Saturday, March 26, 2022

Renaissance Popes III: Nicholaus V

 Birth Name: Tommaso Parentucelli

Lived: 1397-1455

Regnal Name: Nicholas V, taking the name in honor of his mentor, Bl. Niccolo Albergati.

Regnal Life: 1447-1455

Tomasso Parentucelli, apparently born in Saranza, showed himself to be a bright young man, and therefore went to Bologna, where the prestigious university was located. There he studied philosophy and theology, serving as a tutor to various noble families (an occupation that served him well later, since it made him a familiar name to much of the nobility in the region). He caught the attention of the Bishop of Bologna. This man, Blessed Niccolo Albergati, has been reluctantly thrust into the episcopacy, where he devoted himself heavily to improving education in his diocese; he had also become an important confidant of Martin V and later Eugene IV. Albergati, seeing the intellectual promise of the young man, sent him all over Europe on various missions. Parentucelli began his lifelong passion as a book collector on these missions. Later, when Albergati was called to the papal court as Cardinal, Parentucelli went with him. He was extraordinarily useful at the Council of Florence, since one of his interests was collecting editions of the texts of Church Fathers. When Albergati died, Parentucelli was made Bishop of Bologna in his place. Pope Eugene sent him on diplomatic missions, and he was the one who negotiated the concordat with the German princes to repudiate the remnant of the Council of Basel that still insisted on meeting at Basel, and because of his success he was made Cardinal.

Eugene, of course, died not long afterward, and in March of 1447, Parentucelli was elected pope in his place, taking the name Nicholas in honor of the saintly patron who had done so much for him in Bologna. He immediately took peace and reconciliation as the fundamental theme of his pontificate and, an infinitely more diplomatic man than the blunt Eugene, he began to heal many of the diplomatic and political divisions that had harmed Europe and that imperiled the Papal States. He was very successful at this, and for most of his administration as ruler of the Papal States, things were very peaceful. The finances of the Holy See, Rome, and the Papal States generally began to stabilize. In addition, he was contacted by the man who had been elected pope by the remnant of the Council of Basel, now sitting at Lausanne, Felix V, and they worked out a deal in 1449. Felix as the pope recognized by the supporters of the Council of Basel-Lausanne formally confirmed all of the acts of Nicholas, then resigned his office and submitted to Nicholas; the Council of Basel-Lausanne, finally accepting the inevitable, elected Nicholas to the 'empty' papal office; and Nicholas confirmed the acts of Felix V, including the offices he had distributed. The schism caused by the conciliarists was completely healed.

But the pontificate of Nicholas V is most famous for being the first great flowering of the Roman Renaissance. He was an enthusiast for, as he put it, 'books and buildings'. Almost as soon as he was in office he began patronage of artists, building up a library, and restoring the buildings in Rome and throughout the Papal States; the peace, which helped reinvigorate the papal treasury, made it possible to do this consistently. In addition, he held a great Jubilee in 1450 with extensive art-related celebrations. The Jubilee events were cut short by another wave of plague sweeping through the area, but even so, the celebrations brought a massive surge of revenue for that year, which gave Nicholas even more room to pursue his love of books and good architecture; smaller handicrafts like clothworking and jewelsmithing also flourished in the eight years of his administration. The walls of Rome were rebuilt; the Aqua Virgo, the last surviving Roman aqueduct, was restored so that it now reliably delivered water to what is today the Trevi Fountain. The Ponte Sant'Angelo, which had collapsed in a tragic accident in 1450, was rebuilt, and many of the basilicas of Rome were restored. He sent people all over in order to collect books, literally hundreds of them, and his collection is one of the cores of the Vatican Library. It was in his day that the primary residence of the post shifted from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican Palace, which he massively expanded.

He was heavily criticized for just how much he spent on buildings, although he had plenty of supporters, as well. There was certainly a great measure of personal interest involved, but it was not all just a matter of a man pursuing his hobbies. War and revolution and age had led to a very extensive dilapidation, endless deferred maintenance that, not having the perpetual problems Eugene had, he was able to begin to work through. And he saw all of this as well as a part of evangelization, and it is this perhaps as much as his example that is his major contribution to the Renaissance. It was his view that the glories of the gospel should be made visible for all to see. The splendor of God deserved more reverence than any majesty of kings, and this should be not just said but shown, by ensuring that the temples of God were not less splendid than the palaces of kings, and that Rome, as the capital of Christendom, was impressive precisely as such. Nicholas's idea would be reiterated again and again through the Roman Renaissance, and much of the artistic patronage of the Renaissance popes, sometimes at great expense even when budgets were tight, can be explained by this sense of visual evangelism and a feeling that it was intolerable for God to be given less visual respect than that given to princes.

Eugene's victories over the conciliarists gave Nicholas a relatively free hand with regard to reform of the Church. The concordat with the German princes had required the calling of a further reform council, but it never materialized because France and Germany got into an irresolvable argument over where it should occur. It is very possible that Nicholas encouraged the dispute; he is known elsewhere to have used diplomatic channels to set the various powers against each other when it suited him. It is also probably the case that people were not very enthusiastic and were at this point mostly just proposing general councils as a matter of abstract principle; the Council of Basel-Lausanne and the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence had vividly reminded people of what they usually kept forgetting, which is that general councils are extremely expensive in terms of both time and money. Unbound by having to work through years of another council, Nicholas actually accomplished a great deal on the reform front, and it probably helped that he was able diplomatically to get the great powers to agree to allow a loosening of some of the restrictions that had been in place since the Council of Constance, giving him a greater degree of flexibility and a somewhat greater income with which to work. Nicholas chose talented and active men, people like St. John of Capistrano and Bl. Nicholas of Cusa, and sent them all over Europe, investigating complaints, fixing problems, improvising and negotiating solutions.

His papal reign was not wholly idyllic, however; attempts at insurrection and revolution began to pick up toward the end, at the instigation of people who wanted Rome to be a republic on the model of Florence. At the early stages, he attempted to handle these matters in an irenic manner, consistently with his emphasis on peace and reconciliation. He gave Rome and much of the Papal States a greater measure of self-governance, but it was never enough to satisfy the discontented. Things might have grown very bad, except that Nicholas, partly due to his building projects, was relatively popular among the common people, and the revolutionary attempts inevitably started to fizzle when they grew beyond a certain size. Martin V and Eugene IV had tried, with little success, to navigate the growing tensions between the Spanish and the Portuguese; Eugene tried to maintain a kind of neutrality between them, but his bluntness had led the Portuguese to be mostly offended, and to smooth things over with them, Nicholas was forced to make some compromises and give them fairly extensive concessions, one consequence of which was a massive expansion of the Portuguese slave trade, which both Martin for political reasons and Eugene for moral reasons had tried to impede. Nicholas tried to drum up support for the Eastern Empire against the Ottoman Turks, but it was too little, too late, and Constantinople fell in 1453. To literary men like Nicholas and his circle it was a great tragedy; as his close friend, Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolimini, commented, it was like the second death of Homer and Plato. Nicholas did what he could to accommodate refugees and tried to stir up a crusade against the Turks, but he could never make it work. The event left him in a state of depression for much of the rest of his tenure, and his problems with the republicans led him to feel intensely alone. As Tomasso of Saranza, he said, he had seen more friends in a day than he saw in a year as pope.

If we were to imagine an idealized version of a Renaissance pope, he would look much like Nicholas V: an intelligent and literary intellectual, an enthusiastic patron of art and architecture, moderate and restrained in his day-to-day life but willing to spend lavishly on things that were beautiful and would last, a builder of public works and library collections. An unimpressive-looking man, although apparently with an impressive voice, he gained the admiration of many by his erudition, his affability, his tolerance, and his willingness to negotiate a mutually beneficial compromise. He was accused of putting more emphasis on buildings and literary texts than on doctrine or helping the poor, and it's not difficult to argue that he did, although he also thought (sometimes definitely rightly) that his patronage was a way of contributing both to doctrine and to the life of the poor. And while he must be given credit for his diplomatic skills, much of what he accomplished was likely due to the good fortune of succeeding Eugene and beginning his administration in the pause between the Council of Florence and the Fall of Constantinople. Made possible in great measure by historical accident, it was not sustainable. The first flowering of the Roman Renaissance was a beautiful one, and we still benefit from it today, but even by the end of the all-too-brief eight years of Nicholas's papal tenure, the storm clouds were gathering. Tensions were rising among the powers of Europe. Restlessness and insurrection were spreading among the people of all the European nations. And, no longer sheltered by the crumbling Byzantine wall, the people of Europe when they looked Eastward could see the Ottoman Empire beginning to rise against them.

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