Birth Name: Francesco della Rovere
Regnal Name: Sixtus IV
Regnal Life: 1471-1484
Francesco della Rovere was born in the town of Celle Ligure, in Liguria, to a respectable but otherwise unremarkable family. He became Franciscan and studied at the University of Pavia. He was an excellent student and did a great deal of teaching for the order. In 1464 he became Minister General of the Franciscan Order, and under his supervision, the order underwent a massive series of very effective reforms. He was given the red hat in 1467 by Pope Paul II. He wrote a number of well-received theological treatises. It was a respectable kind of life. And then Pope Paul died suddenly, and the cardinals, wanting something very different, decided to elect the man of modest background and a vow of poverty with a good reputation for religious devotion and theological erudition, and Rovere became the pope, taking the name Sixtus IV.
In the short run, they found him a refreshing change. He talked to them, received them in audiences, treated them very well. But there were already signs that Sixtus was not quite what they had thought they were getting. Almost immediately, he began using his position to give his family an endless series of favors, honors, pensions, and the like. Perhaps up to that time there had never been any pope so brazenly nepotistic. It makes sense, in retrospect. Most of his family was relatively poor and unimportant. A mendicant friar, he had never before been in a position seriously to help them. Now he was. So he did. The Rovere family grew quite rich and powerful very quickly. Two of his nephews he made cardinals almost immediately, Pietro Riario and Giuliano della Rovere. Pietro Riario embodied every danger of ecclesiastical nepotism. He was frivolous, restless, profligate, and brazen. His uncle never told him no, and, indeed, put him in charge of the papal treasury. By some strange happenstance, he became extremely rich overnight, living a high life of luxury, throwing big, splendid parties, hosting huge celebrations for the people of Rome, showering his mistress, for he had a mistress, with gems and fine clothes. And what he said, went. He was not just a cardinal, he was the Big Boss Cardinal, il padrone cardinale. The papal court was perhaps saved from ultimate disaster by his sudden death after a diplomatic mission. Giuliano della Rovere, about whom we will learn more, was notoriously a simoniac and at one point managed to collect eight or nine different episcopal sees at one time, to collect income from them all, of course. He also had a mistress, Lucrezia Normanni, and they had a daughter, Felice della Rovere, in 1483. Other nephews were lavished with many honors and favors, as well.
He declared a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Unlike his predecessor, he was able to pull enough strings and pour enough money into the project to get an actual army on the move, which re-took Smyrna, and then went home. He was never able to get any more done along these lines. He started wars to increase territory (to get more land for his nephews). He traded favors. All of his projects were very expensive, so the papal treasury was continually being drained. So he handled it in a very direct fashion: he increased taxes in the Papal States and increased the number of offices, positions, and honors at every level that could be bought. Truly, this Franciscan had a different way with money from any of his predecessors.
The most notorious event of his papal tenure was the Pazzi Conspiracy. The Medici of Florence had had a longstanding relationship with the papacy; they had been big supporters of the Pisan papal obedience, so when Martin V, who had also been a supporter of the Pisan popes, became the pope at the Council of Constance, they continued to be the papal bankers. However, the relationship began sliding very quickly from the moment Sixtus became pope. Lorenzo de Medici seems to have not had a high opinion of him, and seems, mistakenly, to have thought that he was easy to manipulate. But Sixtus is not without a considerable share of blame. It starts with his nephews again. For one of his younger nephews, Girolamo Riario, he bought the territory around the city of Imola from the Duke of Milan. That's a pretty nice gift. However, he did so by breaking into a deal that was already being made, because Lorenzo de Medici was attempting to buy it for Florence. Lorenzo had the higher offer in money, but Sixtus had something even better. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, had an illegitimate daughter, Caterina Sforza, and Sixtus offered a marriage between Caterina and Girolamo. Having outbid the Medici, Sixtus then expected the Medici, as the papal bankers, to finance the monetary portion of it. Lorenzo, furious, refused, at which Sixtus terminated the relationship with the Medici bank, working out relationships with other banks, of whom the most important was the Pazzi bank. Further, there was jockeying over ecclesiastical positions in Tuscany. Lorenzo managed to get Rinaldo Orsini, his brother-in-law, into the see of Florence after it was vacated by the death of Pietro Riario, despite the attempt of the Pazzis to get their friend, Francesco Salviati, into the see; then Francesco de'Pazzi got Salviati appointed to the see of Pisa without the consent of the Florentines, which angered the Florentines, and Lorenzo and his allies managed to cause a number of problems for him. Therefore, Girolamo Riario, Francesco Salviati, and Francesco de'Pazzi came to a conclusion together: Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano must die.
The conspirators approached Sixtus and asked him for his support. Sixtus seems to have replied with great precision that he could not condone assassination, but he would like kindly on anyone who removed the Medici from power. It's probably the case -- but we can only say 'probably' -- that he expected the conspirators to change to a plan to take the Medici brothers prisoner. The conspirators understood him to express his approval of their plan, perhaps just with a little caution for plausible deniability. The conspirators went back to Florence, where a number of events forced them, fatally, to improvise modifications to their plan. They ended up attacking Lorenzo and Giuliano at Mass, stabbing Giuliano to death. Lorenzo, however, managed to escape. Salviati took a band of men to attempt to take over the Palazzo della Signoria, but the Pazzis had overestimated how unpopular the Medici were; they expected a fair degree help from the populace who, however, refused to cooperate. Conspirators were seized left and right; about eighty people ended up being hanged over it, including Archbishop Salviati. Girolamo Riario escaped, but Lorenzo also had seized Raffaelle Riario, another of the cardinal-nephews (who was seventeen at the time). Raffaelle had pretty clearly not been involved in the conspiracy at all. But he was a good hostage, at least for a brief period as Lorenzo attempted to get a grasp on the whole situation; in a few weeks he was sent back to Rome. Sixtus in response escalated again, apparently angered at the execution of Salviati: he excommunicated Lorenzo, put Florence under the Interdict, and began to support the desire of the Kingdom of Naples to take Florentine territory. Lorenzo by a dint of daring and diplomatic genius was able to nullify that third point; but the other two required rapprochement with Sixtus, and this was not happening. To say that the conspiracy damaged the role and image of the papacy in Italy would be an understatement.
What gives endurance to the Sixtus name, however, is that he was an extraordinary patron of the arts. He took the library of Nicholas V, separated out the official documents, and created the Vatican Library and the Secret Archives, the latter being essentially the library-sized filing cabinet of the popes (the 'secret' is the same as in 'secretary', and means, roughly, 'private or personal') and the former of which he massively expanded and opened to the public for the first time. He built the private chapel that now goes by his name, the Sistine Chapel, and had it decorated by the greatest painters of the day. He in fact supported artists of every kind of art, major or minor, and paid generously for their works in massive quantities, without regard for expense. He restored churches, buildings, plazas, bridges, fortifications throughout Rome and the Papal States. He poured out huge quantities of money, and largely got good results from it, in part because he poured it out on hundred and hundreds of different projects, most of them small and accessible. He was a firm believer in the idea of Nicholas V that all of this was a way to evangelize and to give glory to God, and he did at great length. The Franciscans, of course, benefited massively from his largesse, and he took special care to restore and upgrade churches dedicated to the Virgin.
One of the things that had led to his election as pope was his success as a reformer when he was Minister General. He was not entirely a disappointment in the area of Church reform; he did a large number of improving projects on religious orders, for instance. But then again, he was a nepotist to shame all nepotists. Nor was it just nepotism. He expanded the College of Cardinals (which the cardinals thought to be generally inconsistent with reform), and he expanded it in baffling ways. Besides family members, he gave cardinalates to extremely worldly people for political reasons. He made cardinals out of young men who, unlike, say, Pietro Barbo in the previous generation, had shown no obvious promise and had no obvious achievements. Indeed, as some of them had apparently no qualifications except being good-looking, tongues wagged at great satirical length about them. Some of his choices would perhaps not have made any less sense if he had instead just decided to give out red hats by lottery. It would not have had any worse results than his actual decisions. When we look at the semi-dynastic politics of the next several generations, the generations that more than any other give the Renaissance Papacy its reputation as a corrupt and worldly institution, a significant portion of it is due to Sixtus IV.
For Sixtus had had a major hand in choosing the next generation of leaders of the Church. And there was much that was not right with the next generation. If this was not already clear before Sixtus's death, it became especially clear once he had died.
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