The capital of the Papal StatesIV and of the Roman Catholic world was now a city of the second rank, with some 45,000 souls in 1558, rising to 100,000 under Sixtus V (1590). Montaigne, coming to it in 1580, thought it more extensive than Paris, but having only one third as many houses. Criminals and prostitutes (before Sixtus V) constituted a sizable part of the population; many a noble had a standing staff of ruffians. Poverty was general but genial, alleviated by papal charity, ecclesiastical ceremonies, religious hopes. The old aristocratic clans—Orsini, Colonna, Savelli, Gaetani, Chigi—had declined in income and power, though not in claims and pride; younger families—Aldobrandini, Barberini, Borghese, Farnese, Rospigliosi—were taking the lead in fortune and influence, usually through connections with the popes. Papal nepotism had another heyday: the Aldobrandini reaped a harvest from the election of Clement VIII, the Ludovisi from Gregory XV, the Barberini from Urban VIII, the Borghese from Paul V. Paul’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, enjoying plural benefices and 150,000 scudi per year, laid out the Villa, and built the Casino, Borghese (1615), founded its rich art collections, and earned a moderate immortality in marble from his protégé Bernini. Many of the cardinals used their wealth to support literature and art.

A succession of strong popes now helped the Roman Church to survive despite the loss of Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Britain to the Reformation. The Council of Trent had confirmed and enhanced the supremacy of the popes over the councils, and the young and vigorous Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—was pledged and devoted to the papacy. Antonio Ghislieri, Dominican friar and Grand Inquisitor, became Pope Pius V in 1566 at the age of sixty-two. The saintliness of his personal life seemed to him fully consistent with his severity in pursuing heresy. He withdrew from the Bohemian Catholics the right previously granted them to receive Communion in wine as well as bread. He excommunicated Elizabeth of England and released the English Catholics from her allegiance. He urged Charles IX of France and Catherine de Médicis to prosecute war against the Huguenots till these should be utterly and mercilessly destroyed.23 He commended the harsh measures of Alba in the Netherlands.24 He labored with his dying strength to prepare the armada that defeated the Turks at Lepanto. He never mitigated a penal sentence;25 he encouraged the Inquisition to enforce its rules and penalties.

He was equally strict in compelling ecclesiastical reform. Bishops who neglected to reside in their dioceses were deposed; monks and nuns were to remain completely secluded from the public; all malfeasance in ecclesiastical office was to be ferreted out and punished. When some discharged supernumeraries of the court complained that they would die of hunger, Pius replied that it would be better to die of hunger than to lose one’s soul.26 His appointments and nominations were determined by fitness, not favoritism or nepotism. He himself worked assiduously, sitting through long hours as judge, seldom sleeping more than five hours in a day, and giving an example to the clergy by the ascetic simplicity of his private life. He fasted frequently, and kept the coarse woolen shirt of a friar under his papal robes. He wore himself out with his severities; at sixty-eight he looked ten years older—lean and haggard, with sunken eyes and snow-white hair. Though hardly able to walk, he insisted upon making, mostly on foot, a pilgrimage to the seven basilicas of Rome. Nine days later, after a month of suffering, he died, clothed in the habit of St. Dominic. “To few popes,” wrote a great Protestant historian, “does Catholicism owe more than to Pius V; for while pitiless in his persecution of heresy, his recognition of the need of reform, and his unbending resolution to effect it, regained for the Church much of the respect which it had forfeited.”27 Pius was canonized in 1712.

Gregory XIII (1572–85) continued, in a milder spirit, the reform of the Church. We think of him as the man who gave us our calendar and who celebrated the Massacre of St. Bartholomew with a Mass of thanks-giving to a merciful God. Nevertheless he was a man of good morals, temperate habits, and kindly character. He had had a natural son before entering the priesthood, but that peccadillo was forgiven by the lusty Romans. He was generous in charity, tireless in administration. His appointments have won Protestant praise.28 Montaigne saw him in 1580 as “a handsome old man, a face full of majesty, a long white beard. Over seventy-eight years old, yet healthy and vigorous … Of a gentle nature, exciting himself little over the affairs of the world.”29

However, his enterprises—financing Jesuit schools, suppressing Hugue nots, deposing Elizabeth—required ducats. To raise them Gregory ordered the letter of the law to be applied to the owners and the title deeds of estates in papal territory; many properties that should have lapsed to the papacy through failure in the direct line of succession, or in the payment of dues required from papal fiefs, were now confiscated by the Pope. Actual or prospective victims armed their retainers, resisted expropriation, and retaliated with brigandage. Men of aristocratic lineage, like Alfonso Piccolomini and Roberto Malatesta, led bands of outlaws who captured towns and controlled roads. Taxes could no longer be collected; the flow of gold to Rome was dammed; soon the papal administration was in chaos. Gregory suspended his confiscations, made peace with Piccolomini, and died in humiliating defeat.

Emergencies make men, and this one made Felice Peretti, as Sixtus V (1585–90), one of the greatest popes. He first saw the light at Grottamare, near Ancona, in a cottage so ill thatched that the sun shone through the roof; later he jested that he was “nato di casa illustre”—born of an illustrious (or well-lighted) house.30 Schooled at a Franciscan monastery in Montalto, earning a doctorate in theology by his studies in Bologna and Ferrara, he rose rapidly by his pulpit eloquence and administrative capacity; and when, at sixty-four, he was chosen pope, it was because the conclave recognized in him the resolute character needed to restore safety and solvency to the Papal States.

His relatives crowded around him with outstretched palms, and he could not resist them; nepotism was renewed. But where his family was not concerned, he was inflexible. His appearance itself gave pause: short, broad, strongly built, with a great forehead, a thick white beard, big nose and ears, vast eyebrows, and piercing eyes that could silence opposition without a word. His florid complexion went with a violent temper, his large head suggested unbending will. With all his severity he had a well of good humor, and often a penetrating wit; he predicted that Henry IV would defeat Mayenne because Henry spent less time in bed than Mayenne did at meals.31 He himself slept little and worked hard.

He resolved, first of all, to suppress the victorious brigands. He began by enforcing the existing prohibition, heretofore largely ignored, against carrying murderous weapons. On the day before his coronation four youths were arrested for violating this ordinance; Sixtus ordered them hanged forthwith. Their relatives pleaded for pardon or delay; he replied, “While I live, every criminal must die”; soon, amid the coronation festivities, their bodies hung on one gallows near the Sant’ Angelo Bridge. It was Sixtus’ inaugural address, a statement of policy on crime.

The Pope commanded the nobles to dismiss their bravi; he promised pardon and reward to any bandit who would deliver to him another bandit alive or dead; and the reward was to be paid by the captured bandit’s family or commune. When one bandit issued a defiance, Sixtus ordered the outlaw’s family to find him and bring him in or suffer death themselves. The Duke of Urbino pleased the Pope32 by loading mules with poisoned food and directing the drivers to pass by a bandit’s lair; the bandits robbed the pack, ate, and died. No consideration was given to holy orders or social rank; offenders belonging to “first families” were executed without mercy or delay; a priest outlaw dangled with the rest. Soon the countryside was dotted with corpses swaying in the wind, and the wits of Rome calculated that more severed heads were nailed to the Sant’ Angelo Bridge than there were melons in the market stalls.33 The people murmured that the Pope was barbarously cruel, but ambassadors told him that “in every part of his states through which their road had led, they had traveled through a land blessed with peace and security.”34 The proud pontiff had coins struck with the inscription Noli me tangere. In a fury of virtue he ordered a priest and a boy burned for homosexual acts, and compelled a young woman to witness the hanging of the mother who had sold her into prostitution. All detected adulteries were to be punished with death. Men were arrested for crimes dating so far back that a placard quoted St. Peter as trembling with fear lest Sixtus should indict him for cutting off Malchus’ ear on the occasion of Christ’s arrest.

Amid this mad pursuit he found time for government and reform. He ended the war of confiscations that Gregory XIII had waged against the nobles. He reconciled those ancient foes the Orsini and the Colonna by uniting them in marriage. He distributed the cardinals among eleven new and four old “congregations,” and divided among these the administration of the Curia. He commanded the clergy to observe all the reform decrees of the Council of Trent, and required periodical visitation and correction of monasteries by the bishops. Fornication with a nun was to be punished by the death of both parties. He revived to full activity the University of Rome. To accommodate the great increase of books he commissioned Domenico Fontana to design a sumptuous new home for the Vatican Library. He personally supervised an improved edition of Jerome’s Vulgate—which is as splendid a translation of the Bible into Latin as the King James version is into English.

He did not share the respect that his Renaissance predecessors had felt for the remains of pagan art. He completed the ruin of the Septizonium of Severus to provide columns for St. Peter’s. He proposed to raze the tomb of Caecilia Metella. He threatened to demolish the Capitol itself if the statues of Jupiter Tonans, Apollo, and Minerva were not removed; he allowed Minerva to remain, but rechristened her Roma and replaced her spear with a cross. He exorcised the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius by topping them with statues of St. Peter or St. Paul and renaming the columns accordingly. To further symbolize the subjection of paganism to Christianity, he engaged Domenico Fontana to transfer to St. Peter’s Square the obelisk that Caligula had brought from Heliopolis and that Nero had set up in the Circus Maximus. The monolith of red granite was eighty-three feet high and weighed over a million Roman pounds. Masterful architects like Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo had pronounced its removal to be beyond the capacity of Renaissance engineers. Domenico and his brother Giovanni took a year to accomplish the task (1585–86). Immense machines lowered and transported the monument; eight hundred men, fortified by the Sacrament, and 140 horses pulled forty-four ropes, each as thick as a man’s arm, to raise it aloft on its new site. Domenico, succeeding, became the hero of Rome; Sixtus struck commemorative medals and sent official announcements to foreign governments. The ball at the top was replaced with a cross containing a piece of the “true cross” on which Christ had died. Sixtus felt that Christianity had resumed its sway after its interruption by the Renaissance.

The indefatigable Pope, in his brief quinquennium, renovated secular Rome. He brought in a fresh supply of good water—feeding twenty-seven new fountains—by rebuilding the ruined Acqua Alessandria, which he renamed, after himself, Acqua Felice. He cleared the air by financing the drainage of the marshes; good progress was made and 9,600 acres were reclaimed, but the enterprise was abandoned at his death. At his bidding Domenico Fontana opened up new avenues on the classic plan of straight lines; the Via Sistina was prolonged as the Via Felice; the noble Church of Santa Maria Maggiore became the center of several radial thoroughfares; Rome began to assume its modern form. To finance his undertakings Sixtus, starting with an empty treasury, taxed even the necessaries of life, debased the coinage, sold appointments, and issued annuity insurance (monti) for life in return for gifts to the papal exchequer. He administered his funds with competence and care, and left five million crowns in his coffers at his death.

His greatest concern was foreign policy. He never abandoned hope of regaining England and Germany and uniting all Christendom against Islam. He admired Elizabeth’s statesmanship, but lent his aid to plots to depose her. He promised to contribute to the expense of the Spanish Armada, but he distrusted Philip’s dallying, and shrewdly made his aid conditional on the actual landing of Spanish troops in England. France was his greatest problem. The Huguenots, supposedly exterminated in 1572, were advancing upon Paris under the undiscourageable Henry of Navarre. Philip II was financing the League to save France for Catholicism—and for Spain; Sixtus faced the choice of letting France go Protestant or helping Philip to turn France into a Spanish dependency. But a balance of power between France and Spain seemed indispensable to papal freedom from secular domination. In 1589 Sixtus offered to join in war against Henry; but when Henry promised to become a Catholic, Sixtus withdrew from the plan. Philip threatened to detach Spain from the papal obedience, and a Spanish Jesuit denounced the Pope as abetting heresy, but Sixtus held his ground and welcomed Henry’s ambassador. In the end his faith in Henry was justified: France was saved to the Church and continued as a balance against Spain.

This was his last triumph, and perhaps the strain of it exhausted him. Neither the cardinals nor the nobles nor the people regretted his death (1590); the cardinals had winced under his severity; the nobles had been forced, against the most time-honored customs, to obey the laws; the people, taxed to the limit and disciplined to unwonted peace, tried to demolish the statue that had been raised to Sixtus on the Capitol. But after the blows he dealt had lost their sting, posterity could balance his achievements against his cruelty, his pride, and his love of power. A rationalist historian, Lecky, judged him, “though not the greatest man, by far the greatest statesman, who has ever sat on the papal throne.”35

Among his successors in this period two are especially memorable. Clement VIII (1592–1605) was almost a Christian. “Of all the popes that have for a long time past sat in the see of Rome,” said the Huguenot Sully, he “was most free from party prejudices, and had more of that gentleness and compassion which the Gospel prescribed”;36 however, he refused mercy to Beatrice Cenci (1599), and allowed the Inquisition to burn Giordano Bruno at the stake (1600). Urban VIII (1623–44) at first aided Spain and Austria in the Thirty Years’ War; but when they tried to absorb Mantua he feared encirclement, and turned his diplomatic maneuvers to co-operation with Richelieu in using the Protestant armies of Gustavus Adolphus to weaken the Hapsburg power. Infected with the military spirit of the age, he subordinated spiritual concerns to the extension of his rule as a secular prince; he acquired Urbino, and heavily taxed it—and his other states—to finance a papal army for war against the Duke of Parma. The army proved worthless, and his death left the papal realm “in such a condition of decay and exhaustion,” reported a Venetian ambassador, “that it is impossible for it ever to rise or recover.”37 The ambassador was mistaken. Elements of recovery appeared everywhere in the Church, and mounted to the papacy. The plain people of Italy, solacing immemorial hardship with intense and imaginative piety, still crowded their hallowed shrines, marched solemnly in religious processions, told one another of new miracles, and with painful ecstasy climbed the Scala Santa on their knees. Saints like Philip Neri, Francis of Sales, and Vincent de Paul revealed the capacity of the old Church to inspire an absorbing devotion; so the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga died at the age of twenty-three while ministering to the victims of pestilence in Rome (1591). Worldliness and corruption in the Curia gave way before the assaults of Protestant reformers, the exhortations of saints, the inspiring example of prelates like St. Charles Borromeo of Milan. From pope to pope the movement of self-reform, however halting, grew. Old religious orders were reinvigorated, new ones multiplied—the Oratorians (1564), the Oblates of St. Ambrose (1578), the Regular Clerks Minor (1588), the Lazarists (1624), the Sisters of Charity (1633), and many more. Seminaries were established throughout Catholic Christendom to train an educated secular clergy. Catholic missionaries went to every non-Christian land, facing hardships and perils, tending the sick, educating the young, and preaching the faith. And everywhere, battling Protestants in Germany, plotting politics in France, dying for their cause in England, carrying the creed to “heathens” in five continents, moved the incredible, indomitable Jesuits.

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