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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry VIII
Edward VI

Francis I
Henry II

and Spain

Charles V

TIME had proved to be the "petticoat cardinal's" best friend. So many other and newer scandals, so many important and all-obliterating events had taken place since Cardinal Egidio had made his pitiless indictment against him to the Sacred College, that he felt he could now safely come forward as a serious candidate to the Apostolic See. He had been present at five papal elections and was far too astute not to have benefited by so much experience. He knew the advantage of entering the conclave with an imposing number of avowed supporters and set about collecting them as soon as Clement was dead. Circumstances were all in his favour.

The most important leader to win over was certainly the Cardinal-Nephew--Medici. He disposed of the numerous phalanx of the late Pope's creatures, and whoever could count on their votes was as good as elected. Farnese knew that Medici hated and envied his cousin Alexander, ruler of Florence, and intended to despoil him at the first opportunity. He therefore approached his colleague with a deed ready drawn up, signed and sealed, by which he undertook, in exchange for Medici's support, to give him Ancona with the legation of the Marches, and to help him with all the power a pope could dispose of, to obtain possession of the State of Florence. Moreover, if Cardinal Medici decided to renounce priesthood, Farnese would not only give him all necessary dispensations, but would bestow on him the hand of his daughter Victoria with a regal dowry.

Pope Paul III
Paul III and His Grandsons
From the painting by Titian in the National Museum, Naples
To the Emperor, Farnese sent a solemn assurance that his first thought would be the convening of the council which had been such a bugbear to his predecessor. But Charles V professed himself completely disinterested in the result of the conclave. He had been so disappointed in the two Popes he had helped to make that he probably thought that the Sacred College could do no worse if left to its own devices. Besides, he had now assumed a semi-spiritual authority himself and affected an attitude of patronising contempt for the Vicar [p. 72] of Christ. He gave no definite instructions to his Roman agents, merely exhorting them to do their best to secure the election of a good pope.

The French party were not opposed to Farnese, especially as Trivulzi, the leader of the pro-French group of Italian cardinals, seemed disposed in his favour. Trivulzi's main object was to secure the election of a pope who would have a short pontificate, as he fully intended to step into his shoes. Farnese, who was aware of the prelate's ambition, made the most of his age and infirmities, also promising to pave the way for Trivulzi to succeed him. Farnese was then sixty-eight and appeared anything but robust. He was bent almost double and walked with great difficulty. His face was positively cadaverous and his breathing laboured. It would have been indeed difficult to find a more suitable candidate. Although his election seemed assured, Farnese was far too old a hand at the game to overlook the importance of details. He knew, better than any, how slippery were the steps leading up to the pontifical throne and how easily a mere trifle might spell success or failure. So when all the Sacred College had assembled in the chapel, after the opening of the conclave, and the Cardinal-Dean was just prostrating himself before the altar, the stillness was broken by the rhythmic tap-tap of a stick on the marble flags. Cardinal Farnese was making his well-staged entry. In the doorway he faltered as though about to drop, with such an expression of lassitude and helplessness, that the nearest cardinals sprang forward to support him and assist him into his stall. The sight of such utter decrepitude moved the prelates deeply. "This is not a Pope" whispered Trivulzi to his neighbours, "but the Papacy in abeyance", and the few cardinals who had still been wavering were completely won over to Farnese. He was unanimously elected and took the name of Paul III.

So beneficent did the invigorating air of the Vatican prove to the palsied veteran, that he survived his elevation fifteen years. Nor were they years of an invalid's living death, but years of crowded ardour and activity. The election of a Roman citizen to the Apostolic See was received in the city with frantic jubilation. As Farnese had been reared in the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent and was rich and lavish, his pontificate seemed to promise a return to the erstwhile gorgeous days of plenty. Paul III was a clever, cultured man, with [p. 73] an easy, conciliating manner which had won him many partisans and disarmed most of his enemies. His policy had always been one of tactful neutrality towards all parties, which however implied no pusillanimity like that of his predecessor. He is described by his contemporaries as "highly bilious" and "tenaciously resentful of injuries". Benvenuto Cellini accuses him of believing in nothing, not even in God. However sceptical he may have been in religious matters, he was however a firm believer in astrology, corresponding regularly with Consarius in Paris and refusing to undertake anything on a day when the influence of the stars was unfavourable.

Trained in the old school of papal supremacy, Paul III considered Charles V's attitude of independent equality insufferable. The semi-pontifical flavour of his Augsbourg "Interims", his perpetual intrusion into matters of dogma, annoyed the Pope considerably. His Holiness made no mystery of his disapproval, but the Emperor remained unmoved. The Holy See no longer held princes in the thraldom of its prestige. Charles had crushed Clement as a giant crushes a pigmy. If, as is argued, temporal power was necessary to Papacy for the preservation of its spiritual independence, to be logical it should have been a sovereignty preponderating over all others--a Colossus that could never know defeat. Such was not the case, and the conqueror's pose of censorious patronage was galling to the would-be theocrat. The secondary and uninfluential position assigned to the Pontiff in European affairs so surprised and disgusted him that Paul III abandoned the field of general politics for the more restricted one of family aggrandisement. His nepotism was unblushing. He bestowed the hat on several of his grandsons, the eldest of whom was barely fifteen. To his infamous son, Pier' Luigi, compared to whom Cesare Borgia was but a playful kitten, he granted Parma and Piacenza, which were possessions of the Holy See and therefore strictly unalienable. Charles remonstrated with him, but to no avail. The imperial agents thereupon incited the citizens of Piacenza to rise against Pier' Luigi and murder him. The people lent a ready ear to these suggestions, as he was considered a monster, and not content with butchering him they mutilated his body and subjected it to ghastly outrages. To escape the Pope's vengeance they then declared themselves subjects of the Emperor to whom righteousness was somehow always profitable. Paul was distracted with grief at the death of the son he loved [p. 74] so passionately and he never forgave the Emperor for his connivance at his murder. It caused him to assume a more friendly attitude towards France, which made Charles say "that most men take the French disease in their youth, but that the Pope caught it in his old age". Paul's resentment was deep and tenacious, for there is evidence in the Florentine archives that he intended to send Charles a mechanical box which discharged a number of shots on being opened, but Duke Cosimo de Medici, having been informed of the plot, prevented the despatch of the murderous tool, thereby earning the Pope's undying enmity. He always had hated the Medici really and had been relieved almost too opportunely of the necessity of fulfilling his promises to Cardinal Medici by that scheming prelate's sudden death. He was poisoned by Alexander, the cousin he had hoped to destroy and who seemed suspiciously confident of impunity. "This is how we rid ourselves of troublesome flies" exclaimed the princely murderer, thus publicly acknowledging his guilt. He himself, we may add, suffered the same fate before long. If he was no friend to Florence, the Pontiff was on equally bad terms with all the other Italian States, as he was ever on the look-out for an opening to seize a city here or there to add to his son's principality.

Two important events marked his pontificate. He summoned the Council of Trent and officially approved of the Society of Jesus: both actions of the greatest moment in the history of the Church of Rome.

His devotion to his offspring, which had been the main interest of his later years, was the weapon chosen by fate wherewith to destroy him. After Pier' Luigi's death, although Piacenza had put herself under the Emperor's protection, the Farnese retained possession of Parma; but seeing that Charles coveted that city, Paul thought it safer to return it to the Holy See and so do away with any excuse the monarch might have had to annex it. His grandson Ottavio, however, openly disregarded his orders and refused to hand it over.

Nor was his insubordination to be the only sorrow he inflicted on the Pope, for the news soon reached His Holiness of an intended alliance between the Emperor, his beloved Pier' Luigi's murderers and Ottavio. That was bad enough, but when he learned that his favourite grandson, Cardinal Farnese, whom he trusted above all, was in league with the culprit, his cup of bitterness overflowed. Paul sent for him and, losing all restraint, snatched the biretta out of the [p. 75] cardinal's hands, tore it to shreds and threw them on the ground. He raved at the traitor and cursed him, his rage only abating as his strength ebbed. He.never rallied from the shock and a few hours later was dead.

How, one wonders, would the excessive parental devotion manifested by so many popes have stood the test of the hereditary system? Would their love for a son destined to succeed them have been as blind and overwhelming? If they had felt responsible for their stewardship towards an acknowledged heir, would it not have come between them and resulted in the customary antagonism of sovereigns towards their immediate successors?

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