The Renaissance popes comprise the series of Roman bishops between 1447 and 1484, best exemplified by Nicholas V (r. 1447–55), Pius II (r. 1459–64), and Sixtus IV (r. 1471–84), who ruled the Western Church according to the spirit of Renaissance literary culture. They have often faced criticism by biographers, both contemporaneous and modern, for subordinating their ecclesiastical responsibilities to personal ambition.
Nicholas, born Thomas Parentucelli in 1397, was a humanist who rose through the ecclesiastical ranks until he became pope. A man of tremendous intellectual endowments, tact, and courtesies of manner, Thomas was educated at Bologna, where he became archbishop in 1444, and on his return from Germany as papal legate, he was appointed cardinal in 1446.
Four months later he was elected unanimously to the papal throne, and his interest in the classical world led him to repair the buildings, bridges, aqueducts, and great churches of Rome. Nicholas proclaimed 1450 a Jubilee Year to rebind the European nations closely to Rome and to reignite the fires of devotion that languished during the Babylonian Captivity (1309–77) and Great Western Schism (1378–1415).
Forty thousand pilgrims traveled to Rome, where relics were displayed throughout the city, featuring the supposed heads of Peter and Paul every Saturday and the handkerchief of St. Veronica—which allegedly bore the outline of Christ’s face—each Sunday.
Nicholas was both diplomatic and successful in his administration of the properties of the Holy See. He expanded the borders of the Papal States farther than their perimeter before the Babylonian Captivity by regaining Bolsena and the castle of Spoleto and procuring the submission of Bologna, to which he dispatched Bessarion as papal legate.
To underscore the supremacy of his spiritual power to even the highest temporal authority, Nicholas crowned the German Frederick III as Holy Roman Emperor in 1452, the last emperor to be so installed in the history of the empire.
When Stephen Porcaro attempted to seize the papal throne in 1453, Nicholas quickly suppressed the conspiracy. He proved judicious in his selection of cardinals, including the prominent dialectical theologian Nicholas of Cusa.
Despite his successes in the west Nicholas suffered the most notable failure of his reign when he unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, which transpired on May 29, 1453.
His impotence was due in large part to his insisting that the Eastern Orthodox Church first come to terms with the Roman Church, from which it had been separated for four centuries, before he would furnish military support.
The Greek people violently resisted union with Rome, even to the point that Lucas Notaras, the most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire, announced his preference for Islam over Catholicism.
More than a year elapsed before the Greeks, faced with too imminent danger to reject the papal condition, acquiesced by ratifying the Ferrara Articles of Union between the Greek and Latin confessions.
Although Nicholas responded in April 1453 by sending ships from Naples, Venice, and Genoa along with a guard of 200 troops, by this time it was too late to stop the Turkish conquest.
Rightly perceiving that this catastrophe would be regarded by future generations as a blot upon his pontificate, Nicholas summoned the Christian nations to a crusade for the recovery of Constantinople, identified the Ottoman leader Mehmed II as the dragon depicted in the book of Revelation, and offered absolution to anyone who would spend six months in the enterprise or maintain a representative for that length of time.
However Europe repudiated the papal order at the 1454 Councils of Regensburg and Frankfurt, as the time of crusading enthusiasm had passed and the Turks were universally feared. While Nicholas died a year later, his fame abides as the erudite and genial patron of the arts and letters.
Pius II ranks as one of the most conspicuous figures of the 15th century by virtue of his diplomatic shrewdness and his constant yet successful seeking of personal interests. Born Aeneas Sylvius de’ Piccolomini in 1405 as one of 18 children, he enrolled in the University of Siena at the age of 18, when he was captivated by the spellbinding preacher Bernardino and proceeded to study Greek in Florence.
After completing his studies Aeneas successively served as secretary to Cardinal Capricana, the bishop of Navaro, and Cardinal Albergati, which enabled him to embark on a tour of the major cities of the Continent, England, and Scotland.
Aeneas then settled in Basel, where he became the leading figure in the city council and was repeatedly dispatched as ambassador to Frankfurt, Trent, and Rome. His political ambition led him to ingratiate himself to Emperor Frederick III, and his creative brilliance, displayed in his Latin epigrams and verses, soon won him the appointment of poet laureate.
Upon proving his usefulness to the pope he was appointed papal secretary in 1447 by Nicholas V, who awarded him the bishoprics of Trieste and Siena and promoted him to the college of cardinals.
Rising by tact and an accurate knowledge of European affairs, Aeneas was elected as pope at the age of 53. Contemporary biographers described him as a thorough man of the world capable of grasping any situation at a glance.
Moreover Pius lived in moral profligacy, engaged in many love affairs, and fathered at least two illegitimate children, thus bringing disgrace upon the papacy and fanning the flames of anticlericalism among the European populace. Pius also wrote tales of erotic adventures, and his History of Frederick III contains graphic details that even many modern authors would deem inappropriate.
Pius’s most enduring theological contribution to the church lay in his denunciation of conciliarism, or the position that final ecclesiastical authority resides in general councils, in favor of papal supremacy over councils. In his famous 1460 bull Execrabilis, Pius declared it an unthinkable abuse to make appeal for a council to overturn a decision of the pope.
To safeguard the church from any such future attempts, Pius anathematized anyone who would make such an appeal, which condemnation could not be absolved except by the pope himself and in the article of death.
He proclaimed the divine origin of the monarchical form of church government (Latin monarchicum regimen), in which the militant church has in the Vicar of Christ one who is moderator and arbiter of all.
For Pius the pope receives his authority directly from Christ without mediation and constitutes the prince (Latin praesul) of all the bishops, the heir of the apostles, and stems from the priestly line of Abel and Melchizedek.
Concerning the recent Council of Constance (1414–18), which ended the Great Western Schism, Pius expressed his regard for its decrees only insofar as they were approved by his predecessors, contending that the decisions of general councils are subject to the sanction of the supreme pontiff, Peter’s successor.
Pius foreshadowed the later doctrine of papal infallibility in his claim that while his theological reflections prior to his elevation lacked binding power, his decisions from Peter’s chair on matters of faith must be obeyed (Latin Aeneam rejicite, Pium recipite—“Reject Aeneas and follow Pius”). Pius’s treatises contributed greatly to the final triumph of papal authority over conciliarism at the Council of Trent (1545–63). Pius died in 1464.
Notorious for his nepotism Sixtus unblushingly promoted the interests of his relatives, many of whom displayed incompetence, such that the avenues of the Vatican were filled with upstarts whose lineage served as their only claim to recognition.
At the time of his election to the papacy Francesco Rovere, born 1414, was general of the order of the Franciscans. Rising to academic stardom from humble stock, Francesco, whose father was a fisherman near Savona, earned the doctor of theology degree at the University of Padua and served as professor successively at the universities of Bologna, Pavia, Siena, Florence, and Perugia.
His predecessor Paul II (r. 1464–71) appointed him cardinal, and strong support came to him in the conclave because of the influence of his nephew, Peter Riario, who made substantial promises in exchange for votes.
Sixtus’s relatives soon became the leading figures in Rome, and in wealth and pomp they soon rivaled or eclipsed the old Roman noble families and the leading members of the college of cardinals.
Sixtus appointed eight of his nephews to the college of cardinals, and two nephews in sequence as prefects of Rome. In addition, Sixtus heaped benefice after benefice upon Peter Riario and Julian Rovere, the latter of whom was elected to the papacy as Julius II (r. 1503–13).
When Peter died in 1474, his brother Jerome, who came into great favor with Sixtus, became engrossed in feuds against Florence and Ferrara and organized a conspiracy to seize the former from the outstanding Medici banking family by assassinating its ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. While he may not have consented to murder, Sixtus fully approved of the plot to seize Lorenzo and overthrow the republic.
After the bloody deed was enacted by two mercenary priests during mass in the cathedral of Florence on April 26, 1478, the citizens of Florence demonstrated their fidelity to the Medicis by executing the two priests and hanging the president, Archbishop Salviati, from the signoria window.
Furious over the death of his archbishop, Sixtus placed Florence under interdict, deemed Lorenzo as the son of iniquity and the ward of perdition (Latin iniquitatis filius et perditionis alumnus), and entered into an alliance with Naples against Florence.
Only after King Louis XI of France, along with the rulers of Venice and several other Italian states, took up the cause of Florence did Sixtus lift the interdict and dissolve the alliance. Again in the interest of Jerome, Sixtus seized Ferrara and its ally Forli, sparking a war in which all Italy became engrossed. Although surpassed by his readiness to enjoin violence in support of his kin,
Sixtus’s place as both patron of ancient Roman culture and theologian should not be overlooked. He was responsible for cataloging the archives of the Vatican in four volumes, and he officially extended the efficacy of indulgences to souls in purgatory. Sixtus died in 1484.