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§ 49. Nicolas V. 1447–1455.
Nicolas V., 1447–1455, the successor of Bugenius IV., was ruled by the spirit of the new literary culture, the Renaissance, and was the first Maecenas in a line of popes like-minded. Following his example, his successors were for a century among the foremost patrons of art and letters in Europe. What Gregory VII. was to the system of the papal theocracy, that Nicolas was to the artistic revival in Rome. Under his rule, the eternal city witnessed the substantial beginnings of that transformation, in which it passed from a spectacle of ruins and desertion to a capital adorned with works of art and architectural construction. He himself repaired and beautified the Vatican and St. Peter’s, laid the foundation of the Vatican library and called scholars and artists to his court.724724 Pastor heads his chapter on Nicolas with the caption Nicolas V., der Begründer des päpstlichen Maecenats
Thomas Parentucelli, born 1397, the son of a physician of Sarzana, owed nothing of his distinction to the position of his family. His father was poor, and the son was little of stature, with disproportionately short legs. What he lacked, however, in bodily parts, he made up in intellectual endowments, tact and courtesies of manner. His education at Bologna being completed, his ecclesiastical preferment was rapid. In 1444, he was made archbishop of Bologna and, on his return from Germany as papal legate, 1446, he was honored with the red hat. Four months later he was elevated to the papal throne, and according to Aeneas Sylvius, whose words about the eminent men of his day always have a diplomatic flavor, Thomas was so popular that there was no one who did not approve his election.
To Nicolas was given the notable distinction of witnessing the complete reunion of Western Christendom. By the abdication of Felix V., whom he treated with discreet and liberal generosity, and by Germany’s abandonment of its attitude of neutrality, he could look back upon papal schism and divided obediences as matters of the past.
The Jubilee Year, celebrated in 1450, was adapted to bind the European nations closely to Rome, and to stir up anew the fires of devotion which had languished during the ecclesiastical disputes of nearly a century.725725 Pastor, I 417 sq., emphasizes these consequences of the Jubilee Year. So vast were the throngs of pilgrims that the contemporary, Platina, felt justified in asserting that such multitudes had never been seen in the holy city before. According to Aeneas, 40,000 went daily from church to church. The handkerchief of St. Veronica,—lo sudario,—bearing the outline of the Lord’s face, was exhibited every Sabbath, and the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul every Saturday. The large sums of money which the pilgrims left, Nicolas knew well how to use in carrying out his plans for beautifying the churches and streets of the city.
The calamity, which occurred on the bridge of St. Angelo, and cast a temporary gloom over the festivities of the holy year, is noticed by all the contemporary writers. The mule belonging to Peter Barbus, cardinal of St. Mark’s, was crushed to death, so dense were the crowds, and in the excitement two hundred persons or more were trodden down or drowned by being pushed or throwing themselves into the Tiber. To prevent a repetition of the disaster, the pope had several buildings obstructing the passage to the bridge pulled down.726726 Infessura, p. 48; Platina, II. 242; Aeneas: Hist. Frid. 172; Ilgen’s trans., I. 214.
In the administration of the properties of the holy see, Nicolas was discreet and successful. He confirmed the papal rule over the State of the Church, regained Bolsena and the castle of Spoleto, and secured the submission of Bologna, to which he sent Bessarion as papal legate. The conspiracy of Stephen Porcaro, who emulated the ambitions of Rienzo, was put down in 1453 and left the pope undisputed master of Rome. In his selection of cardinals he was wise, Nicolas of Cusa being included in the number. The appointment of his younger brother, Philip Calandrini, to the sacred college, aroused no unfavorable criticism.
Nicolas’ reign witnessed, in 1452, the last coronation in Rome of a German emperor, Frederick III. This monarch, who found in his councillor, Aeneas Sylvius, an enthusiastic biographer, but who, by the testimony of others, was weak and destitute of martial spirit and generous qualities, was the first of the Hapsburgs to receive the crown in the holy city, and held the imperial office longer than any other of the emperors before or after him. With his coronation the emperor combined the celebration of his nuptials to Leonora of Portugal.
Frederick’s journey to Italy and his sojourn in Rome offered to the pen of Aeneas a rare opportunity for graphic description, of which he was a consummate master. The meeting with the future empress, the welcome extended to his majesty, the festivities of the marriage and the coronation, the trappings of the soldiery, the blowing of the horns, the elegance of the vestments worn by the emperor and his visit to the artistic wonders of St. Peter’s,—these and other scenes the shrewd and facile Aeneas depicted. The Portuguese princess, whose journey from Lisbon occupied 104 days, disembarked at Leghorn, February, 1452, where she was met by Frederick, attended by a brilliant company of knights. After joining in gay entertainments at Siena, lasting four days, the party proceeded to Rome. Leonora, who was only sixteen, was praised by those who saw her for her rare beauty and charms of person. She was to become the mother of Maximilian and the ancestress of Charles V.727727 Infessura, p. 52, says that language could not exaggerate Leonora’s beauty, bella quanto si potesse dire. Aeneas, Hist. Frid., 265, speaks of her dark complexion, jet-black and lustrous eyes, her soft red cheeks, her intelligent expression, and her snow-white neck, "in every particular a charming person."
On reaching the gates of the papal capital, Frederick was met by the cardinals, who offered him the felicitations of the head of Christendom, but also demanded from him the oath of allegiance, which was reluctantly promised. The ceremonies, which followed the emperor’s arrival, were such as to flatter his pride and at the same time to confirm the papal tenure of power in the city. Frederick was received by Nicolas on the steps of St. Peter’s, seated in an ivory chair, and surrounded by his cardinals, standing. The imperial visitor knelt and kissed the pontiff’s foot. On March 16, Nicolas crowned him with the iron crown of Lombardy and united the imperial pair in marriage. Leonora then went to her own palace, and Frederick to the Vatican as its guest. The reason for his lodging near the pope was that Nicolas might have opportunity for frequent communication with him or, as rumor went, to prevent the Romans approaching him under cover of darkness with petitions for the restoration of their liberties.728728 Hist. Frid., 294; Ilgen, II. 84 sq. Aeneas gives the alternate reason for the hospitality shown to his master. Three days later, March 19, the crown of the empire was placed upon Frederick’s head.729729 The crown used on the occasion was reputed to be the one used by Charlemagne which Sigismund had removed to Nürnberg. Aeneas, with his usual journalistic love of detail, noticed the Bohemian lion of Charles IV. engraven on the sword, which also was brought from Nürnberg. With his consort he then received the elements from the pope’s hand. The following week Frederick proceeded to Naples.730730 Aeneas, p. 303, who is scrupulous in stating from time to time that Frederick and Leonora lodged in different palaces or tents, now gives a detailed account of the circumstances attending their first lodging together as man and wife in Naples. The account is such as we might expect from Boccaccio and not from a prelate of the Church, but Aeneas’ own record fitted him for entering with pruriency into realistic details. They are characteristic of the times and of Spanish customs.
Scarcely in any pontificate has so notable and long-forecasted an event occurred as the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks, which took place May 29, 1453. The last of the Constantines perished in the siege, fighting bravely at the gate of St. Romanos. The church of Justinian, St. Sophia, was turned into a mosque, and a cross, surmounted with a janissary’s cap, was carried through the streets, while the soldiers shouted, "This is the Christian’s God." This historic catastrophe would have been regarded in Western Europe as appalling, if it had not been expected. The steady advance of the Turks and their unspeakable atrocities had kept the Greek empire in alarm for centuries. Three hundred years before, Latin Christendom had been taught to expect defeats at the hands of the Mohammedans in the taking of Edessa, 1145, and the fatal battle of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem, 1187.
In answer to the appeals of the Greeks, Nicolas despatched Isidore as legate to Constantinople with a guard of 200 troops, but, as a condition of helping the Eastern emperor, he insisted that the Ferrara articles of union be ratified in Constantinople. In a long communication, dated Oct. 11, 1451, the Roman pontiff declared that schisms had always been punished more severely than other evils. Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who attempted to divide the people of God, received a more bitter punishment than those who introduced idolatry. There could not be two heads to an empire or the Church. There is no salvation outside of the one Church. He was lost in the flood who was not housed in Noah’s ark. Whatever opinion it may have entertained of these claims, the Byzantine court was in too imminent danger to reject the papal condition, and in December, 1452, Isidore, surrounded by 300 priests, announced, in the church of St. Sophia, the union of the Greek and Latin communions. But even now the Greek people violently resented the union, and the most powerful man of the empire, Lucas Notaras, announced his preference for the turban to the tiara. The aid offered by Nicolas was at best small. The last week of April, 1453, ten papal galleys set sail with some ships from Naples, Venice and Genoa, but they were too late to render any assistance.731731 Pastor, I. 588 sqq., devotes much space to an attempt to show that Nicolas made an effort to help the Greeks. Infessura blames him for making none.
The termination of the venerable and once imposing fabric on the Bosphorus by the Asiatic invader was the only fate possible for an empire whose rulers, boasting themselves the successors of Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian, Christian in name and most Christian by the standard of orthodox professions, had heaped their palaces full of pagan luxury and excess. The government, planted in the most imperial spot on the earth, had forfeited the right to exist by an insipid and nerveless reliance upon the traditions of the past. No elements of revival manifested themselves from within. Religious formulas had been substituted for devotion. Much as the Christian student may regret the loss of this last bulwark of Christianity in the East, he will be inclined to find in the disaster the judgment realized with which the seven churches of the Apocalypse were threatened which were not worthy. The problem which was forced upon Europe by the arrival of the Grand Turk, as contemporaries called Mohammed II., still awaits solution from wise diplomacy or force of arms or through the slow and silent movement of modern ideas of government and popular rights.
The disaster which overtook the Eastern empire, Nicolas V. felt would be regarded by after generations as a blot upon his pontificate, and others, like Aeneas Sylvius, shared this view.732732 Aeneas wrote, July 12, 1453, to the pope: "Historians of the Roman pontiffs, when they reach your time, will write, ’Nicolas V., a Tuscan, was pope for so many years. He recovered the patrimony of the Church from the hands of tyrants, he gave union to the divided Church, he canonized Bernardino, he built the Vatican and splendidly restored St. Peter’s, he celebrated the Jubilee and crowned Frederick III.’ All this will be obscured by the doleful addition, ’In his time Constantinople was taken and plundered by the Turks.’ Your holiness did what you could. No blame can be justly attached to you. But the ignorance of posterity will blame you when it hears that in your time Constantinople was lost." Gibbon makes the observation that "The pontificate of Nicolas V., however powerful and prosperous, was dishonored by the fall of the Eastern Empire," ch. LXVIII. It was not within Nicolas’ power to avert the disaster.
He issued a bull summoning the Christian nations to a crusade for the recovery of Constantinople, and stigmatized Mohammed II. as the dragon described in the Book of Revelation. Absolution was offered to those who would spend six months in the holy enterprise or maintain a representative for that length of time. Christendom was called upon to contribute a tenth. The cardinals were enjoined to do the same, and all the papal revenues accruing from larger and smaller benefices, from bishoprics, archbishoprics and convents, were promised for the undertaking.
Feeble was the response which Europe gave. The time of crusading enthusiasm was passed. The Turk was daring and to be dreaded. An assembly called by Frederick III., at Regensburg in the Spring of 1454, at which the emperor himself did not put in an appearance, listened to an eloquent appeal by Aeneas, but adjourned the subject to the diet to meet in Frankfurt in October. Again the emperor was not present, and the diet did nothing. Down to the era of the Reformation the crusade against the Turk remained one of the chief official concerns of the papacy.
If Nicolas died disappointed over his failure to influence the princes to undertake a campaign against the Turks, his fame abides as the intelligent and genial patron of letters and the arts. In this rôle he laid after generations under obligation to him as Innocent III., by his crusading armies, did not. He lies buried in St. Peter’s at the side of his predecessor, Eugenius IV.733733 His epitaph is given by Mirbt, p. 169.
The next pontiff, the Spaniard, Calixtus III., 1455–1458, had two chief concerns, the dislodgment of the Turks from Constantinople and the advancement of the fortunes of the Borgia family, to which he belonged. Made cardinal by Eugenius IV., he was 77 years old when he was elected pope. From his day, the Borgias played a prominent part in Rome, their career culminating in the ambitions and scandals of Rodrigo Borgia, for 30 years cardinal and then pope under the name of Alexander VI.
Calixtus opened his pontificate by vowing "to Almighty God and the Holy Trinity, by wars, maledictions, interdicts, excommunications and in all other ways to punish the Turks."734734 Mansi, XXXII. 159 sq. Legates were despatched to kindle the zeal of princes throughout Europe. Papal jewels were sold, and gold and silver clasps were torn from the books of the Vatican and turned into money. At a given hour daily the bells were rung in Rome that all might give themselves to prayer for the sacred war. But to the indifference of most of the princes was added active resistance on the part of France. Venice, always looking out for her own interests, made a treaty with the Turks. Frederick III. was incompetent. The weak fleet the pope was able to muster sailed forth from Ostia under Cardinal Serampo to empty victories. The gallant Hungarian, Hunyady, brought some hope by his brilliant feat in relieving Belgrade, July 14, 1456, but the rejoicing was reduced by the news of the gallant leader’s death. Scanderbeg, the Albanian, who a year later was appointed papal captain-general, was indeed a brave hero, but, unsupported by Western Europe, he was next to powerless.
Calixtus’ unblushing nepotism surpassed anything of the kind which had been known in the papal household before. Catalan adventurers pressed into Rome and stormed their papal fellow-countrymen with demands for office. Upon the three sons of two of his sisters, Juan of Milan, son of Catherine Borgia, and Pedro Luis and Rodrigo, sons of Isabella, he heaped favor after favor. Adopted by their uncle, Pedro and Rodrigo were the objects of his sleepless solicitude. Gregorovius has compared the members of the Borgia family to the Roman Claudii. By the endowment of nature they were vigorous and handsome, and by nature and practice, sensual, ambitious, and high-handed,—their coat of arms a bull. Under protest from the curia, Rodrigo and Juan of Milan were made cardinals, 1457, both the young men still in their twenties.
Their unsavory habits were already a byword in Rome. Rodrigo was soon promoted over the heads of the other members of the sacred college to the place of vice-chancellor, the most lucrative position within the papal gift. At the same time, the little son—figliolo — of the king of Portugal, as Infessura calls him, was given the red hat.
With astounding rapidity Pedro Luis, who remained a layman, was advanced to the highest positions in the state, and made governor of St. Angelo and duke of Spoleto, and put in possession of Terni, Narni, Todi and other papal fiefs.735735 Pastor, I. 747, says ein solches Verfahren war unerhört, it was an unheard-of procedure. It was supposed that it was the fond uncle’s intention, at the death of Alfonso of Naples, to invest this nephew with the Neapolitan crown by setting aside Alfonso’s illegitimate son, Don Ferrante.
Calixtus’ death was the signal for the flight of the Spanish lobbyists, whose houses were looted by the indignant Romans. Discerning the coming storm, Pedro made the best bargain he could by selling S. Angelo to the cardinals for 20,000 ducats, and then took a hasty departure.
Like Honorius III., Calixtus might have died of a broken heart over his failure to arouse Europe to the effort of a crusade, if it had not been for this consuming concern for the fortunes and schemes of his relatives. From this time on, for more than half a century, the gift of dignities and revenues under papal control for personal considerations and to unworthy persons for money was an outstanding feature in the history of the popes.
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