Vol. 6, Chapter VI (Cont’d) – Sixtus IV. 1471-1484


The last three popes of the 15th century, Sixtus IV., Innocent VIII. and Alexander VI., completely subordinated the interests of the papacy to the advancement of their own pleasure and the enrichment and promotion of their kindred. The avenues of the Vatican were filled with upstarts whose only claim to recognition was that they were the children or the nephews of its occupant, the supreme pontiff.

The chief features of the reign of Sixtus IV., a man of great decision and ability, were the insolent rule of his numerous nephews and the wars with the states of Italy in which their intrigues and ambitions involved their uncle. At the time of his election, Francesco Rovere was general of the order of the Franciscans. Born 1414, he had risen from the lowest obscurity, his father being a fisherman near Savona. He took the doctor’s degree in theology at Padua, and taught successively in Bologna, Pavia, Siena, Florence and Perugia. Paul II. appointed him cardinal. In the conclave strong support is said to have come to him through his notorious nephew, Peter Riario, who was active in conducting his canvas and making substantial promises for votes.

The effort to interest the princes in the Turkish crusade was renewed, but soon abandoned. Cardinals were despatched to the various courts of Europe, Bessarion to France, Marco Barbo to Germany, and Borgia to Spain, but only to find these governments preoccupied with other concerns or ill-disposed to the enterprise. In 1472, a papal fleet of 18 galleys actually set sail, with banners blessed by the pope in St. Peter’s, and under the command of Cardinal Caraffa. It was met at Rhodes by 30 ships from Naples and 36 from Venice and, after some plundering exploits, returned with 25 Turkish prisoners of war and 12 camels, — trophies enough to arouse the curiosity of the Romans. Moneys realized from some of Paul II.’s gems had been employed to meet the expenditure.

Sixtus’ relatives became the leading figures in Rome, and in wealth and pomp they soon rivalled or eclipsed the old Roman families and the older members of the sacred college. Sixtus was blessed or burdened with 16 nephews and grandnephews. All that was in his power to do, he did, to give them a good time and to establish them in affluence and honor all their days. The Sienese had their day under Pius II., and now it was the turn of the Ligurians. The pontiff’s two brothers and three, if not four, sisters, as well as all their progeny, had to be taken care of. The excuse made for Calixtus III. cannot be made for this indulgent uncle, that he was approaching his dotage. Sixtus was only 56 when he reached the tiara. And desperate is the suggestion that the unfitness or unwillingness of the Roman nobility to give the pope proper support made it necessary for him to raise up another and a complacent aristocracy.

Sixtus deemed no less than five of his nephews and a grandnephew deserving of the red hat, and sooner or later eight of them were introduced into the college of cardinals. Two nephews in succession were appointed prefects of Rome. The nephews who achieved the rank of cardinals were Pietro Riario at 25, and Julian della Rovere at 28, in 1471, both Franciscan monks; Jerome Basso and Christopher Rovere, in 1477; Dominico Rovere, Christopher’s brother, in 1478; and the pope’s grandnephew, Raphael Sansoni, at the age of 17, in 1477. The two nephews made prefects of Rome were Julian’s brother Lionardo, who died in 1475, and his brother Giovanni, d. 1501. Lionardo was married by his uncle to the illegitimate daughter of Ferrante, king of Naples.

Upon Peter Riario and Julian Rovere he heaped benefice after benefice. Julian, a man of rare ability, afterwards made pope under the name of Julius II., was appointed archbishop of Avignon and then of Bologna, bishop of Lausanne, Constance, Viviers, Ostia and Velletri, and placed at the head of several abbeys. Riario, who, according to popular hearsay, was the pope’s own child, was bishop of Spoleto, Seville and Valencia, Patriarch of Constantinople, and recipient of other rich places, until his income amounted to 60,000 florins or about 2,500,000 francs. He went about with a retinue of 100 horsemen. His expenditures were lavish and his estate royal. His mistresses, whom he did not attempt to conceal, were dressed in elegant fabrics, and one of them wore slippers embroidered with pearls. Dominico received one after the other the bishoprics of Corneto, Tarentaise, Geneva and Turin.

The visit of Leonora, the daughter of Ferrante, in Rome in 1473, while on her way to Ferrara to meet her husband, Hercules of Este, was perhaps the most splendid occasion the city had witnessed since the first visit of Frederick III. It furnished Riario an opportunity for the display of a magnificent hospitality. On Whitsunday, the Neapolitan princess was conducted by two cardinals to St. Peter’s, where she heard mass said by the pope and then at high-noon witnessed the miracle play of Susanna and the Elders, acted by Florentine players. The next evening she sat down to a banquet which lasted 3 hours and combined all the skill which decorators and cooks could apply. The soft divans and costly curtainings, the silk costumes of the servants and the rich courses are described in detail by contemporary writers. In anticipation of modern electrical fans, 3 bellows were used to cool and freshen the atmosphere. In such things, remarks Infessura, the treasures of the Church were squandered.

In 1474, on the death of Peter Riario, a victim of his excesses and aged only 28, his brother Jerome, a layman, came into supreme favor. Sixtus was ready to put all the possessions of the papal see at his disposal and, on his account, he became involved in feuds with Florence and Venice. He purchased for this favorite Imola, at a cost of 40,000 ducats, and married him to the illegitimate daughter of the duke of Milan, Catherine Sforza. The purchase of Imola was resented by Florence, but Sixtus did not hesitate to further antagonize the republic and the Medici. The Medici had established a branch banking-house in Rome and become the papal bankers. Sixtus chose to affront the family by patronizing the Pazzi, a rival banking-firm. At the death of Philip de’Medici, archbishop of Pisa, in 1474, Salviati was appointed his successor against the protest of the Medici. Finally, Julian de’ Medici was denied the cardinalship. These events marked the stages in the progress of the rupture between the papacy and Florence. Lorenzo, called the Magnificent, and his brother Julian represented the family which the fiscal talents of Cosmo de’Medici had founded. In his readiness to support the ambitions of his nephew, Jerome Riario, the pope seemed willing to go to any length of violence. A conspiracy was directed against Lorenzo’s life, in which Jerome was the chief actor, — one of the most cold-blooded conspiracies of history. The pope was conversant with the plot and talked it over with its chief agent, Montesecco and, though he may not have consented to murder, which Jerome and the Pazzi had included in their plan, he fully approved of the plot to seize Lorenzo’s person and overthrow the republic.

The terrible tragedy was enacted in the cathedral of Florence. When Montesecco, a captain of the papal mercenaries, hired to carry out the plot, shrank from committing sacrilege by shedding blood in the church of God, its execution was intrusted to two priests, Antonio Maffei da Volterra and Stefano of Bagnorea, the former a papal secretary. While the host was being elevated, Julian de’Medici, who was inside the choir, was struck with one dagger after another and fell dead. Lorenzo barely escaped. As he was entering the sanctuary, he was struck by Maffei and slightly wounded, and made a shield of his arm by winding his mantle around it, and escaped with friends to the sacristy, which was barred against the assassins. The bloody deed took place April 26, 1478.

The city proved true to the family which had shed so much lustre upon it, and quick revenge was taken upon the agents of the conspiracy. Archbishop Salviati, his brother, Francesco de’ Pazzi and others were hung from the signoria windows. The two priests were executed after having their ears and noses cut off. Montesecco was beheaded. Among those who witnessed the scene in the cathedral was the young cardinal, Raphael, the pope’s grandnephew, and without having any previous knowledge of the plot. His face, it was said, turned to an ashen pallor, which in after years he never completely threw off.

With intrepid resolution, Sixtus resented the death of his archbishop and the indignity done a cardinal in the imprisonment of Raphael as an accomplice. He hurled the interdict at the city, branding Lorenzo as the son of iniquity and the ward of perdition, — iniquitatis filius et perditionis alumnus, — and entered into an alliance with Naples against it. Louis XI. of France and Venice and other Italian states espoused the cause of Florence. Pushed to desperation, Lorenzo went to Naples and made such an impression on Ferrante that he changed his attitude and joined an alliance with Florence. The pope was checkmated. The seizure of Otranto on Italian soil by the Turks, in 1480, called attention away from the feud to the imminent danger threatening all Italy. In December of that year, Sixtus absolved Florence, and the legates of the city were received in front of St. Peter’s and touched with the rod in token of forgiveness. Six months later, May 26, 1481, Rome received the news of the death of Mohammed II., which Sixtus celebrated by special services in the church, Maria del Popolo, and the Turks abandoned the Italian coast.

Again, in the interest of his nephew, Jerome, Sixtus took Forli, thereby giving offence to Ferrara. He joined Venice in a war against that city, and all Italy became involved. Later, the warlike pontiff again saw his league broken up and Venice and Ferrara making peace, irrespective of his counsels. He vented his mortification by putting the queen of the Adriatic under the interdict.

In Rome, the bloody pope fanned the feud between the Colonna and the Orsini, and almost succeeded in blotting out the name of the Colonna by assassination and judicial murder.

Sixtus has the distinction of having extended the efficacy of indulgences to souls in purgatory. He was most zealous in distributing briefs of indulgence. The Spanish Inquisition received his solemn sanction in 1478. Himself a Franciscan, he augmented the privileges of the Franciscan order in a bull which that order calls its great ocean — mare magnum. He canonized the official biographer of Francis d’Assisi, Bonaventura.

He issued two bulls with reference to the worship of Mary and the doctrine of the immaculate conception, but he declared her sinlessness from the instant of conception a matter undecided by the Roman Church and the Apostolic see — nondum ab ecclesia romana et apostolica sede decisum. In all matters of ritual and outward religion, he was of all men most punctilious. The chronicler, Volterra, abounds in notices of his acts of devotion. Asa patron of art, his name has a high place. He supported Platina with four assistants in cataloguing the archives of the Vatican in three volumes.

Such was Sixtus IV., the unblushing promoter of the interests of his relatives, many of them as worthless as they were insolent, the disturber of the peace of Italy, revengeful, and yet the liberal patron of the arts. The enlightened diarist of Rome, Infessura, calls the day of the pontiff’s decease that most happy day, the day on which God liberated Christendom from the hand of an impious and iniquitous ruler, who had before him no fear of God nor love of the Christian world nor any charity whatsoever, but was actuated by avarice, the love of vain show and pomp, most cruel and given to sodomy.

During his reign, were born in obscure places in Saxony and Switzerland two men who were to strike a mighty blow at the papal rule, themselves also of peasant lineage and the coming leaders of the new spiritual movement.


53. Innocent VIII. 1484-1492

Under Innocent VIII. matters in Rome were, if anything, worse than under his predecessor, Sixtus IV. Innocent was an easy-going man without ideals, incapable of conceiving or carrying out high plans. He was chiefly notable for his open avowal of an illegitimate family and his bull against witchcraft.

At Sixtus’ death, wild confusion reigned in Rome. Nobles and cardinals barricaded their residences. Houses were pillaged. The mob held carnival on the streets. The palace of Jerome Riario was sacked. Relief was had by an agreement between the rival families of the Orsini and Colonna to withdraw from the city for a month and Jerome’s renunciation of the castle of S. Angelo, which his wife had defended, for 4,000 ducats. Not till then did the cardinals feel themselves justified in meeting for the election of a new pontiff.

The conclaves of 1484 and 1492 have been pronounced by high catholic authority among the “saddest in the history of the papacy.” Into the conclave of 1484, 25 cardinals entered, 21 of them Italians. Our chief account is from the hand of the diarist, Burchard, who was present as one of the officials.

His description goes into the smallest details. A protocol was again adopted, which every cardinal promised in a solemn formula to observe, if elected pope. Its first stipulation was that 100 ducats should be paid monthly to members of the sacred college, whose yearly income from benefices might not reach the sum of 4,000 ducats (about 200,000 francs in our present money). Then followed provisions for the continuance of the crusade against the Turks, the reform of the Roman curia in head and members, the appointment of no cardinal under 30 for any cause whatever, the advancement of not more than a single relative of the reigning pontiff to the sacred college and the restriction of its membership to 24.

Rodrigo Borgia fully counted upon being elected and, in expectation of that event, had barricaded his palace against being looted. Large bribes, even to the gift of his palace, were offered by him for the coveted prize of the papacy. Cardinal Barbo had 10 votes and, when it seemed likely that he would be the successful candidate, Julian Rovere and Borgia, renouncing their aspirations, combined their forces, and during the night, went from cell to cell, securing by promises of benefices and money the votes of all but six of the cardinals. According to Burchard, the pope about to be elected sat up all night signing promises. The next morning the two cardinals aroused the six whom they had not disturbed, exclaiming, “Come, let us make a pope.” “Who?” they said. “Cardinal Cibo.” “How is that?” they asked. “While you were drowsy with sleep, we gathered all the votes except yours,” was the reply.

The new pope, Lorenzo Cibo, born in Genoa, 1432, had been made cardinal by Sixtus IV., 1473. During his rule, peace was maintained with the courts of Italy, but in Rome clerical dissipation, curial venality and general lawlessness were rampant. “In darkness Innocent was elected, in darkness he lives, and in darkness he will die,” said the general of the Augustinians. Women were carried off in the night. The murdered were found in the streets in the morning. Crimes, before their commission, were compounded for money. Even the churches were pilfered. A piece of the true cross was stolen from S. Maria in Trastavere. The wood was reported found in a vineyard, but without its silver frame. When the vice-chancellor, Borgia, was asked why the laws were not enforced, he replied, “God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should pay and live.” The favorite of Sixtus IV., Jerome Riario, was murdered in 1488. His widow, the brave and masculine Catherine Sforza, who was pregnant at the time, defended his castle at Forli and defied the papal forces besieging it, declaring that, if they put her children to death who were with her, she yet had one left at Imola and the unborn child in her womb. The duke of Milan, her relative, rescued her and put the besiegers to flight.

All ecclesiastical offices were set for sale. How could it be otherwise, when the papal tiara itself was within the reach of the highest bidder? The appointment of 18 new papal secretaries brought 62,400 ducats into the papal treasury. The bulls creating the offices expressly declared the aim to be to secure funds. 52 persons were appointed to seal the papal bulls, called plumbatores, from the leaden ball or seal they used, and the price of the position was fixed at 2,500 ducats. Even the office of librarian in the Vatican was sold, and the papal tiara was put in pawn. In a time of universal traffic in ecclesiastical offices, it is not surprising that the fabrication of papal documents was turned into a business. Two papal notaries confessed to having issued 50 such documents in two years, and in spite of the pleas of their friends were hung and burnt, 1489.

Innocent’s children were not persons of marked traits, or given to ambitious intrigues. Common rumor gave their number as 16, all of them children by married women. Franceschetto and Theorina seem to have been born before the father entered the priesthood. Franceschetto’s marriage to Maddalena, a daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was celebrated in the Vatican, Jan. 20, 1488. Ten months later, the pope’s granddaughter, Peretta, child of Theorina, was also married in the Vatican to the marquis of Finale. The pontiff sat with the ladies at the table, a thing contrary to all the accepted proprieties. In 1492, another grandchild, also a daughter of Theorina, Battistana, was married to duke Louis of Aragon.

The statement of Infessura is difficult to believe, although it is made at length, that Innocent issued a decree permitting concubinage in Rome both to clergy and laity. The prohibition of concubinage was declared prejudicial to the divine law and the honor of the clergy, as almost all the clergy, from the highest to the lowest, had concubines, or mistresses. According to the Roman diarist, there were 6,800 listed public courtezans in Rome besides those whose names were not recorded. To say the least, the statement points to the low condition of clerical morals in the holy city and the slight regard paid to the legislation of Gregory VII. Infessura was in position to know what was transpiring in Rome.

What could be expected where the morals of the supreme pontiff and the sacred senate were so loose? The lives of many of the cardinals were notoriously scandalous. Their palaces were furnished with princely splendor and filled with scores of servants. Their example led the fashions in extravagance in dress and sumptuous banquetings. They had their stables, kennels and falcons. Cardinal Sforza, whose yearly income is reported to have been 30,000 ducats, or 1,500,000 francs, present money, excelled in the chase. Cardinal Julian made sport of celibacy, and had three daughters. Cardinal Borgia, the acknowledged leader in all gayeties, was known far and wide by his children, who were prominent on every occasion of display and conviviality. The passion for gaming ran high in the princely establishments. Cardinal Raphael won 8,000 ducats at play from Cardinal Balue who, however, in spite of such losses, left a fortune of 100,000 ducats. This grandnephew of Sixtus IV. was a famous player, and in a single night won from Innocent’s son, Franceschetto, 14,000 ducats. The son complained to his father, who ordered the fortunate winner to restore the night’s gains. But the gay prince of the church excused himself by stating that the money had already been paid out upon the new palace he was engaged in erecting.

The only relative whom Innocent promoted to the sacred college was his illegitimate brother’s son, Lorenzo Cibo. The appointment best known to posterity was that of Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, afterwards Leo X.

Another appointment, that of D’Aubusson, was associated with the case of the Mohammedan prince, Djem. This incident in the annals of the papacy would seem incredible, if it were not true. A writer of romance could hardly have invented an episode more grotesque. At the death of Mohammed II., his son, Djem, was defeated in his struggle for the succession by his brother Bajazet, and fled to Rhodes for protection. The Knights of St. John were willing to hold the distinguished fugitive as prisoner, upon the promise of 45,000 ducats a year from the sultan. For safety’s sake, Djem was removed to one of the Hospitaller houses in France. Hungary, Naples, Venice, France and the pope, — all put in a claim for him. Such competition to pay honor to an infidel prince had never before been heard of in Christendom. The pope won by making valuable ecclesiastical concessions to the French king, among them the bestowal of the red hat on D’Aubusson.

The matter being thus amicably adjusted, Djem was conducted to Rome, where he was received with impressive ceremonies by the cardinals and city officials. His person was regarded as of more value than the knowledge of the East brought by Marco Polo had been in its day, and the reception of the Mohammedan prince created more interest than the return of Columbus from his first journey to the West. Djem was escorted through the streets by the pope’s son, and rode a white horse sent him by the pope. The ambassador of the sultan of Egypt, then in Rome, had gone out to meet him, and shed tears as he kissed his feet and the feet of his horse. The popes had not shrunk from entering into alliances with Oriental powers to secure the overthrow of Mohammed II. and his dynasty. Djem, or the Grand Turk, as he was called, was welcomed by the pope surrounded by his cardinals. The proud descendant of Eastern monarchs, however, refused to kiss the supreme pontiff’s foot, but made some concession by kissing his shoulder. He was represented as short and stout, with an aquiline nose, and a single good eye, given at times inordinately to drink, though a man of some intellectual culture. He was reported to have put four men to death with his own hand. But Djem was a dignitary who signified too much to be cast aside for such offences. Innocent assigned him to elegantly furnished apartments in the Vatican, and thus the strange spectacle was afforded of the earthly head of Christendom acting as the host of one of the chief living representatives of the faith of Islam, which had almost crushed out the Christian churches of the East and usurped the throne on the Bosphorus.

Bajazet was willing to pay the pope 40,000 ducats for the hospitality extended to his rival brother, and delegations came from him to Rome to arrange the details of the bargain. The report ran that attempts were made by the sultan to poison both his brother and the pope by contaminating the wells of the Vatican. When the ambassador brought from Constantinople the delayed payment of three years, 120,000 ducats, Djem insisted that the Turk’s clothes should be removed and his skin be rubbed down with a towel, and that he should lick the letter “on every side,” as proof that he did not also carry poison. Djem survived his first papal entertainer, Innocent VIII., three years, and figured prominently in public functions in the reign of Alexander VI. He died 1495, still a captive.

Another curious instance was given in Innocent’s reign of the hold open-mouthed superstition had in the reception given to the holy lance. This pretended instrument, with which Longinus pierced the Saviour’s side and which was found during the Crusades by the monk Barthélemy at Antioch, was already claimed by two cities, Nürnberg and Paris. The relic made a greater draft upon the credulity of the age than St. Andrew’s head. The latter was the gift of a Christian prince, howbeit an adherent of the schismatic Greek Church; the lance came from a Turk, Sultan Bajazet.

Some question arose among the cardinals whether it would not be judicious to stay the acceptance of the gift till the claims of the lance in Nürnberg had been investigated. But the pope’s piety, such as it was, would not allow a question of that sort to interfere. An archbishop and a bishop were despatched to Ancona to receive the iron fragment, for only the head of the lance was extant. It was conducted from the city gates by the cardinals to St. Peter’s, and after mass the pope gave his blessing. The day of the reception happened to be a fast, but, at the suggestion of one of the cardinals, some of the fountains along the streets, where the procession was appointed to go, were made to throw out wine to slake the thirst of the populace. After a solemn service in S. Maria del Popolo, on Ascension Day, 1492, the Turkish present, encased in a receptacle of crystal and gold, was placed near the handkerchief of St. Veronica in St. Peter’s.

The two great stains upon the pontificate of Innocent VIII., the crusade he called to exterminate the Waldenses, 1487, and his bull directed against the witches of Germany, 1484, which inaugurated two horrible dramas of cruelty, have treatment in another place.

Innocent was happy in being permitted to join with Europe in rejoicings over the expulsion of the last of the Moors from Granada, 1492. Masses were said in Rome, and a sermon preached in the pontiff’s presence in celebration of the memorable event. With characteristic national gallantry, Cardinal Borgia showed his appreciation by instituting a bull-fight in which five bulls were killed, the first but not the last spectacle of the kind seen in the papal city. In his last sickness, Innocent was fed by a woman’s milk. Several years before, when he was thought to be dying, the cardinals found 1,200,000 ducats in his drawers and chests. They now granted his request that 48,000 ducats should be taken from his fortune and distributed among his relatives.