This essay will cover the glory and catastrophe that was the Renaissance papacy. This is Part One: the years of glory
In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was chosen as the new pope, taking the name Alexander VI. He was a Spaniard, or more strictly a Catalan, from a line of minor gentry, born in 1431. His elevation was due to his uncle, who had risen to become Pope Calixtus III. During his brief pontificate (1455-58), Calixtus appointed his nephew a cardinal and then vice-chancellor of the Holy See at the age of just 26. Rodrigo Borgia rapidly became one of the richest and most influential men in the College of Cardinals, noted for his great intelligence and ability, and lived in enormous luxury. He fathered at least six children by several different women, the most famous being the sons Giovanni and Cesare and the daughter Lucrezia. At death of Pope Innocent VIII, he contrived to be chosen as the next Pope by means of intrigue and colossal bribery, to the fury of his great rival Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere, who was backed by the French and was himself the nephew of the late Pope Sixtus IV.
The Rome he inherited was described by Lorenzo de’ Medici as “a sink of iniquity”. For the first half of the 14th century the popes had resided not in Rome but in Avignon, and were little more than puppets of the King of France. From 1378 there followed a disgraceful period known as the “Great Schism”, when there were two, or for a while even three rival Popes, all hurling anathema at each other. Only with the election of Martin V in 1417 had the papacy returned permanently to Rome, and in the remainder of the 15th century the once-great city had barely started to recover. The population had fallen to about 50,000. There were an estimated fourteen murders a day in the city, the killers not being deterred by the sight of the rotting corpses of criminals hanging from the Castel Sant’ Angelo, since it was easy, if sufficiently influential, to bribe one’s way to freedom. (A later Pope said, “The lord does not desire the death of a criminal, but that he should pay and go free!”) There were said to be 7,000 prostitutes working the city, many in brothels licensed by church, and very profitable! Resulting from this, a new disease was sweeping the city: syphilis: “Very common among priests!” noted Cellini, who caught it himself. The former papal territories in the hinterland of Rome, the so-called “Patrimony”, had descended into complete lawlessness and banditry.
Pope Alexander wished to rebuild the city, to restore order and regain papal territories, and not least to advance his children to wealth and power - but first he had very great peril to cope with.
There was a new king of France, Charles VIII, aged twenty; small, ugly, deformed, unable to speak clearly, but active and ambitious, and possessed of a large army. He was keen to rule an empire, and cast his eye on Naples, now under Spanish control, but where the French monarchy had a dynastic claim. When King Ferrante of Naples died in January 1494, Charles decided to invade. He was encouraged in this by the effective ruler of Milan, the sinister Lodovico Sforza, known as “Il Moro“. The Sforza family had been mere mercenary condottiore two generations earlier, but had risen to succeed the Visconti dynasty in Milan. The dreadful tyrant Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza had been murdered in 1476, leaving only a seven-year-old boy of feeble intellect, Gian Galeazzo, with the boy’s uncle Lodovico as regent; and, as with all wicked uncles, eager to seize power himself. (Despite the extreme brutality of the city’s politics, these were great days for art in Milan: Leonardo da Vinci came to the city in 1482, to paint the “Last Supper” and to plan a life-size equestrian statue of the late Duke, which he modelled in clay but never actually made)
In September 1494 a French army of 30,000 men, featuring the first fully mobile cannon-train to be seen in Italy, crossed the Alps, with Cardinal della Rovere providing spiritual support. They were welcomed at Milan by Lodovico, where the unfortunate young ducal heir conveniently died. Lodovico Sforza then arrested the remainder of the Visconti family and proclaimed himself Duke of Milan. The French army trundled on into Florentine territory, where Piero de’ Medici, the wholly inadequate heir to the great Lorenzo “the Magnificent”, acted with fatal indecision, first promising to support Naples and then proclaiming himself neutral. The French, unimpressed, seized the Florentine fortress of Fivizzano and slaughtered the entire garrison. For some time the Dominican friar Savonarola had been preaching fiery sermons prophesying the doom of Florence, as punishment for its sins, and now that doom had arrived!
In November 1494 Piero de’ Medici fled the city, and Medici rule collapsed. The family’s palace was pillaged by the mob, and Medici bank assets were seized. A republican government was set up, with Savonarola as its inspiration, though he held no office. King Charles and his army entered city, to be hailed by Savonarola as “minister of God”. There was little violence, and the French were promised a vast sum to persuade them move on. Savonarola’s sermons grew ever more apocalyptic, provoking Florentines to stage great “bonfires of the vanities”, publicly burning all their luxuries. On one such occasion, a visiting Venetian, seeing all the perfumes, robes and ornaments piled up ready to be burnt, offered a large sum for the lot. The Florentines showed what they thought of Venetian frivolity by quickly having his portrait sketched and placing it on top of the bonfire!
Meanwhile Charles marched on through Rome, where the Pope took refuge in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and the French army took Naples without opposition. Charles stayed there for a while, but the Pope built up a coalition to oppose him: a Holy League of King Ferdinand of Spain, the Emperor Maximilian of Germany, Venice, and Milan, where Duke Lodovico changed sides - but not including Florence, which was now supporting the French. In July 1495 there was a great battle between the French and the forces of the Holy League under Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Despite heavy casualties the battle was inconclusive, but French were now greatly outnumbered and had to retreat from Italy leaving most of their baggage and plunder behind. King Charles died childless in 1498, and was succeeded by his distant cousin, Louis XII; but the French had no intention of abandoning their Italian ambitions.
Pope Alexander was now determined to deal with Savonarola, or at least to silence him. He tried first to buy him off with the promise to make him a cardinal, but without result. By summer 1497 Alexander had had enough, and excommunicated him. The Florentine economy now in a weak condition, Savonarola’s popularity was declining and his enemies began to make moves against him, especially the Franciscan friars, the rivals of Dominicans. A week before Easter 1498, Savonarola was challenged to prove his divine inspiration by a trial by ordeal, running between two huge bonfires. The spectacle was set up, then inexplicably called off. Riots followed, and Savonarola and his leading supporters were arrested. Savonarola was tortured to get him to confess to heresy and other crimes; he was hanged and burnt in the Piazza della Signoria and his ashes scattered to leave no relics. Florence continued as a republic without him. His reputation remains ambiguous: Michelangelo said that for the rest of his life he could always hear the voice of the Friar ringing in his head; and there have since been occasional moves to declare him a saint.
The Pope’s other great aim was to establish his children in power and wealth; so his son Giovanni became Duke of Gandia. The second son, Cesare, was destined for the church: he had become a priest at six years old and was now made a Cardinal at eighteen. The rest were married off, notably Lucrezia, who was married, at the age of just twelve, to Giovanni Sforza of Milan, and when this proved inconvenient, divorced and married to Alfonso, bastard son of king of Naples. But in June 1497, Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, was mysteriously murdered and his body dumped in Tiber. A local man testified that he saw several figures drop a body in at night: asked why he hadn’t informed the authorities, he said he had witnessed at least a hundred similar incidents! Cesare now renounced the priesthood and set out to conquer the Romagna (the region around Bologna) for the papacy and for himself; and proved notably successful, employing a mixture of military skill, treachery and assassination that was praised by Machiavelli. In 1500 Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered, possibly with the connivance of Cesare, and she then married Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara for political reasons. Alexander’s foreign policy was now moving closer to France. In 1498 the French were in Italy again, under their new king, Louis XII: this time to press a dynastic claim to Milan, with the aid of Venice and the Pope. Duke Lodovico raised a force of Swiss mercenaries to fight them, but he was no soldier: his army deserted him at the battle of Novaro, and he ended his days in prison in France; the last independent Duke of Milan, leaving his duchy to be contested between foreign powers.
Alexander was called upon to adjudicate on a new and unique question. This was the time of Columbus’s voyages across the Atlantic, and by the Treaty of Tordesillas in May 1493, Alexander allotted all the new lands just discovered. An imaginary line of longitude was drawn 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands: everywhere west of this was awarded to Spain, and east of it to Portugal (which is why Portuguese, rather than Spanish, is spoken in Brazil). But the treaty was soon being ignored by the English, French and Dutch.
In 1500 Alexander organised a Jubilee (a festival held every 50 years): the most grandiose one yet. By time of his death in 1503, Alexander had been successful politically, but the flagrant immorality of his family brought the papacy to new low in moral terms. Machiavelli commented, "The soul of the glorious Alexander was now borne among the choir of the blessed. Dancing attendance were his three devoted handmaidens: Cruelty, Simony and Lechery".
The next Pope, Pius III, lasted a mere three weeks before dying, and then the great enemy of the Borgia family, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, was elected Pope as Julius II. (This is his portrait, by Raphael)
He had been born in humble circumstances in 1443, and like Alexander, owed his rise through the hierarchy to the nepotism: literally so, since his uncle had become Pope Sixtus IV. Julius was famous as the soldier-Pope; telling Michelangelo, who was working on a memorial to him, “Do not show me with a book: I am no schoolman! Show me with a sword!” He was always happiest wearing armour. Despite his advanced age, he was often found leading the papal armies personally. One immediate result was the rapid collapse of Cesare Borgia’s power: he was arrested, then fled to Spain, where he died 1512. Julius now wished to recover papal territory encroached on by Venice, so he formed League of Cambrai in 1508, allying France, Spain and the Empire with the papacy against Venice. But his aim was not the destruction of the Venetian Republic, but a new balance of power in Italy; so once the Venetians had been defeated and driven back in 1510, Julius made peace and instead brought Venice into a new anti-French Holy League with Spain. The French were completely defeated and driven out of Italy. Julius allied with the Swiss, and created the original Swiss Guard for the Pope. He now turned his attention to reclaiming the lost cities papal cities in the Romagna. In 1506 he personally led troops to recapture Perugia, and Bologna then surrendered. Next Julius personally directed the siege of Mirandola in 1511, but failed to take Ferrara. He left the papal states in a strong position; but a fragmented Italy was unable to do much about the increasing intervention of the major powers; France, Spain and the Empire.
Florence had remained neutral in war against the French. She remained a republic, taking great pride in her independence. It was during these republican years that Michelangelo carved great statute of David. The leader of the city was the Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini; but he was overshadowed for posterity by a subordinate official, Niccolo Machiavelli, who tried to revive republican virtue by organising the defence of Florence by a citizens’ militia, mostly consisting of peasants from the countryside. But now the Pope decided to restore the Medici to power. A Spanish army was organised to attack Florence, and in August 1512 reached the town of Prato, 12 miles from Florence. Prato was an ancient walled city, defended by Machiavelli’s militia, but no sooner had Spanish forces made a small breach in the defences than the militia threw down their weapons and ran away. The Spaniards entered town and for two days staged an orgy of killing, raping, looting and torturing. The contemporary Florentine historian Guicciardini wrote “More than 2,000 men died, not fighting, for none fought, but fleeing or crying for mercy”. Women were only spared because Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who accompanied the troops, gave sanctuary within the cathedral and forbade the Spaniards to enter.
As the Cardinal calculated, the terrible example of Prato was sufficient to cause Florence to surrender without a fight. The Medici emblems were restored and all traces of the republic were removed from public display. Soderini fled, Machiavelli remained behind, to be later arrested and tortured before going into retirement and calling upon his experiences in writing his classic masterpiece of political thought, “The Prince”. The book is based on the career of Cesare Borgia.
Pope Julius died a few months later. As well as his political battles, his pontificate had been of enormous artistic importance. Not only did he employ Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael to paint the frescoes in the papal apartments, but he took the decision to demolish the old cathedral of St Peter’s and build a completely new one. The foundations were laid in 1506. But plans for an enormous tomb by Michelangelo had to be scaled down, and can now be found in the form of a statue of Moses in St Peter ad Vincula.
Julius was also vitally important, though unwittingly, for English history. He wished to be allied with the new king, Henry VIII, who came to the throne aged nineteen in 1509 and requested permission to marry Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. She had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur while both were teenagers, but Arthur had died shortly afterwards. Marriage to a dead brother’s widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible, but England wished to continue the Spanish link. Julius duly gave the marriage his permission. Twenty years later, Henry wished to annul the marriage, and therefore attempted to persuade a later Pope to reverse Julius’s decision!
Guicciardini wrote of Julius, “He would have been a Pope worthy of the highest renown if the care and diligence he showed in glorifying the church in the temporal sphere and through the arts of war had been used to glorify it in the spiritual sphere”. Yes indeed: what more can one say?
(The next essay will describe the great disaster later suffered by the Renaissance Papacy)