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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Henry III
Henry IV

Rudolph II

Philip II

THE success which had attended the Medici's intrigues in the several elections they had sponsored, encouraged them to further endeavours. The lack of interest evinced by the Great Powers allowed the court of Florence a practically free hand, and gave the Medici the most influential position in the conclaves of this period. All those cardinals who coveted the supreme dignity, and there were many, turned towards the Grand Duke of Tuscany as being the most powerful ruler whose patronage they could obtain. Prestige seems to have been the only benefit the Medici can have hoped to reap for their outlay, as it was notorious that the character and policy of most cardinals underwent quite surprising alterations when they were firmly seated on Peter's throne—and their gratitude was no more to be relied on than that of other mortals. But the Medici were proud of the ascendancy they had acquired in the conclaves and prepared actively to add to their laurels by securing yet another victory.

Pope Sixtus V
From a print in the British Museum
The Sacred College assembled on April 20th, appearing at first to be broken up into numerous small groups; but the situation soon resolved itself into a pitched battle between Farnese and Medici, the two important parties absorbing most of the lesser ones. Farnese was now an old man; he felt convinced that he was attending his last conclave and that he would never again have the chance of obtaining the supreme dignity. He was therefore prepared for a fight to the death and willing to expend his entire fortune on attaining his object. Besides his natural ambition to crown his career so brilliantly, he was also actuated by a spirit of revenge against those who had tricked him in the last conclave, having since ascertained that Philip was in no way opposed to his candidature, though lukewarm in his support. But Farnese's chances were poor. He had always shown too much aptitude for management; was credited with too marked a personality and the house of Farnese was extremely unpopular. Although the sums he offered to his colleagues were very large, most of the [p. 112] cardinals were too rich themselves to be tempted by mere bribes of money. They were more ambitious of power and honours, and Farnese was not likely to bestow anything in that line outside his family circle. Another serious handicap for him was, that his opponent had managed to keep the name of his candidate secret, which obliged Farnese to adopt defensive instead of offensive tactics, always a more difficult line of action for recruiting adherents.

Cardinal Ferdinand de Medici was throwing all his energies into the contest. Like those street musicians who, bringing every limb and joint into play, draw sounds simultaneously from half a dozen instruments, he touched the chords of the voters' contrasting characteristics with masterly unison. He appealed to their piety, licentiousness, austerity, worldliness, youth, age, idealism and greed practically in the same breath. He negotiated advantageous matrimonial alliances between their relatives, promised extensions of territories in his brother's name, flattered, cajoled and menaced. When he considered the moment ripe for action he unmasked his batteries.

Peretti, Cardinal of Montalto, on whose elevation Medici evidently set so much store, was an obscure unobtrusive individual who had been a swineherd in his childhood. Like Pius V he had been befriended by Franciscan monks and had joined their order as a mere lad. The fervour of some Lenten sermons he had preached in Rome had brought him to the notice of Pius V, who, struck with the similarity of their careers, had made him a cardinal and Grand Inquisitor in Venice.

But Peretti's modesty seemed proof against any honours or distinctions. His manner had remained obsequious, his voice was low and deferential. He made a great show of gratitude for any benefits he had received, not only from the Medici, but also from several other influential prelates. His head was perpetually bowed as in salutation, and mediocrity, which in moderation was undoubtedly an asset, seemed in his case almost excessive. So much so in fact that Medici wrote to his brother: "I had advised our monk to be colourless, but I now find I must gild him to brighten him up and sugar him to make him palatable!"

A few votes were still needed to obtain the necessary majority. There could be no question of rallying Farnese either by fair means or foul, so they had to be obtained from independent prelates whose [p. 113] allegiance to either party was a matter of personal advantage. Here romance played the chief part. Cardinal Sforza was known to be much enamoured with the beautiful niece of his colleague Carpi, a close friend of Medici's. What could be simpler than to beg that lady to use her charms and influence to win him over to Montalto's cause? There was also San Sisto, the late Pope's nephew, of whom Medici wrote that: "He would have elected the devil himself to get out of the conclave and return to the arms of his mistress". But his case was more complicated than Sforza's, for the lady's husband was a jealous irascible fellow who threatened vengeance on the gallant cardinal. As long as his uncle had lived, S. Sisto had been fairly safe, but under a new pontificate the situation might be a dangerous one. There seemed to be only one entirely satisfactory solution, the removal of the troublesome husband. Medici's high station debarred him from treating personally of such sordid matters, so he deputed Alessandrino to convey delicately to S. Sisto that some means might be found to dispose of the spoil-sport as soon as the conclave broke up. S. Sisto hesitated, being naturally apprehensive of a weapon that might either fail to act or hit the wrong target, but in a spirit of sporting optimism finally accepted the bargain. His adhesion, carrying with it the votes of Gregory XIII's creatures, secured the triumph of the Medicean candidate. Farnese, livid with rage and disappointment, his last hopes vanishing for ever, heard Montalto proclaimed Pope under the name of Sixtus V; surely the darkest horse that ever won the pontifical stakes.

It is recorded that immediately after his acceptance of the papal dignity, the new Pontiff threw back his head, which was never to be bowed again, and to the utter stupefaction of the cardinals burst into a vibrant and sonorous hymn of thanksgiving. They could not have been more startled if the angels of the last judgment had suddenly leapt out of the fresco on the chapel wall and blown a blast on their trumpets. Some of the more experienced and cautious among them left directly from the Vatican for places of safety. The bleating sheep had been transformed as if by magic into a ferocious wolf. Sixtus V wasted no time in asserting his authority. Instead of the customary garlands and bunting which adorned the city for every new Pope's enthronement, a row of gallows was erected. On the flimsiest pretexts, without even a trial, poor wretches were [p. 114] mercilessly hanged. A lad of thirteen who had offered some resistance when a couple of Papal Guards attempted to rob him of his donkey was strung up on the Pope's personal orders, and when someone objected that the offender was a mere child, Sixtus said: "Add a few of my years on to his and hang him at once".

The Pontiff was certainly faced with a difficult task in restoring order and stamping out banditry. Gregory XIII had left the country in an absolute state of chaos and Sixtus needed all his energy and determination to cope with the situation. He used any means to hand, force, bribes, treachery, and terrorism, but he gained his object, although only temporarily, for the cure did not prove a radical one.

The most inexorable of despots, he was never known to perform an act of clemency. His pontificate can be likened to a perpetual thunderstorm, as he struck as erratically and ruthlessly as lightning. Having led a life of perpetual subservience he grudged to others even a semblance of the freedom he had himself forgone. As a friar, charity had been his means of subsistence and he had, therefore, no consideration for the wage-earner and tradesman and no understanding or sympathy for their needs. Owing probably to the abject poverty of his early surroundings, gold had a veritable fascination for him. He crushed his subjects under a burden of taxation such as the Papal States had never known. He made a more profitable business of trafficking in ecclesiastical benefices even than his predecessors had done, selling the same office several times over. The millions thus collected he hoarded in S. Angelo. Nominally they were intended for Holy Wars or emergencies, but Sixtus never brought himself to part with a single coin for religious purposes. Even when Philip II, owing largely to his promptings, launched the Armada to destroy heretical England, the only contribution made by the Pope towards the costly expedition was a few bales of agnus dei and a supply of indulgences. His policy consisted in playing England against Spain, hoping to exhaust and cripple them equally. He betrayed them both, warning Elizabeth of the projected offensive while he sent his blessing and fiery words of encouragement to Philip.

Sixtus had a great regard for his sister, known as Donna Camilla, who soon acquired a very influential position at court. She had been a washerwoman, and some pasquinade having been circulated on the subject of the lady's past employment, the Pope offered 1000 sequins [p. 115] to the author with a promise of his life if he would come forward. The misguided humorist claimed the money, which was paid to him without demur, but he was then seized, his hands struck off and his tongue slit.

Sixtus treated his nephews with customary partiality, and even intrigued to have one of them adopted by Henry III of France as his heir, in the place of Henry of Navarre the Huguenot Bourbon. The pontiff never forgave the King for not accepting his suggestion, and when the monarch fell a victim to Jacques Clement's poisoned dagger, Sixtus extolled the murderer and vouched for his salvation. He created many cardinals, but only men sufficiently sycophantic and obsequious never to contradict or criticise him, his butler being one of the very first to receive the dignity. His natural impulses, so sternly repressed for fifty years, once released would suffer no restraint. He became subject to fits of temper so uncontrollable that he shook and trembled as though in an attack of ague. He was self-opinionated, stubborn, and yet irresolute and changeable in general intercourse.

His excommunications and offers of friendship to his fellow sovereigns were practically simultaneous. He showered benedictions and eulogies on Philip II, striving ceaselessly meanwhile to undermine his power. He expressed the greatest contempt for the late Pontiff "who had been cowed by a pack of Jesuits" and set out to prove that a Pope could still be an autocrat, an aim he accomplished most successfully. The immense treasures he had amassed undoubtedly gave him that feeling of self-confident superiority inseparable from the prestige of a solid gold basis.

Having for the time being restored order in the Papal States, Sixtus then turned his attention to improving his capital. This entailed the destruction of many ancient monuments and Roman remains, which sacrifices do not seem to have troubled him. In some cases, however, he turned antiquities to account in an ingenious compromise between paganism and Christianity, as for instance by placing a cross in the hand of the Capitoline Minerva, and hoisting statues of St. Peter and St. Paul on to the summit of the columns of Trajan and Antoninus.

But his great claim to celebrity, and an unquestionable one, was the bringing of the Aqua Felice to Rome. He spared no expense in the accomplishment of this important scheme, insisting on the aqueduct being built on the exact model of the ancient Roman works. He [p. 116] conferred a lasting benefit on the city by making its inhabitants independent of the insanitary water of the Tiber, and insuring an abundant and pure supply to all the beautiful fountains of Rome.

The Pontiff's death was unedifying. With his usual self-assurance he had disregarded his doctor's advice and prescribed for himself a diet of wine and fruit which disagreed with him violently. Although the thirty-two cardinals whom he had created were in perpetual attendance and took it in turns to try and induce him to conform to custom by accepting the sacraments, he obstinately refused to do so. Piety had been a necessary sham to the monk Peretti; it was superfluous humbug for Sixtus V.

Some historians have taken him at his own valuation—or nearly so—and called him a great Pope. To the writer he appears to have combined the characteristics of Judge Jeffreys with those of Baron Haussmann—a blend which may have been effective, but definitely lacks grandeur.

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