one option open to the secular powers in their dealings with the papacy. Dissident cardinals could play a significant role in making such threats real - as Julius himself found when he was faced by a council summoned by cardinals supporting the King of France in 1511. 

Nothing worried the popes of the second half of the fifteenth century more than talk of summoning a council to sit in judgement on them. This anxiety, and the damage to their authority wrought by the prolonged crisis that the papacy had undergone, made them alert to threats to their power and keen to assert their supremacy in the Church. The cardinals, however, were not inclined to yield without a contest the ground they had won during the years of the schism. They tried to keep their number at or below a fixed level; they did not want their influence and privileges, nor the communal income of the College, to be divided among too many.

Another problem confronting the Renaissance popes that was partly a legacy of the troubles of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century was their uncertain control over much of the Papal States. The temporal government of the papacy had never been notably strong or efficient in maintaining order, but several decades of absence of the papacy from Rome, followed by several more during which the authority of the Roman pope was challenged first by rival popes and then by the conciliar movement, had not improved matters. 

Establishing a firmer grip on the Papal States was more important to the pope now than before, because the crisis that the papacy had passed through, and notably the agreements reached with individual rulers and governments to help persuade them to support the pope rather than the conciliarists, had resulted in losses of revenue from taxes and other charges payable to the pope in his capacity as head of the Church. An increasing proportion of the pope’s income was being derived from revenues from his temporal dominions. For the popes, the Papal States had come to seem an essential bastion of an independent papacy. This was how Julius regarded them, and much of his pontificate was devoted to the recovery of lost territory, and the attempt to acquire more.

The temporal government of the papacy aroused little loyalty or enthusiasm among the pope’s subjects. Their primary allegiance was often to other men, either the leaders of political factions or local lords, signori whose families had come to dominate one or more towns and their districts in the northern and eastern provinces of the Papal States, the Romagna and the Marche.

Political factions linked town to town in a complex pattern of alliances that extended beyond the boundaries of the Papal States. While, at a local level, the factions usually took the name of a leading family, they could also be identified by the names of the parties that connected the factions of many of the towns into recognized groups. Members of the Chiaravallesi faction of Todi, for example, were also identified as Ghibellines and as the ‘parte Colonna’ of the town, while their rivals the Catalaneschi were Guelfs, and members of the Orsini party. 

Within the context of the politics of the Papal States, the ancient party labels of Guelf and Ghibelline had lost their significance in denoting supporters of the papacy or the Holy Roman Emperor, but this does not mean that they can be dismissed as meaningless relics of a bygone age. The Guelf and Ghibelline parties were living forces in large areas of the Papal States, generating passions and loyalties that the papal government could never hope to arouse. They linked urban factions to baronial families, including those of Rome - hence the acknowledged leadership of the major Roman baronial clans, the Orsini and the Colonna, of the factions of Umbria, where they had virtually no lands, as well as of the regions encircling Rome, the Patrimony, Sabina, and the Campagna and Marittima, where they had far more influence than the papal officials. 

Partisans of the parties were to be found in the curia, the papal court and the pope’s own household, and among the cardinals. The popes themselves and their families were rarely entirely neutral, and sometimes openly partisan. Much trouble between factions was caused by the pope or his officials supporting one side against the other, in a way that can be difficult to interpret as the implementation of a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Julius himself, as cardinal and as pope, had strong links with the Colonna family.

Life for the signorial families of the Papal States was becoming increasingly difficult in the later fifteenth century. Often their ambitions had exceeded their resources, and their rule became increasingly corrupt and burdensome to the citizens of the towns they dominated. Some of them had formal concessions of ‘vicariates’ from the papacy, so that they were ruling, in theory, as agents of the popes, but this did not stop them from regarding the towns as their property. Other families had never succeeded in obtaining such a grant, or had never bothered to try, but the fact that the Bentivoglio of Bologna, for example, were officially merely citizens like any others did not stop them from being regarded as the effective rulers of their city, despite the fact that Bologna was the second most important centre, after Rome, of the pope’s temporal government. The Renaissance popes were occasionally hostile to these signorial families, and ready to exploit opportunities to drive them out of the towns - sometimes to instal members of their own families as signori in their stead.

This was never a straightforward matter, for other Italian powers considered that they too had interests in the Romagna and the Marche. Centuries of weak rule by the popes had opened up the cities of the northern Papal States to the political and economic influence of Florence, Milan and Venice. Even in treaties involving the pope, these cities and the signorial families were frequently named as the adherenti or raccomandati of these other Italian powers. Such political alliances, based as they were on important mutual interests, proved very durable: they would provide Julius II with some of his greatest challenges.

If other Italian states were not very respectful of the temporal sovereignty of the pope, and were used to thinking of him and dealing with him as one of them, as a potential ally or an enemy or a rival, this did not mean they forgot about his role as head of the Church. The endless disputes that arose between the papacy and Italian states over appointments to benefices, jurisdiction and taxation of the clergy reminded them of that all too often. They were also aware of the spiritual role of the pope, though Italians, who knew the popes best, may have found it harder than other people to bear that role in mind when dealing with him. Princes and nobles outside Italy could still feel it was their duty to come to the defence of Holy Church, and not be entirely at their ease if they were attacking the pope with military force; to the Italians, being on the opposite side to the pope in a war was a routine affair, and one that aroused no qualms of conscience. They were well accustomed to separating out the pope as a man from the pope as a fellow temporal ruler, or as the head of a competing jurisdiction, or as the head of the Church.

Spiritual sanctions at the pope’s disposal, such as excommunication and interdict, could still have some impact, even on Italians. For Italian bankers and merchants in particular, to incur the censure of the Church meant being vulnerable to the confiscation of their property wherever it was to be found, and disruption to business could be considerable. Most people, however cynical they might be about the hierarchy of the Church, were not comfortable at being deprived of the sacraments for any length of time. Nevertheless, if temporal rulers were in dispute with the pope, they were prepared to make war on him, to challenge his jurisdiction and even to threaten him with a general council of the Church or calls for ecclesiastical reform.

The most notable attempts by the popes of the later fifteenth century to assert their spiritual leadership were their appeals to Christian powers to join under the banners of the papacy in a crusade against the Turks. Pope Pius II had died in Ancona in 1464 on his way, he hoped, to lead a crusade in person. His successor, the Venetian Paul II, had also been notable for his zeal for the crusade. An awareness of the threat from the Ottomans was part of his Venetian heritage, for Venice, with her trading ports and settlements and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean, was in the front line of Western Christendom’s attempts to hold back the expansion of the dynamic Muslim empire. Julius’s uncle, Sixtus IV, made some attempt to equip a fleet to send against the Turks in the early years of his pontificate, and he tried to rally the Christian powers behind him by sending legates exhorting them to join his crusade. 

The shockwaves spread through Europe by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 had soon died away, however, leaving the crusade as a common aspiration of Christian princes, but one that always seemed to be of less pressing concern than other problems. Only states such as Hungary and Venice, for whom the Turks were a direct threat, felt any urgency in the matter. They knew all too well that there was little point in relying on help from others in their perennial struggles (though some help was occasionally forthcoming) and could see little advantage in accepting the papacy’s lead in confronting a situation that they understood better than anyone. Sixtus’s attempts to assert the moral and political leadership of the papacy in the crusade were met with the same response as similar attempts by his predecessors had been, varying from polite indifference to halfhearted offers of help that were probably never meant to be realized, and offers strictly dependent on other powers doing their share as well.

Sixtus’s interest in the crusade, if largely ineffectual, was genuine, and should be borne in mind. It is a reminder that he was a pious and learned man, sincere in his concern for the Christian faith. In one sense, it helps to put into perspective the preoccupation with the interests of his family that was so prominent a feature of his pontificate, but in another, it throws that preoccupation into still harsher relief. That such a man should have been prepared to go to war to further the ambitions of a nephew, as he did, is a more striking testimony to how deeply the practice of nepotism had become rooted in the institution of the papacy than the more notorious example of the cynical and worldly Borgia pope, Alexander VI.

Historians have sometimes tried to rationalize the nepotism of the Renaissance popes as being in the best interests of the papacy. The placing of papal nipoti - nephews, great-nephews, cousins of various degrees, even sometimes sons - in the College of Cardinals by Sixtus and the other Renaissance popes has been excused by those anxious to vindicate the honour of the papacy, or by those convinced that there had to be some explanation other than mere family affection and dynastic ambition, as a necessary step if the popes were going to re-establish the authority of the papacy over the cardinals. Their relatives were the only men, it is argued, whom they could really trust to have a care for their interests, if they were to manage the cardinals effectively. Exactly how the appointment to the College of one or two, or even more, papal relations, usually inexperienced and under-qualified, and sometimes under-aged, was supposed to help the pope control rebellious cardinals has not been explained. 

Papal nipoti in the College of Cardinals evidently could be useful in persuading their colleagues to agree to the pope’s wishes, either by the force of their arguments or the attraction of their influence over papal patronage. But they were also responsible for much of the dissension between the Renaissance popes and the College; indeed, papal nepotism was arguably the greatest single cause of trouble between popes and cardinals after the tensions stemming from the conflicting secular loyalties of the cardinals themselves. Was the appointment of nipoti to the College really the only expedient the popes could devise to assert their authority over the cardinals?

Just as it has been argued that the popes needed to promote relatives to the College of Cardinals to help support papal supremacy, so it has been argued that the endowment of lay nipoti with estates and lordships was a useful strategy to suppress disorder, provide secure and reliable government for key areas, and dislodge the families of signori from cities in the Papal States, thus in the end strengthening the rule of the popes over their temporal dominions. This is not what Sixtus ever claimed to be doing, nor what contemporaries thought he was about.

It soon became clear to the other Italian powers that the way to win an alliance with Sixtus was to offer benefices to his ecclesiastical nipoti, and lands and richly dowered brides to the laymen of his family. The main contenders were the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, and the King of Naples, Ferrante d’Aragona. Both had reason to feel insecure in their rule. Both were keen to secure an alliance with the pope, could find lands with which to endow papal nipoti, and had girls in their family who could be offered as brides.

It was nepotism that launched Giuliano della Rovere on the career as a cardinal that would lead him to the papal throne. Being a papal nephew was unquestionably a good start on the road to the papacy, but the progression was not an inevitable one. It took him thirty years to achieve that goal — thirty years in which he established himself as one of the most formidable members of the College of Cardinals. He was a major figure in the politics of Italy long before he became Pope Julius II.


This is a web preview of the "Julius II: The Warrior Pope" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App