IV. PIUS II: 1458–64

Enea Silvio de’ Piccolomini began his career in 1405 in the town of Corsignano, near Siena, of poor parents with a noble pedigree. The University of Siena taught him law; it was not to his taste, for he loved literature, but it gave keenness and order to his mind, and prepared him for the tasks of administration and diplomacy. At Florence he studied the humanities under Filelfo, and from that time he remained a humanist. At twenty-seven he was engaged as secretary by Cardinal Capranica, whom he accompanied to the Council of Basel. There he fell in with a group hostile to Eugenius IV; for many years thereafter he defended the conciliar movement against the papal power; for a time he served as secretary to the Antipope Felix V. Perceiving that he had hitched his wagon to a falling star, he coaxed a bishop to introduce him to the Emperor Frederick III. Soon he received a post in the royal chancery, and in 1442 he accompanied Frederick to Austria. For a while he remained moored.

In those formative years he seemed quite formless—merely a clever climber who had no sturdy principles, no goal but success. He passed from cause to cause without losing his heart, and from woman to woman with a gay inconstancy that seemed to him—and to most of his contemporaries —the proper training for the obligations of matrimony. He wrote for a friend a love letter designed to melt the obstinacy of a girl who preferred marriage to fornication.22 Of his several illegitimate children he sent one to his father, asking him to rear it, and confessing that he was “neither holier than David nor wiser than Solomon”;23 the young devil could quote Scripture to his purpose. He wrote a novel in the manner of Boccaccio; it was translated into almost every European tongue, and plagued him in the days of his sanctity. Though his further advancement seemed to require taking holy orders, he shrank from the step because, like Augustine, he doubted his capacity for continence.24 He wrote against the celibacy of the clergy.25

Amid these infidelities he remained faithful to letters. That same sensitivity to beauty which had corrupted his morals enamored him of nature, delighted him with travel, and formed his style until he had made himself one of the most engaging writers and eloquent orators of the fifteenth century. He wrote, nearly always in Latin, in nearly every species of composition—fiction, poetry, epigrams, dialogues, essays, histories, travel sketches, geography, commentaries, memoirs, a comedy; and always with a verve and grace that rivaled Petrarch’s liveliest prose. He could phrase a state paper, prepare or improvise an address, with persuasive subtlety and captivating fluency; it is characteristic of the age that Aeneas Sylvius, beginning almost from nothing, raised himself to the papacy on the point of his pen. His verses had no enduring depth or worth, but they were smooth enough to get him the poet’s crown from the hand of the complaisant Frederick III (1442). His essays had a lighthearted charm that glossed over their author’s lack of conviction or principle. He could pass from a discourse on “The Miseries of Court Life” (“as rivers flow to the sea, so vices flow to courts”26), to a treatise “On the Nature and Care of Horses.” It was another sign of the times that his long letter on education—addressed to King Ladislas of Bohemia but intended for publication—quoted, with one exception, only pagan authors and instances, stressed the glory of humanistic studies, and urged the King to fit his sons for the hardships and responsibilities of war; “serious matters are settled not by laws but by arms.”27 His travel notes are the best of their kind in Renaissance literature. He described with avid interest not only cities and rural scenes, but industries, products, political conditions, constitutions, manners, and morals; and not since Petrarch had any Italian written so fondly well of the countryside. He was the only Italian in centuries who loved Germany; he had a good word for the boisterous burghers who filled the air with song and themselves with beer instead of murdering one another in the streets. He called himself varia videndi cupidus, eager to see a variety of things;28 and one of his frequent sayings was: “A miser is never satisfied with his money, nor a wise man with his knowledge.”29 Turning his facile plume to history, he composed short biographies of illustrious contemporaries (De viris claris), a life of Frederick III, an account of the Hussite wars, and an outline of universal history. He planned a larger Universal History and Geography, continued to work on it during his pontificate, and completed the section on Asia, which Columbus read with interest.30 As pope he composed, from day to day, Commentarii or memoirs, giving the history of his reign to his final illness. “He read and dictated till midnight as he lay in bed,” says his contemporary Platina, “nor did he sleep above five or six hours.”31 He apologized for giving papal time to literary composition: “Our time has not been taken from our duties; we have given to writing the hours due to sleep; we have robbed our old age of its rest that we might hand down to posterity all that we know to be memorable.”32


Fig. 31—GIOVANNI BELLINI: Madonna degli Alberetti; Academy, Venice PAGE 300


Fig. 32—GIOVANNI BELLINI: Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredano; National Gallery, London PAGE 300


Fig. 33—GIORGIONE: Sleeping Venus; Art Gallery, Dresden PAGE 305


Fig. 34—GIORGIONE: Concert Champêtre; Louvre, Paris PAGE 305


Fig. 35—TITIAN: “Sacred and Profane Love”; Borghese Gallery, Rome PAGE 308


Fig. 36—TITIAN: Venus and Adonis; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York PAGE 310


Fig. 37—VITTORE CARPACCIO: The Dream of St. Ursula; Academy, Venice PAGE 302


Fig. 38—TITIAN: Assumption of the Virgin; Frari, Venice PAGE 310


Fig. 39—CORREGGIO: Sts. John and Augustine; from a spandrel in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, Parma PAGE 329


Fig. 40—CORREGGIO: The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine; Art Institute, Detroit PAGE 328


Fig. 41—PARMIGIANINO: Madonna della Rosa; Picture Gallery, Dresden PAGE 332


Fig. 42—Majolica from Faenza; Left and right are vinegar bottles, center is vase, from Urbino, middle of 16th Century PAGE 338


Fig. 43—RAPHAEL: The Pearl Madonna; Prado, Madrid PAGE 462


Fig. 44—RAPHAEL: Portrait of Pope Julius II; Pitti Palace, Florence PAGE 441


Fig. 45—MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI: Pietà; St. Peter’s, Rome PAGE 466


Fig. 46—MICHELANGELO BUONARROT: Creation of Adam, ceiling; Sistine Chapel, Rome PAGE 474

In 1445 the Emperor sent Aeneas Sylvius as envoy to the Pope. He, who had a hundred times written against Eugenius, made his apologies so eloquently that the kindly pontiff readily forgave him; and from that day the soul of Aeneas belonged to Eugenius. He became a priest (1446), and at forty-one reconciled himself to chastity; henceforth he lived an exemplary life. He kept Frederick loyal to the papacy, and by skillful—sometimes devious—diplomacy restored the allegiance of the German electors and prelates to the Apostolic See. His visits to Rome and Siena reawakened his love of Italy; gradually he loosened his ties with Frederick, and attached himself (1455) to the papal court. He had always wanted to be back in the excitement and politics of his native land; in Rome he would be at the very center of things; who could say but in the tumult and shuffle of events he might not become pope? In 1449 he was made bishop of Siena; in 1456 he became Cardinal Piccolomini.

When the time came to choose a successor to Calixtus, the Italians in the conclave, to prevent the election of the French Cardinal d’Estouteville, gave their votes to Piccolomini. The Italian cardinals were resolved to keep the papacy and the Sacred College Italian, not only for their personal reasons but through fear that a non-Italian pope might again disrupt Christendom by favoring his own country or taking the papacy from Italy. No one held against Aeneas the sins of his youth; the merry Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia cast a decisive vote for him; the majority felt that Cardinal Piccolomini, though so recently capped in red, had the qualifications of a man of wide experience, a successful diplomat well posted on troublesome Germany, and a scholar whose learning would heighten the luster of the papacy.

He was now fifty-three, and his adventurous life had taken such toll of his health that he seemed already an old man. On a voyage from Holland to Scotland (1435) he had encountered frighteningly rough seas—taking twelve days from Sluys to Dunbar—and had vowed, if saved, to walk barefoot to the nearest shrine of the Virgin. This proved to be at Whitekirk, ten miles away. He kept his vow, walked the full distance with bare feet on snow and ice, contracted gout, and suffered severely from it all the rest of his life. By 1458 he had stone in the kidneys, and a chronic cough. His eyes were sunken, his face pale; at times, says Platina, “nobody could tell that he was alive but by his voice.”33 As pope he lived simply and frugally; his household expenses in the Vatican were the lowest on record. When his duties allowed he retired to a rural suburb, where “he entertained himself not like a pope but as an honest humble rustic”;34 sometimes he held consistories, or received ambassadors, under shady trees, or amid an olive grove, or by a cooling spring or stream. He called himself—punning on his name—silvarum amator, lover of woods.

As pope he took his name from Virgil’s recurrent phrase, pius Aeneas. If we may with custom moderately mistranslate the adjective, he lived up to it: he was pious, faithful to his duties, benevolent and indulgent, temperate and mild, and won the affection of even the cynics of Rome. He had outgrown the sensualism of his youth, and was morally a model pope. He made no attempt to conceal his early amours, or his propaganda for the councils against the papacy, but he issued a Bull of Retraction (1463) humbly asking God and the Church to forgive his errors and sins. The humanists who had expected lavish patronage from a humanist pope were disappointed to find that while he enjoyed their company, and gave several of them places in the Curia, he dispensed no luscious fees but conserved the papal funds for a crusade against the Turks. He continued, in his leisure moments, to be a humanist: he studied the ancient ruins carefully, and forbade their further demolition; he amnestied the people of Arpino because Cicero had been born there; he commissioned a new translation of Homer, and employed Platina and Biondo in his secretariat. He brought Mino da Fiesole to carve, and Filippino Lippi to paint, in the churches of Rome. He indulged his vanity by building, from designs by Bernardo Rossellino, a cathedral and Piccolomini palace in his native Corsignano, which he renamed Pienza after himself. He had the poor noble’s pride of ancestry, and was too loyal to his friends and relatives for the good of the Church; the Vatican became a Piccolomini hive.

Two admirable scholars graced his pontificate. Flavio Biondo, a papal secretary since Nicholas V, was a symbol of the Christian Renaissance: he loved antiquity and spent half his life describing its history and relics, but he never ceased to be a devout, orthodox, and practising Christian. Pius valued him as guide and friend, and profited from his company on tours of the Roman remains; for Biondo had written an encyclopedia in three parts—Roma instaurata, Roma triumphans, and Italia illustrata— recording the topography, history, institutions, laws, religion, manners, and arts of ancient Italy. Greater still was his Historiarum ab inclinatione Romanorum, an immense Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from 476 to 1250—the first critical history of the Middle Ages. Biondo was no stylist, but he was a discriminating historian; through his work the legends that Italian cities had cherished of their Trojan or like fancied origins died away. The undertaking was too ambitious even for Biondo’s seventy-five years; it was unfinished at his death (1463); but it set to later historians an example of conscientious scholarship.

John Cardinal Bessarion was a living vehicle of the Greek culture that was entering Italy. Born at Trebizond, he received at Constantinople a thorough schooling in Greek poetry, oratory, and philosophy; he continued his studies under the famous Platonist Gemistus Pletho at Mistra. Coming to the Council of Florence as Archbishop of Nicaea, he took a leading part in the reunion of Greek and Latin Christianity; returning to Constantinople he and other “Uniates” were repudiated by the lower clergy and the people. Pope Eugenius made him a cardinal (1439), and Bessarion moved to Italy, bringing with him a rich collection of Greek manuscripts. At Rome his house became a salon of humanists; Poggio, Valla, and Platina were among his closest friends; Valla called himlatinorum graecissimus, graecorum latinissimus— the most learned Hellenist among the Latins, the most accomplished Latinist among the Greeks.35 He spent nearly all his income in purchasing manuscripts or having them copied. He himself made a new translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics; but as a disciple of Gemistus he favored Plato, and led the Platonic camp in a hot controversy that raged at the time between Platonists and Aristotelians. Plato won that campaign, and the long rule of Aristotle over Western philosophy came to an end. When Nicholas V appointed Bessarion legate at Bologna, to govern the Romagna and the Marches, Bessarion acquitted himself so well that Nicholas called him “angel of peace.” For Pius II he undertook difficult diplomatic missions in a Germany again seething with revolt against the Roman Church. Toward the end of his life he bequeathed his library to Venice, where it now forms a precious part of the Biblioteca Marciana. In 1471 he narrowly missed election to the papacy. He died a year later, honored throughout the world of scholarship.

His missions to Germany failed, partly because the efforts of Pius II to reform the Church were frustrated, and partly because a new attempt to levy a tithe for a crusade revived transalpine antipathy to Rome. At the outset of his pontificate Pius appointed a committee of high prelates to formulate a program of reform. He accepted a plan submitted by Nicholas of Cusa, and embodied it in a papal bull. But he found that no one in Rome wanted reform; almost every second dignitary there profited from one or another immemorial abuse; apathy and passive resistance defeated Pius; and meanwhile his difficulties with Germany, Bohemia, and France used up his energy, and the crusade that he planned absorbed his devotion and cried for funds. He had to content himself with reproving cardinals for licentious lives, and with sporadic improvements of monastic discipline. In 1463 he addressed a final appeal to the cardinals:

People say that we live for pleasure, accumulate wealth, bear ourselves arrogantly, ride on fat mules and handsome palfreys, trail the fringes of our cloaks after us, and show round plump faces beneath the red hat and the white hood, keep hounds for the chase, spend much on actors and parasites, and nothing in defense of the Faith. And there is some truth in their words: many among the cardinals and other officials of our court do lead this kind of life. If the truth be confessed, the luxury and pomp at our court is too great. And this is why we are so detested by the people that they will not listen to us, even when we say what is just and reasonable. What do you think is to be done in such a shameful state of things?… We must inquire by what means our predecessors won authority and consideration for the Church…. We must maintain that authority by the same means. Temperance, chastity, innocence, zeal for the Faith… contempt of earth, the desire for martyrdom have exalted the Roman Church, and made her mistress of the world.36

The Pope, who as Aeneas Sylvius had been so uniformly successful as a diplomat, had to bear one setback after another in his dealings with the European powers. Louis XI gave him a brief triumph by revoking the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, but when Pius refused to aid the house of Anjou in its plans for recapturing Naples, Louis in effect revoked his revocation. Bohemia persisted in the revolt that John Huss had started; the Reformation had begun there a century before Luther, and the new king, George Poděbrad, was giving it his powerful support. The German hierarchy continued to league with German princes in resisting collection of the tithe, and renewed the old cry for a general council to reform the Church and sit in judgment upon the pope. Pius responded by issuing (1460) the bull Execrabilis, which condemned and forbade any attempt to convene a general council without papal initiative and consent; if, he argued, such a council could be summoned at any time by opponents of papal policy, papal jurisdiction would be in constant jeopardy, and ecclesiastical discipline would be paralyzed.

These disputes fettered the efforts of the Pope to unify Europe against the Turks. On the very day of his coronation he expressed his horror at the advance of the Moslems along the Danube to Vienna, and through the Balkans into Bosnia. Greece, Epirus, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia were falling to the enemies of Christianity; who could say when they would leap across the Adriatic into Italy? A month after his coronation Pius issued an invitation to all Christian princes to join him in a great congress at Mantua and lay plans to rescue Eastern Christendom from the Ottoman tide.

He himself arrived there on May 27, 1459. Arrayed in the most gorgeous vestments of his office, he was borne through the city on a litter held up by the nobles and vassals of the Church. He addressed great throngs in one of the most moving orations of his career. But no king or prince came from beyond the Alps, and none sent representatives with powers to commit his state to war; nationalism, which was to achieve the Reformation, was already strong enough to make the papacy an ineffectual suppliant before the thrones of the kings. The cardinals urged the Pope to return to Rome; neither did they relish the thought of yielding a tithe of their income to the crusade; some decamped to their pleasures; some asked Pius to his face did he wish them to die of fever in Mantua’s summer heat? The Pontiff waited patiently for the Emperor, but Frederick III, instead of coming to the aid of the man who in the past had served him well, declared war on Hungary in an effort to add to his realm the very nation that was most actively preparing to resist the Turks. France again made its co-operation conditional on papal support of a French campaign against Naples. Venice held back for fear that her remaining possessions in the Aegean would be the first sacrifice in a war of Christian Europe against the Ottomans. At last, in August, an embassy came from Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy; in September Francesco Sforza appeared; other Italian princes followed his lead, and on the 26th the Congress held its first sitting, four months after the arrival of the Pope. Four months more passed in argument; finally, by agreeing to the division of Turkish and formerly Byzantine territory in Europe among the victorious powers, Pius won Burgundy and Italy to his plan for a holy war. All Christian laymen were to contribute to the cause a thirtieth of their income, all Jews a twentieth, all clergy a tenth. The Pope returned to Rome in almost complete exhaustion; but he gave orders for the construction of a papal fleet, and prepared, despite gout and cough and stone, to lead the crusade himself.

And yet his nature shrank from war, and he dreamed of a peaceful victory. Perhaps encouraged by rumors that Mohammed II, born of a Christian mother, had secret leanings toward Christianity, Pius addressed to the Sultan (1461) an earnest appeal to accept the Gospel of Christ. He had never been more eloquent.

Were you to embrace Christianity there is no prince on earth who would surpass you in glory or equal you in power. We would acknowledge you as emperor of the Greeks and the East; and what you have now taken by violence, and retain by injustice, would then be your lawful possession…. Oh, what a fullness of peace it would be! The golden age of Augustus, sung by the poets, would return. If you were to join yourself to us the whole of the East would soon turn to Christ. One will could give peace to the entire world, and that will is yours!37

Mohammed made no reply; whatever his theology, he knew that his final protection against Western arms lay not in the promises of the Pope but in the religious ardor of his people. Pius turned more realistically to collecting the clerical tithe. A windfall sustained him in 1462 when rich deposits of alum were found in papal soil at Tolfa in western Latium; several thousand men were put to work mining the substance so valued by dyers; soon the mines were yielding 100,000 florins per year to the Holy See. Pius announced that the discovery was a miracle, a divine contribution to the Turkish war.38 The Papal States were now the richest government in Italy, with Venice a close second, Naples third, then Milan, Florence, Modena, Siena, Mantua.39

Venice, perceiving the resolute earnestness of the Pope, accelerated its preparations. The other powers held back, or offered merely token aid; the collection of taxes for the crusade met with formidable resistance almost everywhere. Francesco Sforza cooled to the enterprise as promising to strengthen Venice by redeeming her lost possessions and trade. Genoa, which had pledged eight triremes, withheld them. The Duke of Burgundy urged the Pope to wait for a better day. But Pius announced that he would go to Ancona, expect there the union of new papal and Venetian fleets, cross with them to Ragusa, join Skanderbeg of Bosnia and Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, and lead in person the advance against the Turks. Nearly all the cardinals protested; they had no appetite for marching through the Balkans; they warned the Pope that Bosnia was reeking with heretics and plague. The ailing pontiff nevertheless took the cross of a crusader, bade farewell to Rome, not expecting to see it again, and sailed with his fleet for Ancona (June 18, 1464).

Meanwhile the armies that were supposed to meet him faded away as if by Oriental magic; the troops originally promised by Milan did not come; those which Florence sent were so poorly equipped as to be useless; when Pius reached Ancona (July 19) he found that most of the crusaders who had assembled there had deserted, weary of wating and worried for food. Plague broke out in the Venetian fleet as it left the lagoons, and caused a delay of twelve days. Brokenhearted by the vanishing of his armies and the nonappearance of the Venetian armada, Pius languished at Ancona, sick to the verge of death. Finally the fleet was sighted; the Pope sent his galleys to meet them, and had himself carried to a window from which he could see the harbor. As the combined navies came in sight he died (August 14, 1464). Venice recalled her vessels, the remaining soldiers dispersed, the crusade collapsed. The brilliant and versatile climber who had craved success after success had reached the throne of thrones, had graced it with urbane scholarship and Christian benevolence, and had drunk to the dregs the gall of failure, humiliation, and defeat; but he had redeemed the errors of his youth with the devotion of his maturity, and had shamed the cynicism of his peers with the nobility of his death.

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