The disunion of Italy determined the papal election that followed: the factions, unable to agree on an Italian, chose a Spanish cardinal, Alfonso Borgia, who took the name of Calixtus III. He was already seventy-seven; he could be depended upon to die soon, and allow the cardinals another and perhaps more profitable choice. A specialist in canon law and diplomacy, he had a legalistic mind, and cared little for the classical scholarship that had enamored Nicholas. The humanists, who had no indigenous root in Rome, languished during his pontificate, except that Valla, now quite reformed, was still a papal secretary.

Calixtus was a good man, who loved his relatives. Ten months after his coronation he raised to the cardinalate two of his nephews—Luis Juan de Mila and Rodrigo Borgia—and Don Jayme of Portugal, respectively twenty-five, twenty-four, and twenty-three years of age. Rodrigo (the future Alexander VI) had the additional handicap of being carelessly candid about his mistresses; however, Calixtus gave him (1457) the most lucrative post at the papal court—that of vice-chancellor; in the same year he made him also commander in chief of the papal troops. So began, or grew, the nepotism by which pope after pope gave church offices to his nephews or other relatives, who were sometimes his sons. To the anger of the Italians, Calixtus surrounded himself with men of his own country; Rome was now ruled by Catalans. The Pope had reasons: he was a foreigner in Rome; the nobles and republicans were plotting against him; he wished to have near him men whom he knew, and who would protect him from intrigue while he attended to his prime interest—a crusade. Moreover, the Pope was resolved to have friends in a College of Cardinals perpetually struggling to make the papacy a constitutional as well as an elective monarchy, subject in all its decisions to the cardinals as a senate or privy council. The popes opposed and overcame this movement precisely as the kings fought and defeated the nobles. In each case absolute monarchy won; but perhaps the replacement of a local with a national economy, and the growth of international relations in scope and complexity, required, for the time, a centralization of leadership and authority.21a

Calixtus wore out his last energies in a vain attempt to stir Europe to resist the Turks. When he died Rome celebrated the end of its rule by “barbarians.” When Cardinal Piccolomini was named his successor Rome rejoiced as it had not rejoiced over any pope during the last two hundred years.

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