The Borgias : the rise and fall of a Renaissance dynasty /
Michael Mallett.
Chicago : Academy Chicago, 1987, c1969.
368 p. : ill., geneal. tables, map ; 18 cm.
0897332385 (pbk.) :
More Details
Chicago : Academy Chicago, 1987, c1969.
0897332385 (pbk.) :
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Includes bibliographical references (p. [339]-354) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


The Renaissance Papacy

When Martin V rode into Rome in September 1420 he received a ragged but heartfelt welcome from the Romans. Apart from two brief interludes in the 1360s and the 1370s, there had not been a Pope resident in the Holy City since the beginning of the previous century who had commanded general recognition throughout western Christendom. For much of that time the Lateran and Vatican palaces had stood empty as the Popes had moved their court to Avignon, and for the last forty years although there had been a Pope in Rome the Great Schism had ensured that large parts of Europe did not recognize his authority. It was therefore as the personification of the restoration of Catholic unity, and as the first of a new series of Popes, the Renaissance Popes, that Martin V was welcomed to Rome.

By 1420 the great medieval conflict between Popes and Holy Roman Emperors for ultimate authority over Christendom was long since over. The victory appeared to have been decisively won by the Papacy in the thirteenth century when Frederick II, the 'wonder of the world', had died a frustrated man, and his heir had been convincingly defeated by the papal forces at the battle of Tagliacozzo. From these moments the papal idea of the Pope as God's supreme vicar on earth in both the spiritual and temporal spheres, claiming the right to the homage of the princes of Europe, seemed to have triumphed. But already the Europe over which the Popes appeared to have won control was changing rapidly. When Boniface VIII sought to formalize the papal theory of sovereignty in his Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302, he met opposition not from the Emperor but from the rising power of the national monarchies of western Europe. It was the ambassadors of the King of France who were said to have slapped the Pope's face at Anagni, thus demonstrating their rejection of his claims. Two years later a French Pope, Clement V, was elected and it was not long before French influence had succeeded in establishing the papal court at Avignon.

The abandonment of Rome by the Popes in the fourteenth century was not such a surprising move as it appears. Many medieval Popes had spent little time in the city, and not a few had at one time or another sought refuge in France when pressure on them in Italy had been too great. Nor should the Avignonese Popes be written off completely as puppets of France. Many of the Popes of the fourteenth century were university-trained men who set about the organization of papal administration along more efficient and more highly centralized lines. It was in Avignon that the Curia became the most sophisticated civil service in Europe in its day. The collection of papal revenues was improved as it needed to be with the ever-increasing cost of papal government. The Popes began to build themselves the great palace at Avignon, to some extent the symbol of their independence and authority.

But nevertheless the prestige of the Papacy inevitably suffered in this period. The improvements in the central administration and the increased fiscal pressure caused widespread alarm; bishops feared for their independence, the laity feared for their pockets, kings feared for their national revenues. This fear and suspicion was increased when it was felt that the Pope and his administration were becoming too closely attached to one nation, a nation with which England was at war and the Empire on terms of permanent distrust. Despite the independent position which the Avignonese Popes were to some extent maintaining, there was no escaping the facts that it was to the Kings of France that massive papal loans went, and that 113 of the 134 cardinals appointed by those Popes were Frenchmen. In these circumstances anti-papalism and anti-clericalism were inevitably exacerbated by rising national feeling.

By the 1360s there was a clear desire on the part of the Popes, French though they continued to be, to escape from this situation. Avignon, threatened by roving companies of unemployed soldiers during the lulls in the Hundred Years War, was no more secure than Rome had been. In 1367 Urban V moved his court briefly back to Rome; but by now accustomed to the civilized surroundings created in Avignon he was appalled by the primitive and disturbed conditions in Rome. He returned to Avignon to die and it was left to his successor Gregory XI to carry out a more permanent move.

So in 1377 the Roman Papacy was re-established and a year later on the death of Gregory the first conclave for over seventy years was held in Rome. But the majority of the cardinals were still French and although, intimidated by the Roman populace clamouring for an Italian Pope, they elected the Neapolitan Urban VI, they very quickly renounced their decision and withdrew from Rome. Urban, a neurotic and violent man, created twenty-five new Italian cardinals to replace his dissident College and the latter declared his election void and chose one of their number, Robert of Geneva, to be Clement VII. After a brief civil war Clement and his Avignonese cardinals gave up their attempt to depose Urban by force and returned to Avignon. The Schism had begun.

This was a schism dictated by personal and political factors rather than doctrinal ones and it was highly damaging to the prestige of the Papacy. The whole concept of the universal church was destroyed as two supreme pontiffs struggled for control, aided by political factions. The division of Europe followed political lines: England and Germany, politically opposed to France, supported the Roman Pope regardless of the equivocal activities of Urban who tortured and murdered cardinals who opposed him; Scotland, Spain and the Angevin dynasty in Naples supported the French Pope. Many sees had bishops appointed by both Popes, and even the great religious orders were split as generals were appointed from both sides. Much-needed reform of the Church was indefinitely delayed, and as each Pope attempted to make the half of the papal revenues which he controlled pay the whole cost of his administration, fiscal exactions were increased and the unpopularity which these caused grew. The Church like other great landowners suffered severely in the second half of the fourteenth century from falling grain prices and the reduction of the rural labour force. Thus the revenues of the Church were declining both from the Church lands and from the spiritual taxes just at the moment when expenditure was increasing.

The situation was clearly intolerable and it was not long before pressure began to build up for the restoration of a unified Papacy. The election of the authoritarian Spaniard Pedro de Luna to the Avignonese throne as Benedict XIII offended France; the university of Paris declared against him and his French revenues were cut off. The complete confusion in the Papal States as the bankrupt Roman Popes struggled for authority disillusioned the Italians. The cardinals on both sides were anxious for a solution, but the main stumbling block was the two Popes themselves who dreaded the loss of authority which reunification would inevitably bring to one of them. In this situation it was to a General Council of the Church that men turned to heal the Schism; a Council that was to be no longer the instrument of the Papacy as the earlier Councils of the Church had been, but a Council fortified by a new body of theories which had grown up in the fourteenth century.

The emergence of representative institutions in the increasingly self-sufficient states of western Europe, the breakdown of medieval concepts of universalism and the growth of anti-clericalism all contributed to the growth of the new conciliar theory. The idea that the ultimate authority in the Church should be a Council representing not just the clergy of all Christendom but also the laity, and that such a Council should have the power to depose an erring Pope was an attractive one at the time of the Schism. Its formulation was assisted by the writings of John of Paris and Marsilio of Padua during the fourteenth century, and hardened under the influence of men like Pierre d'Ailly and Jean Gerson during the conciliar period itself. Thus the solution to the Schism seemed to threaten a permanent reduction of the Pope's prestige by the establishment of a constitutional papal monarchy.

The first of the fifteenth-century Councils met at Pisa in 1409. It was not well attended and its decisions to depose the two existing Popes and elect another, Alexander V, although commanding general support, did not carry sufficient weight to bring a permanent solution. Neither Gregory XII in Rome, nor Benedict XIII now in Spain, accepting their deposition and so Christendom had three Popes. It was therefore the next Council held at Constance between 1414 and 1418 which took the first effective steps towards healing the Schism. Part of the conciliar idea stated at Pisa was that Councils should meet at regular intervals, and the Council of Constance was therefore well prepared and well attended. Alexander V's successor as 'conciliar' Pope, John XXIII, had issued the formal summons to the Council and had hoped that it would confirm his position and accept his leadership. But the precedents set at Pisa, the urgent need for reform, and the continued resistance of the surviving Popes ensured the temporary triumph of the conciliarists. John fled from Constance and opened the way for his own deposition and the confirmation of those of his rivals. The Council, torn between a desire to press on with reforms and the need to elect a new Pope who could command general support, eventually proceeded with the latter and at a special conclave Cardinal Oddo Colonna was elected and took the title of Martin V.

Martin V can be justifiably described as the first of the Renaissance Popes, and the period which lay between his entry into Rome and the sack of that city by Charles V's troops in 1527 as the Renaissance Papacy.

It was not the extent to which these Popes were associated with the intellectual and cultural trends of the Renaissance which gives meaning to the term the Renaissance Papacy, as such involvement and interest varied greatly from Pope to Pope. But the similarity of the problems which they faced, and the emergence of a continuity in their response to those problems and in their interpretation of the concept of papal monarchy, linked Martin V and his successors. Martin V was faced with the problems of re-establishing papal prestige, of re-asserting papal supremacy against conciliar theories and emerging national churches, of reimposing papal control over the Papal States, and of maintaining the independence of the Papacy from any external political forces. His solution in a world where secular values were of increasing importance was to concentrate on establishing the temporal power of the Papacy. The prestige, independence and ultimate spiritual supremacy of the Pope were to depend on a secure and well-administered territorial state, on independent finances, on a well-trained civil service, on diplomacy and on military strength. Once the prestige of the Pope was re-established then he could think of promulgating effective reform; but Martin V and all of the Popes who followed him in the next century proved themselves consistently alien to conciliar theories or to any repetition of what they saw as the weakness and dependence of the Avignonese Popes.

For both Martin and his immediate successor, Eugenius IV, the task of recovery was a difficult one. The Spanish anti-popes in the person of Clement VIII did not finally capitulate until 1429, and it was not until 1449 that the third of the great Councils, that of Basle, finally broke up in disorder and the cause of papal supremacy seemed to be once more secure. All the Councils had suffered from internal national rivalries, from the opposition of ecclesiastical vested interests to specific programmes of reform and to lay influence, and from a tendency towards idealistic rather than practical policies. Eugenius IV with the aid of his experienced Curia was able to play on these divisions, to win for himself the credit for the apparent healing of the breach with the Orthodox Church at the Council of Florence, and to come to agreement with the various princely supporters of the conciliar movement in a series of concordats.

The policy of negotiating with each nation separately over ecclesiastical grievances and reform had been employed by Martin V as a means of breaking up the Council of Constance. It had the advantage for the Popes of dividing the opposition to papal authority and of limiting the extent of concessions to local independence. At the same time the policy did encourage the growth of national churches and initiated a process of negotiated reduction of papal influence. The concordats agreed by Martin V were largely concerned with restricting papal rights of reservation of and provision to benefices, and with limiting ecclesiastical dues payable to Rome and appeals to Rome. These concordats, and later negotiations such as the Concordat of Vienna agreed between Nicholas V and the Emperor in 1448, were not particularly effective as reforming instruments. They were politico-religious treaties which tended to transfer some authority from Pope to princes, thus winning the latter away from the cause of more far-reaching reform. The recognition of national churches implied in these negotiations sometimes encouraged unilateral action by the churches themselves as in the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges by which the French clergy with the support of the Crown placed very extensive limitations on papal authority in France. But the Pragmatic Sanction itself became a subject of negotiation and diplomatic manoeuvring between the Popes and Louis XI, so that its revocation became a bargaining counter for papal support in French foreign and dynastic policy. During the fifteenth century, with the interest of the Popes turned towards temporal power, it was increasingly the case that Church reform and ecclesiastical authority became pawns in papal diplomacy.

In keeping with the shift to a secular diplomacy, papal nuncios were rapidly ceasing to be ecclesiastical envoys and becoming ambassadors. The Papacy contributed greatly to the development of international diplomacy and the Pope's nuncios, like the representatives of other Italian states, were becoming resident ambassadors towards the end of the fifteenth century. Alexander VI, the most active diplomat of all the Renaissance Popes, played a major part in this trend and by the end of his pontificate resident nuncios were established in Spain, France, England, Venice, and the Empire.

Dangerous as these developments were for the cause of reform, they played their part in the victory of the Renaissance Popes over the conciliar movement. Alfonso V of Aragon was won away from the cause of the Council of Basle at the Treaty of Terracina; the Emperor Frederick III by the Concordat of Vienna. By 1450 it could be said that the papal monarchy was restored. In that year Nicholas V held a triumphant Jubilee; pilgrims and cash poured into Rome and assisted in the rapid transformation of the city into a suitable capital for the Renaissance Popes. In the same year Juan de Torquemada produced his Summa de Ecclesia which was a complete and violent restatement of the doctrine of papal supremacy. Then in 1452 Frederick III visited Rome and was the last Emperor to be crowned in Rome by the Pope. Eight years later Pius II seemed to consolidate the victory with his Bull Execrabilis declaring any appeal to a General Council as a superior authority to the Pope to be anathema. The fact that Nicholas was a scholar of humble origins and Pius an exconciliarist indicates that the Renaissance Popes were not just autocrats determined to ride roughshod over any opposition to their authority. Their belief in the rightness of their cause was uncompromising; they were practical men and in this perhaps they enjoyed an advantage over the conciliarists, who tended to be idealists.

In one sense the Popes of the second half of the fifteenth century did not appear to be very practical and this was in their constant attempts to launch a crusade against the triumphant Turks. No Pope of this period was more earnest in this endeavour than Nicholas V's successor, the first Borgia Pope, Calixtus III. For three years, as we shall see, he devoted his failing strength to trying to stimulate the crusading movement. Following him Pius II died on the eve of leading a forlorn venture to the eastern Mediterranean. Hopes of a crusade played their part in the election of both the wealthy and influential Venetian Paul II and the Franciscan friar Sixtus IV. Even Alexander VI paid at least lip service to the same ideal. But the crusading ideal in the fifteenth century was already an optimistic, and unrealistic, one. The demographic and economic crises of the fourteenth century had temporarily reversed the expansionist urge which had played so great a part in the era of the crusades. Nor were the princes of Europe any more prepared to answer the Pope's call to a crusade than they were to allow him to receive taxes from their kingdoms or install bishops in their cathedrals. Yet the Renaissance Popes by taking the initiative against the Turkish threat were both responding to an urge that was still widely felt, and were also specifically claiming that position as leaders of Christendom which they still felt to be theirs. The call to a crusade, idealistic as it may have seemed, was itself an assertion of papal leadership and those who failed to respond to it were placed to some extent in an inferior bargaining position.

But however anxious the Renaissance Popes were to assert their supremacy on a wide front, it was the establishment of their position as Italian princes which in practice occupied most of their energies. At a moment when the Italian state system was stabilizing itself round a group of larger states whose strength to some extent balanced each other out, the Popes as the rulers of a large part of central Italy stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic were inevitably committed to play a part in Italian politics. Their first concern in their relations with the other Italian states was the protection of the frontiers of the Papal States. To the south lay the Kingdom of Naples, the object of dispute between the Kings of Aragon and the Dukes of Anjou. Naples was a fief of the Papacy which gave the Popes added reason for a close interest in Neapolitan affairs, and throughout the long struggle between Aragonese and Angevin relations with Naples were at the forefront of papal diplomacy. The Popes of the fourteenth century tended to support the Angevins but were never averse to giving assistance to their rivals if the Angevin rulers seemed to be becoming too independent or hostile. The constant aim of papal policy was in fact to keep Naples impotent or as far as possible subservient. The emergence of Alfonso V of Aragon as successful claimant to the Neapolitan throne in 1442 was obviously potentially dangerous, as at this moment the Aragonese empire was reaching the limit of its expansion. Alfonso was the ruler of Sicily and Sardinia as well as Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. The appearance of such a ruler in Naples was just the threat which the Popes always sought to avoid but Eugenius IV realized that Alfonso's support in his conflict with the Council of Basle was crucial and so he accepted the situation. Calixtus III attempted to undermine the Aragonese position in Naples by refusing recognition to Alfonso's illegitimate son Ferrante and giving encouragement to the Angevins. But with the failure of the Angevin line and the passing of Angevin claims to the kings of an increasingly united France the alternative to the Aragonese in Naples was becoming an ever more dangerous power. Innocent VIII offered support to the dissident Neapolitan barons as an alternative means of weakening his southern neighbour, and both he and his predecessor, Sixtus IV, linked their own families by marriage with that of the Aragonese in Naples as an additional means of gaining security.

On the northern frontiers of the Papal States there was no one single power which posed the same problem as did Naples to the south. Florence was traditionally Guelph but there were nevertheless two serious clashes between the Popes and the Tuscan republic. In 1375 the War of the Eight Saints broke out as Florence, becoming increasingly aggressive in her attempts to dominate Tuscany, clashed with the energetic vicars of the Avignonese Popes trying to establish control in the Papal States. The Pazzi War of 1478-80 was primarily caused by Sixtus IV as he endeavoured to extend the influence of his family northwards. With Venice, whose frontier marched with that of the most distant and turbulent area of the Papal States, the Romagna, papal diplomacy pursued a shifting policy. Despite growing Venetian interest in the Romagna, the Renaissance Popes, two of whom were Venetians, tended to seek to preserve good relations with Venice. Venetian help was vital for any crusading project, and it was in alliance with Venice that Sixtus IV sought to subdue one of the more independent of his vassals, the Duke of Ferrara. On this occasion by 1483 Sixtus was forced to renounce his plans and abandon his Venetian alliance by the other Italian powers.

Papal relations with the last of the major Italian states, the duchy of Milan, were controlled less by immediate concern for territorial security and more by the general situation of Italian politics. The alliance of the Lombard communes had always been sought by medieval Popes as an advance shield against Imperial armies crossing the Alps, and in the fifteenth century the key to Italian security from foreign invasion lay in a strong and confident Milanese duchy. Thus the Renaissance Popes, particularly as long as Francesco Sforza was alive, tended to seek a good understanding with Milan. A peaceful Italy, free from foreign influence and secure from foreign invasion, emerged as the main diplomatic aim of the Renaissance Papacy. In this situation the security of the Papal States was assured, and the Pope, rather than resort to arms, could claim to be the arbiter in Italian quarrels. Nicholas V was prominent in the negotiations for the Italian League in 1454 which brought temporary peace to Italy, and Calixtus III raged at those who sought to disturb that peace. Pius II reversed the Angevin tendencies of his predecessor and sought, in alliance with Francesco Sforza, to restrain the growth of French influence in Italy. Under Sixtus IV the Pope's image as a pacifier and arbitrator became rather distorted, and Innocent VIII although suited temperamentally to the role was too ineffective to carry it out. The continued presence of foreign armies on Italian soil after 1494 altered the context of the problem, and both Alexander VI and Julius II became concerned with giving the Popes a role as the leaders of an Italian resurgence which would drive the foreigners out of Italy.

This close involvement in Italian politics meant that the Renaissance Popes had to be politically and militarily strong. The Papal States, on which the papal claim to be an Italian power rested and the protection of which played so great a role in papal policies, needed to be securely administered. The Popes depended increasingly on the Papal States both for the personnel of their armies and for the money with which those armies were paid. As direct papal authority outside Italy declined and the proceeds from the spiritual revenues of the Church diminished, so the temporal revenues collected by the Popes as rulers of the Papal States became vitally important. It was on well-paid condottieri, on good artillery, on locally raised militia infantry, that papal authority was coming to depend in the second half of the fifteenth century. The spiritual weapons like excommunication and interdict were still used but often for political purposes. The path of reform which might have led to a recovery of spiritual authority seemed too difficult a one for Popes who already lacked that authority. The Renaissance Popes were not unaware of the need for reforms of the Church, and they included amongst their number truly pious men; but apart from piecemeal reforms largely concerned with the religious orders they were able to achieve little in this direction.

It is within the ranks of these Popes and against the background of these developments that we have to view the activities of the two Borgia Popes, Calixtus III and Alexander VI. As Popes they were princes of Renaissance Europe and rulers of a Renaissance state, and right or wrong though the decision to accept this trend may have been, it was a decision taken consistently by all the Popes between 1420 and 1527. The Throne of St Peter was no place for a mystic, and at no time was this more true than in the fifteenth century.

Copyright © 1969 Michael Mallett. All rights reserved.

Unpaid Annotation
Fact is deftly sorted from fiction in this description of the incredible rise of the Borgias from obscurity to the very center of the Renaissance.

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