Innocent VIII: a malleable pope

This pope began life as Giovanni Battista Cibo of a well-to-do Genoese family. He was perhaps the poster boy for misspent youth. His escapades were notorious and he fathered a son and a daughter outside marriage. Were it that young Giovanni experienced a conversion of heart, but with few prospects but tremendous family connections, the priesthood and a ecclesial career seemed to be his best career option. In Rome he became a priest in the retinue of Cardinal Calandrini, half-brother to Pope Nicholas V (1447–55). The influence of his friends procured for him, from Pope Paul II (1464–71), the bishopric of Savona, and in 1473, with the support of Giuliano Della Rovere, later Pope Julius II, he was made cardinal by Pope Sixtus IV, who appreciated his malleable nature.

Pope Innocent IIICardinal Cibo was noted as a rather dim and mediocre person, a spectator on the sidelines in the papal elections at the death of Sixtus IV. The two leading candidates – each to become pope at later dates (Alexander VI and Julius II) – blocked each other’s chances. The compromise candidate seemed to be Cardinal Barbo of Venice, widely noted for his character, strict principles, and intention to reform the papal curia and College of Cardinals. When Barbo came with a few votes of election, the unassuming Cardinal Cibo became the candidate supported jointly as the alternative to reform. The former playboy took over the Chair of Peter as Pope Innocent VIII.

Chiefly distinguished by his extraordinary indulgence on his son Franceschetto who by all accounts was the new poster boy for misspent youth. In all other matters he seem to take his directions from his patron, Cardinal Rovere (the future Julius II). Cardinal Rovere moved into the Vatican within two months of Innocent’s election, promoting his own family to “Captain-General” of the Church, Prefect of Rome, and other endowed positions. The other promoter of Innocent’s election, Cardinarl Borja, remained in charge of the papal curia, the administrative offices of the Vatican.

Having publically acknowledged Franceschetto as his illegitimate son, Innocent arranged his son’s marriage to a daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence – murder in the cathedral episode). The wedding took place in the Vatican and was so extravagant that it required mortgaging of the papal tiara and other treasures to pay for the opulence. Two years later an equally outlandish wedding was celebrated for his daughter married to a Genoese merchant.

Meanwhile, the business of the Vatican went on undisturbed under Cardinal Borgia. Some of the “low points” included establishing a bureau for the sale of favors and pardons (150 ducats to Innocent, any remainder to Franceschetto – who had a very expensive lifestyle to maintain); pardons for capital crimes including murder; the arrest of high officials of the papal courts for selling forged papal bulls custom made to the buyers specifications; granting exceptions to cardinals and bishops that they need not live in nor visit their diocese – yet they could continue to collect the benefices and pensions. The degradation of the College of Cardinals was epic in this period.

Innocent appointed Franceschetto’s new brother-in-law, Giovanni de’ Medici, as Cardinal and Archbishop of Pisa. Sadly this was not Giovanni’s first ecclesial appointment. He received the tonsure at seven, at age eight appointed Abbott of a local monastery, at age 11 was named ad commendam of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Casino, and now at the ripe old age of 16 was elevated to Cardinal. Giovanni would become Pope Leo X.

At his elevation to Cardinal his father Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote him an impassioned letter to act so as to honor the Church and Holy See, be of service to Florence and the Medici family, and avoid the evil of the College of Cardinals: “If the Cardinals were as they ought to be, the whole world would be better for it, for they would always elect a good Pope and thus secure the peace of Christendom.” And there lay the crux of the problem: problematic men were cardinals who elected problematic popes from their own ranks. It was folly.

In this same time period, Innocent was overwhelmed by the intrigues and complexity of “foreign policy.” On one hand, his own papal states were frequently in revolt attempting to rid themselves of the onerous and oppressive papal taxes. Within the city of Rome the Orsini and Colonna families were constantly scheming against papal control. The city states of Italy – Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, Genoa, Ferrara, and more – were ever at war and every shifting alliances. The powers of France, Aragon, Castille, England, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire swirled around. And the pope needed more money to counter all these external threats.

In 1492, increasingly ill, he summonsed the College of Cardinals to his bedside, asked forgiveness for his inadequacy and begged them to choose a better successor – one who would bring peace, hope, and holiness to the Church. His successor has been described as being “as close to the prince of darkness as human beings are likely to come” – Alexander VI. Apart from administrative excellence and finesse in foreign diplomacy, the Catholic Encyclopedia is hard pressed to say much about him. It does say that Alexander was skilled in raising money “in ways that were more than dubious.”


You can view the whole series of post on the Reformations here.

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