When the phrase “Renaissance Popes” is encountered, images of luxury, intrigue, and immorality come to mind, but, while one or two of these charges may apply in some cases, the chief fault of these popes is that they ceased to be leaders of the universal Church and became little more than Italian princes with rather limited horizons.
(Sixtus IV with four of his nephews. Giuliano della Rovere, third
from left, later became Pope Julius II.)
instead of vigorously opposing the humanistic tendencies of the
Renaissance, the popes of the period came to terms with them.
Our Lord before the town of Caesarea Philippi promised the primacy of
jurisdiction over the Church to Saint Peter on that famous day, He also
predicted that the gates of hell (i.e., the power of the devil) would
not prevail against Her.
But Christ never said that evil powers
would not harass and persecute the Church. In fact, He predicted that
scandals would come.1 Corruption caused great havoc, but the Church,
like a vigorous body, eliminated the diseased parts and, during the time
of the Jesuits, the Council of Trent, and Saint Pius V, returned to a
The spirit of the Renaissance movement entered the Church during the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447-55). Although personally devout and a champion of what has been called the “Christian Renaissance,” he nevertheless employed in the papal court many dissolute humanists famous for their immoral,
scurrilous literature. Initially, many talented churchmen saw in the
study of the Latin and Greek classics a way of enlightening the mind, as
Nicholas did, but more became preoccupied with artistic pursuits to the
exclusion of the spiritual life and allowed pagan interpretation to
overwhelm Christian devotion.
Eventually, Nicholas’s tolerance of the unperceived dangers nearly cost him his life.
During this period, the Italian peninsula was divided into three
the Kingdom of Naples in the South; the Papal States, which controlled
the middle third; and the various city-states of the North, which were
frequently ruled by tyrants who were at each others throats.
rivalry between these petty states produced a permanent situation of
anarchy that resulted in revolutionary ferment. The Pope, as temporal
sovereign and in an effort to provide some protection over the papal
lands, became more and more immersed in Italian politics, to the
detriment of his spiritual
The conspiracy of Stephan Porcaro provides another example of how disruptive and revolutionary ideas can spill over into the realm
of action. A humanist who had joined an anti-papal circle of
pleasure-minded writers in Florence, Porcaro came to Rome in the early
days of Nicholas’s pontificate.
There he began to agitate among
other malcontents and insurgents with the idea of casting off the yoke
of papal authority and returning to the glorious days of the Roman
Nicholas responded to Porcaro’s treasonous activities
with several mild penalties, eventually exiling him to Bologna with a
He returned furtively to Rome to organize a
mammoth conspiracy involving hundreds of cutthroats. The scheme included
setting the Palace of the Vatican on fire, surprising the Pope
and the cardinals during High Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, putting
them to death if necessary, and proclaiming
the freedom of Rome with Porcaro as tribune.
Porcaro was under surveillance by alert Vatican officials, the plot was
discovered, and he and his closest associates were hanged. The
next three pontificates, following the paradigm of Nicholas, drifted in a
mediocre fashion wherein political and material interests predominated,
accompanied by spiritual indifference and an advance of humanism until
the disastrous rule of Sixtus IV.
Florence, the Medici, and Sixtus IV
all the petty republics and city-states in the northern third of Italy,
Florence radiated the most brilliant light as the jewel of the
The most eminent architects, sculptors, and painters were either born in this wealthy commercial center or in the surrounding countryside known as Tuscany.
Unfortunately, a blemish cast a shadow over its brilliance, for
political fortunes were controlled by the highly cultured but
tyrannical banking house of the Medici. After reaping large profits through
financing the textile industry in Florence, the Medicis rode the crest
of the new power of the middle-class mercantile interests to form the
largest banking house in Europe, with branches in all the major cities.
never assuming an imposing title, the family reached the height of its
political power in the fifteenth century under Cosimo and Lorenzo (“the
Magnificent”). by championing the lower classes against the upper and
utilizing a system of patronage, bribes, and revenge when needed.
prestige declined precipitously when Francesco della Rovere was raised
to the throne of Saint Peter as Sixtus IV and immediately became
entangled in the principal defect of his rule: nepotism.
new Pope’s two brothers and four sisters supplied him with fifteen
nephews and nieces, all of whom he loved dearly above all other
A kindly, life-long Franciscan, he had neither the temperament
nor training to deny these parasites their every desire when they flocked to Rome to live off the Church’s ample revenues.
In his misguided generosity, Sixtus made five of his nephews cardinals and gave a sixth red hat to one of his niece’s sons.
Girolamo Riario, for whom the indulging Pope carved out a small
kingdom from papal lands, emerged as the most dangerous
and influential of the nephews.
When Lorenzo de’ Medici saw that the enrichment of the della Rovere family interfered with his own ambitious and covetous
program, he began to place obstacles in their way, which instigated a famous crime.
of Lorenzo’s enemies, Girolamo Riario, members of the Pazzi family, a
rival banking house, and the archbishop of Pisa, a kinsman of the della
Roveres, decided to overthrow the Medici regime by murdering Lorenzo and
his brother, Giuliano.
The foul deed was scheduled to take
place during a High Mass at the cathedral in Florence. When the most
competent of the assassins was told that the signal to coordinate the
murders would be the elevation of the Host at the consecration, he
withdrew, saying that he refused to add sacrilege to murder.
priests among the conspirators substituted for him. At the elevation
the assassins struck. The professionals assigned to Giuliano stabbed him
repeatedly until he fell dead with nineteen wounds. Lorenzo
repelled his less-experienced attackers, but when he saw one of
Giuliano’s killers rushing towards him, he made for the sacristy, just
closing the heavy bronze door safely behind him.
The Florentines exacted a vengeance of unbounded fury against the hundred or so conspirators. The archbishop of Pisa, who had led a squad of about thirty to the Palazzo della Signoria,2 was captured and hanged from a bar on the palace window.
Six others were seen dangling from its windows while a couple
of dozen bodies encumbered the main staircase. The infuriated mob then
went about this most cultured Renaissance city butchering all the
enemies of the Medici.
Since he wisely ran the plot from Rome,
Girolamo Riario survived the vengeful bloodletting only to instigate
more problems for his uncle’s pontificate.
Sansoni-Riario, a seventeenyear- old nephew of the Pope who had presided
over the desecrated Mass, was arrested and detained for several weeks
although innocent of any crime.
What followed dragged the
prestige of the Papacy as the universal arbiter of justice and morals
into the depths of misery. Sixtus’ position was compromised because not
only was he using Church revenues and benefices to enrich his family,
but he had approved the plot ahead of time, although not the
Nevertheless, the murder of many innocent
priests, some in the retinue of Cardinal Sansoni, the ignominious death
of the Archbishop, and the detention of the young Cardinal infringed on the rights of the Church and could not be allowed to go unpunished.
The Pope excommunicated Lorenzo and laid Florence under interdict. Eventually, Florence submitted at least superficially.
warfare became the principal feature of the Italian peninsula for the
rest of Sixtus’ unfortunate years: first the Papal States and Naples
against Florence and its allies, then the Pope at the instigation of
Count Girolamo against Naples as an ally of Venice, and finally the Pope against Venice as an ally of Naples, with the usual excommunications and interdictions.
In order to raise money for these military adventures, Sixtus created new posts and sold them to the highest bidder.
a certain point, we must stop recounting the horrible details of a
Church bleeding from gaping wounds and just summarize the most important
events in order to understand future chapters.
influence of the Medicis carried over into the next generation, as
Lorenzo and Giuliano each had an inept son who rose to the throne of
Saint Peter, one during the outbreak of the Lutheran revolution and the
other during the beginning of the English schism.
Cardinals Borgia and della Rovere
this point until Luther’s revolt, the cardinals with their luxurious,
fortified palaces and their armies of armed retainers led the Church
down a path of disgrace, with two of them predominating: Roderigo Borgia
and Giuliano della Rovere.
After the death of Sixtus IV in
1484, twenty- five cardinals went into conclave. Ludwig Pastor has
called that conclave and the following one in 1492 “the most deplorable
in the annals of Church history.”3
Bribery and simony were
continually exercised throughout the negotiations. Since the two main
adversaries could not obtain the necessary votes, Borgia for himself and
della Rovere for his candidate, they settled on the most insignificant
cardinal present who became Pope Innocent VIII.
Innocent brought two illegitimate, grown, unmarried children into the Vatican, with the predictable results. No more details are necessary.
The less we say about the pontificate (1492-1503) of Roderigo Borgia, who took the name Alexander VI, the more merciful
will be to the prestige of the Papacy, for no Pope blackened it more.
He fathered several children as a priest and cardinal and spent a
great deal of his energy as Pope acquiring a succession of land,
titles, and kingdoms for his illegitimate brood through wars, intrigue, extortion, and outright usurpation.
rule was enlivened by a confrontation with Savonarola, the Dominican
prior of San Marco in Florence, a conflict brought on by many of the
problems of the day which discredited the Church all the more.
the mid-nineties Savonarola, spurred on by an acute sense of
righteousness, used his burning eloquence to attack the moral corruption
at the papal court and the tyrannical rule of the Medicis.
Instead of decrying only the evil compromise with paganism, his dislike
of the Medicis drove him to promote a political revolution with
democratic overtones which upset the balance of power in Northern Italy.
Alexander, a political creature first and foremost, intervened
and ordered the turbulent friar to remain silent. Every effort to
discipline the provocative priest resulted in defiance, which prejudiced
whatever justice his original preaching may have had.
quite correct in his denunciation of the moral laxity that had pervaded
the upper reaches of the Catholic hierarchy, the holiness and rectitude
of his life demanded obedience to lawful authority and not the wild resentment that followed.
also reacted excessively. He had the humble friar defrocked, tried by
the Florentine civil officials and hung. His corpse was burned and the
ashes thrown into the Arno River.
Such excessive turmoil could
only breed more social and religious dissolution, which is exactly what
occurred when the likes of Martin Luther, Henry VIII, and John Calvin
broke the bounds of Christian unity decades later.
for the Church, when Giuliano della Rovere became Pope in 1503 as Julius
II, he brought no relatives with him. Far more of a warrior than a
priest, he spent most of his pontificate on horseback, winning back all
the territories lost through the ineptitude and nepotism of the previous
He is also famous for indulging Michelangelo with his
provocative and dour view of humanity, painted on the ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel featuring his androgynous and effeminate creatures who could rarely find enough clothes to cover themselves.
Renaissance in painting and sculpture
fact, painting and sculpture followed the same degrading downward trend
as other forms of Renaissance culture. A comparative study of the works
of Fra Angelico and Michelangelo provides an example of this
(The Infant Jesus by Fra Angelico.)
a devout Dominican friar who always prayed before beginning his work,
the former understood the ideal that truth, goodness, and beauty in the
world are reflections of God. In his Infant of Jesus,4 for example, we
see a child of extreme intelligence and great purity, even something of the divine or supernatural.
in Michelangelo, God has the naturalistic look of a cattle baron, the
angels look like brats, and the saints have the bloated look of modern
football players. Worse still, he had a penchant for sculpturing
undraped male youths in sensual poses, especially his “Bacchus,” who has an impure leer of one thirsting after vice.
has to be careful not to go to the extremes and harshness of a
Savonarola on the subject; nevertheless, Ludwig Pastor, who always shows
a sense of balance in his views, lists numerous examples of indecent
art in Renaissance churches and public buildings.5
The dissolute monk Fillippo Lippi painted several Madonnas using his mistress as a model. Pagan gods and goddesses, usually
unclothed, crowd out truly religious figures. To their credit, many of
the artists of genius, such as Michelangelo and Botticelli, would frequently tire of their reprehensible art to produce celebrated works of piety.
This extremely grim picture was offset by increased observance of several pious practices. The Rosary as we understand it today,
with both parts of the Hail Mary and meditations on the fifteen
mysteries, was established around 1460 by Alan de la Roche (de Rupe) in
The devotion was spread throughout the continent by the Dominicans, influential prelates, and confraternities.
Mass, confession, and veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, especially
in Corpus Christi processions, indicate that Christian piety among the
faithful was still very much alive. The time had not yet come when
immorality and destructive ideas could smother the love of God and Our
Blessed Mother in the souls of the people.
The same titles listed in the previous chapter
1. See Rev. A. E. Breen, A Harmonized Exposition
of the Four Gospels (Milwaukee, 1929), pp. 20-
2. An edifice comparable to our city hall.
3. History of the Popes, Vol. V., p. 233.
4. Painting in the Convent of San Marco, Florence.
5. Ibid., pp. 195-199.