Help for Heroes

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini: Humanist and Pope

As advocate, diplomatist and historian, writes Neil Ritchie, Aeneas Silvius was a much-travelled international figure before he became Pope.

In 1614, one hundred and fifty years after his death, the remains of Pope Pius II were moved from St Peter’s to the newly built church of S. Andrea della Valle in the centre of Rome and the inscription on his tombstone still stands clear for all to read:

He held a Congress (at Mantua) for the defence of the faith. He resisted the enemies of the Papacy within and without Italy. He numbered St Catherine of Siena among Christ’s saints. He annulled the Pragmatic Sanction in France.

He restored Ferdinand of Aragon to the Kingdom of Sicily. He raised the estate of the Church. He instituted alum works at Tolfa. A lover of justice and religion, most admirable in eloquence, he made a fleet and enjoined the Doge of Venice and his Senate to be his fellow-warriors for Christ in the Turkish War.

He died at Ancona and was brought back to Rome and buried in St Peter’s, in the place where he had enshrined the head of St Andrew the Apostle when it came to him from the Peloponnese.

Augustus Hare, the inveterate nineteenth-century traveller, described this epitaph as good as a biography, but at best it is the biography only of a papacy. A better balance is struck by Pinturicchio in his cycle of ten frescoes of the life of Pius II commissioned by his nephew, Pius III, when he converted the old chapterhouse of Siena Cathedral into the Piccolomini Library to house his uncle’s books; but Pinturicchio, for all the appealing gaity and brightness of his work - which Vasari so waspishly derided - set out to achieve the apotheosis of Pius and in this he certainly succeeds.

The frescoes tell little, however, of the astonishing career and range of interests of this remarkable man: for these there is no better source than the records that Pius himself left to posterity - his writings and the ideal town of Pienza, which he created.

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