Search our site:


Malaise in the Church did not come solely from the new learning, which threatened to unseat it from its self-appointed role as sole arbiter of knowledge (a handy position that had greatly encouraged the corruption rampant among the clergy).

The papacy's ongoing crusades against Muslims during the 13th century had turned into campaigns against European heretics in the 14th, campaigns that were thinly disguised grabs for wealth and prosperity by claimants from Italian ruling families and the related nobility of Europe.

Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) came from Italian nobility and his efforts were directed at ensuring his family's continuing wealth and power. His papal bull of 1302, Unam Snactum, claimed papal supremacy in worldly and spiritual affairs, an instrument for (among other things) removing opponents by simply branding them as heretics.

In 1309 the French Pope Clement V chose to base the papacy in Avignon. He was perhaps influence by the fact that real urban power in Rome was wielded by two competing noble families, the Orsini and Colonna, who contested (often violently) the pope's claim to temporal power over the city and the Papal States. These states began to fall apart during the 70 years the mostly French popes remained in Avignon - what cane to be known as the Babylonian Captivity. Rome itself became a festering wasteland as the Orsini and Colonna families battles for control and bled the place dry. Public funding disappeared and soon goats and cows were grazing on the Capitoline Hill.

Seven popes presided in Avignon between 1309 and 1377. After the failed attempt of Cola di Rienzo, a popular leader, to wrest control of Rome from the nobility, Cardinal Egidio d'Alboronoz managed to restore the Papal states with his Egidian Constitutions, thereby enabling Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome in 1377. Finding a ruined and almost deserted city, Gregory made the Vatican his base because it was fortified and had the formidable Castel Sant'Angelo nearby.

On Gregory's death, a year after he returned to Rome, Roman cardinals moved to retain their power. They elected Urban VI as pope but he proved unpopular. This sparked off a renegade movement of cardinals (mainly French) who, a few months later, elected a second pope, Clement VII who set up his claim in Avignon. So began the Great Schism, with one pope in Avignon and another in Rome, which divided the papacy until 1417, when the Council of Constance healed the rift and elected one pope, Martin V.


With the end of the Great Schism in the 15th century, the papacy initiated the transformation of Rome. Reduced during the Middle Ages to a conglomeration of majestic ruins and wretched dwellings, the city assumed a new elegance. In 1455 the sculptor Bernardo Rossellino began construction of Palazzo Venezia and Pope Sixtus IV initiated an urban plan to link the areas that had been cut off from one another during the Middle Ages. Donatello, Sandro Boticelli and Fra Angelico lived and worked in Rome at this time.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Pope Julius II opened Via del Corso and Via Giulia and gave Bramante the task of beginning work on the second St Peter's Basilica, which was to take more than a century to finish. In 1508 Raphael started painting the rooms in the Vatican known as Le Stanze di Rafaellom while between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo worked on the vaults of the Sistine Chapel. All the great artists of the epoch were influenced by the increasingly frequent discoveries of marvellous pieces of classical art, such as the Laocoon, found in 1506 in the area of Nero's Domus Aurea (the sculpture is now in the Vatican Museums).

Rome had 100,000 inhabitants at the height of the Renaissance and became the major centre for Italian political and cultural life. Pope Julius II was succeeded by Leo X, of the Medici family, and the Roman Curia (or Papal Court) became a meeting place for learned men such as Bladassar Catiglione and Ludovico Ariosto.

With the Renaissance, Italians found they could no longer accept the papal domination of earlier times. A remarkable treatise by the humanist Lorenzo Valla revealed theDonation of Constantine to be a forgery. Serious study of the Greek classics and Jewish and Arab scholars influenced the literary works of the later 15th century and the idea of the place of the individual in the universe grew in importance.

The 15th and early 16th centuries showed unparalleled creativity and visionary accomplishments in all aspects of political, culture and social life. In Florence, Cosimo de'Medici, private citizen and wealthy merchant, took over the Signoria in 1434. His nephew, Lorenzo II Magnifico (the Magnificent), is remembered as a great politician who laid importance on the economic and financial security of Folorence. In his refined diplomacy he focused on building the prestige of the city by enriching it with the presence, and the works, of the greatest artists of the time, thus becoming the greatest art patron of the Renaissance.

Feudal lords such as Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, a merchant as rich as the Medicis, and Francesco Sforza, military commander of Milan, shifted their allegiance between the pope and the emperor as best suited them. They became wealthy bankers and competed with each other for the services of artists, writers, poets and musicians.

The Venice of the Dogs, which had always tended to stand aloof from the rest of Italy, nevertheless got on the Renaissance train and a distinctly northern, slightly melancholy, Venetian branch of the Renaissance took off.

This phenomenal creativity was disrupted in Florence by Savonarola, a Dominican monk turned philosopher, who preached fire and brimstone against humanist thinking and allied himself with the French King Charles VIII to overthrow the Medici family and declare a republic in Florence in 1494. Although the monk eventually met a gruesome end, he wielded tremendous power in Florentine politics in the later 15th century.

The Medicis, briefly reinstated, could not reassert their positive influence over the Florentines, who eventually rejected them, setting up a second democratic republic in 1527. In 1530 this ric was in tu overthrown when Emperor Charles V, who had sacked Rome in 1527, brought back the Medicis, who ruled over Florence for the next 210 years.

The first Florentine Republic produced Niccolo' Machiavelli (1469-1527), a public official whose short handbook, Il Principe the prerequisite skills for securing and retaining power. Machiavelli advocated the end of all foreign rule in Italy and urged the people to employ their native wit and cunning to achieve this end.

Not all Italian states experienced the great social blossoming of the Renaissance. In the south, quarrels over power and land between the Visconti family (in league with Alfonso V of Aragon) and the house of Anjou ensured repression of the liberty and freethinking that had inspired the new sense of creativity and productivity in other parts of the country.

The Borgia Family
By today's standards, the popes of 15th-century Italy were a very different breed. They fought wars to maintain their territories, indulged in political assassination, kept mistresses and had children by them. Most were motivated more by the desire for personal gain or by dynastic interest than by any spiritual concerns. They were the ultimate proponents of an Italian realpolitik and were no saints.

The Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492 in what is said to have been the most corrupt election in papal history, probably took the biscuit. He established a notoriously corrupt and licentious court and throughout his papacy he maintained a mistress, Vannozza Catanei, who bore him several infamous offspring - all of whom the pope shamelessly manoeuvred into positions worthy of their descent! It all seemed to make little difference to the Christian pilgrims who flocked to Rome to honour Alexander in the jubilee year of 1500.

Alexander's son Cesare, who killed his own brother, terrorised Italy in a campaign to consolidate and expand the Papal States. Ruthless and brilliant, he was at one point admired by Machiavelli. An all-round nasty fellow (countless of his victims were found floating down the River Tiber in Rome) but a cunning planner, it all went wrong when Pope Julius - a bitter enemy of the Borgia family - came to the papal throne in 1503. Cesare, stripped of his territories and deported to Spain, died four years later.

His sister, Lucrezia, has gone down in history, perhaps unfairly, as the embodiment of Borgia cruelty, lust and avarice. It is said that Pope Alexander was obsessed with his daughter to the point of incest. He ensured that she lived in incredible luxury and considered no man worthy of her. Nevertheless, Lucrezia married several times - one of her husbands was assassinated by Cesare and another was publicly declared impotent by Alexander. She finally ended up with Alfonso d'este, the duke of Ferrara. In hindsight it appears she had been, in the main, an instrument of her father's and brother's machinations rather than a willing participant.

totalnannies.com privacy policy comments disclaimer last updated 24/10/2013 06:58:27   .

Tel:+44 (0)20 85423067. Fax:+44 (0)207 1529598