Two marks distinguish the growth of the Renaissance spirit in Europe. First, the emphasis on the "new learning" brought about a resurgence in art, architecture, poetry, and literature. The Renaissance contributed Boccaccio, Michaelangelo, Dante, Ghiberti, and da Vinci. Some of the world's greatest art originated during the period.
Second, the period saw a growing immorality permeating society. Boccaccio's risque literature illustrates that tendency. Men took their eyes off the divine and worshiped the creature. Without limitations or absolutes, men wandered farther from God and His behavior patterns.
Renaissance Popes demonstrated both marks. Most historians begin the list of Renaissance Popes with Nicholas V (1447-1455), the first Pope to use church funds to further artistic development. This page traces the Renaissance Popes. Note how interest in art and immorality marks their reigns.
Nicholas V supported and encouraged the arts as much as possible. The Council in Basle siphoned off some of the church's money and when it ended, Nicholas sighed with relief. Constantinople fell during Nicholas' papacy and he noted its acquisition of the name Istanbul. Pope Nicholas also crowned Frederick III Holy Roman Emperor in Rome; Frederick was the last Emperor crowned in the "eternal city." Nicholas' papacy sees a number of "lasts" -- the last antipope, the last imperial coronation, and the last of the Byzantine Empire. His patronage of the arts was somewhat self serving. He planned a new Vatican Palace and the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. He also supported numerous painters and began the famous Vatican Library collection.
Following Nicholas came Callixtus III (1455-1458), the first Spanish Pope since the fourth century. Callixtus, or Alfonso, came from the significant Borgia family. He returned the papacy to nepotism appointing two nephews Cardinals. Rodrigo Borgia, who was 25 at the time, is one of these Cardinals. The Borgias return to our attention again later.
Next is Pius II (1458-1464). Historians consider Pius, a thorough humanist, one of the better Popes of his generation. Quite well educated although immoral, Pius fathered two illegitimate children. Both children died as youth. We know Pius for two things, the fact that he served as poet laureate to Frederick III and the fact that he served most of his papacy poking around Italy's old ruins. His poetry reflects a rather low tone and his interest in archaeology deserves no recognition. He also engaged in nepotism appointing a nephew, Francesco Toedschini Piccolomini, as Cardinal, an office he used to step into the papacy as Pope Pius III later.
Pope Paul II (1464-1471) follows Pius. Paul, uncultured and unlettered, reacted to his predecessor's policies. He dismissed humanist writers and artists. Two men reacted so strongly to their treatment they directed an unsuccessful plot to remove him, by death if necessary. Paul did continue a few building projects, but these were pragmatic necessities. Significantly, however, Paul established two German printers in the Vatican in 1467, beginning the papal publishing house.
Sixtus IV (1471-1481) succeeded Paul II and represented both the best and worst of the Renaissance Popes. Sixtus supported worthy artists who produced some tremendously famous works of art. At the same time he brought the papacy to its lowest moral tone. Sixtus, himself blameless and a noted scholar and teacher, turned to nepotism on a grand scale primarily because of political difficulties in Italy and overseas. He put relatives into all sorts of authoritative positions. As a result, he soon had an inter-city, inter-family power struggle facing him. He made six nephews Cardinals, one of whom later became Pope Julius II. Another nephew presided over four bishoprics and a wore the Cardinal's hat.
Sixtus's family became embroiled in the Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family of Florence. He approved a plot to kill two prominent Medici family members. One escaped but Sixtus anathematized the remainder of the family for resisting the assassination attempt. He then openly declared war on them. This tends to be typical papal policy during the period and the whole purpose is to increase personal family fortunes.
Sixtus supported numerous painters and began many building projects including a host of churches. He ordered the destruction of ancient temples, arches, and tombs to make way for construction. Just how much archaeological evidence for the old city of Rome was lost no one knows. Sixtus's most famous building project is the Sistine Chapel, consecrated in 1483.
After Sixtus died the Cardinals were pressured to elect Rodrigo Borgia as Pope. Giuliano della Rovere also sought the position. When a deadlock ensued, the Cardinals selected Innocent VIII (1484-1492) as a compromise. Innocent wasn't! He had previously married and openly acknowledged one legitimate and several illegitimate children. Previous Popes passed off illegitimate children as nephews or nieces but Innocent did not do so. When he took Peter's chair the treasury stood almost empty. Innocent pawned the papal tiara for 100,000 ducats and then set out to refill the coffers. Innocent made simony scientific in the process. He appointed one nephew a Cardinal but used the position to improve his children's status. To his credit, Innocent did patronize several great painters.
When Innocent died, Rodrigo Borgia received the Cardinals' nod as Pope. He took the name Alexander VI (1492-1503). History judges him one of the most depraved Popes ever. Oddly, the last legitimate Pope named Alexander was Alexander IV. Alexander V was an anti-pope elected by the Council of Pisa. Most Catholics would like to erase the sixth Alexander's name from the papal lists. While a Cardinal, Alexander kept several mistresses in Rome. He married a favorite, Vanozza de Catanei, off to three different husbands but he lived with her for years and fathered four children including Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. In 1489, he took the 14-year-old Giulia Farnese as his mistress. She remained his mistress throughout his papacy bearing him sons in 1498 and 1503. To placate her family, he gave a Red Hat to Giulia's brother, a man who later became Pope Paul III. Local Roman gossips referred to Giulia as "the bride of Christ." In 1493, Alexander made Cesare, his illegitimate son, a Cardinal. Cesare was 18 at the time.
Alexander selected Giovanni, his oldest son, to continue the Borgia dynasty but he was murdered in 1497. Evidence pointed to Cesare. As officials dragged the Tiber for Giovannis' body, local wits observed, "Pope Alexander has truly become a fisher of men." Cesare then became heir apparent. He resigned his Cardinal's hat so he could legitimately sire a dynasty. Using French aid to overcome family enemies, Cesare took control of large land holdings in north central Italy. Cesare, a tyrannical monster, once turned criminals loose in a Vatican courtyard then shot them from a window. When his father died in 1503, Cesare lost his position and became a mercenary in Spain where he died in 1507. Pope Alexander VI left one important accomplishment behind him -- the Bull of Demarcation issued in 1494 which separated Portuguese and Spanish possessions in the new world.
After Alexander's death came Pius III. A sick man, Pius lived only 26 days after election. Then Giuliano della Rovere returned from a 10 year exile and was elected as Julius II (1503-1513).
Julius opposed simony and promised to punish those guilty of it. He then tried to remove powerful French and Spanish clerics from their positions. Julius, known as the Warrior Pope, led papal armies into battle. Paintings and sculptures show him clad in armor. He also patronized the arts, including Michaelangelo, whom he hired to paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Julius also laid the cornerstone for the new St. Peter's Basilica. In 1511, five Cardinals, with French support, tried to hold an illegal council in Pisa. Julius countered with the Fifth Lateran Council in Rome which convened in 1512. The council accomplished little except to redefine French-papal relationships.
Julius died before the Fifth Lateran Council dissolved and the next Pope was Leo X (1513-1521). Leo preferred the hunting lodge to papal courts and the man had little spiritual commitment. The Protestant Reformation began during his papacy.
Throughout the period voices call for reform. Some came from humanists, others were churchmen. One of the more significant churchmen calling for reform was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Savonarola, a Dominican monk, gained fame for preaching against the days' current evils. His strong preaching warned of impending disaster caused by sin. Many lives reformed, but reaction inevitably resulted. Alexander VI tried bribing him with a Cardinal's hat, but Savonarola could not be bought. In 1495, Alexander invited him to Rome but Savonarola wisely pled ill health and refused to go. In October, 1495, the Pope ordered him to stop preaching. Savonarola obeyed for a time but by spring he was back in the pulpit. By the spring of 1497, he boldly attacked church corruption with veiled allusions to the papacy. Alexander excommunicated him in May, but Savonarola defied him declaring that Alexander was neither a true pope nor a Christian. Finally, in the spring of 1498, he aroused political opposition in Florence and was arrested. Savonarola endured torture 14 times until he confessed to various crimes only to retract his confessions. Finally, he and two followers were hung under a papal commission's watchful eye.
Frankly, all was not well within the church. Rebellion did not come because the church patronized the arts and dabble in humanism except that it demanded considerable money. Papal and clerical immorality did created growing unrest. More and more tension continued growing and reformation waited in the wings!
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