Monday, January 19, 2015

Papal Profile: Pope Paul II

As has been mentioned previously, the popes of the Renaissance period have, undoubtedly, a bad reputation in the popular culture. They are, collectively, portrayed as being flagrantly corrupt, vicious and immoral. However, as I have said before, this is an exaggeration which has built up over time as lurid gossip has been repeated so often as to be accepted as “fact” to many people, it makes for a more entertaining story and because it is simpler to use such generalizations than to take each Renaissance Pontiff individually and accept that each had their faults as well as their virtues, some admittedly more of one than the other. Pope Paul II is one of these. One of the earlier Renaissance Popes, he was born Pietro Barbo in Venice on February 23, 1417. As a native son of the Republic of Venice, it was expected that he would have a career as a merchant and was trained to be a businessman. However, the course of his life changed when his maternal uncle was elected Pope Eugenius IV, which was so common that, of course, the word “nepotism” itself comes from the Italian word for “nephew” as it became the accepted practice for popes to promote their nephews to high office in the Church. Young Pietro Barbo thus entered an ecclesiastical career and was rapidly promoted through the Church hierarchy, receiving the red hat of a cardinal in 1440.

While still a layman (and one did not have to be ordained to be a cardinal in those days), Barbo also helped ease his way through the hierarchy by being known for his generosity. This, of course, was easy for critics to dismiss as bribery, which would be unfair to Barbo though “greasing the wheels” was certainly a far from unknown practice. In 1445 he became archpriest of the Vatican Basilica and he twice served as camerlengo of the Sacred College. He was known for being generous, rather reclusive (perhaps a bit on the paranoid side) and extremely emotional. Later on, critics would read into certain things to exaggerate habits to paint a picture designed to blacken the reputation of Barbo, such as pointing to the fact that he cried easily and tended to dress very flamboyantly to portray him as a homosexual. However, at the time, he was simply regarded as being vain and rather too proud of his good looks (in the prime of his life) which few considered very unusual. With the death of Pope Pius II, Pietro Cardinal Barbo was elected to the See of Peter on July 26, 1471 on the first ballot and took the name of Pope Paul II. It did not take long after his election for it to become obvious why so many would have an interest in trying to ruin his reputation and portray him as negatively as possible.

Pope Pius II had been an ardent believer in papal supremacy, was rather authoritarian as pontiff and wanted nothing more than another crusade against the Turks. He did not deal very patiently with those who preferred a comfortable life to going off to fight a Holy War and so he ruffled a great many feathers amongst the upper echelons of Christendom as well as the Church. Pope Paul II was chosen by the electors on the understanding that he would undo all of that. He was expected to share more power and be more “collegial” as we might say today. However, to the frustration of many princes of the Church, after he was elected Pope Paul II made it clear that he would do no such thing. The supremacy of the Pontiff was a matter of sacred tradition and something he could not undo. This upset many powerful people in the Church. However, it was also illustrative of something not uncommon with the Renaissance popes; that men often changed once assuming the Throne of St Peter and the immense responsibilities that went with it. Paul II also attracted disfavor from another direction, which was the humanist community which, in the spirit of the Renaissance, had been embracing all things classical which had come to include a sort of neo-paganism. Pope Paul II put a stop to that and so was denounced as being illiberal and tyrannical. It is unlikely to have bothered him.

Libertine intellectuals and career-cardinals may have despised Paul II, but the ordinary Romans certainly did not. His public works and increase in the number of holy years as well as his more artistic projects brought gainful employment to many. Religious festivals were also coming more often and the Romans, with their traditional love of pomp and ceremony, be it imperial or papal, welcomed the change. Pope Paul II also, contrary to the popular image of Renaissance Popes, opposed the way that indulgences had been abused. To the regular people, he was a handsome, generous Pontiff who made all the right moves and it probably would have been to his benefit to let the people see more of him but he tended to be somewhat reclusive. His reputation for vanity evidently did not extend to any wish to be seen and lauded publicly as Paul II tended to keep to himself and do his work privately. A great deal of that work included the long-sought after dream of Christian unity and triumph over the Ottoman Turks. He carried on the call for a crusade just as his predecessor had done but, knowing he would be ignored as well, tried to use diplomatic maneuvering to advance the cause of Christendom in the struggle against the expanding Islamic empire. One such effort was his forming an alliance with an Iranian prince who opposed the Turks.

In furthering the cause of Christian unity, and trying to bring about the strategic encirclement of the Ottoman Empire, Pope Paul II used the tactic of dynastic alliance through marriage. He managed to find a Byzantine princess, Sophia (a niece of Emperor Constantine XI), from those who had become Catholic, and brokered her marriage to Czar Ivan III of Russia. This seemed a brilliant maneuver as Russia had declared itself the inheritor of the legacy of Constantinople and the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, a marriage to a member of the old Byzantine Imperial Family would have looked quite attractive to a Russian ruler eager to cement his claims. There had also been increased interaction between the two as Czar Ivan III had imported Italian architects to add to the grandeur of Moscow. However, while Ivan III took the title of Czar and Autocrat for himself, added the Byzantine eagle to his flag and so on, the marriage which occurred in 1472 did not result in the reunion of east and west that the Pope had hoped for. Ivan III remained staunchly Russian Orthodox and refused to take part in an alliance with the Latin west against the Turks. For his many achievements, he would be remembered in Russian history as “Ivan the Great” but for Pope Paul II, his reign was a disappointment, representing opportunity lost.

In the final days of his reign, Paul II had to deal with some trouble with the King of Bohemia who took a religious position contrary to the Pope. The King was excommunicated and ordered deposed (local rebels were trying to bring that about) but, contrary to their popular image, Renaissance popes did not tend to be exceptionally vindictive and when the King of Bohemia changed his attitude the Pope was prepared to lift the spiritual sanctions against him and welcome him back into the fold. However, before he could see to the matter himself Pope Paul II died on July 26, 1471 at the age of 54. Accounts of his death varied, usually due to his enemies trying to one-up each other in coming up with a story more scandalous than whatever was being put about at the moment. In truth, the Pope simply mentioned feeling ill, went to bed, was later found foaming at the mouth and by the time help arrived he was dead, most likely from a stroke.

On the whole, the reign of Pope Paul II had been a succession of disappointments yet none could fault him for not trying. He was vain, having an almost obsessive fascination with glamorous attire, jewels and lavish decorations but he had also been something of a reformer and zealous in his monarchical role of trying to secure and advance Christendom. His dealings with the King of Bohemia had begun in an effort to get him to lead a war against the Turks who were pushing into Albania and Hungary. His call for a crusade, after the last Venetian foothold in Greece was lost, was simply ignored and his efforts to get Russia and Iran on side for a united war effort against the Ottomans were only half successful at best and came to nothing. He was not on the best of terms with the German Emperor but that practically become a papal tradition. He is in no danger of being regarded as saintly but he was nowhere near as bad as his many detractors have made people think.

1 comment:

  1. Though I'm Lutheran I have considerable respect for the above mentioned pope, however my favorite pope was the great John Paul II (I consider him co-partners with Reagan in bringing the final nail in the coffin for Soviet communism).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...