Saturday, April 01, 2023

Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pius II), Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope


Opening Passage:

If the soul dies with the body, as Epicurus wrongly supposed, fame can advantage it nothing. If on the other hand the soul lives on after it is released from this corporeal frame, as Christians and the noblest philosophers tell us, it either suffers a wretched lot or joins the company of happy spirits. Now in wretchedness is no pleasure even from renown and the perfect felicity of the blest is neither increased by the praise of mortals nor lessened by their blame. Why then do we so strive for the glory of a fair name? Do souls in Purgatory perhaps taste some sweetness from the reputation they left on earth? But let the argumentative think what they please about the dead, provided they do no deny that while men live they take pleasure in the glory of the present, which they hope will continue after death. It is this which sustains the most brilliant intellects and even more than the hope of a celestial life, which once begun shall never end, cheers and refreshes the heart of man. This is especially true of the Pope of Rome, whom almost all men abuse while he lives among them but praise when he is dead.... (p. 23)

Summary: This one-volume abridgement of Pius II's sprawling Commentaries (which are in their original form just over twelve volumes) focuses on the portions of the Commentaries that concern matters in which Pius II was a direct participant. He writes about himself in the third person, and thus the work can be seen as the work of a Christian humanist providing a draft of how he hopes posterity will see him. So read, the six-year tenure of Pius II has by his own representation a sort of A-plot and B-plot structure. The B-plot is Pius's continual struggle against the militarily brilliant and rather ruthless Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini. Malatesta seized a number of papal territories at various points, but it's very difficult to determine from Pius's own account exactly what grounded the Pope's completely uncompromising opposition to him. In any case, Pius was more than sufficiently capable of matching Malatesta ruthlessness for ruthlessness, accusing Maltesta of a long list of unnatural vices and threatening to make him the first person in history to be canonized into hell as officially damned. Eventually, through the military work of Federico da Montefeltro, Pius would gain the upper hand.

The A-plot is the Pope's attempt to organize the ever-feuding powers of Europe into a crusade against the Turks. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, and it is clear from his account that this event affected him deeply, and the rest of his life seems to have been seized by an intense focus on the need to prepare for the inevitable time when the Ottomans would invade the rest of Europe. When he became Pope in 1458, a crusade began one of his chief priorities. He called the Council of Mantua in 1459 for precisely this purpose, but the council was poorly attended and there was almost no follow-up to it. He repeatedly continued to try to pull together support for the crusade, and repeatedly found himself foiled. Finally, he began to get to get some purchase in 1463, when he had made clear to everyone that he would be going himself, and Venice committed to it. Pius himself was under no illusions about why they did so -- it was certainly for improving their markets, increasingly threatened by Ottoman encroachment, and not for the saving of Christendom -- but he was willing to take it. The wheels began to be set into motion, and the opening of Volume XIII of the Commentaries finds Pius starting a new phase of his work in 1464, intended to cover the coming Turkish war, hopeful for the future. And that is where it ends. What Pius could not know was that he would die in August 1464, still waiting for Venetians to come through with enough ships, and the crusade never took place.

As Pope, and despite often having bouts of ill health, due especially to gout, Pius II was a traveler. Much of the interest of the book is his continual traveling combined with his undeniable talent as a travel writer. He went places popes had not before traveled, just to see the sights, both civic and natural, and observe the customs of the people. He was also a building Pope, and the work is filled with his descriptions of city improvements that he initiated throughout the States of the Church. This book is an excellent tour of Renaissance Italy.

Favorite Passage: There are many beautiful passages, especially when Pius is describing scenery, but the following passage I think sums up a great deal of his character and outlook on things:

The Pope had received many insinuations against the architect: that he had cheated; that he had blundered in the construction; that he had spent more than 50,000 ducats when his estimate had been 18,000. The law of the Ephesians, according to Vitruvius, would have obliged him to make up the difference. He was a Florentine named Bernardo, hateful to the Sienese from his mere nationality. In his absence everyone abused him. Pius, when he had inspected the work and examined everything, sent for the man. When he arrived after a few days in some apprehension, since he knew that many charges had been brought against him, Pius said, 'You did well, Bernardo, in lying to us about the expense involved in the work. If you had told the truth, you could never have induced us to spend so much money and neither this splendid palace nor this church, the finest in all Italy, would now be standing. Your deceit has built these glorious structures which are praised by all except the few who are consumed with envy. We thank you and think you deserve especial honour among all the architects of our time' -- and he ordered full pay be given him and in addition a present of a hundred ducats and a scarlet robe. He bestowed on his son the grace he asked and charged him with new commissions. Bernardo, when he heard the Pope's words, burst into tears of joy. (p. 280)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pius II), Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, Gragg, tr., Gabel, ed.,The Folio Society (London: 1988).

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