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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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 Calixtus III  Pius II  Paul II  Sixtus IV  Innocent VIII  Alexander VI




Richard III

Frederick III

Louis XI

Ferdinand and

SIXTUS IV is said to have died of rage on hearing that the Italian States had signed a peace treaty without his knowledge. There is no doubt that common hatred of his person had brought them together. He had been the most pitiless of enemies and the most treacherous of allies. The mment the breath was out of his body the looting commenced in his apartments, and as the sacristan fancied the papal bed, the corpse was lifted out and placed on a table. No cloth, no towels, no basins were to be found with which to perform his last toilet, and no underclothes were forthcoming into which he could be changed. A cope was at last produced which was wrapped round the body to conceal the soiled linen and the old red felt slippers which the scavengers had not considered worth carrying away, and which constituted the only footwear available.

In the meantime Rome was in a ferment. Jerome and Peter Riario, the dead Pope's nephews, held S. Angelo with their troops and made constant sallies on the city, exciting the mob against the cardinals, who dared not leave their palaces. This situation might have lasted a considerable time if the Neapolitan army who were advancing upon Rome had not appeared most opportunely, and from attackers turned into rescuers; for the bellicose Riarios, seeing the game was up, surrendered the fortress, and so the Sacred College was at last enabled to enter into conclave. Besides the usual elements of internal and external intrigues, a new influence, that of the cardinal-nephews, was to make itself felt most potently in this conclave. There were two of these prelates present—Rodrigo Borgia, nephew of Calixtus III, and della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV. They both meant to be Pope some day, but knew that their time had not yet come; and thought that in the meanwhile it would be expedient to secure a pontiff of their own choice. They met secretly during the night, disguised in their servants' clothes—at the usual trysting place—and settled on the election of Cardinal Cibo, an intimate friend of della Rovere's. [p. 28]

He was rather young, of course, only fifty-four, and as strong as a bull, but licentious, easy-going, with no apparent will of his own, and as tractable as a child. The next step was to purchase the votes of which they were not already assured. They immediately went round from cell to cell, waking up the cardinals with the news that the Pope was made and giving them each signed promises of lavish grants and benefices. Not one of the prelates demurred. So fearful were they of being outstripped by their colleagues in the race for favour, that aged cardinals could be seen rushing half clothed from their cubicles pursued by their conclavists, who dressed them as they ran. They found Cibo kneeling by a bench upon which he was signing all petitions without even reading them. A few hours later he became Pope Innocent VIII.

As might have been expected from such an irresponsible nature, he repudiated all his promises and left his signatures unhonoured, slyly revelling in his immunity. He abandoned the conduct of affairs entirely to della Rovere, and settled down to enjoy life in his own slothful way. He was a despicable creature; ungrateful, avaricious and cowardly. His only interest seems to have been the establishment of his numerous illegitimate progeny. The Vatican became a patriarchal abode overrun by his sons and daughters, their children and grandchildren. The marriage festivities which took place when his daughters and granddaughters contracted brilliant alliances were conducted on a scale of regal magnificence. For the first time in the history of Papacy women sat at the Pontiff's table, openly and unashamed, to the intense indignation of even the most unrighteous. Innocent dropped even the thinnest veil of decorum which might protect the Holy See from the vulgar gaze, and enable the world at large to ignore what it was undesirable to discern.

His brood was as supine as he was himself and therefore comparatively harmless. They desired no special honours and certainly no dangerous conquests. They were perfectly content to while away the leisurely hours in Decameronic domesticity. Innocent VIII slept almost continuously. When awake his favourite occupation consisted in persecuting the Jews. He squeezed every shekel he could out of them, and reduced the ghetto to a state of sordid misery and terror. Such gross self-indulgence would naturally undermine the strongest constitution. The Pontiff grew immensely fat, which is scarcely surprising, and [p. 29] his health gradually declined. By the summer of 1492 he had become an inert mass of flesh, "incapable", writes Valori, "of assimilating any nourishment but a few drops of milk from a young woman's breast". A Jewish doctor offered to attempt a blood transfusion to save his life; which shows how far above petty vindictiveness devotion to science will raise a man. He only needed, he said, the blood of three healthy young men—Christians presumably. The victims were procured at one ducat per head, a reasonable price even for those days one imagines, and the operation resulted in the three healthy young men escorting their flaccid Pontiff to a better world. The Jew, adds the chronicler, was never seen again.

 Calixtus III  Pius II  Paul II  Sixtus IV  Innocent VIII  Alexander VI

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