February 5, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: The popes became Renaissance men

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

The Renaissance is a period of time between the Middle Ages and modern history. Historians usually date it from the 14th century, where it started in Florence, Italy, to the 17th century. However, the Catholic Church was in no position to participate in the Renaissance during the 14th century, especially during the Great Western Schism that I wrote about two weeks ago.

The Renaissance was noted for a renewed interest in culture, including painting, sculpture and classical learning. The papacy participated in all of that, and tourists to the Vatican today can enjoy seeing artwork that originated during that period.

The Renaissance must be associated with the Medici family, which came to power in Florence during the 15th century. The Medici controlled the Medici Bank, the largest in Europe, and an array of other businesses. Once established under Giovanni, then his son Cosimo, and then his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, the family was Florence’s leading family for three centuries. Through marriages and business relationships, it was connected to most of Europe’s other elite families.

The Medici family produced four popes: Leo X (1513-1521), Clement VII (1523-1534), Pius IV (1559-1565), and Leo XI (1605). However, the Renaissance in the Church began well before any of them became pope.

It probably began with the election of Pope Nicholas V, who was the founder of the Vatican library. Before he became pope in 1447, he had tutored wealthy families from Florence, thus being introduced to leading figures in art and culture. He spent vast sums on collecting manuscripts and having them copied, and he set about rebuilding Rome.

Unfortunately, it was during his papacy that the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453. Pope Nicholas felt that he had to try to organize a crusade to try to regain the city, but he was unable to do so. When he died in 1455, he felt that he had failed in restoring Rome and making the papacy the leader of civilization.

The popes who followed Nicholas were a pretty sorry lot. The Catholic Church survived them only through the providence of God. First there was the three-year reign of Callistus III, who is known mainly for the favors he lavished on his relatives, including two nephews who were created cardinals while in their 20s.

Then there was Pope Pius II, author before his election of the erotic comedy Chrysis and a novel called Lucretia and Euryalus, the amorous adventures of King Frederick’s chancellor, Caspar Schlick. Pius II had also fathered several illegitimate children before abandoning a dissolute life and being ordained a priest. During his pontificate, he concentrated mainly on war against the Turks.

Next was Pope Paul II, born into a rich merchant family in Venice, who loved to provide sports and entertainments to the people. He was a great promoter of carnivals. He also surrounded himself with scholars, restored ancient monuments, and installed the first printing press in Rome.

The popes now were clearly Renaissance men who ruled as secular kings and princes. They were far too interested in enriching their families. †

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