The March of Folly

The days of the secreted and persecuted church during the 2nd and 3rd centuries were long gone when the Roman Empire fell in the late 5th century. The Latin church found itself increasingly needed in secular affairs and seduced by them. By the Renaissance period of the 15th century, the millennium had long let loose the siren’s cry of secular power, national politics, and a host of other factors. This lead to the formation of the Papal States, the rise of a courtly Roman Curia comprised mainly of lay nobility, a complex means of funding the increasing “empire” of the Church, and a culture of corruption, moral laxity, and an obscuring of the lines between the holy and the secular. In the mix there were saintly popes and popes with, shall we say, other foci, aspirations, and intentions. The church was unknowingly on what the historian Barbara Tuchman would famously call “the march of folly.” The march reached its zenith in the last six popes before the Protestant Reformation(s). The folly of the papacy and the Roman Curia, pursuing secular goals at the expense of its spiritual mission, bewilderingly ignored the growing outrage and distrust of common people seeking some assurance of salvation – which they found in the theological focus of the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. The papal/curial folly gave birth to the Reformation(s). The six popes highlighted over the next several weeks were the ones occupying the Chair of Peter in the 50 years preceding the Protestant Reformations that swept through Europe in the 16th century. They were the last pontiffs over a united western Christianity

Pope Sixtus IVSixtus IV (1471-1484) – Murder in a Cathedral

Born Francesco della Rovere into a modest town near Savona, Italy, he is best remembered as the pope for whom the Sistine Chapel is named. He entered the Franciscans in his 20s, was Minister General of the Order at age 50, and was noted for his lack of concern for worldly things and had even written learned treatises entitled On the Blood of Christ and On the Power of God. At age 53 he was appointed Cardinal because of his reputation for sanctity. Four years later when Pope Paul II unexpectedly died at age 54, Cardinal Rovere was elected pope, largely via the backroom machinations of Cardinal Borgia (later Alexander VI). If you are known by the company you keep, people wondered what would be known about this new pope.

For one he was a family man. Sixtus took nepotism to a new art form using all the power at his disposal to enrich his relatives with high office, papal territories, and exceptional marriages to titled lands. The first two appointments was the designation of two nephews as Cardinals – he later elevated four other nephews to the “red hat.” Another relative was Prefect of Rome; others were governors of Papal States.

Sixtus also perfected a practice of favoring potential political allies with espiscopal appointments for their children. The Archbishop of Lisbon was eight; the Archbishop of Milan was eleven. In case you are wondering, didn’t these positions require priests? Yes they did, and both young men (children) were no where near the canonical age for ordination.

Under the influence of Rome, his family and who-knows-what-else, the former friar seems to have become unbalanced as unbridled extravagance became a fixture of the papal court. Although licentiousness was present in the court before Sixtus’ time, he did nothing to arrest it. Some of the papal banquets were described as where “none of the allurements of love was lacking.”

On the bright side, he did restore the Vatican Library, reopened the Academy of Rome, renovated old St. Peter’s, and reopened hospitals, fallen bridges, and funded a flourishing of humanistic arts in the eternal city. All of this cost money. And this is money in addition to the war he conducted against the city-states of Florence and Ferrara, as well as the on-going campaign against the Colonna family of Rome. But what history most questions is Sixtus’ involvement in the Pazzi Conspiracy.

The Pazzi conspiracy was a plot by members of the Pazzi family, the Salviati family – papal bankers – and others to displace the de’ Medici family as rulers of Renaissance Florence. On 26 April 1478 there was an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici. The basis of it was centered on land, money, trade and banking rights.

Pope Sixtus IV was an enemy of the Medici. He had purchased from Milan the lordship of Imola, a stronghold on the border between Papal and Tuscan territory that Lorenzo de’ Medici wanted for Florence. The purchase was financed by the Pazzi bank, even though Francesco de’ Pazzi had promised Lorenzo they would not aid the Pope. As a reward, Sixtus IV granted the Pazzi monopoly at the alum mines at Tolfa — alum being essential in dyeing for the textile trade that was central to the Florentine economy. Sixtus assigned to the Pazzi bank lucrative rights to manage Papal revenues. Sixtus appointed his nephew as the new governor of Imola and Francesco Salviati as archbishop of Pisa, a city that was a former commercial rival but now subject to Florence. Lorenzo had refused to permit Salviati to enter Pisa because of the challenge such an ecclesiastical position offered to his own government in Florence.

Riario, Salviati and Pazzi put together a plan to assassinate the Medici brothers. Pope Sixtus was approached for his support. He made a very carefully worded statement in which he said that in the terms of his holy office he was unable to sanction killing. He made it clear that it would be of great benefit to the papacy to have the Medici removed from their position of power in Florence, and that he would deal kindly with anyone who did this. He instructed the men to do what they deemed necessary to achieve this aim, and said that he would give them whatever support he could including stationing 600 papal troops outside Florence.

The assassination attempt occurred during high Mass at the Cathedral. Lorenzo was wounded but survived; Giuliano was killed. Archbishop Salviati had positioned himself in the Florence government chambers to announce the takeover of Florence in the wake of the assassinations. When thing went afoul he was trapped and eventually killed by the crowds. The Pazzi family member were summarily executed by the crowds. Lorenzo de’ Medici was able to protect and save the pope’s nephew Riario.

The Pope’s reaction was to place Florence under interdict, forbidding Mass and communion, for the execution of the Salviati archbishop. Sixtus enlisted the traditional Papal military arm, the King of Naples, Ferdinand I, to attack Florence. In the end Florence withstood the assault, the Medici family gained more power in Florence, and Pazzi family were banished from Florence and saw their banking business collapse.

The last years of his pontificate were marked by a series of envoys from the King of France, Louis XI, the envoy of the Holy Roman Empire, and virtually every significant country pleading for reform of the Roman Curia, the College of Cardinals, and a whole host of practices whose only purpose was to raise monies for the pope while leaving the true work of the Church is disarray.

Even if he had ignored internal reform, he could have easily forbade the “host of practices.” But the march of folly generally limits vision. A few months later Sixtus was dead. The Colonna family plundered Rome in the aftermath. Sixtus was buried unlamented.

5 thoughts on “The March of Folly

  1. Father George, I find it is very interesting reading your blog entries about the Reformations. This particular one, I remember your telling us about the “bad popes” of Rome in Bible Study. I love history, so this is a treat! I look forward to the next one. I hope you have a pleasant day. Thank you!

  2. I’m finding these history episodes so very interesting. They provide information that’s only been alluded to and its great to learn more about the Church that I’ve been a part of all my life. Information that puts in perspective what happened in places my wife and I have visited in other parts of the world.

  3. Thanks Fr. George. Loved the history lesson. If I recall PBS ran a series on the Medici’s and this particular event was included.

    • You remember the medieval “admin” building in Florence. In the post I simply said that the archbishop was killed. To be precise he was defenestratted – literally thrown out the window into the piazza from the top floor.

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