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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Pius III  Julius II  Leo X  Adrian VI  Clement VII  Paul III  Julius III  Marcellus II  Paul IV  Pius IV  Pius V  Gregory XIII  Sixtus V  Urban VII  Gregory XIV  Innocent IX  Clement VIII




Henry VIII

Louis XII
Francis I

Charles V

Ferdinand the

Charles V

WHATEVER the people may have felt about the late Pope's death, to the cardinals at any rate it came as an immense relief. They were weary beyond endurance of the clash of arms, the savage outbursts and the primitive conditions of life to which they had been subjected for so many years. They had strongly resented the inconsiderate manner in which Julius II had burdened them with his own apostolical corvées. When he started out on his first campaign for instance, he had expected them to follow the Host, at a foot's pace, along the dusty high-roads of Italy, while he, in whose honour the stately array was devised, took short cuts across the woods mounted on an excellent charger. Another of their grievances against the dead Pontiff was the persistent way in which he had thundered against simony, and considering the manner in which his own election had been conducted his indictment certainly seemed out of place, especially as he continued to sell the cardinalate exactly as his predecessors had done. One can easily understand the prelates' feeling of exasperation, therefore, when on his deathbed he issued a bull making simoniacal elections invalid and attaching every sort of penalty to this crime. They had paid heavily for their hats and were now to be deprived of the benefit of their outlay. They hastily disinterred another bull, one by which Paul II had made it incumbent on every Pope to allow 200 ducats a month to all cardinals whose revenues were below 4000 ducats. As Julius II had failed to observe this regulation they proposed to help themselves to the balance due to them out of the papal treasury, and with arrears it made a goodly sum for each claimant. Julius II had left a large amount of money and magnificent jewels, as valuable as any possessed by his predecessors, and the cardinals expected a rich booty. But the cautious Pontiff had deposited the treasure in the castle of S. Angelo and given strict injunctions to the commandant to hand it over to his successor only. These orders were adhered to by the officer in charge, so the frustrated but [p. 48] helpless cardinals turned their attention to selecting a pope who would compensate them for their disappointment. They longed for a life of ease and culture and material well-being; a life conforming to the ideals of the Renaissance with which they were imbued.

Pope Leo X
From the painting by Raphael in the National Museum, Naples
No store was set by anything but wealth and learning in the Italy of the Renaissance. Leisure for intellectual pursuit and the quiet enjoyment of beauty were prized above all things. The invention of printing had helped immensely to disseminate these doctrines, for unlike those of other European countries, all classes in Italy, even the lowest, knew how to read and write. Greek poets were as familiar to men of refinement as were their own native bards. In Florence, where the Medici had originated the movement, and in other small States as well, the people seemed drugged with idealism, dealing more savagely with their would-be liberators than the tyrants themselves could have done. Religious festivals flavoured strongly of pagan rites, and Greek statuary found its way into the holiest precincts. Many deplored this tendency, but Savonarola's attempt to stem the tide of sensualism had cost him his life, and in Italy at least none was bold enough to follow in his footsteps.

The late Pontiff had put an interdict on the Francophile cardinals who had attended the Council of Pisa, so that they were debarred from taking part in the conclave which assembled after his death, and Louis XII feared that their absence might result in the election of another Julius II; but he need have had no anxiety on that score. Italy wanted a Maecenas and the Sacred College intended to find one. In fact the younger cardinals had already done so.

The Emperor Maximilian ingenuously confessed to a desire to become Pope himself. He had written to his daughter Margaret that he intended to refrain from contracting another marriage or even from having carnal intercourse with any woman in the future as he had well-founded hopes of wearing the papal as well as the imperial crown before long. But the Emperor's edifying self-denial availed him not at all. Chastity was at a discount in Rome, the electors valuing in the candidates qualifications of a very different order. Henry VIII and Wolsey favoured the Cardinal of S. Giorgio. England was now taking an active interest in papal affairs, for Henry VIII needed allies in his endeavour to check the growing power of France, and Wolsey coveted the hat, which was a [p. 49] difficult prize for an Englishman to secure.

Twenty-five cardinals entered the conclave. The absence of the French element left practically only two contending parties—the young and the old. The former had secretly settled on Giovanni de Medici; the second openly supported S. Giorgio, England's candidate. The first few days were spent by the Sacred College on the usual preliminaries, regulations and capitulations, mere pretexts for gaining time and throwing out cautious feelers. On the first Sunday following their entrance into conclave, while the cardinals attended High Mass Medici was under the surgeon's knife. He had brought his own medical attendants with him as he was suffering from a fistula "in a part of his person", says Varillas, "that decency forbids one to mention". Had it not been for his youth, it is likely that Medici would have been unanimously elected at once as he had all the qualifications required by circumstances, but the aged cardinals objected to his elevation. They considered that it would be an indignity for them to be ruled by a Pope of thirty-seven, and they would, besides, be signing away for ever any chances they might have of wearing the crown themselves, and that was too bitter a pill to swallow voluntarily. In the city the betting on the candidates was feverish. The odds were posted up at the Banchi as they are at a race-meeting, Medici rising to 25 while his competitor remained steadily at 15. The Sacred College had been assembled almost a week before the first serious scrutiny took place. Many of the cardinals, wishing to temporise and conceal their real intentions, had voted for the man they considered least likely to have any supporters. As luck would have it thirteen prelates had selected the same outsider, with the result that they all but elected Arborense, the most worthless nonentity present. This narrow shave gave the Sacred College such a shock that its members determined to come to some agreement which would put matters on a more satisfactory basis for both parties. In consequence Medici and S. Giorgio had a prolonged interview. As neither of them could manage to throw his adversary they agreed to fight it out between them, allowing their supporters no stray voting.

Meanwhile the custodians of the conclave were exercising most wonted vigilance, amounting almost to sharp practice. Had they without a word of warning, cut a bell-rope communicating with [p. 50] the lower floor of the palace and along which a cord was slipped, continually carrying notes backwards and forwards between the inmates of the conclave and the outer world? Following on this first outrage they gave orders that the cardinals' meals were to be sent in earthenware containers and allowed no plate whatever to enter the conclave, as they had found a silver dish belonging to the English cardinal Bainbridge with the words "S. Giorgio or Medici" scratched upon it with a knife. The young party grew restive; the confinement and the impossibility of attending to their personal cleanliness exasperated them. Still the two rivals struggled grimly on. Slowly but surely Medici was gaining ground.

His doctors and his conclavists looked daily more troubled and dejected. It was evident that they took a very serious view of their patron's state of health. They confided to their colleagues under the strictest injunctions of secrecy that his scar would not heal and might at any moment become gangrenous. The trouble anyhow was incurable and might lead to fatal complications. The older cardinals nibbled at the bait. They watched with growing interest the frequent visits Medici's physicians paid to his cell; the patient's air of languor and fatigue. They were tamer, but still shy, and the proceedings might have dragged on for many a weary day had not Soderini, one of their leaders, suddenly resolved to clinch the matter. He was a Florentine like Medici, but of an enemy faction and had so far shown himself an obstinate opponent of the younger man's. His official visit to Medici's cell therefore caused intense excitement. The reason for Soderini's unexpected move was much discussed. Some said that the abrupt cutting of the bell-rope had interfered with the progress of an amorous intrigue and left him in a state of uncertainty which was driving him frantic: others thought that he simply saw more personal advantage in befriending his compatriot than in fighting S. Giorgio's losing battles. Whatever the cause, the result of his alliance with Medici completely turned the scales in that prince's favour.

Medici, realising how much he had to gain by Soderini's support, had received him with the greatest show of affability. He undertook to see the Soderinis reinstated in Florence, from which they had been exiled, and proposed a matrimonial alliance between one of his nephews and Soderini's niece. The satisfaction was mutual. Soderini's [p. 51] influence over the elder party ended the struggle. The next day Medici was elected and took the name of Leo X. The change of régime the cardinals had so much thirsted for had at last come to pass.

Leo X did not trouble to wear pontifical robes any more than Julius II had done, but his was not a martial accoutrement. Dressed in the richest silks and velvets as were the princes of his day, ablaze with jewels, delicately perfumed, he held his court in true Medicean style. Surrounded by the most beautiful women, by all the great artists and poets who have made his pontificate so famous, he would while away the hot summer days in the gardens of one or another of the papal villas. Under the shade of the ilex groves, or beside the splashing fountains, his courtiers grouped around him, he would discourse on philosophical subjects or dream through the hours to the sound of exquisite music. In other seasons the Pontiff would repair to his country estates to hunt or fish or go hawking, all princely pursuits to which he had been brought up. He led the life of a sybarite on whom fortune has showered all her choicest gifts.

His court was the most splendid and polished in Italy. He moved in a perpetual pageant of magnificence, a succession of masquerades, carnivals, plays and dancing. He was utterly disarmed by a timely jest, and would forgive any crime redeemed by a witty sally. He delighted in his jesters, of whom he had several, and loved comedies and buffooneries even of the crudest kinds. Being immune from retaliation the Pontiff had, like so many other princes, a great weakness for practical jokes. He would laugh uproariously when he had induced his guests to eat the flesh of a monkey or of a carrion crow cunningly disguised by exquisite sauces. He derived much amusement from their discomfiture when they were informed of the true nature of these dishes, and from their evident reluctance to partake of any further dainties. Leo made no pretence of piety or even of reverence. He encouraged the most unorthodox discussions on religious subjects, such as the immortality of the soul, which was the favourite theme of the classicists. He publicly embraced Aretino and Ariosto, the most licentious poets Italy has ever known, so carried away was he by his admiration for their genius.

He was charming, plausible and open-handed. But munificence is costly. The treasure left by Julius II had been entirely squandered on [p. 52] the spectacular display of Leo's coronation, the most lavish and sumptuous ever witnessed in Rome. As a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and a Florentine, he wished to show the Romans what splendour really was, and no doubt he succeeded. They were soon indeed to learn that this amiable smiling prince was first and foremost a Medici and a Florentine. As a Medici he determined to make as many States of Italy as could be seized, bought or conquered, subservient to Florence. His internal and external policies were consistently directed to that end, he really knew no other. As a Florentine he concealed behind a gentle manner and a winning smile a surprising fund of Machiavellian duplicity. England, France, Germany, he betrayed them all as fast as he treated with them. The Italian rulers fared no better at his hands; even those who had befriended his house in its hour of need were tricked and despoiled by him to add to the might of the Medici. He needed money of course, masses of it. Besides the traditional sources of papal revenue such as the sale of hats and other ecclesiastical dignities he farmed out indulgences, so that they were openly staked for in gambling hells in Germany and elsewhere.

But other measures had to be devised to supply means for his stupendous prodigality, and he conceived a novel and most lucrative method of replenishing his ever-leaking coffers. Amongst other nobles dispossessed by him in favour of Florence was Borghese, Lord of Sienna, a brother of Cardinal Petrucci, one of his most ardent supporters at the conclave. Naturally indignant at such ingratitude and treachery, the cardinal had left Rome to assist his brother and had probably in his resentment spoken too openly of his feelings towards the Pope. It is not impossible, considering the mentality of the times, that he seriously considered being revenged on Leo by poison. Be that as it may, the Pontiff sent him honeyed words of forgiveness and a safe-conduct with orders to return to Rome. Petrucci rashly complied, and having left his armed escort outside the Vatican, presented himself in the Pope's audience chamber. He was immediately seized and imprisoned in S. Angelo, where be underwent most terrible tortures. His attendants were also submitted to the question and confessed to being privy to a plot of their master's to poison the Pontiff.

A reign of terror then began for the Sacred College. Daily the name of some prelate was wrung from the lips of the agonised [p. 53] wretches and a new victim was added to the list. One after the other, these alleged confederates were called before Leo X and, terrified at the idea of the fate that awaited them, would throw themselves on his mercy, offering him their entire fortunes in exchange for their freedom. Some he exiled after despoiling them, like Soderini to whom he owed the crown, others fled in a panic abandoning all their possessions and led a miserable existence in foreign lands, where a few died in abject poverty. There is no reason to think that any of them had ever conspired against the Pope, or that Leo X can have seriously believed in their guilt. Petrucci was strangled in his prison. His unfortunate servants had an even less merciful fate. They were dragged through the streets of Rome and their flesh was torn from their bones with red-hot pincers before they were hung on the bridge of S. Angelo. What remained of the Sacred College was far too scared to offer even the most timid remonstrance when Leo X announced his intention of creating thirty-one new cardinals entirely devoted to the Medicean interests. They humbly acquiesced.

Leo X's unexpected death naturally gave rise to suspicions of poison. It was always a popular verdict, pleasantly exciting to the public, and where the medical profession was concerned served much the same purpose as the familiar heart-failure of modern days. This Pope showed no inclination to receive the sacraments during the few hours of his last illness. Some historians accuse him of having been an unbeliever and he certainly died like one, to the great scandal of the Roman people, who escorted his body with curses and forcible expressions of contempt. The glamour of the Renaissance at its apogee so envelops the figure of this Pontiff that he has been endowed with all its glory, just as that of Alexander VI has been charged with all the odium of his own times. But the veneer of civilisation was only superficial. Under the exquisite culture and flowery garlands the essentials had not altered. Live and let live, which appeared to be the motto of the cultured, only applied with Leo X, as with all his contemporaries, to strictly impersonal matters. The cardinals, who had felt so aggrieved at the life of turmoil which Julius II had imposed on them, must have thought with regret of the coarse and rugged soldier, when they fled from the clutches of the refined and suave Pontiff to whom they had looked so confidently for riches and content. Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V [p. 54] all knew him for what he was worth, and this knowledge perhaps explains why the Emperor, good Catholic as he was, treated Luther with so much leniency.

Leo X's death caused widespread ruin in Rome. He had borrowed from all those he could not bleed, and his debts amounted to 800,000 ducats. His sister who lived in the Vatican got away with whatever jewels she could lay hands on, and stark bankruptcy confronted the Holy See.

 Pius III  Julius II  Leo X  Adrian VI  Clement VII  Paul III  Julius III  Marcellus II  Paul IV  Pius IV  Pius V  Gregory XIII  Sixtus V  Urban VII  Gregory XIV  Innocent IX  Clement VIII

< Prev  T of C  ...  Prelim. Ch  XVth Century  XVIth Century  XVIIth Century  XVIIIth Century  ...  Next >

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