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Church and Politics in Renaissance Italy

By Anne Murphy | Published in History Today 1995 
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Anne Murphy reviews three new books on the Church

Julius II: The Warrior Pope

By Christine Shaw - Blackwell, 1993 - viii + 360 pp. - £35

Church and Politics in Renaissance Italy. The Life and Career of Francesco Soderini, 1453-1524

By Kate Lowe - Cambridge University Press, 1993 - xiii + 314 pp. - £35

Venice's Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City

By John Martin - University of California Press, 1993 - xiv + 287 pp. - $45.50

The complexities and ambiguities inherent in any examination of the links between Renaissance and Reformation in Early Modern Italy are well illustrated in these recent studies. The biographies of Pope Julius II (443-1513) and his near contemporary Francesco Soderini (1453-1524) flesh out the reality of Curial factions, patronage and ambition in Renaissance Rome and Florence at the turn of the fifteenth century. Giuliano della Rovere was elected to the College of Cardinals in 1471 at the age of eighteen, just four months after his uncle became Pope Sixtus IV. The nepotism that launched him on his career led him to become trusted adviser of Innocent VIII (1484-92), sworn enemy-in-exile to Alexander VI (1492-1503), and finally to his own election as Pope Julius ll (1503). Two earlier diplomatic missions to France made him ready to promote and encourage French intervention into Italian affairs, but also broadened his experience and extended his range of influential contacts.

Christine Shaw's biography is the first to be based on extensive use of archival sources, including the reports of those who negotiated with him or I closely observed him. The early part of the book devotes much space to detailed (and sometimes tedious) narratives of military campaigns and political alliances. But these were at the heart of Julius' enterprise; he was convinced that he would strengthen and serve the church best by securing the independence of the papal states. He devoted his life to this cause and even as pope conducted some of his campaigns in person. It was the sight of Pope Julius entering Bologna at the head of his troops that prompted Erasmus' bitter satire Julius Exclusus. He portrayed Julius arriving at the gates of heaven with his troops and being denied entry by his predecessor, St Peter.

Shaw has some interesting sections on Julius as patron of the arts, commissioning some of the most famous works of the Renaissance: the Sistine Chapel painted by a reluctant Michelangelo, the Vatican Stanze by Raphael, and the new St Peter's by Bramante. But patronage costs money, and money had to be raised by a network of benefices and sale of offices. The young Martin Luther visited Rome in 1510, and saw for himself the gap between the political/artistic and the pastoral priorities of the Roman Curia. The fifth Lateran Council (1512) called for reform, but Julius failed to give it effective backing. He died the following year, ill and lonely, deserted by his courtiers and time-servers. Shaw succeeds in presenting a portrait of 'a plain spoken, short tempered, vigorous, impetuous, man of action', but a prince-warrior rather than the religious leader of a Christendom in need of renewal.

Church and Politics in Renaissance Italy is a thoroughly researched but very readable account of the life and career of Francesco Soderini, whose entry into the church 'owed everything to opportunism and nothing to vocation'. He was a humanist-educated Florentine, set to become professor of civil law, when his father and Lorenzo de' Medici secured him a clerical appointment. He began his career as an absentee bishop in the Roman Curia (1478-94), and later served as a clerical diplomat in the service of Florence. A major turning point came in 1502, with the election of his brother Piero, to the office of golfalconiere for life in the Florentine Republic. Within a year Francesco was elevated to the College of Cardinals, and his family was perceived as the main opponent of the Medici in their attempts to return to power. Not surprisingly the households of Cardinals Soderini and Giovanni de' Medici were the Roman focus for rival Florentine political parties. Soderini's fortunes were to be dramatically affected by the election of two Medician popes in the later years of his life: Leo X (1513) and Clement VII (1523).

Kate Lowe's biography is well crafted and attends first to the public and political aspects of Soderini's life, returning to the domestic details of his Roman household and personal interests. The result is a well-rounded portrait of a Renaissance cardinal in his day-to-day context, as he went about his Curial duties. Soderini was only moderately rich, with a household of 101 persons. He actually had a reputation for meanness and lack of ostentation in what seems to us to be palatial splendour. He was a politically astute powerbroker with a network of influential contacts. But it was not easy to survive the displeasure of an increasingly monarchical papacy.

In 1517, and again in 1522, Soderini was accused of conspiracy, on the second occasion suffering imprisonment. Each time his property and offices were in the gift of the pope. Soderini's career confirms rather than disproves the classical understanding of intrigue, family ambition, revenge, and even murder as at the heart of Renaissance papal politics. Kate Lowe ably assists the reader to make sense both of political complexity and innumerable sources, and has made a significant contribution to our understanding of Rome on the eve of the Reformation.

Nothing in the experience of Julius II or Cardinal Soderini suggests that they foresaw in any way, the coming storm of the Reformation. In 1523 Soderini's last appointment was to serve on a committee investigating the influence of Luther. From an Italian and Curial perspective there was as yet no crisis or sense of urgency, least of all any perceived link between Luther's protest and the priorities and lifestyle of the papal court. Yet John Martin's research into Venice's Hidden Enemies investigates the growth of religious dissent in that city from the early 1520s. In the first part of the sixteenth century Venice had survived the invasion of Italy, first by the French and then by the Spanish. In an age of princes it was a 'republican island in a sea of monarchies'. John Martin's study is significant precisely because Venice prided herself on freedom and openness – the antithesis of all that repression and Inquisition stood for. Traditionally Venice's enemies were from outside; how was she persuaded that her own citizens were working against the civic community from within?

The ambiguity and elusiveness of the many groups which hoped for religious reform and renewal marks this period of Italian history. Martin investigates the growth of religious nonconformity in Venice from the early 1520s to the revival of the Inquisition (1542), the intensification of the latter's activities (late 1560s) and its relative demise (1580s). In the early period it is difficult to distinguish 'Catholic' from 'Protestant' evangelical aspirations. One of Venice's most distinguished public figures was the moderate reformer Gasparo Contarini. (Elisabeth Gleason's brilliant biography of Contarini, published in 1993, exactly complements the early part of Martin's book, and should be read with it.)

Like Soderini, Contarini was a humanist and dedicated to the service of his native city. But the reform of the church was a major concern. Though still a layman, he was made a cardinal in 1535, and headed a reform commission convoked by Pope Paul IIl. At Regensberg in 1541, his attempts to reach an understanding with the Lutherans failed, and with it any realistic prospect of reconciliation. In future the power of coercion was to supplant the power of peaceful persuasion.

Martin draws on the archives of the Roman Inquisition and the words of the dissenters for his research, carefully distinguishing the different groups: Evangelicals, Anabaptists, Anti-trinitarians and Millenarians. They came from all social classes, but especially artisans in specialised crafts. The Venetian leaders had a decidedly ambivalent attitude to the Inquisition. They usually refused to execute condemned heretics in pubic, preferring to have them drowned quietly and secretly by night in the lagoon. They tried to limit damage with Protestant traders who may have been reluctant to continue business, but at the same time had to be seen to comply with the rigorous suppression of heresy demanded by Catholic officials. Martin brilliantly recreates the social and cultural world of the dissenters, and so the history of a group whose very existence was unsuspected until comparatively recently.

There was a religious crisis with socio-political implications in sixteenth-century Italy too, not only further north in Europe. These three studies, covering between them over a hundred years of continuous Renaissance/Reformation history in Rome, Florence and Venice, provide us with new insights into why this was so.

Anne Murphy is lecturer in Reformation Studies & Systematic Theology at Heythrop College, London.



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