I 

The Papal Nephew


On 15 December 1471, just four months after he had become pope, Sixtus IV wrung from the reluctant cardinals the election of two of his nephews to their College. One of these new cardinals was Giuliano della Rovere, the future Julius II, the other his cousin and rival, Pietro Riario. Their election was still supposed to be kept secret for a while, though it was a secret known to many. It was considered a rather shocking breach of the conventions of the court when they appeared a week later, in a public procession, wearing their red hats before their election had been formally published outside consistory.

This was only the first sign that the young cardinals were determined to make the most of their new rank. Giuliano della Rovere was destined to become a formidable member of the College - one whose influence, even when he spent years in exile, was felt and sometimes feared in Rome - before he became one of the most remarkable popes in the history of the papacy. Pietro Riario would keep the gossips and censors of Rome fully occupied in the few years he had to live before his dissipations killed him.

The two men had had little claim to the status of cardinal other than their relationship to the pope, but the cardinals’ resistance to their election had stemmed less from opposition to them as individuals than to the increase in their own number that it would mean. Before he had become pope, Sixtus had promised not to put up any new candidates to the College until the number of cardinals had fallen below twenty-four. Experience should have already taught the cardinals that, once elected, the popes were inclined not to consider themselves bound by the promises they had made in conclave. When Sixtus wanted to give red hats to his nephews, both sides could consider that they had compromised: the cardinals had not refused to increase their number, and the pope had not insisted on the election of any other candidates.

Sixtus’s own election as pope, on 10 August 1471, had itself been a compromise. Since none of the powerful cardinals who aspired to the papacy had been able to win sufficient votes to secure it for himself, they had agreed to choose Francesco della Rovere, a learned theologian. He had risen from obscurity to become head of the Franciscan order, and had only been a cardinal since 1467. He was held to be a good and religious man, though some observers considered him lacking in spirit. Nothing in his behaviour before he was elected seems to have warned that he would supply his own want of courage and resolution by putting himself and the direction of the papacy almost without reserve into the hands of his nipoti, who flocked to Rome after his election.

Even before they were made cardinals, Giuliano della Rovere and Pietro Riario stood out among the gathering throng of papal relatives. Like his uncle Francesco, Giuliano della Rovere was born in Albissola, a village near Savona on the Ligurian coast. The della Rovere of Savona were neither rich nor powerful; the della Rovere of Savoy, who may have been distant relatives of the Savonese family, ranked among the Savoyard nobility, but did not claim cousinhood until Francesco’s intelligence and learning had brought him to the heights of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is not known how Giuliano’s father, Raffaele, made his living, nor is anything known of the family of his mother, Theodora Manerola, who was said to have been of Greek origin. Even the year of Giuliano’s birth is not known for sure, though the balance of evidence points to 1445; what is certain is that he was born on 15 December.

He probably owed his education at the Franciscan friary in Perugia to his uncle’s patronage. While he was there, he acquired a manuscript of Justinian’s Institutes, so he would seem to have been studying civil, or Roman, law. Since he was probably destined from the first for an ecclesiastical career, it is likely that he studied canon law, the law of the Church, as well. A knowledge of ‘both laws’ had been the basis of many a clerical career since the twelfth-century collection, codification and classification of the texts of the civil and canon law had made them one of the foundations of university education. In later years Giuliano was no great scholar, though he had wide and cultivated tastes, and there is no evidence he was being trained to follow in his uncle’s footsteps as a theologian and university teacher.

His destination for a career in the Church, however, was underlined by his taking holy orders at Perugia. This was by no means an essential preliminary to appointments to even the highest ecclesiastical offices - it was quite possible to become a cardinal, even pope, without having been ordained a priest. He himself, as the senior cardinal, would ordain the newly elected Pope Pius III in 1503. That Giuliano should have taken orders at this early stage in his career, when he could easily have hoped to acquire benefices through his uncle’s patronage without ordination, is worthy of note. Whether it was an expression of personal commitment or a response to pressure from his uncle is not known.

The pope’s other particular protégé, Pietro Riario, was if anything still closer to him. His father, Paolo, was married to Francesco’s sister Bianca. Paolo died when the boy was twelve years old, and his uncle brought Pietro to Siena, where he was teaching. Studying at Pavia, Padua, Venice, Bologna, Siena and Ferrara, he joined the Franciscans and, like Giuliano, took orders.1 In the light of his character and later behaviour, it is hard to believe that Pietro did this of his own volition - even more than in the case of Giuliano, the suspicion arises that he was ordained at their uncle’s insistence.

Aged twenty-five at Sixtus’s accession, Pietro had been his servant in the conclave and, it was said, had played some part as a go-between and negotiator in securing his election. From the first, it was clear that he enjoyed the pope’s confidence and would be a powerful figure in the new papal court. Soon he was joined by his younger brother Girolamo, then aged about twenty-four, who, after Pietro’s early death, would succeed to his position near the pope.

Still the Riario brothers did not monopolize the pope’s affection, and Giuliano della Rovere had his share of the papal bounty. When they were made cardinals in December 1471, it was Giuliano who was given his uncle’s titular church of San Pietro in Vincoli. It was as ‘San Pietro ad Vincula’ or ‘in Vincoli’ (‘Saint Peter in Chains’), that he would be known throughout his long career as a cardinal, and he passed the title on to first one, and then another, of his own nephews, thus keeping it in the della Rovere family for half a century. Pietro was given the title of ‘San Sisto’, by which he was generally known.

The argument that Renaissance popes appointed relations to the College because they were the only men on whose support they could rely rests on the assumption that papal nipoti would always act together to support the pope. Giuliano della Rovere and Pietro Riario are prime examples of how papal nipoti could be bitter rivals, more intent on the promotion of their own interests than on working together. When this contest began is not clear. There is no account in the reports from Rome of any sudden quarrel, or any gradual breakdown of a friendship between them; their antipathy to each other was more or less taken as read. Historians have seen this antipathy as based on incompatibility of character and purpose. Giuliano has been portrayed as a serious and responsible young man, holding aloof from the extravagant excesses of Pietro, and as a sober and disinterested counsellor of his uncle, but one whose advice was all too often rejected in favour of his more persuasive rival.

This picture of Giuliano seems to derive from the writings of nineteenth-century German historians, whose works were used by the most famous historian of the papacy, Ludwig Pastor, author of the monumental History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. For a man of such decided views, Pastor surprisingly frequently contented himself with quoting other authors’ opinions on the subjects with which he was dealing, and many of the comments and judgements on the nipoti of the Renaissance popes, including those of Sixtus IV, in his work are simply quotations from the works of other scholars. Thus it is the view of Giuliano della Rovere and of his influence with Sixtus put forward by the nineteenth-century German school of historians, as disseminated by Pastor, that, in the absence of any other authoritative account of Giuliano della Rovere’s early years as a cardinal, has become the standard one.


‘The grave and resolute character of this nephew justly inspired him [Sixtus] with confidence. Like himself he had been trained in the strict discipline and privations of the monastic life, and there had been an almost constant interchange of thought between them’…


[Giuliano] ‘was not distinguished by brilliant intellect or fine literary culture, but he was a man of serious disposition and great prudence, though frequently rough in his manner and proceedings. He did not surround himself with an extravagant number of attendants, and indulged in no needless expense in apparel or in living, yet his taste was good in his house and furniture, and he loved excellent workmanship. On suitable occasions, he knew how to give free play to the largeness of his nature’.2


‘Even at an early age he gave evidence of those qualities which rendered his long and brilliant career so distinguished alike in the political history of Italy and in the annals of intellectual culture. If, like others, he profited by the abuse which had now become a system, and allowed numerous bishoprics and abbeys to be conferred upon a single individual, with the sole object of enriching him … Giuliano manifested in the expenditure of his income, and in his whole manner of living, a prudence and seriousness which contrasted favourably with the conduct of many other prelates. If his moral character was not unblemished, his outward demeanour was always becoming, and, immediately after his elevation to the purple, he began to devote that attention to the fine arts, and especially to architecture, which won for him lasting renown. The serious character of his other studies, although they were mostly directed to secular subjects, contributed to develop those exceptional abilities of which his labours in later life gave such signal proof, and which had begun to manifest themselves even during the pontificate of Sixtus IV.’3


Such is the traditional account of Giuliano della Rovere - not uncritical, but on the whole favourable, praising him for ‘prudence’ and ‘seriousness’, for his devotion to the arts, his excellent taste. Contrast this with the picture of the character of Pietro Riario built up by Pastor, primarily from the denunciations of those who observed his career at first hand.


He was intelligent and cultivated, courteous, witty, cheerful, and generous, but his good qualities were counterbalanced by a lust of [sic] power, a boundless ambition and pride, and a love of luxury which rendered him utterly unworthy of the purple … His yearly revenues before long exceeded 60,000 golden florins; but even this sum was far from satisfying his requirements, for Riario, ‘transformed in one night from a mendicant monk into a Croesus, plunged into the maddest excesses’.4 The Cardinal, says Platina, set himself to collect together unheard of quantities of gold and silver plate, costly raiment, hangings and carpets, splendid horses and a multitude of servants in scarlet and silk. He patronised young poets and painters, and delighted in contriving and carrying out pageants and tournaments on the most magnificent scale …

He was very generous to scholars, and to the poor. Moreover, he began a palace in the vicinity of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the extensive foundations of which bespoke a colossal superstructure. He seemed to vie with the ancients in pomp and grandeur - and, it may be added, in vices. Instead of the habit of Francis, he went about in garments laden with gold, and adorned his mistress from head to foot with costly pearls.

The ostentation of Cardinal Riario, says Ammanati, surpassed anything that our children will be able to credit, or that our fathers can remember.5


Even allowing for the rhetorical exaggeration of the sources that Pastor used to compile this character-sketch, it is clear that Riario made an extraordinary impression on those who watched his progress, and, apart from his patronage of scholars and poets, not a favourable one.

Quite where the view of Giuliano as a serious, studious, sober young man came from is something of a mystery. No contemporary evidence to support it is ever cited, as it is for the descriptions of Pietro Riario. Certainly, by contrast with Pietro, almost anyone would seem sober and frugal, but prudence is about the last quality with which those who would report and comment on the unfolding career of San Pietro ad Vincula would seem inclined to credit him. Perhaps the stature of Pope Julius II and the extraordinary impact he would make on the history of Italy in the early sixteenth century made historians project back on to the young cardinal the qualities they felt must have foreshadowed such an imposing career - though even as pope, audacity, not to say rashness, rather than prudence, was the hallmark of his actions. Perhaps, too, they were seduced into taking a sympathetic view of him by his patronage of the arts, by the sheer quality and number of the works that he commissioned. But the character of Giuliano della Rovere as it has traditionally been depicted bears little resemblance to the figure who emerges from the letters of sharp-eyed diplomatic agents and other observers who reported on the court of Sixtus IV to their masters or their friends, while their comments on Pietro Riario are in accord with the image of his character that has come down to us.

From such contemporary reports, there is no evidence that Giuliano disapproved of the influence of Pietro Riario on Sixtus IV because he disapproved of his way of life, his ostentation and extravagance, his open flaunting of his mistress. Giuliano loved a show, too, and was no celibate. As pope, he openly acknowledged his daughter Felice and brought her to Rome, and he may have had other children, though he was apparently more discreet than San Sisto or some other cardinals. Nor is there any evidence that he felt the affairs of the papacy should not be dominated by a young relative of the pope with no experience in ecclesiastical or secular government. He would just have preferred that that young relative should be himself.

As the Riario brothers became closely identified with Milanese interests in Rome, and favoured the alliance of the papacy with Milan, so Giuliano deliberately set out to form a similar association with the Duke of Milan’s main rival among the princes of Italy, the King of Naples, and acted as a spokesman for Neapolitan interests. The diplomatic records of the Aragonese Kings of Naples have largely disappeared, and the surviving archive that yields most information about Giuliano della Rovere is that of the Sforza Dukes of Milan. Precisely because he was perceived as an enemy by the Sforza, their ambassadors in Rome watched him closely, but this means that the best sources of information about him during his years as a cardinal are a series of hostile witnesses. 

Perhaps it was not merely personal jealousies and ambition that made him an advocate of better relations between the pope and the King of Naples; perhaps he genuinely believed this to be in the best interests of the papacy. It has to be said, however, that this would not accord with his behaviour during the early years of the next pontificate, when he was the prime mover behind Innocent VIII’s espousal of the cause of the Neapolitan barons rebelling against King Ferrante. And the issues that dominated relations between the pope and the King of Naples in the early 1470s, indeed the issues that dominated Sixtus’s diplomacy, were the personal interests of his family and not, by and large, the interests of the papacy.

On more than one occasion, Sixtus told the Milanese ambassadors in Rome that, as a native of Savona (which had been under Milanese rule since 1464), he considered himself to be Milanese. Before he had been elected, he had assured them that if he became pope, the duke would have the papacy at his disposal as though it were his own state, because he was the duke’s subject and servant, and had no ties to any other prince or government than him. After his election, Sixtus, now a sovereign prince in his own right, no longer called himself anyone’s subject, but he did say that he did not want his nipoti to be obliged to anyone other than their ‘natural lord’, the Duke of Milan. At first, he seemed keen that Giuliano should forge close links with Milan, telling the duke that he had ‘dedicated’ Giuliano to him, and that he had decided that Giuliano ‘should be all yours, and to give him benefices in your lands’.6

Initially, Giuliano appeared to fall in with his uncle’s wishes. He offered his services to Galeazzo Maria, and said he would like to arrange a Sforza marriage for his young brother Giovanni. The duke responded that he was pleased by the cardinal’s proffered devotion. But the negotiations for Giovanni’s marriage did not go smoothly, and Vincula withdrew the boy from Pavia in the duchy of Milan, where he had been studying, summoning him to Rome at the end of March 1472. Various explanations were given to the Milanese ambassador in Rome for this departure from Pavia. Sixtus, ever the affectionate uncle, said the boy had wanted to come to see him; San Sisto said Vincula had not liked the terms offered and had decided against a Milanese match for his brother; Vincula said San Sisto had been trying to marry the boy off without his knowledge and sow discord between him and Giovanni. 7

This marked the effective end of negotiations about the match. In truth, Vincula did not like the terms on offer. Neither did Sixtus, and though he was willing for negotiations to continue, he did not overrule his nephew. In late April, Vincula said he was ready to send the boy back to Pavia, and would come himself to the Milanese if the duke wanted him to, showing that he was the duke’s loyal servant. By then, however, the hostility between the two cardinal nephews was open and explicit and it was clear to the Milanese ambassadors that they could work either with San Sisto or with San Pietro ad Vincula, but not with both. They had no hesitation in recommending that the choice be San Sisto, and the duke was in complete agreement with their opinion.

This was an important turning-point for Giuliano della Rovere, and not only in his relations with Milan. Mutual distrust between him and the Sforza would help determine other major decisions that he was to make at crucial moments in his later career. For the historian, the fortunate side-effect was the close attention paid by the Sforza to his actions and friendships, resulting in many reports by their ambassadors about him, and in a fair number of intercepted letters by and to him finding their way into their diplomatic archives.

Not only did Giuliano break off negotiations for a Milanese match for his brother, he was, according to San Sisto, largely responsible for encouraging the pope to arrange a Neapolitan marriage for another della Rovere, Leonardo. The leading lay nipote in the early years of Sixtus’s pontificate, Leonardo was given command of some papal troops, and the title of Prefect of Rome, but he never cut a convincing figure as a soldier, nor did he show any signs of intelligence or political skill. In himself, he could not be considered much of a catch for a Neapolitan princess, but Ferrante did well out of the marriage. The king had been quick off the mark in suggesting to Sixtus a match in Naples for one of his nipoti, proposing that some territories in dispute between Naples and the papacy, Pontecorvo and the duchy of Sora, could be used to endow the bridegroom. Sixtus had initially rejected the idea, saying if the lands did indeed belong to the Church, it would be presumptuous of him to give them to his nipote, but Ferrante persisted, and soon Sixtus agreed to the scheme. 

He was somewhat ashamed of the transaction, blushing when Girolamo Riario said how much the king would stand in his debt for handing over territory that was of such importance to the Papal States.8 Vincula was said to be encouraging the match, to spite San Sisto.9 Both he and Leonardo were also believed to have tried to persuade Ferrante to visit the Papal States in the summer of 1472, again with the primary intention of trying to undermine San Sisto’s hold over the pope.

About the time that Vincula put an end to negotiations for a Milanese marriage for his brother, Ferrante floated a scheme to marry Giovanni to a Neapolitan heiress, but nothing came of it. A few months later, yet another match for Giovanni was under discussion, this time one that would eventually bear fruit. The proposed bride was a daughter of the Count of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. So close were the ties of Urbino to Ferrante that this marriage could be seen as being Neapolitan at one remove. In fact, the king did not approve, but did not want openly to oppose the count’s plans. 

To Urbino, it was an opportunity to bring further territory in the Marche of the Papal States around his own lands under his influence. He initially suggested that Giovanni should be given the town of Cesena; Sixtus said he wouldn’t give him any territory of the Church.10 Vincula was evidently keen for his brother to have a Montefeltro bride, and his persistence at length overcame Sixtus’s reluctance to agree to Giovanni being endowed with some papal territory. By agreeing to Girolamo Riario becoming lord of the Romagnol town of Imola in December 1473, as part of the terms on which he married an illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Sixtus made it harder for himself to resist Vincula’s pressure.

The Neapolitan dimension to the Urbino match was emphasized by Ferrante’s part in the complicated settlement needed to free the town of Senigallia in the Marche from other claims on it so that it could be given to Giovanni. Antonio Piccolomini, the nipote of Pope Pius II, had received this territory as part of the settlement of his own marriage to an illegitimate daughter of Ferrante a decade before. The cardinals had been unwilling to approve the grant to Piccolomini, and were no keener that it should go to the reigning pope’s nephew. Intensive lobbying by Vincula and Montefeltro was needed before the cardinals would consent to the arrangements and the match could finally be concluded, in October 1474. Vincula did well for his brother’s family by this alliance with the Montefeltro. Giovanni’s son, Francesco Maria, would be adopted as heir by Federico da Montefeltro’s childless son, and thus the della Rovere would succeed the Montefeltro as Dukes of Urbino.11

Vincula might have had even more trouble in gaining the consent of the pope and the College had San Sisto still been alive in the autumn of 1474, but he had died in January. Rumour had it that he had tried to remove his rival from the scene as well. It was reported that he had appeared to him in a dream, calling to him and saying that he must follow. Giuliano, ill himself, was terrified by this apparition, began to obey his doctors, which he usually refused to do, and recovered. 12He was always a doctor’s nightmare as a patient, consistently ignoring their injunctions. On the other hand, given the treatments visited on hapless patients in those days, his obstinacy may have been as much responsible for his long and vigorous life as was his iron constitution.

San Sisto might well have succeeded in thwarting the settlement of the Urbino match: he had been more adept than Vincula at managing their fellow-cardinals, as well as the pope. He had, however, exhibited a boundless appetite for benefices and offices, accumulating an enormous income (in spite of which he left all his benefices in debt for two or three years’ revenue on his death), and he had not hesitated to cross senior members of the College in his search for yet more money and power. Even Sixtus may have begun to find him somewhat overbearing. Grief-stricken as he was by the loss of his nephew, he bore up under the blow better than had been anticipated - some said because he had been afraid of him and felt a sense of relief from subjection at his death.13

Another source of consolation for Sixtus was Pietro Riario’s brother, Girolamo. Within days of the cardinal’s death, it was evident that Girolamo would be the heir to his influence, as well as to his property. Yet there was one important sphere of action that Girolamo could not take over. As a layman, he could not play the same role as advocate for the policies of the pope among the cardinals. This role should naturally have devolved upon Vincula, but he failed to fill it. He lacked the political skills of persuasion, of ability to manipulate men and their opinions. Affection for him did not blind Sixtus into thinking him fitted for the task.

The pope did, however, want him to take on another function from Pietro Riario, that of special ally and advocate of Milan within the curia and consistory. Vincula showed willing to do this, offering himself to Milan as a replacement. He repeated his offers of service, and the Milanese ambassador believed he might be sincere, as his friendship with Naples had not yielded as much in the way of benefices as he might have hoped. Milanese distrust of him was not to be dispelled so easily though. Nor did the duke have a very high opinion of his ability and usefulness: only three months before, he had compared his mental abilities and reputation very unfavourably with those of San Sisto. Sforza’s ambassador, assessing his potential just after his rival’s death, did not think him capable of doing much on his own initiative, but rather to be a man who would be controlled by others.14 Girolamo Riario’s offers of service and protestations of devotion received a more generous response. While Vincula might be the only nipote other than Girolamo Riario to handle much business with the pope, and like Girolamo had men among the pope’s servants who reported to him on all that went on, he was not able to exploit the opportunity opened up for him by the death of his rival.

Frustration at his failure to fill San Sisto’s place, and to prevent Girolamo Riario from filling it in his stead, was perhaps at the root of the enthusiasm with which he undertook the first major commission with which he was entrusted, in the summer of 1474. This was to settle the faction-fighting that had broken out in the Umbrian towns of Todi and Spoleto, and to curb the growing dominance of Niccolo Vitelli over Città di Castello. The expedition of 1474 provides the first real opportunity to study Vincula in action, and foreshadows one of the policies for which, as pope, he is particularly remembered. His reputation as restorer of the Papal States rests in part on his efforts to master the factions that, above all in Umbria and the Romagna, shaped the political life of the region.

Todi, where prolonged street-fighting had resulted in over forty deaths, according to one report, and the destruction of many houses, was the first goal of the expedition. Piergiovanni da Canale, a leader of the Ghibelline Chiaravallesi party of Todi, had been seized on suspicion of being responsible for the murder in Rome of Gabriele degli Atti, a head of the rival Guelf Catalaneschi. The Chiaravallesi rose in Todi, and Piergiovanni’s brother, Matteo, brought exiles from the city and other allies of their faction to join in the attack on the Catalaneschi. Allies of the Guelfs, too, flocked to Todi, including members of the Orsini, the Roman baronial family, who were leaders of the Umbrian Guelfs. Matteo da Canale was driven from the city, leaving the Catalaneschi dominant once more. As the troubles in Todi reached their climax in early June 1474 with the Orsini intervention and Matteo’s expulsion, Vincula was appointed to lead the forces sent to pacify the city.

His was not regarded as an impartial intervention - at least not by the Orsini, for they were friends of Girolamo Riario, and Cardinal Orsini was sure he would favour the Canale. Most of the other cardinals also opposed his appointment. A few days after he left Rome on 4 June, the Milanese ambassador was already expressing fears that he was anxious to make a reputation for himself and would move on from Todi to other trouble spots, such as Spoleto and Città di Castello. Others shared these suspicions, and some thought he might use force to induce Senigallia and other places resisting the proposal that they should be given to Giovanni della Rovere to drop their opposition.

Before he arrived at Todi, Vincula sent ahead a confidential agent, Lorenzo Zane. On 10 June the cardinal himself entered the town with 3,500 infantry and some men at arms. The next day, he wrote to the pope to report that, although the faction leaders had fled, he had arrested others who had taken part in the fighting.15 He also sent to all the villages in the city’s territory to demand that they forswear further obedience to the priors of Todi, and issued a decree that everyone, except for Matteo da Canale and his brothers and sons and a couple of other individuals, should return within six days, on pain of a sentence of rebellion and the confiscation of all their goods.16 The castellan, who was believed to have facilitated the entry of the Orsini into the city, was replaced by Obietto Fieschi.

Up to this point, the show of force had been fairly successful, and Vincula had taken the usual measures to try to bring the factions back under control. His choice of agents was more questionable. Lorenzo Zane, incumbent of one of the titular sees in Moslem lands, in partibus infidelium, the Patriarchate of Antioch, had a reputation as a troublemaker, and a few years later Vincula would have cause to regret his patronage of this man. Obietto Fieschi, holder of a prestigious ecclesiastical dignity, that of apostolic protonotary, that did not seem to entail any spiritual duties, was a Genoese faction leader with conspiracy in his blood, and a thorn in the flesh of the Sforza. When the expedition moved on to Spoleto, there would be other indications of poor judgement on Vincula’s part.

Spoleto was the major stronghold of the Umbrian Guelfs. The year before, the Ghibellines had been expelled from the city, and efforts by Sixtus to have them readmitted met with no response. Partisans from both factions of Spoleto had joined in the fighting in Todi, and the Orsini and their men had withdrawn there as the papal troops drew near.

Once again, Vincula sent Lorenzo Zane ahead to negotiate. With him this time was Braccio Baglioni of Perugia. Braccio was a friend of the Spoletan Guelfs, but his presence did little to reassure them, for the leading condottiere in the papal camp was Giulio Varano, the lord of Camerino. Between his subjects and the Spoletans there was ‘natural and ancient hatred’,17 and many men from Camerino were with him. Exiles from Spoleto were also in the camp, and the restoration of the exiles was one of the main points that Zane and Braccio Baglioni were sent to discuss. Nothing had been settled when the legate and his troops approached the city, and as they drew near to one gate, the leading Guelfs left by another. A procession including many clergy went to meet the legate, but this only resulted in the crosses and reliquaries that they were carrying being among the first objects looted in the sack of the city that followed.

This sack was not Vincula’s intention - he just could not control the exiles and partisans who were with him. The news of the devastation of this important papal city was badly received in Rome, and Cardinal Orsini and his allies in the College did their best to blacken the picture, though Sixtus tried to hide his vexation out of his love for his nephew. No one seriously blamed the legate, because it was generally acknowledged that the factions cared little for the authority of the papal government; even the papal fortress in Spoleto barely served to keep them in check in normal times. But the episode can have done little to enhance his standing with the troops, and problems were in store for him when military operations began in earnest at Città di Castello.

Some observers considered from the first that this city was the real object of the campaign. Action against Città di Castello had been clearly on the cards for some time, for the pope and the cardinals were not willing to accept the dominance of Niccolò Vitelli over it, a dominance he had exercised since expelling his rivals, the Giustini, in April 1468. Although claiming to be merely a private citizen, Niccolò in fact had such authority that he was lord of the city in all but name, despite the presence of a papal governor. He enjoyed an extensive network of political alliances among his neighbours both within the Papal States, for example with the Count of Urbino, and outside them, notably with Florence. What might appear to be a simple matter of the internal policing of the Papal States became, through Niccolò Vitelli’s connections, a major diplomatic crisis. Here was the best opportunity that San Pietro ad Vincula had yet had to show what he could do.

Niccolò Vitelli had many friends within the city. He was a charismatic man, always laughing, never angry, according to the papal governor Gianantonio Campano, and regarded by the citizens with awe, credited by them with anything that happened to the benefit of the city. Campano tried to intercede with Sixtus but all he achieved was his own disgrace.18

Vitelli’s friends outside the city also came to his defence. Florence forbade her subjects in Borgo San Sepolcro, near the border of the Papal States, to send supplies to the papal camp, and brought troops up to the border. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who had in the past made general offers of Milanese military assistance to Sixtus, ordered his condottieri not to join the camp at Città di Castello if they were requested to do so by the legate. Yet Sforza hesitated to come openly into conflict with Sixtus, especially when the pope turned to Milan’s rival, Naples, for support; instead, he offered his services as mediator. 

As Milan held back, so Florence too did not make good her threats of military support for Niccolò Vitelli. Lorenzo de’ Medici lost the depositeria, the office of papal banker (although, with a pope as spendthrift as Sixtus, this was something of a relief to the Medici bank), and other Florentine bankers and merchants feared that they would also suffer reprisals against their extensive interests in Rome. Ferrante, on the other hand, seized the opportunity to win Sixtus’s good graces by sending Neapolitan troops to strengthen the papal camp, and joined Sixtus in giving a condotta to the Count of Urbino, who was elevated to the rank of duke by the pope in a ceremony in Rome on 21 August.

Diplomatic developments, then, appeared to be favouring the pope and his legate, and Vincula was to be joined by the foremost soldier in Italy, the prospective father-in-law of his brother. But he did not want to share the glory he longed to win from this enterprise. He did not want the conflict to be resolved by diplomatic negotiations, and he probably did not want Urbino coming to the camp and taking over command of the military operations.

As the papal camp settled down to besiege Città di Castello in the last days of June, Vincula was confident the city could be taken without bombardment, and he was confident he had the backing of the pope. A week later, Sixtus’s resolution was already faltering under the diplomatic pressure from Milan and Florence, and he was ready to agree to the suggestion that the legate should enter the city with his household and a token force of infantry to receive Niccolò Vitelli’s token subjection. Letters from Vincula saying that if he had to withdraw now he wouldn’t be able to bear to show his face in Rome again,19 and the persuasion of Lorenzo Giustini, Vitelli’s greatest enemy, who had been sent to Rome to argue against such an agreement and to ask for bombards and more infantry, changed Sixtus’s mind. The pope gave orders for the despatch of the bombards and sent Giustini back to the camp on 10 July with a commission to raise more infantry.

Unfortunately, those troops that were already at Città di Castello were not being put to good use. Vincula had no military experience and was not providing effective leadership. The camp was in disorder. The soldiers engaged in skirmishes more or less as the fancy took them, and usually came off worse to the defenders of the city. When the bombards arrived, they were not brought into use at once; instead, at the end of July, ineffectual attempts were made to divert the water out of the ditches around the city walls. News of further proposals for a negotiated peace seemed to galvanize Vincula into more vigorous efforts, and the bombards began to fire, but without making much impression.

With negotiations continuing, and with Urbino at last setting off from Rome to join the camp on 21 August, Vincula made a final effort to win some military glory before Urbino arrived to eclipse him. But an assault on the walls was repulsed after bitter fighting, with losses of about 30 dead and over 150 wounded among the papal troops.

Even before Urbino reached the camp, it was known that he favoured settling the business by agreement rather than force. It was also known that Vincula would be a bigger obstacle to this than would Niccolò Vitelli. Within a few days of reaching the camp, Urbino managed to negotiate an agreement that saved the legate’s face. Vincula was able to report to Sixtus on 31 August that envoys had come to him from the city ‘with all humility, seeking pardon and mercy’, and that the city had been surrendered to him without conditions. The citizens were assured their persons and property would be safe, and Niccolò Vitelli and some other citizens were to accompany Vincula back to Rome, without seeking to have their safety guaranteed by Florence or Milan or Naples. 20

On arriving in Rome, Vitelli himself claimed he had come under the security of Ferrante, given to him by the duke, because he wouldn’t have trusted himself to the word of priests. In fact, he had been promised by Urbino that, if he came to Rome and could not get acceptable conditions from the pope, he would nonetheless be restored to Città di Castello. Vitelli certainly did not behave like a beaten man when he had an audience with Sixtus. When the pope reproached him, he refused to admit that he had erred, spurning the humble speech Urbino had prepared for him. Despite his obduracy, Sixtus spoke to him kindly (which did not please Vincula at all), and it was agreed that, though he would be exiled from Città di Castello, he would receive full compensation within a year for all his property, with 5,000 ducats to be paid on account.21

Although Giuliano della Rovere returned to Rome ‘under full sail’ 22and, when he reached the city on 9 September, was met at Santa Maria del Popolo by all the cardinals, on Sixtus’s orders, his legation had hardly been a triumphant success. He had been outmanoeuvred in the settlement for Niccolò Vitelli. He had showed no particular aptitude for military leadership, losing control of his troops at Spoleto and failing to use them effectively at Città di Castello. He had failed to keep in check the political exiles who saw this expedition as a chance to pursue their private vendettas, though it has to be said that he was not unusual in allowing exiles to join in military operations against their own city. He had also been clumsy in his handling of the chronic local territorial disputes that were as potent a cause of disorder and bloodshed as factional rivalries. Using his powers as legate to deprive Spoleto of its subject territories, arguing that the settlement of Spoletan affairs was the key to peace in the whole region, and the confiscation of her territories the most exemplary punishment that could be inflicted, was one thing; giving the castello of San Giovanni to Trevi, a neighbouring city that had long been disputing its possession with Spoleto, was quite another.23

The campaign had not improved Vincula’s standing with his fellow cardinals, still less his popularity, and had earned him the hatred of the powerful Cardinal Orsini. Indeed, the whole Orsini family considered themselves to be offended by his treatment of their partisans at Todi and Spoleto. They had been friends with the Riario, rather than with Vincula, before; but now there was an element of active hostility in their attitude to him, and in later years he would come to be regarded as one of the bitterest enemies of the Orsini.

In sum, the legation had done little to enhance Vincula’s reputation as a politician or to bring him renown as a military leader, and it made no evident difference to his standing or role at the papal court. Nor did the more cordial relations between Sixtus and Ferrante, which Ferrante’s support for the pope during the Città di Castello campaign (ambiguous though it may have been) had helped to confirm, yield the dividends for San Pietro ad Vincula that his role as an advocate of better relations with Naples during the first two years of the pontificate might have earned for him.

Ferrante visited Rome twice during these years, and his second son, Federico, spent several days there when he left Naples to seek his fortune, in the guise of a bride with a lavish dowry, outside Italy. Vincula was called on to help honour and entertain them. In April 1474 he gave a banquet for the king at his palace by the church of Santi Apostoli. It did not rival the magnificent entertainments San Sisto had given there in his day, when he had far outshone his rival in sumptuous display and liberality. Vincula had been rebuked by the pope for his repeated refusals to entertain ambassadors and other foreign guests in Rome,24 but with San Sisto gone, he was now expected to fulfil this important function in the diplomacy and ceremonial of the papal court. Just before the banquet for Ferrante, the pope had instructed him to invite the King of Dacia, who was being fêted in Rome, to dine at Santi Apostoli: San Sisto would not have had to be asked.

When Federico came to Rome in November 1474, Vincula, on the pope’s orders, was the only cardinal to be sent to greet him at the gate of the city. Two months later, Ferrante was back again, taking advantage of the jubilee year to earn spiritual grace and to emphasize his alliance with the pope. This time another cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia, was sent with Vincula to greet the king. Ferrante came to Rome only for a few days. When he left, the two cardinals accompanied him to Marino, and stayed with him as he lingered in the Alban Hills; he dined with Vincula at Grottaferrata, the great abbey he held in commendam.25

Whatever warmth and trust such personal contacts might have brought about, there were conflicting aims and interests that served to undo the good work. For one thing, Ferrante strove against the Urbino match for Giovanni della Rovere, trying to promote one with a daughter of Antonio Piccolomini, the nipote of Pius II who had claims to Senigallia, which was the intended endowment for Giovanni. Efforts by Ferrante’s shrewd ambassador in Rome, Anello Arcamone, to scupper the Urbino match by fostering opposition among the cardinals to the grant of Senigallia came to Vincula’s knowledge in October 1474. For his part, Vincula gave Anello and other Aragonese in Rome grounds for complaint in August 1475, when he was sent by Sixtus to investigate an attack near Rome by some Genoese on two galleys in the service of Ferrante’s uncle, the King of Aragon. He plainly favoured the Genoese, and stayed all night being entertained on one of their galleys while he was supposed to be investigating the whereabouts of some captives from the Aragonese ships, making Anello and the Aragonese ambassadors wait for him on the shore.

These difficulties did not prevent Vincula from taking advantage of another opportunity for the promotion of Giovanni’s interests, created by the death of Leonardo della Rovere in 1475. He wanted Leonardo’s estates in Naples and his position as Prefect of Rome for the boy. At first, Sixtus was inclined to make Antonio Basso, a son of his sister, Leonardo’s successor as Prefect and as husband of Ferrante’s daughter, but Ferrante baulked at the idea of such an obscure son-in-law with so many landless relatives who would no doubt expect the king to make provision for them. Soon the cardinal got his way, and Leonardo’s Neapolitan duchies of Arci and Sora, and the Prefecture, were given to his brother. Giovanni was to be ‘the only one from whom the della Rovere family would be descended’.26 Another prize he coveted for Giovanni, the prestigious office of Great Constable of Naples, eluded his grasp. When Vincula, having ostensibly set out with his brother to take possession of the duchies of Arci and Sora, apparently changed his mind and went no further than Grottaferrata, there was speculation that the refusal of the Great Constableship had caused a breach between him and the king.

Sixtus continued to show his cardinal-nephew favour, while not giving him any special power. Vincula was made a member of some groups of cardinals deputed to consider matters of particular importance, but he had served on such commissions before without making any notable impression. When Sixtus appointed a commission of cardinals to study proposals for a general league of the Italian powers in late January 1475, Vincula was not even among those initially chosen, though he was out of Rome at the time, accompanying Ferrante. Only when Sixtus dropped some members of the commission two weeks later, was he added, together with, at his insistence, Rodrigo Borgia. Towards the end of the year, he was one of three cardinals asked to consider raising a tax for the crusade, and one of nine appointed in February 1476 to consider further crusading plans, but shortly afterwards he was sent off on another legation, one that marked an important stage in his career.

This legation, to Avignon and France, was an even more significant milestone than the Umbrian one had been. It introduced Vincula to the political scene with which much of his subsequent career as a cardinal, especially during the last decade before he became pope, was connected and that would have great influence on his pontificate. This was the beginning of his personal contacts with the King of France, and with the politics of the area between France and the Holy Roman Empire to which, in a way, his home town of Savona belonged.

The crisis at Avignon that drew him into this world was only one aspect of the complex drama of the duel between Louis XI of France and Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. The Valois dukes of Burgundy, a cadet line of the Valois kings of France, had added to the duchy of Burgundy, by marriage and inheritance and conquest, a powerful and prosperous group of dominions stretching from Flanders in the north to Burgundy on the Rhone. Charles the Bold dreamed of turning these dominions into an independent kingdom, a revival of the kingdom of Burgundy, which had been the middle section of the tripartite division of Charlemagne’s vast empire among his sons.

This middle portion had included the kingdom of Italy, but the interest of the Italian powers in Charles the Bold’s fortunes did not stem from fears that he intended to continue his expansion southward into the peninsula. It was the claims of the French princely houses of Anjou to the kingdom of Naples and of Orléans to the duchy of Milan that were the focus of their concern.27 Together with the important trade and banking interests of Italian merchants in France, and Louis XI’s personal fascination with Italian politics, these had brought the French into the Italian systems of alliances.

Relations between Sixtus and Louis were a mixture of confrontation and cooperation. Louis manipulated the Gallican tradition of the French Church - that determination to keep French benefices for Frenchmen, and to limit both the intervention of the pope in the ecclesiastical affairs of the kingdom and the amount of money flowing from France to Rome - to suit his own purposes. Generally, king and pope worked together fairly comfortably, recognizing one another’s interests in appointments to benefices and taxation of the clergy. But Louis could always fall back on the ‘Gallican liberties’ if he wished to dig his heels in or bring pressure on the pope, and was also ready to make use of the threat most feared by late-fifteenth-century popes, that of calling a general council for the reform of the Church. Sixtus, like other popes, was willing to pay the price of some concessions to the king in order to maintain access to the rich benefices and revenues of the French Church.

The pope’s position as temporal ruler added a further dimension to his relations with the French king. As an Italian prince, he was involved in the alliances that linked and divided the powers of the peninsula, among whom, in a sense, France could be numbered. As the lord of the city of Avignon and the neighbouring Comtat Venaissin, bought for the papacy after the popes had settled there in the fourteenth century, his lands bordered on French territory, with all the potential for disputes over boundaries and tolls and trade and fugitives that this entailed.

At the time the crisis at Avignon arose, relations among the Italian powers, France and Burgundy were remarkably confused. No two powers clearly had the same interests in each of the several concurrent diplomatic issues. Of particular concern to the curia were proposals for an ecclesiastical council backed by one or more of the ultramontane powers, and proposals for a crusade against the Turks, who were on the move again. Rome pressed the proposals for a crusade in order to ward off those for a council, still perceived by the papal court, as the secular princes well knew, as a threat. 

The other question that concerned the papacy directly was that of the fate of the dominions of the aged and childless René d’Anjou, which bordered on Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin. As the prospect of the King of France acquiring these lands seemed the least inviting possibility, as Louis had just declared that a council should be held, and as Charles of Burgundy seemed the ruler most likely to succumb to the glamour of the prospect of holding a crusade, the papacy was, on the whole, on rather better terms with the duke than with the king. Many of the difficulties San Pietro ad Vincula would encounter on his legation sprang from Louis’s perception of the pope as an ally of Burgundy.

The crisis at Avignon that arose in early 1476 was partly a consequence of Vincula’s appointment as Bishop of Avignon in May 1474. There had been dissension between the pope and the legate of Avignon before that, for Sixtus had not really wished to appoint Charles de Bourbon, Archbishop of Lyons and a member of one of the most powerful princely houses of France, to this important legation in 1472. He had refused to make Charles a cardinal, restricted his spiritual powers as legate, interfered with appointments within the city of Avignon usually left to the decision of the legate or his governor, and, in 1473, appointed a separate governor for the Comtat. Charles won the support of the people of Avignon, who petitioned Sixtus to give back to Charles the rights and powers that his predecessor had enjoyed, but Sixtus only diminished them further. 

Following Vincula’s appointment as Bishop of Avignon, relations between the Avignonese and their legate became less harmonious. Gradually, they turned to Vincula for help with business at Rome, appointing his chancellor, Gabriele Sclafenati, as their proctor there. The pope took the opportunity of the death of the Archbishop of Arles, in early November 1475, to withdraw the see of Avignon from subordination to Arles, thus ending the ecclesiastical subordination of the papal state to a see outside it, and made Avignon an archbishopric, putting the bishoprics of Carpentras, Cavaillon and Vaison under its jurisdiction. The papal bulls and letters announcing the promotion of their see to the Avignonese mention that Vincula had had a part in bringing it about.

Louis XI was not pleased by these developments. In so far as he trusted any of the French princes, he was on good terms with the Bourbons; he married his daughter Anne to Charles’s brother Pierre, while Louis, the half-brother of Charles and Pierre, was the Admiral of France, and the Duke of Bourbon himself was the King’s lieutenant in Languedoc. In early February 1476 he ordered the seneschal of Beaucaire, Antoine de Chateauneuf, to go to Avignon to exact reparations for the insults he accused the Avignonese of inflicting on Charles de Bourbon and on the king himself by asking the pope to diminish the legate’s power. Though the seneschal seems to have behaved with restraint when he came to Avignon, it was the intervention of the king that brought about the revocation of Bourbon’s powers as legate, and his replacement by Giuliano della Rovere on 21 February. Two days earlier, the cardinal had left Rome for Avignon.

After being delayed at Ostia for some days by storms, he set sail on some Milanese galleys that had been commandeered by Sixtus, reaching Genoa on 29 February. His arrival there was unexpected, and there were hurried consultations between the Genoese and the Milanese officials about what honours should be paid to him. He plainly enjoyed being accorded the honours due to a papal legate on his home ground. When visited by two Milanese officials, who were to accompany him throughout his stay, he received them graciously but, it was noted, kept them standing with their hats in their hands, while he remained seated.28 After a few days, the cardinal went to Savona, from where he wrote to thank Galeazzo Maria for his reception in Genoa. Although he could not deny, he said (perhaps a little tactlessly), that he was previously popular there anyway, he would be ungrateful not to recognize the benevolence shown to him through the public celebrations ordered by Milan.29 . Leaving Savona on the morning of 5 March, he travelled on the same galleys to Arles, where he disembarked.

When Louis heard of the cardinal’s arrival, at first he wanted to prevent him from coming ashore, but then was persuaded to let him travel to Avignon. On 17 March he entered the city in great state, accompanied by the citizens first to his cathedral and then to the bishop’s palace. The next day he had a long discussion with the consuls of Avignon and some of the leading gentlemen, and his first confrontation with the men of Charles de Bourbon. They accused the Avignonese of writing complaints to Rome about their legate. The Avignonese had never complained of Charles de Bourbon, Vincula replied, only of his officials, and to whom else should they turn for help against oppression but their lord the pope?30

Meanwhile, the cardinal had sent Andrea de’ Spiriti, protonotary of Viterbo, to the king. Andrea had served as a papal envoy in France for a lengthy period, and Louis liked him so much that he had protested when he was recalled to Rome, and had refused to accept his replacement. The king agreed to receive his favourite, but sent his own ambassadors to the cardinal to warn him not to try to expel Charles de Bourbon from his legation. He should come to court, where he would be honoured, especially as he was the nephew of the pope. He would also be allowed to exercise his powers as legate to France, provided they did not prejudice the rights of the crown. The cardinal replied he had come to visit his diocese, and to settle the disputes between his flock and the legate’s officials. He would come to Louis after Easter. But first it would be a good idea to appoint a new lieutenant in Avignon, one of the prelates in his train, for instance.31 Louis did not think this a good idea; he wanted one of his own subjects as lieutenant.

The cardinal had yet to announce formally his own appointment as legate of Avignon in place of Charles de Bourbon, but Bourbon’s men were barricaded in the papal palace there, which was built like a fortress. Vincula had not been allowed in. Urged on by the Bourbons, who played on the king’s suspicions of the cardinal’s intentions, Louis ordered a strong force of men-at-arms to move to the neighbourhood of Avignon to lend support to Charles de Bourbon’s men. There were reports that supplies to the palace from the town had been cut off. Bourbon later claimed, in a letter of self-justification to the pope, that it was for this reason that the French troops had been sent, but from other sources it is by no means clear at what stage supplies were cut.32

The crisis was precipitated by an incident on 18 April. This was the arrival in the city of about ten men, claiming to be members of the king’s household on their way to Provence, who wanted to come into Avignon for a meal. They were admitted, but immediately made for the palace, which they entered. A large barge full of victuals for the palace came by river; this the cardinal had confiscated. The next day, infantry from the palace came out and seized some eggs and capons from one of Vincula’s household officials. This marked the opening of overt hostilities. Siege engines were prepared; a wooden outwork by one of the palace gates was burned; officials and partisans of Charles de Bourbon were arrested, and some were tortured. Vincula finally made public the deposition of Bourbon from the legation of Avignon and his own appointment as legate.

If he had hoped to be master of the palace before the arrival of the French troops, he had miscalculated. On 20 April an envoy of the Admiral of France, Louis de Bourbon, arrived in Avignon; the next day there were talks outside the city between envoys of the cardinal and the Admiral. As the French troops commanded by the Admiral and by Pierre de Bourbon and his brother Charles occupied the Comtat Venaissin and made rapidly for Avignon itself, Vincula left the city on 25 April to go to the king. He did not want to go, but felt that it was the best course of action in the circumstances.33 The Bourbons and their troops entered Avignon five days later, peacefully enough. The following day a letter arrived from the cardinal, advising the Avignonese to submit to Charles de Bourbon as their legate.34

Vincula may have finally decided to go to court, as Louis had suggested, but the king was not now prepared to see him. He made his way to Vienne, waiting for the king’s summons. Louis, however, wanted him to revoke Charles de Bourbon’s dismissal from the legation of Avignon. He ordered the cardinal to wait near Lyons. Vincula was now in a very difficult position. He was surrounded by Louis’s troops, so he could not return to Avignon; nor could he go to see the king before he received permission. Meanwhile, prelates were gathering in Lyons for the council Louis had summoned, and it seemed that the convocation of a general council of the Church would follow. 

An eyewitness account of the king’s reception of an envoy of the cardinal shows just how hostile to him Louis was. A merchant arriving in Genoa from the fair at Lyons said that while he had been there he had seen a ‘Florentine bishop’ (Antonio de’ Pazzi, Bishop of Sarno), sent by Vincula, in the king’s apartments. When the king approached, the bishop kneeled and began to speak, but before he had got very far, the king interrupted him furiously. He insulted the bishop and his master, saying that the cardinal was in league with Burgundy, that he knew he had come to Avignon to fortify it and help the Duke of Burgundy gain Provence, and that that ‘confessed Jew’ (‘iudeo confesso’), King Juan of Aragon, and ‘that bastard’ King Ferrante, had had a hand in these schemes, as had the Duke of Milan and the Duchess of Savoy; they were all in it together, but Louis had foiled them by securing Avignon and Provence. 35There was, indeed, another report that one of the reasons why Vincula was kept waiting for an audience with Louis so long was to give the king an excuse to keep his troops in the papal territories, so that they could move into Provence quickly if necessary.36 The king arrested Antonio Pazzi and another envoy the cardinal had sent, together with Andrea de’ Spiriti, who had been with Louis all the time.

This proved to be the turning point. It came to light that Andrea de’ Spiriti had been playing a double game. Trying to make himself indispensable, with his ambition fixed on the legation of France and a cardinal’s hat, he had been encouraging both the king and the cardinal to stand firm. He had told the king Vincula was his enemy; he had urged the cardinal not to leave Avignon. Once his duplicity had been revealed, Louis became willing for Vincula to come to Lyons, though not before Vincula had put his seal to letters patent, dated 27 May, ordering the inhabitants of Avignon and the Venaissin to obey Bourbon, and freeing them from their oaths of fidelity to him as legate.37 On 31 May the cardinal was finally allowed to enter Lyons, and he had an audience with the king the next day.

The outcome of this meeting was extraordinary. Suddenly Louis’s hostility was turned to marked favour. One by one, all the causes of dispute were resolved in favour of the cardinal and the papacy. Louis dropped the proposal for a general council of the Church. He agreed to Vincula replacing Bourbon as legate of Avignon. He agreed to his exercising his powers as legate of France, and ordered all French subjects having business in Rome to transact it through his agency. In order, he declared, to show his love for the cardinal, to thank him for the services he had rendered, and in the hope he would continue to render such services and have the affairs of the king and his subjects in special recommendation, he would permit him to possess all the benefices with which he was canonically provided in France, although he was not a French subject.38 So friendly had the king been to Giuliano ever since that first meeting, the cardinal’s uncle Filippo della Rovere, master of his household, wrote to his mother, Theodora, in Savona, you would think they had grown up together.39

Charles de Bourbon also showed himself friendly to his rival, agreeing to surrender his legation (in return for a promise of favour in obtaining a cardinal’s hat), and lodging him in his own episcopal palace. All the disputes that the Avignonese had had with the king’s officials were settled in their favour, specifically to please the cardinal, and he also negotiated further privileges for them, although in return they had to swear not to receive any troops of enemies of the king. Vincula left Lyons on 24 June to return to Avignon, which he reached five days later. He stayed in the area until early September, when French galleys were put at his disposal for his journey home.

Had he accomplished what he had come to do? The answer obviously depends on what the aim of the legation is thought to have been.

Louis maintained that Vincula was plotting with the Duke of Burgundy to help him to take over Provence and was willing to put Avignon at his disposal for this purpose. When Vincula had first arrived in Avignon, he had sent an envoy to Charles. Arguing that Louis was planning to introduce his own troops into the city as a step towards taking over Provence himself, the duke had tried to convince him that Avignon should be put under Burgundian guard. There is no evidence that this scheme held any appeal for the cardinal. What advantage would the papacy gain by entrusting Avignon to Duke Charles, one of the most warlike and acquisitive rulers of his day, and assisting him to take over Provence? What could justify the risk of letting such a man bring his troops to the papal territories?

The cardinal said he had come to try to pacify and protect the people of his diocese, and all his actions were consistent with that aim. As soon as Vincula had heard from his vicar in Avignon that the city was in danger of being taken over by the French with the help of Charles de Bourbon, he had been keen to go there in person. If the cardinals would not agree to his going as legate, he said, he would go as a private individual in his capacity as Archbishop of Avignon, to succour his diocese, and he was ready to die for that Church and its territory.40 The astonishing change in the king’s behaviour towards the cardinal is more readily explicable if he had first believed Vincula to be intriguing against him with his arch-enemy, was prompted to begin to revise his opinion by the revelation of Andrea de’ Spiriti’s duplicity, and then was further reassured by the cardinal when they actually met. 

As diplomatic skill was never Vincula’s strong point, but he did acquire a reputation for honesty and forthrightness in his speech, perhaps these qualities were the decisive ones. If Louis was suspicious to the point of paranoia in his later years, he was also a clever politician and a shrewd judge of character. To such a man, someone like Giuliano della Rovere would have been an open book. The warmth of the king’s welcome, the lavishness of his favour, may have been partly due to relief, but was probably largely an effort to repair the damage to relations with the papacy caused by his threat of a council and his humiliation of the pope’s legate and nephew. Would Louis have been so generous had he known that the Duke of Burgundy was about to be heavily defeated by the Swiss at the Battle of Morat on 26 June?

Nevertheless, the legation had resulted in the settlement of the disputes between the Avignonese and the royal officials, the acceptance by the king that Vincula should replace Charles de Bourbon as legate of Avignon and the dropping of the proposal to summon a general council. The only concession of substance made in return was a promise to help Charles de Bourbon to acquire a cardinal’s hat. Some measure of credit for this success must go to Giuliano della Rovere for keeping his nerve during the long wait before Louis would see him, for not trying to buy himself out of a very awkward position.

What did this legation do for his standing in Rome?

While it was believed that most of the cardinals could not wait to see the back of him, they had been divided about whether or not he should go. Predictions that he would run into trouble were widespread, though for some this was not an unwelcome prospect. Sixtus also had his doubts, and only let his nephew go because he was so eager to do so. Once the pope had yielded to his persuasion, he gave him all the powers as legate that he could. He was said to believe that some of the cardinals were perhaps encouraging the threat of a council for their own ends, and to have sent his nephew because he was the only cardinal he trusted.41

When reports about Vincula’s difficult situation in May reached Rome, Sixtus became very anxious about him. Lamenting that he had only sent his nephew because he had been so importunate, he hinted that he was not impressed by his performance; yet, because he was his nephew and a cardinal, the first priority was to get him safely out of Louis’s hands.42 The curia was anxious as well, though not for the legate’s personal safety. ‘If he were the only one to suffer the consequences, as he deserves, there isn’t a man in this court who wouldn’t laugh and hope he did, but seeing the adversity it might bring on Italy and the affairs of the Church, everyone here is displeased.’43

As the news improved and letters arrived from Vincula reporting how well Louis had received him, even Sixtus was not convinced. There were suspicions that the legate must have struck some secret bargain with Louis to win his favour, for example by promising him help in taking Genoa and Savona, and rumours that he had agreed to René resigning his claim to the kingdom of Naples to Louis. It was widely believed that he had promised the king that Charles de Bourbon would be made a cardinal and given the legation of France for life. These rumours were reported back to Vincula, who wrote vigorously denying them. Even though some of his enemies, such as the Milanese ambassador who had been gloomily predicting what his ‘lack of sense’ might lead to, became reassured that ‘the cardinal isn’t so stupid that he hasn’t realized what the king is like’, his men were still having to contradict the rumours in September.44

All in all, the cardinal won little credit for the success of the legation, because few people, even the pope, really believed that he was fitted for the task. The problems and dangers he had faced he was accused of bringing on himself; there was widespread reluctance to believe the good news when it finally came, and by the time that it had sunk in and he had arrived back at the papal court in October, opposition was already building up to giving a cardinal’s hat to Bourbon, the one matter on which Vincula had made a promise to the king.

Indeed, Vincula’s overall lack of success in the politicking surrounding the promotion of cardinals during the next two years indicates clearly that the legation to France had done little to enhance his prestige in the curia. He would have, if anything, less, rather than more, influence with Sixtus as the pontificate went on, and Girolamo Riario became ever more dominant over the pope and tightened his grip on all aspects of papal patronage. He would even be eclipsed as cardinal-nephew by Riario’s own nephew, brought into the College in 1477.

The first battle to be won when Vincula rejoined the papal court in early October was for the fulfilment of his promise to procure Bourbon’s election to the College of Cardinals. He insisted that if this was not done, Louis would once again threaten the independence of Avignon, and he himself would be humiliated. The cardinals were not too averse to making Bourbon a member of the College, because there was small chance of his coming to join them in Rome, but they were worried that if that promotion were made, others would have to be made too. 

There were standing promises of hats to protégés of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferrante and the King of Portugal. The Duke of Milan, King of Hungary, Duke of Burgundy and Florence all had candidates of their own in mind, and there were old associates of Sixtus that he was keen to promote. Vincula had another man in mind himself, Lorenzo Zane, the Patriarch of Antioch, who had served him on the Umbrian legation and had acted as his agent in Rome while he had been away in France. This was not a popular choice, for Zane had many enemies in Rome and was not generally considered to be worthy of a place in the College. On the other hand, Vincula was opposed - on the grounds that he was a Breton and would therefore be displeasing to Louis - to an old friend of his uncle, the protonotary Pierre de Foix, whom Sixtus was much inclined to make a cardinal.45

In the event, Sixtus not only had de Foix made a cardinal, he also obtained the promotion of another of his old friends, Pedro Ferrici. Charles de Bourbon got his promotion, but Zane did not, though Vincula fought hard for him to the last moment. He made a scene in the final consistory at which the promotion was decided on 18 December 1476, protesting, even weeping, according to the account reported by the Milanese ambassador, and threatening that if Sixtus was willing for him to suffer such damage to his reputation by the refusal of his candidate, he would go away and never appear before him again.46 So angry and humiliated was he by his loss of face, that he would not attend the public consistory at which two of the new cardinals were to be formally admitted. He left Rome to nurse his grievance, and it was the middle of January 1477 before Sixtus could coax him back. 

It might have been some consolation to him if he had known that he had in fact gained far more at this promotion than he could have done had his own candidate been successful. One of the new cardinals, Jorge da Costa, Archbishop of Lisbon, was to become perhaps his closest friend in the College after coming to Rome in 1480. An upright man, who won the esteem and respect of his colleagues, he would be a friend worth having, one who remained loyal to Vincula for the rest of his life.

Vincula returned to Rome still determined that Zane should be a cardinal, and it was said he had been promised he would have his wish. If one cardinal was to be created, there would have to be others, so the question of who those others should be was opened again before the newly created cardinals had settled into their scarlet robes. Again Sixtus had his own candidates in mind, this time two nipoti, Cristoforo della Rovere, Archbishop of Tarantais (one of the recently discovered ‘cousins’ from Piedmont) 47and Girolamo Basso della Rovere, Bishop of Recanati, son of Sixtus’s sister. Again Vincula opposed the pope’s wishes. Why he should have opposed them is not clear, unless he simply feared to share what power his position as sole cardinal- nephew gave him, though his desperation at the realization that Zane’s candidature would again be unsuccessful was said to have played a part. In any case, it was not a wise move. He managed to rally enough support in consistory to force the pope to drop the idea for the moment, but at the cost of quarrelling with Sixtus more acrimoniously than before.48

Nor was this the only cause of dispute between them. They also had conflicting attitudes to the Milanese domination of Genoa. While Vincula supported the Fieschi and Campofregoso, who stimulated a rebellion against Milanese rule in March 1477, Sixtus backed the Sforza. The Genoese rebels needed a leader and turned to Obietto Fieschi. Sixtus tried to keep him in Rome, but Obietto managed to escape by boat, with the connivance of some cardinals. Given Vincula’s earlier connection with Obietto, and his support for the rebellion, it is likely that he had a hand in his flight. Another cardinal who openly supported the rebels was the Genoese Gianbattista Cib, known as Cardinal Molfetta, the future Pope Innocent VIII. He and Vincula put to the pope the suggestion of the Genoese that Sixtus should take Genoa under his protection, even take it directly under his rule, but Sixtus would have none of it, and continued to support the Milanese. While the pope excommunicated Obietto, Vincula sent him money.49 

There is not enough evidence to form a clear picture of Vincula’s stance in Genoese politics, except to indicate a partiality for the exiles. He had been a patron for some years of Obietto Fieschi and his brother Urbano, whom he had wished to have a cardinal’s hat in December 1476. Several other Genoese exiles had accompanied him to Rome on his return from Avignon. Whatever his motives were, Sixtus did not appreciate them. He told his nephew on several occasions, even in full consistory, that he was displeased by his behaviour, but to no avail.

By the end of April the rebellion at Genoa was over, but very soon there was yet another reason for Sixtus to be angry with his nephew. He was accused of plotting to kill Girolamo Riario. Two of his protégés, the Genoese Domenico Doria, and Matteo da Canale from Todi, were imprisoned in the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The rooms he had occupied in the papal palace were taken from him, a sign that Sixtus was prepared to believe that there was something in the accusations. Indeed, since his return from France, the rivalry between Vincula and his cousin had been more bitter than before. Riario’s determination that his efforts to have Lorenzo Zane made a cardinal should come to nothing had brought about open hostility between them, even in the presence of Sixtus. Now Zane had shown his loyalty to his patron by going to Riario and speaking of a conspiracy against him by Vincula and Obietto Fieschi.

Under interrogation, Domenico Doria and Matteo da Canale had a different tale to tell. According to them, there had been some talk of killing Riario, at the time when it was clear that Zane would not be made a cardinal, but Zane himself had been the principal instigator of the plot. While he had asked them several times to kill Riario, claiming to be speaking on behalf of the cardinal, Vincula himself had never spoken to them about the matter. Soon it became apparent that Vincula was guilty, at worst, of not revealing the threat to Riario, which may have come to his ears. He pressed for Zane to be tried, but Riario, despite the revelation that Zane was the principal culprit, defended him and said that he had promised that he would not be persecuted for his disclosures.50

Though the greater evil of one papal nephew conspiring to kill another had proved to be a fabrication, the fact that relations between them were such that the pope himself could believe it might be true was scandal enough, and Sixtus was concerned that the two should be reconciled. By early June it seemed that they had settled their differences, and the storm had blown over.

Nevertheless, Vincula did not recover the ground that he had lost in the contest with Girolamo Riario. In December 1477 he also lost his position as the sole nipote in the College of Cardinals, since no less than three of the seven new cardinals promoted in that month were relatives of Sixtus: Cristoforo della Rovere, Girolamo Basso della Rovere and Riario’s own nephew, Raffaele Sansoni Riario. Cristoforo della Rovere, who had been the castellan of Castel Sant’ Angelo, died less than two months after his promotion. Sixtus was distraught, thinking that the stresses of the castellanship must have been the cause of his death; to console him, the cardinals suggested that the pope should give Cristoforo’s hat to another relative, and Sixtus gladly gave it to Cristoforo’s brother, Domenico. Neither Girolamo Basso nor Domenico became powerful figures in the College, though Sixtus entrusted Domenico with a number of commissions. Raffaele Riario, however, though only aged sixteen when he was promoted, with his uncle’s backing was to become a serious rival to Vincula.

Girolamo Riario was consolidating his dominance in other ways too. In November 1478, after angling for over a year, he got one of his former grooms, now a bishop, appointed castellan of Castel Sant’ Angelo; he already had his men as castellans of several other major papal fortresses. His supremacy was increasingly recognized by the other Italian powers. If Sixtus sent Vincula, again with Cardinal Borgia, to greet the Duke of Calabria when he visited Rome in June 1478, it was Girolamo Riario that Calabria’s father Ferrante really wanted as an ally at the court. Riario was invited to Naples and offered the office of Great Constable that Vincula had wanted for his brother; the following year, he did in fact become Great Constable.

The strongest evidence of Girolamo Riario’s hold over Sixtus was the way in which he persuaded the pope to agree to backing the conspiracy of the Pazzi against Lorenzo de’ Medici in April 1478, precipitating a war with Florence and her allies that lasted for two years. In this war, while Ferrante backed the pope, the Sforza stood by Florence. Inevitably, this meant that relations between Riario and Milan grew considerably cooler, giving scope for Vincula to turn the tables on Riario for supplanting him as Naples’ favoured nipote.

A rapprochement with Milan had been one of the conditions of Vincula’s ‘reconciliation’ with Riario in 1477. He had shown himself willing to observe this by, for example, giving Milan a guarantee that a prominent Genoese exile, Paolo Campofregoso, the Archbishop of Genoa, would abide by the conditions imposed by Milan on his exile in Rome. When he heard of another plot against Milan in Genoa, in May 1478, this time instigated by Ferrante, he passed on what he had learned to the Sforza’s ambassador - and took the opportunity to assure them that his influence over the Genoese exiles could be used to their advantage. A couple of months later, he even told the Milanese ambassador how Sixtus had asked the Archbishop of Genoa, who was lodged in his palace at Santi Apostoli, to go to Genoa (presumably to stir up trouble for Milan), and how the archbishop had refused.

This time, there were no reports that Sixtus was angered by his nephew taking a different line to that of the pope in Genoese affairs, but then there are very few reports about Vincula at all during the years of the Pazzi War. How far he sought to counter the policies Riario was urging on Sixtus is impossible to say. It is known that he was one of the cardinals deputed to conduct negotiations with a French embassy that came to Rome in early 1479 to try to bring about peace in Italy, and Lorenzo de’ Medici advised the ambassadors to pay particular court to him.51 Riario’s response to the confidence placed in Vincula by the French ambassadors was to press offers of his own services on Louis.

It was France that gave Vincula a chance to move back into the limelight. Louis had asked for a papal legate to be sent, as a move in his diplomatic battle with Duke Maximilian, the Habsburg husband of Marie of Burgundy, daughter and heiress of Charles the Bold. The French ambassadors in Rome themselves suggested that Vincula should be appointed. He was eager to go, and in late April 1480 bulls were issued giving him powers as legate in France, Brittany, Provence, Savoy and the Low Countries, together with accreditation, though not such full powers, for Scotland and England. 

His main task was to be the promotion of peace between Louis and Marie and Maximilian, so that the Christian powers could unite against the Turks. A secondary mission was to get custody of two ecclesiastics arrested by Louis in 1469, one a cardinal and former royal favourite, Jean Balue, and the other the Bishop of Verdun, Guillaume de Harancourt, who had both been intriguing with Charles the Bold. The legate was to hold an enquiry into the matter, independent of royal officials, and to report his findings to Rome, where the judicial decision would be made. After delaying to attend the marriage of his sister Luchina to Gianfrancesco Franciotti of Lucca, he left Rome on 9 June.

In marked contrast to the hostile reception that Louis had given him on his previous legation, this time he was fêted and allowed the free exercise of his powers, though when the king’s delegates met him outside Lyons on 2 August, he had to make a formal declaration this would not in any way infringe the rights of the French crown. His report to Sixtus on the messages the king had sent rings with pleasure and optimism, especially as he had heard that a six months’ truce had been arranged between Louis and Maximilian. 52Three weeks later he met the king at Vendôme, and reported that same evening the warmth of Louis’s greeting, his words of concern about the threat from the Turks, and his generous offers of help against them - offers that were conditional, however, on other Christian princes doing their share. There was going to be a meeting on 15 October between envoys of the king and of the duke, at which the legate was to be present. If he should find Maximilian as well disposed as Louis had shown himself to be, the prospects for success in his legation were good.53

But Maximilian was not so accommodating. Indeed, he refused to see Vincula at all, or even to admit him into Burgundian territory. Vincula left Paris for Picardy on 15 September, and lingered on the borders of Maximilian’s lands for about three months. Double-dealing by Luca de’ Tollenti, papal nuncio to the court of Burgundy, and by Marco de Ponte, the Archbishop of Rhodes, the envoy sent by Vincula to try to open negotiations, wrecked any chances he might have had to overcome Maximilian’s distrust.

Louis warned him that he was being betrayed - he had been betrayed ever since he had left Rome by de’ Tollenti, who did not want to lose his own legation - and advised him to try to exploit the dislike of Maximilian’s councillors felt by the people of Ghent. If he could win them over, the king said, they had the power to admit him as legate despite Maximilian and his council.54 Vincula replied that he had been aware of the treachery and had written to Ghent and other towns in Flanders, telling them how the duke had refused him entry and asking them to send men to him. De Ponte, he wrote, was a Greek (evidently he did not regard this as a compliment), and had done what he had through greed and ambition. He could not be left to cause trouble in Flanders and England, but Vincula wanted to be careful not to dishonour the status of archbishop that he held. Could the king order some men to remove him discreetly from the scene, without allowing him to write or speak to anyone, and take him to Châteauneuf-du-Pape near Avignon, where Vincula would investigate what he had been up to in Flanders? As for de’ Tollenti, Sixtus had ordered Vincula to look into what he had been about; before he left Picardy, de’ Tollenti would not know where to turn.55

While he was waiting in vain to be admitted to Flanders, Vincula heard the news of the Turks’ capture of the city of Otranto in the kingdom of Naples, which gave the subject of the crusade a little more topicality and urgency than usual. Sixtus, terrified, ordered him to prepare the palace at Avignon as a refuge for the papal court. In late December Vincula, perhaps spurred by the news, turned back to rejoin the king, whose release of Cardinal Balue was the first tangible fruit of the legation. Louis was still professing interest in the idea of undertaking the crusade. When Vincula wrote to Sixtus on 10 February 1481 from Tours, he said that if only the quarrel between Louis and Maximilian could be settled, he was sure much of the French army would take the cross; many of the nobles to whom he had spoken had declared themselves willing to do so. If Sixtus would take upon himself the adjudication of their dispute, as Vincula had urged him to do before, this would surely help to bring peace.56 Sixtus duly ordered a three-year truce between all Christian princes; when Louis received this bull in late April, he declared himself ready to agree, provided he had guarantees that his enemies would do the same.

The king was soon to become less friendly, however, as the question of the fate of Provence came to the fore again. Louis had accepted René d’Anjou’s designation of Charles du Maine as his heir, but Sixtus would not recognize either Charles or the other claimant, the Duke of Lorraine, as Duke of Anjou, still less invest one of them with the papal fief of the kingdom of Naples. As Vincula made his way back to Avignon, which he reached on 27 May, he had to negotiate with Jean de Dinteville, the captain of one of the armed bands that were already taking advantage of the inheritance dispute to indulge in a little profitable campaigning in Provence, more or less on behalf of one or the other claimant, and spilling over into the neighbouring papal territories. Theoretically neutral, Vincula may have been favouring the Duke of Lorraine; certainly Charles du Maine accused him of doing so, and became increasingly hostile. 

Jean de Dinteville, who had been fighting on behalf of Lorraine, plotted to capture the legate; Charles du Maine wrote on 10 August denying he had anything to do with this,57 but the mere fact he should feel obliged to deny responsibility for the activities of his rival’s captain, indicates there were suspicions that Dinteville had shifted allegiance. Louis was furious at the arrest of Dinteville and his accomplices when the plot was discovered. If he ever laid hands on the legate, he wrote, ‘never would I listen to him, nor would I let him go, cardinal and Bishop of Avignon though he be.’58 Dinteville was his vassal and subject and servant, Louis told the people of Avignon; if he had committed any fault, the king would see to it that he was duly punished.59

As on his first legation, therefore, Vincula was marooned in Avignon, unable to leave for Rome because of hostile troops along his route. Appeased by the release of Dinteville, after he had asked for pardon, Louis wrote to say that the legate had nothing to fear from him. But there was still Charles du Maine, demanding that Lorraine’s supporters be expelled from Avignon. Vincula’s response was to arrange for one of Lorraine’s captains, the Basque Menaud d’Aguerre, to be taken into service by the Avignonese. He evidently took to Menaud, giving him revenues in Avignon and having him made a citizen. But Louis did not approve, and threatened the Avignonese that he would back Charles du Maine against them if they did not dismiss Menaud; they insisted that he leave, but he did not finally go until after the departure of the legate. He had escorted Vincula - who also had an escort of troops paid for by the citizens of Carpentras - when he at last left Avignon in mid-November. 

The legate was not being overcautious: just before he left, another plot by Charles du Maine’s men to capture him had been discovered. He avoided Provençal territory, and returned by way of Orange and Dauphiné. Less than a month after the legate’s far from triumphant departure from Avignon, the fate of Provence was finally settled, as Charles du Maine died and Louis himself was his successor. At least Vincula benefited from this personally, for the estates he held in Provence, which Charles du Maine had confiscated, were restored to him by the king.

Paradoxically, this second legation to France does seem to have enhanced Vincula’s standing in Rome. When he ran into trouble on his return to Avignon, there were no reports this time of malicious pleasure among the cardinals and members of the curia. Supporters of Burgundy in Rome, led by Cardinal Mâcon, did claim that he was administering the legation of Avignon badly, and was furnishing Louis with a pretext to annex the Comtat Venaissin, but in general he seems to have met with more sympathy for his dilemma than during the first legation. Many cardinals were said to be looking forward to his return.60

Sixtus stood by his nephew, and when difficulties arose, he did not begin dropping querulous hints that he doubted his capacity to deal with the situation. Instead, he wrote to Louis reminding him of the privileges of legates and emphasizing his confidence in his nephew. He threatened Provence with ecclesiastical censures, appointing a commission of cardinals to report to consistory on the affair. At the height of the trouble in Avignon, Sixtus had the notion of appointing a council of four to oversee the temporal and spiritual affairs of the Church, to increase his personal control and diminish that of the cardinals - San Pietro ad Vincula was to be one of the four, Girolamo Riario another, and the remaining two were to be Cardinal Domenico della Rovere and the depositario, Gianfrancesco Franciotti, Vincula’s brother-in-law - but the leading cardinals soon put paid to this idea.

When Vincula set out to return to Rome, he intended to travel by sea again; Sixtus asked him to travel by land, giving him commissions to carry out in Milan. It was predicted that on his return to Rome Sixtus would give him responsibility for much business and would rely on him to a great extent.61

His reception when he finally arrived at Rome on 3 February 1482 with Cardinal Balue was a triumph. Eight cardinals and many prelates, as well as the ambassadors accredited to the Roman court, went several miles out of the city to greet him. A little further on, he was met by Girolamo Riario together with the Venetian ambassador and a large crowd of Roman barons and gentlemen. The two rival nipoti gave a great demonstration of mutual affection, embracing each other, laughing. A mile from the city, the Governor of Rome, the Senator, Conservators and other Roman officials and citizens were waiting for him. Just outside the Porto del Popolo were all the rest of the cardinals, who also greeted him affectionately, and the papal guard. 

That night he and Balue rested at the monastery of Santa Maria del Popolo, just inside the gate, and the following morning they were escorted from there by all the cardinals and the members of the curia to the Vatican to be received formally by Sixtus in a public consistory. These ceremonial greetings on the return of a legate were customary, but the honour of the reception was calculated by how many cardinals, curiali and citizens turned up, and how far from Rome the advance welcoming parties went. Vincula’s reception on this occasion was judged quite exceptional.

Naturally, there were limits to the welcome extended to him. Girolamo Riario was not about to allow him an equal share in influence over the pope. The cardinals who had the privilege of chambers in the papal palace, Raffaele Riario and Ferriaco de Cluny, had tried to prevent Sixtus from preparing rooms for Vincula there. Nor was Raffaele Riario the only other nephew among the cardinals whom Sixtus kept with him frequently - Domenico della Rovere and Girolamo Basso della Rovere were also high in his favour.

Nevertheless, Vincula was the senior nipote in the College, holder of major offices in the Church and fresh from an important legation. He may not have had much success in promoting peace between Louis and Maximilian, and he had had his problems at Avignon, but he had secured the release of Cardinal Balue and of Guillaume de Harancourt, and the maintenance of the prestige of the clergy and their immunity from lay jurisdiction ranked high among the priorities of the court of Rome. The cardinals had decided even before Vincula left Avignon that there should be no judicial proceedings instituted in Rome against Balue, as Louis was insisting there should be, and as the cardinals themselves had agreed only days before changing their minds. Balue must not be tried, they decided, ‘for the honour of the Apostolic See and of all the College of Cardinals’.62 His considerable political skills made him an influential figure in the College. In securing his liberation, Vincula gained a friend and a useful ally.

It was not only in Rome that there were expectations that Vincula would have a greater say in the making of papal policy. The league of Florence, Milan and Naples was looking to him to counterbalance Girolamo Riario, no longer regarded even by Milan as a trustworthy ally since he and Sixtus had cultivated friendship with Venice after the end of the Pazzi War in 1480. Vincula had been sounded out in Milan and Florence on his journey south, and was eager to seize the opportunity offered to him. Sixtus was ready to use him as a link with the league, and happy for him to play an important role in diplomacy.

The role he was called upon to play, as advocate of a league whose major concern was the containment of Venice, was to assist Ercole d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, in trying to settle a dispute that had blown up between Ferrara and Venice. This dispute centred on the exercise of special privileges that Venice had enjoyed in Ferrara since the early fourteenth century, which included the maintenance of a Venetian official, the visdomino, in the city, with jurisdiction over the Venetian merchants who came there. Ferrara was a papal fief, and Sixtus might have been expected to back the duke against the overbearing Venetians and try to free this papal dominion from the encroaching authority of a powerful neighbour. Girolamo Riario, however, was looking to Venice for support in furthering his personal ambitions, and the pope was in fact backing the Venetians.

A list of the undertakings Sixtus wanted the duke to promise to observe towards Venice was drawn up, with Cardinal Raffaele Riario acting as secretary and the pope looking over his shoulder through his spectacles as he dictated the text himself. Vincula and several other cardinals were present, and though Sixtus suggested that Vincula should keep a copy, he explicitly said that he did not want this to be seen as something arranged by Vincula without the participation of Girolamo Riario.63 Vincula thought that if the duke would agree to these undertakings, as in fact he did, war could be avoided. Sixtus himself said that he did not want war. But Girolamo Riario did, and once again his will prevailed.

Only days after the document had been drawn up, Vincula was being excluded from important discussions on the dispute between Ferrara and Venice, and Sixtus had spoken to him in such a manner that he had determined to stay at home and not go to the palace, although Cardinal Cibo persuaded him to change his mind. Cibo told the Milanese ambassador that Vincula was the only cardinal who dared to speak to Sixtus about the danger of war; the other cardinals had talked about doing so, but none could summon up the nerve to broach the subject.64 Girolamo Riario prevailed with the pope, despite the fact that victory for Venice was bound to be to the prejudice of the papacy’s rights in that area of the Romagna. Even before the outbreak of the War of Ferrara at the beginning of May, Vincula’s role as the accepted spokesman for the league in the pope’s circle was plainly over.

Up to the end of the pontificate, Riario’s position as the dictator of papal policy seemed stronger than ever. He managed to prevent Vincula from taking any effective part in the negotiations that brought the pope over from the side of Venice to that of the league in December 1482 and in the prolonged and various peace negotiations that at length brought the war to an end in August 1484. Whenever contacts and proposals initiated by Vincula looked as if they might bear fruit, Riario made it clear that any peace negotiations conducted through those channels would not be acceptable to him. Yet there are signs that he recognized he could not exclude his cousins Giuliano and Giovanni from the pope’s circle completely, and that some sort of accommodation was reached between the rivals that prevented overt demonstrations of ill-will, such as had led to the scandal of 1477.

This explains the support that Riario gave to a proposal that the Prefect, Giovanni della Rovere, should become captain of the Sienese troops. He and the pope pressed Siena on this matter throughout the spring of 1482, at first, apparently, without telling Vincula. The motive behind this sudden concern of Riario for the furtherance of Giovanni’s career was primarily an attempt to remove him from the sphere of influence of Urbino and Naples. The Duke of Urbino had sent the Prefect to Rome in January 1482 to try to counteract Riario’s influence; Riario welcomed him with open arms and a marriage alliance was agreed between their infant children. The pressure began on Siena to give the Prefect a condotta. Opposition by the Prefect to the prospect of war caused Riario to lose interest in the idea for a while and the pope to become rather ambivalent, but Vincula had taken up the scheme with enthusiasm. Once the pope had switched sides and become an ally of Naples, Riario’s rationale for promoting the condotta disappeared, and the plan was dropped, to the relief of Siena.

A condotta for the Prefect with Milan and Naples instead was arranged in July 1483. Whatever the tactical reasons behind Riario’s efforts to get the Sienese captaincy for the Prefect, it is interesting that he felt that the effort had to be made, and that he could not simply try to neutralize the Prefect by blackening him in the pope’s eyes as tainted by his association with Urbino and Naples. Similarly, it is interesting that Vincula should so readily have taken up a proposal concerning his brother’s career apparently hatched by Riario, and that the scheme was not automatically suspect to him by the very fact of Riario’s involvement.

The ambiguities of relations between the cousins are illustrated by the position Riario adopted in a dispute that Vincula had with the Duke of Ferrara over a benefice. It was Sixtus who first advised Ercole d’Este’s ambassadors to consult Riario about how to induce Vincula to renounce the benefice, but Riario, describing the cardinal as ‘inexorable’, told them that he was not the man to do this. When Vincula asked him to write to the duke on his behalf, he did so, but told Ercole’s ambassadors the letter should be ignored, and advised that the cardinal should not be given possession of the benefice before the pope had recovered from a bout of illness and Riario could speak to him about the matter. The Ferrarese ambassador warned that Vincula did not like Riario being consulted on the matter; this was not, the ambassador explained, simply because they were rivals, but because they also had some mutual understanding, and would keep one another informed and at times help one another.65

Two major benefices, far more important than the one in dispute with the Este, had already come the cardinal’s way in these final years of Sixtus’s pontificate. One, which he was given in February 1483, was the bishopric of Ostia, the most important bishopric of the region around Rome because of the fortress there guarding the mouth of the Tiber. This became one of his favourite residences, and he would make major alterations to the fortress and commission the enlargement and decoration of the episcopal church. He loved to relax at Ostia, fishing and hunting. It also became a refuge, and somewhere he could brood when out of sorts. 

The other major benefice was the bishopric of Bologna, which was given to him, together with the important legation of Bologna, in October 1483. He did not spend much time at Bologna as a cardinal, but this, the most important city in the Papal States after Rome, was a focus of the most decisive campaigns of his pontificate. His interests as bishop, even more than his experience as legate, shaped his attitude to the real rulers of the city, the Bentivoglio family and their allies, and embroiled him in a number of disputes with the Este of Ferrara - that in which Riario had become involved was the first. As pope, he would drive the Bentivoglio from Bologna and do his best to drive the Este from Ferrara. His relations with these families as a cardinal were not the direct cause of his hostility to them as pope, but undoubtedly contributed to it.

Ostia fell to Vincula’s lot when it was vacated by the death of a senior cardinal, Guillaume d’Estouteville. He had been the camerlengo, the head of the Apostolic Chamber, the main accounting office of the Church and the body responsible for the administration of the Papal States. His successor in this role was to be the youngest cardinal, Raffaele Riario. Possession of the office would be enough in itself to make him a major figure in the College, even after Sixtus’s death. Appointment to it was for life, or until the holder became pope. Possibly for this reason, there was no report of Vincula trying to get it for himself; he already held such an office, that of Grand Penitentiary. His was less powerful, and, indeed, his position as Penitentiary was scarcely ever alluded to by diplomats,66 but it may have prevented him from aspiring to be camerlengo.

 Cardinal Riario’s acquisition of such a plum did not prevent Girolamo from trying to get the bishopric and legation of Bologna for him as well, suggesting the archbishopric of Pisa as a consolation prize for Vincula. Although that attempt failed, he was successful in pushing Cardinal Riario into greater prominence at the papal court. When Girolamo left Rome in the early summer of 1483 for the campaign around Ferrara, he made his nephew responsible for the conduct of business in his absence, and it was to him that Sixtus duly referred ambassadors.

In public at least, Vincula did not protest about this. Perhaps in itself this is an indication of increasing political maturity. He no longer indulged in extravagant public sulking when things did not go his way, and gave his enemies less opportunity to ridicule him and laugh at his discomfiture. 

In fact, he was quietly strengthening his own position in the College, building up the number of his friends. Jorge da Costa was now a recognized friend. Gianbattista Cibo had been a protégé before and after he became a cardinal. Gabriele Rangone acknowledged him as the sponsor of his own promotion. Paolo da Campofregoso, the Archbishop of Genoa whom Vincula had protected and sheltered in his palace, had been made a cardinal in 1480. Balue still saw him as his liberator and a friend of France. Two of the Roman baronial cardinals, Savelli and Colonna, had become his allies. Between Vincula and the other two della Rovere cardinals there was no hint of enmity; perhaps they too could be counted as friends, though neither was a strong enough personality to be a really useful ally. This could not be said of Cardinal Borgia, the vice-chancellor, who was friendly enough and could be an ally if his interests ran the same way. By the end of his uncle’s pontificate, Giuliano della Rovere was no longer, as he had seemed at times in the 1470s, an isolated figure of fun.

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