« Prev Aeneas Sylvius de' Piccolomini, Pius II Next »

§ 50. Aeneas Sylvius de’ Piccolomini, Pius II.

The next pontiff, Pius II., has a place among the successful men of history. Lacking high enthusiasms and lofty aims, he was constantly seeking his own interests and, through diplomatic shrewdness, came to be the most conspicuous figure of his time. He was ruled by expediency rather than principle. He never swam against the stream.736736    Enea ist seiner Tage nie gegen den Strom geschwommen. Haller In Quellen, etc., IV. 83. When he found himself on the losing side, he was prompt in changing to the other.

Aeneas Sylvius de’ Piccolomini was born in 1405 at Corsignano, a village located on a bold spur of the hills near Siena. He was one of 18 children, and his family, which had been banished from Siena, was poor but of noble rank. At 18, the son began studying in the neighboring city, where he heard Bernardino preach. Later he learned Greek in Florence. It was a great opportunity when Cardinal Capranica took this young man with him as his secretary to Basel, 1431. Gregorovius has remarked that it was the golden age of secretaries, most of the Humanists serving in that capacity. Later, Aeneas went into the service of the bishop of Novaro, whom he accompanied to Rome. The bishop was imprisoned for the part he had taken in a conspiracy against Eugenius IV. The secretary escaped a like treatment by flight. He then served Cardinal Albergati, with whom he travelled to France. He also visited England and Scotland.737737    London he found the most populous and wealthy city he had seen. Scotland he described as a cold, barren, and treeless country.

Returning to Basel, Aeneas became one of the conspicuous personages in the council, was a member, and often acted as chairman of one of the four committees, the committee on faith, and was sent again and again on embassies to Strassburg, Frankfurt, Trent and other cities. The council also appointed him its chief abbreviator. In 1440 he decided in favor of the rump-synod, which continued to meet in Basel, and espoused the cause of Felix V., who made him his secretary. The same year he wrote the tract on general councils.738738    Libellus dialogorum de generalis concilii auctoritate. Finding the cause of the anti-pope waning, he secured a place under Frederick III., and succeeded to the full in ingratiating himself in that monarch’s favor. His Latin epigrams and verses won for him the appointment of poet-laureate, and his diplomatic cleverness and versatility the highest place in the royal council. At first he joined with Schlick, the chancellor, in holding Frederick to a neutral attitude between Eugenius and the anti-pope, but then, turning apostate to the cause of neutrality, gracefully and unreservedly gave in his submission to the Roman pontiff. While on an embassy to Rome, 1445, he excused himself before Eugenius for his errors at Basel on the plea of lack of experience. He at once became useful to the pope, and a year later received the appointment of papal secretary. By his persuasion, Frederick transferred his obedience to Eugenius, which Aeneas was able to announce in person to the pope a few days before his death. From Nicolas V. he received the sees of Trieste, 1447, and Siena, 1450, and in 1456 promotion to the college of cardinals.

At the time of his election as pope, Aeneas was 53 years old. He had risen by tact and an accurate knowledge of men and European affairs. He was a thorough man of the world, and capable of grasping a situation in a glance. He had been profligate, and his love affairs were many. A son was born to him in Scotland, and another, by an Englishwoman, in Strassburg. In a letter to his father, asking him to adopt the second child, he described, without concealment and apparently without shame, the measures he took to seduce the mother. He spoke of wantonness as an old vice. He himself was no eunuch nor without passion. He could not claim to be wiser than Solomon nor holier than David. Aeneas also used his pen in writing tales of love adventures. His History of Frederick III. contains prurient details that would not be tolerated in a respectable author to-day. He was even ready to instruct youth in methods of self-indulgence, and wrote to Sigismund, the young duke of the Tyrol, neither to neglect literature nor to deny himself the blandishments of Venus.739739    Aeneas aided Chancellor Schlick in some of his love adventures, and described one of them in the much-read novel, Eurialus et Lucretia. His letters from 1444 on, show a desire to give up the world. He declared he had had enough of Venus, but he also wrote that Venus evaded him more than he shrank from her. He seems to have passed into a condition of physical infirmity, and to have been forced to abandon his immoral courses. He, however, also indicates he had begun to be actuated by feelings of penitence, whether from motives of policy or religion cannot be made out. Gregorovius, VII. 165, combines the inconsistent passages from Pius, letters when he says that, after long striving to renounce the pleasures of the world, exhaustion and incipient disease facilitated the task. This advice was recalled to his face by the canonist George von Heimburg at the Congress of Mantua. The famous remark belongs to Aeneas that the celibacy of the clergy was at one time with good reason made subject of positive legislation, but the time had come when there was better reason for allowing priests to marry. He himself did not join the clerical order till 1446, when he was consecrated subdeacon. Before Pius’ election,740740    The election was by the accessus, that is, after the written ballot was found to be indecisive, the cardinals changed their votes by word of mouth. See Hergenröther, Kath. Kirchenrecht, p. 273. the conclave bound the coming pope to prosecute the war against the Turk, to observe the rules of the Council of Constance about the sacred college and to consult its members before making new appointments to bishoprics and the greater abbeys. Nominations of cardinals were to be made to the camera, and their ratification to depend upon a majority of its votes. Each cardinal whose income did not amount to 4,000 florins was to receive 100 florins a month till the sum of 4,000 was reached. This solemn compact formed a precedent which the cardinals for more than half a century followed.

Aeneas’ constitution was already shattered. He was a great sufferer from the stone, the gout and a cough, and spent many months of his pontificate at Viterbo and other baths. His rule was not distinguished by any enduring measures. He conducted himself well, had the respect of the Romans, received the praise of contemporary biographers, and did all he could to further the measures for the expulsion of the Turks from Europe. He appointed the son of his sister, Laodamia, cardinal at the age of 23, and in 1461 he bestowed the same dignity on Francis Gonzaga, a youth of only 17. These appointments seem to have awakened no resentment.

To advance the interest of the crusade against the Turks, Pius called a congress of princes to meet in Mantua, 1460. On his way thither, accompanied by Bessarion, Borgia and other cardinals, he visited his birthplace, Corsignana, and raised it to a bishopric, changing its name to Pienza. He also began the construction of a palace and cathedral which still endure. Siena he honored by conferring the Golden Rose on its signiory, and promoting the city to the dignity of a metropolitan see. He also enriched it with one of John the Baptist’s arms. Florence arranged for the pope’s welcome brilliant amusements,—theatrical plays, contests of wild beasts, races between lions and horses, and dances,—worldly rather than religious spectacles, as Pastor remarks.

The princes were slow in arriving in Mantua, and the attendance was not such as to justify the opening of the congress till Sept. 26. Envoys from Thomas Palaeologus of the Morea, brother of the last Byzantine emperor, from Lesbos, Cyprus, Rhodes and other parts of the East were on hand to pour out their laments. In his opening address, lasting three hours, Pius called upon the princes to emulate Stephen, Peter, Andrew, Sebastian, St. Lawrence and other martyrs in readiness to lay down their lives in the holy war. The aggression of the Turks had robbed Christendom of some of its fairest seats,—Antioch, where the followers of Christ for the first time received the name Christians, Solomon’s temple, where Christ so often preached, Bethlehem, where he was born, the Jordan, in which he was baptized, Tabor, on which he was transfigured, Calvary, where he was crucified. If they wanted to retain their own possessions, their wives, their children, their liberty, the very faith in which they were baptized, they must believe in war and carry on war. Joshua continued to have victory over his enemies till the sun went down; Gideon, with 300, scattered the Midianites; Jephthah, with a small army, put to flight the swarms of the Ammonites; Samson had brought the proud Philistines to shame; Godfrey, with a handful of men, had destroyed an innumerable number of the enemy and slaughtered the Turks like cattle. Passionately the papal orator exclaimed, O! that Godfrey were once more present, and Baldwin and Eustache and Bohemund and Tancred, and the other mighty men who broke through the ranks of the Turks and regained Jerusalem by their arms.741741    Mansi, XXXII. 207-222.

The assembly was stirred to a great heat, but, so a contemporary says, the ardor soon cooled. Cardinal Bessarion followed Pius with an address which also lasted three hours. Of eloquence there was enough, but the crusading age was over. The conquerors of Jerusalem had been asleep for nearly 400 years. Splendid orations could not revive that famous outburst of enthusiasm which followed Urban’s address at Clermont. In this case the element of romance was wanting which the conquest of the Holy Sepulchre had furnished. The prowess of the conquering Turks was a hard fact.

During the Congress of Mantua the controversy broke out between the German lawyer, Gregor of Heimburg, and Pius. They had met before at Basel. Heimburg, representing the duke of the Tyrol, who had imprisoned Nicolas of Cusa spoke against the proposed crusade. He openly insulted the pope by keeping on his hat in his presence, an indignity he jokingly explained as a precaution against the catarrh. From the sentence of excommunication, pronounced against his ducal master, he appealed to a general council, August 13, 1460. He himself was punished with excommunication, and Pius called upon the city of Nürnberg to expel him as the child of the devil and born of the artifice of lies. Heimburg became a wanderer until the removal of the ban, 1472. He was the strongest literary advocate in Germany of the Basel decrees and the superiority of councils, and has been called a predecessor of Luther and precursor of the Reformation.742742    Gregorovius, VII. 184. His tract Admonitio de injustis usurpationibus paparum rom. ad imperatorem ... sive confutatio primatus papae, and other tracts by Heimburg, are given in Goldast, Monarchia. See art. Gregor v. Heimburg, by Tschackert in Herzog, VII. 133-135, and for quotations, Gieseler. Diether, archbishop of Mainz, another advocate of the conciliar system, who entered into compacts with the German princes to uphold the Basel decrees and to work for a general council on German soil, was deposed, 1461, as Hermann, archbishop of Cologne, was deposed a hundred years later for undertaking measures of reform in his diocese.

Pius left Mantua the last of January, 1461, stopping on the return journey a second time at his beloved Siena, and canonizing its distinguished daughter, Catherine.743743    A full translation of the letter is given by Gregorovius in Lucrez. Borgia, p. 7 sq. Here Rodrigo Borgia’s gayeties were so notorious as to call forth papal rebuke. The cardinal gave banquets to which women were invited without their husbands. In a severe letter to the future supreme pontiff, Pius spoke of the dancing at the entertainments as being performed, so he understood, with "all licentiousness."

The ease with which Pius, when it was to his interest, renounced theories which he once advocated is shown in two bulls. The first, the famous bull, Execrabilis, declared it an accursed and unheard-of abuse to make appeal to a council from the decisions of the Roman pontiff, Christ’s vicar, to whom it was given to feed his sheep and to bind and loose on earth and in heaven. To rid the Church of this pestiferous venom,—pestiferum virus,—it announced the papal purpose to damn such appeals and to lay upon the appellants a curse from which there could be no absolution except by the Roman pontiff himself and in the article of death.744744    Mansi, XXXII. 259 sq.; Mirbt, p. 169 sq. Thus the solemn principle which had bloomed so promisingly in the fair days of the councils of Constance and Basel, and for which Gerson and D’Ailly had so zealously contended, was set aside by one stroke of the pen. Thenceforward, the decree announced, papal decisions were to be treated as final.

Three years later, April 26, 1463, the theory of the supremacy of general councils was set aside in still more precise language.745745    Mansi, XXXII. 195-203. Gieseler quotes at length. Aeneas had written a letter to the rector of the Univ. of Cologne with the same import, Oct. 13, 1447. In an elaborate letter addressed to the rector and scholars of the University of Cologne, Pius pronounced for the monarchical form of government in the church—monarchicum regimen — as being of divine origin, and the one given to Peter. As storks follow one leader, and as the bees have one king, so the militant church has in the vicar of Christ one who is moderator and arbiter of all. He receives his authority directly from Christ without mediation. He is the prince—praesul — of all the bishops, the heir of the Apostles, of the line of Abel and Melchisedek. As for the Council Of Constance, Pius expressed his regard for its decrees so far as they were approved by his predecessors, but the definitions of general councils, he affirmed, are subject to the sanction of the supreme pontiff, Peter’s successor. With reference to his former utterances at Basel, he expressly revoked anything he had said in conflict with the positions taken in the bull, and ascribed those statements to immaturity of mind, the imprudence of youth and the circumstances of his early training. Quis non errat mortalis—what mortal does not make mistakes, he exclaimed. Reject Aeneas and follow Pius—Aeneam rejicite, Pium recipite — he said. The first was a Gentile name given by parents at the birth of their son; the second, the name he had adopted on his elevation to the Apostolic see.746746    The same time that Pius issued his bull of retractation, Gabriel Biel, called the last of the Schoolmen, issued his tract on Obedience to the Apostolic see, taking the same ground that Pius took.

It would not be ingenuous to deny to Pius II., in making retractation, the virtue of sincerity. A strain of deep feeling runs through its long paragraphs which read like the last testament of a man speaking from the heart. Inspired by the dignity of his office, the pope wanted to be in accord with the long line of his predecessors, some of whom he mentioned by name, from Peter and Clement to the Innocents and Boniface. In issuing the decree of papal infallibility four centuries later, Pius IX. did not excel his predecessor in the art of composition; but he had this advantage over him that his announcement was stamped with the previous ratification of a general council. The two documents of the two popes of the name Pius reach the summit of papal assumption and consigned to burial the theories of the final authority of general councils and the infallibility of their decrees.

Scarcely could any two things be thought of more incongruous than Pius II.’s culture and the glorious reception he gave in 1462 to the reputed head of the Apostle Andrew. This highly prized treasure was brought to Italy by Thomas Palaeologus, who, in recognition of his pious benevolence toward the holy see, was given the Golden Rose, a palace in Rome and an annual allowance of 6,000 ducats. The relic was received with ostentatious signs of devotion. Bessarion and two other members of the sacred college received it at Narni and conveyed it to Rome. The pope, accompanied by the remaining cardinals and the Roman clergy, went out to the Ponte Molle to give it welcome. After falling prostrate before the Apostle’s skull, Pius delivered an appropriate address in which he congratulated the dumb fragment upon coming safely out of the hands of the Turks to find at last, as a fugitive, a place beside the remains of its brother Apostles. The address being concluded, the procession reformed and, with Pius borne in the Golden Chair, conducted the skull to its last resting-place. The streets were decked in holiday attire, and no one showed greater zeal in draping his palace than Rodrigo Borgia. The skull was deposited in St. Peter’s, after, as Platina says, "the sepulchres of some of the popes and cardinals, which took up too much room, had been removed." The ceremonies were closed by Bessarion in an address in which he expressed the conviction that St. Andrew would join with the other Apostles as a protector of Rome and in inducing the princes to combine for the expulsion of the Turks.747747    Pastor, II. 233-236, and Creighton, II. 436-438, give elaborate accounts of this curious piece of superstition.

In his closing days, Pius II. continued to be occupied with the crusade. He had written a memorable letter to Mohammed II. urging him to follow his mother’s religion and turn Christian, and assuring him that, as Clovis and Charlemagne had been renowned Christian sovereigns, so he might become Christian emperor over the Bosphorus, Greece and Western Asia. No reply is extant. In 1458, the year before the Mantuan congress assembled, the crescent had been planted on the Acropolis of Athens. All Southern Greece suffered the indignity and horrors of Turkish oppression. Servia fell into the hands of the invaders, 1459, and Bosnia followed, 1462.

Pius’ bull of 1463, summoning to a crusade, was put aside by the princes, but the pontiff, although he was afflicted with serious bodily infirmities, the stone and the gout, was determined to set an example in the right direction. Like Moses, he wanted, at least, to watch from some promontory or ship the battle against the enemies of the cross. Financial aid was furnished by the discovery of the alum mines of Tolfa, near Civita Vecchia, in 1462, the revenue from which passed into the papal treasury and was specially devoted by the conclave of 1464 to the crusade. But it availed little. Pius proceeded to Ancona on a litter, stopping on the way at Loreto to dedicate a golden cup to the Virgin. Philip of Burgundy, upon whom he had placed chief reliance, failed to appear. From Frederick III. nothing was to be expected. Venice and Hungary alone promised substantial help. The supreme pontiff lodged on the promontory in the bishop’s palace. But only two vessels lay at anchor in the harbor, ready for the expedition. To these were added in a few days 14 galleys sent by the doge. Pius saw them as they appeared in sight. The display of further heroism was denied him by his death two days later. A comparison has been drawn by the historian between the pope, with his eye fixed upon the East, and another, a born navigator, who perhaps was even then turning his eyes towards the West, and before many years was to set sail in equally frail vessels to make his momentous discovery.

On his death-bed, Pius had an argument whether extreme unction, which had been administered to him at Basel during an outbreak of the plague, might be administered a second time. Among his last words, spoken to Cardinal Ammanati, whom he had adopted, were, "pray for me, my son, for I am a sinner. Bid my brethren continue this holy expedition." The body was carried to Rome and laid away in St. Peter’s.

The disappointment of this restless and remarkable man, in the closing undertaking of his busy career, cannot fail to awaken human sympathy. Pius, whose aims and methods had been the most practical, was carried away at last by a romantic idea, without having the ability to marshal the forces for its realization. He misjudged the times. His purpose was the purpose of a man whose career had taught him never to tolerate the thought of failure. In forming a general estimate, we cannot withhold the judgment that, if he had made culture and literary effort prominent in the Vatican, his pontificate would have stood out in the history of the papacy with singular lustre. It will always seem strange that he did not surround himself with literati, as did Nicolas V., and that his interest in the improvement of Rome showed itself only in a few minor constructions. His biographer, Campanus, declares that he incurred great odium by his neglect of the Humanists, and Filelfo, his former teacher of Greek, launched against his memory a biting philippic for this neglect. The great literary pope proved to be but a poor patron.748748    Creighton, II. 491. Pastor, II. 28-31, makes a belabored effort to remove in part this stigma, and excuses Pius II. by the lack of funds from which he suffered and his engrossment in the affairs of the papacy. Pius chartered the universities of Nantes, Ingolstadt and Basel. Platina’s praise must not be forgotten, when he says, "The pope’s delight, when he had leisure, was in writing and reading, because he valued books more than precious stones, for in them there were plenty of gems." What he delighted in as a pastime himself, he seems not to have been concerned to use his high position to promote in others. He was satisfied with the diplomatic mission of the papacy and deceived by the ignis fatuus of a crusade to deliver Constantinople.

Platina describes Pius at the opening of his pontificate as short, gray-haired and wrinkled of face. He rose at daybreak, and was temperate at table. His industry was noteworthy. His manner made him accessible to all, and he struck the Romans of his age as a man without hypocrisy. Looked at as a man of culture, Aeneas was grammarian, geographer, historian, novelist and orator. Everywhere he was the keen observer of men and events. The plan of his cosmography was laid out on a large scale, but was left unfinished.749749    Hist. rerum ubique gestarum cum locorum descriptione non finita, Venice, 1477, in the Opera, Basel, 1551, etc. His Commentaries, extending from his birth to the time of his death, are a racy example of autobiographic literature. His strong hold upon the ecclesiastics who surrounded him can only be explained by his unassumed intellectual superiority and a certain moral ingenuousness. He is one of the most interesting figures of his century.750750    Voigt and Benrath are severe upon Pius II., and regard the religious attitude of his later years as insincere and the crusade as dictated by a love of fame. Gregorovius’ characterization is one of the least satisfactory of that impartial historian’s pen. He says, "There was nothing great in him. Endowed with fascinating gifts, this man of brilliant parts possessed no enthusiasms," etc., VII. 164. Pastor passes by the failings of Aeneas’ earlier life with a single sentence, but gives, upon the whole, the most discriminating estimate. He sees only moral force in his advocacy of the crusade, and pronounces him, with Nicolas V., the most notable of the popes of the 15th century.

« Prev Aeneas Sylvius de' Piccolomini, Pius II Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |