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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Ferdinand and

SEVERAL of the cardinals, amongst them d'Amboise, had thought it advisable to remain in the Vatican while awaiting the Pontiff's death, and so had enjoyed every facility and ample leisure to discuss terms with one another and lay their plans for the coming election. Cesare Borgia having obtained a safe-conduct from Pius III, had returned to his apartments in the papal palace and did not fail to make his presence felt. Although actually less powerful he was scarcely less feared in Rome, and had also to be reckoned with in the Sacred College, as no election could be made without the support of the Spanish cardinals whom he commanded. He was universally detested and his avowed enemy Orsini clamoured for his head; but his position was a strong one as Colonna was his ally and as he could also count on the Commandant of S. Angelo. Rome was now a seething mass of men-at-arms—retainers of the Colonna or of the Orsini, French troops, Spanish troops and independent bandits. Before entering into conclave the Sacred College insisted on all the soldiery evacuating the city. The various factions obeyed the injunction, all but Borgia, who ensconced himself in the Castle of S. Angelo certain of impunity.

Pope Clement VII
From the painting by Raphael in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The cardinals knew for a fact what the result of the election would be—so much so that they entered the Vatican with no personal effects but their ceremonial robes. France and Spain had each had their candidate, but by mutual "exclusion" had reached a stalemate. The small Italian States were by now reduced to insignificance; Venice alone retained an influence worth taking into account. Various incentives had brought all these conflicting interests to a common issue resulting in the elevation of Cardinal della Rovere to the Holy See as Pope Julius II. He was a nephew of Sixtus IV and had been in his youth an intimate friend of Alexander VI, though he later became his bitterest enemy. As Cardinal-Nephew he had amassed a large fortune, and being no spendthrift and a good business man he was now exceedingly rich. He had bided his time till he considered the [p. 44] moment opportune to come forward, and results proved the accuracy of his judgment. In manner and personality he was a striking contrast to his colleagues. His low birth and early training had left an indelible mark on him. His utterance was rough and coarse, his temper uncontrolled. In an age and country where dissimulation was universal and deception the order of the day, he affected utter directness of speech and had never been known to go back on his word. Alexander VI used to say of him: "Della Rovere has all the vices except duplicity". This original attitude stood him in good stead. It saved him all the time and trouble usually expended on canvassing. To the Cardinal d'Amboise he made it perfectly clear why he could never be elected, and he gained the Frenchman's support by promising to befriend his country, and by conferring on him the legations of France and Avignon. To Sforza he swore to restore his brother to the Duchy of Milan—Borgia's bribes were important. He was to retain the command of the papal troops and be allowed to reconquer the Romagnas; he was also to become Great Penitentiary, to reside in the Vatican, and della Rovere proposed a matrimonial alliance between his own nephew and Borgia's daughter. Colonna was to have a palace in Rome, an abbey, an archbishopric, etc. Spaniards, Venetians, all had their share of gifts and benefices.

Promises had long been at a discount in Rome, but Julian della Rovere's word was as good as his bond, and to this eccentric peculiarity he owed the papal throne. The fisherman's ring duly engraved with his coat of arms was ready when the conclave assembled, so certain was the Sacred College of their unanimity.

There was nothing of the churchman about Julius II. He was completely militant. He faithfully kept his promises as to grants and favours, but was certainly not incapable of deception, for he tricked Cesare Borgia, leading on that dangerous and cunning fiend from pitfall to pitfall until he was finally exiled to die miserably in Spain. Towards France he proved friendly enough so long as he needed her help; but when she had served her purpose he made her expulsion from Italy the aim and object of his life. He was sixty-five at the time of his election and, according to Domenico Travasani, the Venetian envoy, he was gouty and suffered from the effects of the French disease contracted in his youth, but was still vigorous and a hard worker. He was not easily influenced, mostly keeping his own [p. 45] counsel and going his own way. He was abstemious and parsimonious, grudging all expenditure but that devoted to warfare. Although he appreciated Michelangelo's genius he bullied and browbeat him, making the great artist work like a slave and withholding from him even the necessary funds to provide for colours and scaffolding.

He traded on his privileged position to paralyse his foes, who naturally hesitated to lay hands on their Pontiff even when wearing a coat of mail. He sent peremptory orders to Venice to refrain from assisting Bologna when he set out to attack that city, and the Republic obeyed. He commanded assistance from France and Louis XII reluctantly complied. Under the circumstances the fall of Bologna can scarcely be accounted a great military triumph for the papal forces. It was lost to them later by the incapacity of Julius' nephew Urbino and the treachery of his favourite, Cardinal Alidosi. In his infatuation for that worthless creature the Pope completely exonerated him and laid all the blame for the disaster on his nephew. Urbino, enraged at such injustice and meeting Alidosi outside his uncle's residence in Ravenna, dragged him off his horse and ran him through with his sword. Julius II gave way to the most extravagant demonstrations of grief over the death of this contemptible knave, and it seems difficult to attribute such an excess of sorrow to mere friendship. On thejourney which he hurriedly undertook to Rimini he could be heard lamenting wildly behind the closely drawn curtains of his litter, while his escort of cardinals rejoiced whole-heartedly at the disappearance of the man they all abhorred.

Julius II inaugurated the fashion for beards. He had let his own grow for the sake of convenience during his campaigns, and Francis I having followed his example, the vogue soon spread all over Europe. It was difficult to discern the Pope in this hirsute, armoured condottiere, the self-styled "liberator of Italy" who ruined Venice, imposed the tyrannical Sforzas on Milan, threw the French army on to the Bolognese and never rested until he had destroyed any power in Italy that could rival his own. But where Julius II differed from most popes was in the fact that he loved conquest for conquest's sake, that his ambition was disinterested and independent of personal advantages. His military successes established the security and power of the Holy See, they were not intended for the aggrandisement of his house. He had a daughter and nephews, but having suitably [p. 46] provided for them, he did not strive to exalt them unduly. His was a turbulent, ardent, impetuous nature; not ungenerous to a fallen foe; intensely virile—too impatient to be far-sighted yet not devoid of shrewdness. In his latter years he became obsessed by his hatred of France. As he lay on his deathbed he would continually call out in his delirium: "Out with the French!"

The Romans mourned him. He had been a rough but not an unkind ruler, and compared very favourably in their eyes with his immediate predecessors.

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