At the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455, the Italian cardinals were split between supporters of the Colonna and of the Orsini and this favoured the election of the old Catalan cardinal Alonso de Borja (in Italian Borgia) who became Pope Calixtus III; his short pontificate, apart from an unsuccessful attempt to promote a crusade against the Ottomans, was marked by the arrival in Rome of relatives and friends of the pope. He appointed cardinals two of his nephews and a third one became commander of the papal troops. Nepotism, the bestowing of privileges on the nephews of the popes, was not introduced by Pope Calixtus III, but surely he so favoured his relatives that one of the talking statues commented as follows:
|Ai poveri suoi apostoli la chiesa
avea lasciato Cristo;
preda dei ricchi suoi nipoti è resa
oggi dal buon Calisto.
|Jesus Christ had left the church|
to his poor apostles;
now Calixtus has turned the church
into loot for his rich nephews.
At the death of Pope Calixtus III in 1458, the cardinals chose a man who for his diplomatic skills seemed able to effectively promote the crusade against the Ottomans. Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini became a priest at the age of 42, after having served as a secretary and an ambassador for both the pope and the German emperor. He had a vast knowledge of the classic world and a high level of self-esteem, which he showed in choosing the name of Pius (II), because this adjective (Engl. pious) was associated with his own name (Enea) in Virgil's Aeneid:
|Tum pius Aeneas stricto sic ense precatur
Virgil - Aeneid - Book 12 - 175
|Aeneas then unsheath'd his shining sword,
And thus with pious pray'rs the gods ador'd:|
Translated by John Dryden (1697)
In 1459 Pope Pius II summoned to Mantua the rulers of the Christian nations to launch the
crusade but the reaction was lukewarm; he then thought to obtain the conversion of Sultan Mehmet II by
offering in return to recognize him as a new Constantine, but he eventually
did not send the letter proposing the deal.
The pope tried to put pressure on the Christian rulers by exciting the religious feelings of their subjects; in 1462 the arrival in Rome of the head of St. Andrew was celebrated with pomp and in a sort of Jubilee year, pilgrims were invited to Rome to worship the relic; he committed personally to lead the crusade, but when in 1464 he reached Ancona to sail towards Constantinople, he discovered that that the troops were largely insufficient for the proposed task. He died there like one of the ancient heroes he worshipped, when he saw that the Republic of Venice had deceived him by sending a too small fleet.
S. Andrea della Valle: monument to Pope Pius II: relief showing the pope receiving the head of St. Andrew
(school of Andrea Bregno)
Both Pope Calixtus III and Pope Pius II did not promote the development of Rome with the same enthusiasm shown
by Pope Nicholas V. In particular they did not follow their predecessor's ambitious plans to renovate the city and build a new S. Pietro.
Their coats of arms can be found at
S. Prisca and
Ponte Milvio (Calixtus III), S. Saba,
the walls near Porta Pia and Porta Latina (Pius II).
Pope Pius II erected a statue to St Andrew near Ponte Milvio; he devoted a lot of resources to celebrate himself by renaming Pienza, the village near Siena where he was born and by building there churches and palaces. He also built several monuments in Siena and a fortress in Tivoli.
The next pope, the Venetian cardinal Pietro Barbo (Pope Paul II) was the nephew of
Pope Eugenius IV, who in turn was the nephew of Pope Gregory XII.
He abandoned his predecessor's attempts to organize a crusade to retake Constantinople:
this also because Sultan Mehmet II in a sort of preventive strike waged war against Venice and built a large
fleet with which in 1468 he seized Negroponte, an important Venetian possession in the northern part of the
Aegean Sea and the likely starting point for attacking Constantinople.
Pope Paul II tried to help Venice in the containment of the Ottoman expansion by financially supporting the order of the Knights of Jerusalem, a military lay brotherhood which controlled Rhodes, the nearby islands and a few fortresses on the Asian mainland.
He emphasized the papal role as absolute ruler of the Church and he established that Jubilee years should be called every 25 years.
Pope Paul II did not live in the papal palaces in the Vatican or in the Lateran, but remained
in the large palace he started to build in 1455 next to Basilica di S. Marco, the church of the Venetian community in Rome, which he entirely renovated.
In a successful attempt to gain the support of the Romans, he reorganized the Roman carnival and in particular its traditional races which were held in Piazza Navona or in Testaccio: in 1468 they were moved to the urban section of Via Flaminia (which for this reason became known as Via del Corso - corsa = race); the finish line was placed below his balcony.
The same Venetian skilled workers who built his palace were employed in the construction of the Roman headquarters of the Knights of Rhodes upon the remaining walls of the Forum of Augustus: both buildings were characterized by large Guelph (or Latin cross) windows.
The conclave which was held in August 1471 after the death of Pope Paul II elected a
cardinal who was known for his religious zeal and for
having supported a reformation of the church in his capacity as head of the Franciscan order.
Cardinal Francesco Della Rovere (Pope Sixtus IV) soon forgot his past objectives and became fully absorbed in the task of favouring his fifteen nephews: three of them were appointed cardinals, others were given positions at the papal court and the preferred one, Girolamo Riario, was given the town of Imola, as a starting point to create a state for him in the papal possessions in northern Italy. He soon clashed with the Medici, who were the de facto rulers of Florence; in 1478 another Florentine family, the Pazzi, who had become the pope's bankers, relying on his support, plotted against the Medici and tried to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, but Lorenzo narrowly escaped the daggers of the hired assassins. He took revenge on the Pazzi and accused the pope of being behind the plot: the conflict with Florence saw the pope completely isolated and a truce was signed only in 1480 at the news that the Ottomans had landed in southern Italy and had seized the fortress of Otranto. For a short period the Italians stopped quarrelling and united their forces to drive out the invaders which they managed to do in 1481.
The love for his nephew led Pope Sixtus IV to make an alliance with Venice to conquer Ferrara: the Este, the lords of Ferrara were supported by Milan, Florence and Naples; the pope became suspicious of the Venetian power and switched alliance by declaring war on the Republic and by excommunicating it; his moral authority however was at such a low level that the majority of the Venetian clergy refused to obey the papal orders and continued to celebrate the usual religious functions. The war eventually ended in 1484 and the pope, without any territorial gain, was forced to lift the excommunication.
Pope Sixtus IV was also unable to control the rivalry between the Colonna and the Orsini which led to open warfare which ravaged Albano and the nearby towns.
S. Maria del Popolo: balustrade decorated by Andrea Bregno with the coat of arms of a Della Rovere cardinal
Pope Sixtus IV carefully prepared Rome for the Jubilee year 1475 following the Renovatio Urbis (Rome's Renewal)
plan developed by Pope Nicholas V for the 1450 Jubilee: to facilitate the access to
Trastevere he built Ponte Sisto on the ruins of a Roman bridge and he
opened a street between the bridge and Campo de' Fiori.
To facilitate the access to the Vatican, via Ponte S. Angelo,
he opened Via Recta (Via dei Coronari); he entirely rebuilt
Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia; in the Vatican he built the large chapel named after him (where later on Michelangelo painted the ceiling and the Last Judgement).
Several churches were entirely rebuilt: S. Maria del Popolo, which the pope regarded as a family chapel; S. Maria della Pace to celebrate the end of the war for Ferrara; S. Cosimato; S. Pietro in Vincoli; S. Vitale; SS. Apostoli which was built by his nephew Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, who also restored S. Agnese fuori delle Mura.
Pope Sixtus IV can be regarded as the founder of Musei Capitolini, the Civic Museum of Rome because he donated five ancient bronze statues to the City of Rome: one of these statues portrayed a she-wolf and it soon became the symbol of the city (the symbol of ancient Rome was an eagle and that of medieval Rome a lion). He also greatly improved the Vatican Library: he appointed as prefect (head) of this institution Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as il Platina, the author of Liber de vita Christi ac omnium Pontificum, the first modern account of the lives of the popes.
Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia: façade and dome of the chapel
The popes of this period managed to restore their role as heads of the church by refusing to call ecumenical
councils which could undermine their authority and scrutinize their behaviour. Their power however was to some
extent shared with the cardinals, who in general set their residence in Rome and who held important positions in
the Curia, the papal court. Their number rarely exceeded twenty so each of them had an important say in the six conclaves which occurred between 1450 and 1500;
while it may be excessive to regard the popes elected during this period as simoniac for having bought their election, for sure there
were some agreements between the elected pope and the cardinals which were not limited to decisions related to spiritual matters, but covered also the
assignment to the cardinals of important charges. Many cardinals could rely on a substantial income and had their own court.
Cardinal Bessarione (1403-72), born in Trebizond advised many popes on matters regarding the initiatives for retaking Constantinople: he brought to Rome the Greek knowledge of the ancient world and he had a large library which he eventually bequeathed to the Republic of Venice.
Cardinal Juan de Torquemada advised the popes on theological matters. His Meditationes was the first illustrated book to be printed. His nephew Tomas was the head of the Spanish Inquisition.
Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville (1400-83) chaired the commission which proclaimed null and void the trial which sentenced to death Joan of Arc: in Rome he lived in Palazzo S. Apollinare (Collegio Germanico) and he built nearby S. Agostino.
Cardinals Domenico (1400-56) and Angelo Capranica (1410-78) held important positions and Domenico founded a college for the education of the clergy.
The cardinals who were nephews of the pope had obviously a lot of power, but usually they lost it when their uncle died: there were however some exceptions:
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503), nephew of Pope Calixtus III, at each conclave managed to ensure that the elected pope would assign him an important position: he usually preferred those from which he could control the Treasury or the papal troops.
Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (1439-1503), nephew of Pope Pius II, protected the community of Siena in Rome and embellished his home town by dedicating a library to his uncle.
Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere (1443-1513), nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, greatly influenced the election and the decisions of Pope Innocent VIII, the successor of his uncle.
These three cardinals all managed to become popes.
Some of the cardinals, following the example of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, built
large Renaissance palaces: Cardinal Antonio Capranica enlarged the building where the
college founded by his uncle Domenico was located: the students were housed in the new section while the
cardinal set his residence in its older part: this explains why the windows have a different design.
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia built what is now known as Palazzo Sforza Cesarini, not far from S. Maria in Monserrato, the church of the Catalan community.
Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere had his Roman residence in a palace he built next to SS. Apostoli..
Palazzo della Cancelleria: courtyard
Cardinal Raffaele Riario (1460-1521), another nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, built Palazzo della Cancelleria, the most imposing and innovative palace of the Early Renaissance in Rome: the cost was in part covered by the income deriving from the cardinal's gambling skills. The design of the courtyard is evocative of that of Colosseo, because of the use of the three classical orders; the upper storey has a stone facing which is typical of many Renaissance buildings: in Italian it is called a cortina (curtain) and it is made up of small bricks which are not supporting the building structure, but are just "glued" to it.
Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere was the kingmaker of the 1484 conclave which followed the death of his uncle Pope Sixtus IV. The new pope
cardinal Giovanni Battista Cibo (Pope Innocent VIII), had a mediocre ecclesiastical background and
a reputation for having been a libertine in his youth: officially he acknowledged
having only two children, but five of his nephews were known to be his offspring.
Being less ambitious than his predecessor, he contented himself with providing economic wealth to his children: he married his elder son to the daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, who in return obtained the cardinal's hat for his thirteen year old son Giovanni.
He carried on a much criticized policy of appeasement with the Ottoman Sultan Bayazit II which resulted in receiving in return a single gift - a piece of the lance of St. Longinus. This was most likely the main achievement of his pontificate (in his monument in S. Pietro, Antonio del Pollaiolo portrayed him holding that relic).
He celebrated in 1492 the conquest of Granada, the last Arab stronghold in Spain, by Ferdinand, King of Aragona, and his wife Isabella, Queen of Castile.
Pope Innocent VIII built for his relaxation Palazzo Belvedere, which later on was linked to the Vatican papal palace by two long corridors;
he enlarged a hunting lodge at
Castello della Magliana; he also largely renovated
S. Maria in Via Lata.
In the second half of the XVth century Rome became a very cosmopolitan city; the popes of this period came from outside the Papal State and they favoured the arrival of people from their country of origin; other foreigners, such as the Florentine bankers, came to Rome attracted by its business opportunities; the Germans introduced into Rome the first printing press and also the Stube, something in between a Roman bath and a beauty parlour. These stufe (stoves), as the Italians translated the German word, became very popular as they allowed for intimacy and something more. A large establishment (open to both men and women) was located in an area known for its many courtesans, between the two main streets of Early Renaissance Rome: Via Recta (Via dei Coronari) and Strada Papale (Via del Governo Vecchio) (see a page on the streets of Rome).
Via dell'Anima which linked the two streets was at the time very important: the Mellini, relatives of Pope Innocent VIII had their palace/tower there, almost opposite S. Agnese in Agone; the Germans built at the end of the street S. Maria dell'Anima, their national church; the neighbourhood changed in the XVIIth century when Pope Innocent X turned around the façade of S. Agnese and of the nearby palaces to embellish Piazza Navona.
A few Renaissance palaces of this period can still be seen along these streets: Palazzetto Turci and (see above) Palazzetto Bonaventura, both showing the same stone facing as S. Maria dell'Anima and Palazzo della Cancelleria.
In 1581 Michel de Montaigne described with these words his experience at the stufa near S. Marco:" Le 16 de Mars, il me print envie d'aler essaïer les eteuves de Rome, & fus à celes de St. Marc, qu'on estime des plus nobles ; j'y fus tresté d'une moïenne façon, sul pourtant, & aveq tout le respect qu'ils peuvent. L'usage y est d'y mener des amies, qui veut, qui y sont frotées aveq vous par les garçons. J'y appris que de chaus vifve & orpimant, démeslé à-tout de la lessifve, deus part de chaus & la tierce d'orpimant, se faict cete drogue & ongant de quoi on faict tumber le poil, l'aïant appliqué un petit demi quart d'heure." (on March 16 I fancied testing the Roman stufe and I went to that near S. Marco, which is regarded as one of the best; I was treated in an average way and very respectfully: usually one goes there with friends to be massaged together by the attendants; after the massage they applied a depilatory ointment made up of two parts of quicklime and one of orpiment - an arsenic sulphide mineral). Probably massages at the end of the XVth century were quite different from those experienced in 1581 by Montaigne in a period when, owing to the Counter-Reformation, lifestyles were more austere.
During the pontificate of Pope Innocent VIII, Cardinal
Rodrigo Borgia resented the influence Cardinal Giuliano
Della Rovere had on the pope, so at the 1492 conclave which followed the death of
Innocent VIII, he used all his influence and his wealth to convince the cardinals to vote for him: he promised his palace to
the Sforza, Soriano to the Orsini, Subiaco to the Colonna
and Civita Castellana to the Savelli.
He achieved his objective and he became Pope Alexander VI; he too had a reputation of being a libertine: his mistress Vannozza Cattanei bore him four children: Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofrè.
When he was elected his mistress was Giulia Farnese, wife of an Orsini: one of the first acts of Pope Alexander VI was to appoint as cardinals Alexander, the young brother of Giulia, and his own son Cesare.
For the other two sons the pope envisaged carving out from the Papal State two small states, but this plan was abandoned in 1497 when Juan was found dead in the Tiber. Cesare abandoned his ecclesiastical career and his father
plotted to make him the lord of Imola in Romagna and other towns which were ruled by Caterina Sforza, the widow of Girolamo Riario. Cesare was sent to the French King
Louis XII bearing the bull of divorce the king wanted: in return Cesare was appointed Duke of Valentinois (hence
his nickname il Valentino) and was granted the king's support in conquering Romagna: in 1501 he was appointed Duke of that region. Lucrezia,
the beautiful daughter of the pope was married in 1502 (it was her third marriage) to Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara.
The main Roman families became dissatisfied with Pope Alexander's government, but the pope was always able to gain the support either of Spain or of France and he eventually defeated both the Colonna and the Orsini and their allies.
The years of his pontificate saw dramatic changes in Italy: for a long time the five major states (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) had often been at war, but avoided calling in non-Italian powers: Lorenzo de' Medici, in addition to being called the Magnificent for the brilliance of his court, was also called ago della bilancia (balance index) because his policy ensured a fragile peace among the various Italian states.
After his death in 1492 this complex balance of power soon collapsed: in 1494 Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, encouraged Charles VIII, King of France, to seize the Kingdom of Naples, which had been in the hands of an Angevin (French) dynasty until 1443. Charles easily marched across Italy and in February 1495 he was crowned King of Naples; at that point the Italian rulers (including Ludovico Sforza) became wary of the French power and a coalition between them and the German Emperor forced Charles to abandon Naples and hastily return to France: although the French expedition ended in disaster, it showed that Italy was unable to defend itself.
In 1499 Louis XII, the new French King, supported by the Pope and Venice, took revenge on Ludovico Sforza who had betrayed his predecessor and occupied the Duchy of Milan, the first of a long list of foreign occupations which went on for nearly four centuries.
Pope Alexander VI was aware that the fortifications of Rome needed to be
upgraded to respond to the development of modern artillery. In addition to surrounding
Rome with new fortresses,
he largely modified Castel Sant'Angelo turning the old tower built on the Roman structure into a modern (and elegant)
fortress; he strengthened il Passetto, the walls linking Castel Sant'Angelo with the Papal Palace where he had set his
residence in a tower (now hidden by Palazzo Apostolico): his apartment was lavishly decorated by Pinturicchio. He also restored
Porta Settimiana and Porta del Pellegrino.
For the 1500 Jubilee Year he enlarged Via del Pellegrino and he opened a new street (Via Alessandrina, now lost) in Borgo.
With the first gold from America (a gift of Spain) he decorated the ceiling of S. Maria Maggiore: he protected the Spanish community and promoted the construction of S. Pietro in Montorio and S. Giacomo degli Spagnoli.
During his pontificate Michelangelo came for the first time to Rome where in 1497 he was commissioned by the French ambassador one of his most famous works, the Pietà, which is now in S. Pietro.
* The image used as a background for this page shows a detail of Ponte Sisto.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
Pope Pius II at Ancona fresco by Pinturicchio (1454-1513) Libreria Piccolomini - Siena.
Sixtus IV appoints Platina head of the Vatican Library by Melozzo da Forlì (1438-94) - Vatican Museums.
Lorenzo il Magnifico among his artists by Ottavio Vannini (1585-1643).
Caterina Sforza is taken prisoner by Cesare Borgia by Dario Gobbi 1914.
Portrait of Pope Alexander VI by Pinturicchio (1454-1513) - Borgia Apartment - Rome.
Cesare Borgia, il Valentino by Altobello Melone (XVIth century).
Next page: Part III: Modern Rome
II - Splendour and Crisis
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome
III - The Investiture Controversy
IV - The Rise and Fall of Theocratic Power
V - The Popes Leave Rome
VI - From Chaos to Recovery