Sunday, April 17, 2011

History of St. Peter's Basilica: neglectful popes

Vlad Dracula, pen pal of Pius II
Yesterday we talked about Nicholas V and his plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica on a vast new scale.  Alas, it never happened—with his death in 1455, the project came to a sudden halt and the old church tottered on—one minor earthquake (and Rome has its share of them) away from becoming a pile of rubble.  The apse of the projected basilica stood behind the Constantinian church to a height of seven feet as a reminder that there was a need to address the problem of the structural instability of the 1100 year old structure. (Think about it: have you ever seen a building that is 1100 years old?) but the succession of fifteenth century popes never addressed the issue.  O they built a buttress here, a loggia there and put up a tomb or two, but there was no progress on what to do with the basilica itself.  Sixtus IV della Rovere built the Sistine Chapel—but that was connected with the Vatican Palace, not the Basilica.  (The Sistine Chapel is not part of the basilica, but is one of the chapels of the adjoining Vatican Palace.)  In fact, the palace was growing expedientially  as various popes added apartments for their use, preferring not to live in the suites of their predecessors.  Popes were busy people.  Nicholas had made the basilica a priority, but his successor Callistus III was busy writing bulls authorizing the Portuguese to enslave Africans and giving the impetus to the West African Slave Trade.  (Actually Nicholas had found time away from his basilica project to do the same.)  Callistus also was trying—unsuccessfully—to organize a crusade against the Turks who had captured Constantinople in 1453.  To his credit he ordered a retrial of Joan of Arc in which she was found innocent of all charges—a bit too late, however, to be of much help.  Callistus was succeeded as pope by Pius II who, under the name Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini had been a brilliant Renaissance scholar.  As pope he busied himself writing Count Dracula (the real one—Vlad III of Wallachia, aka Vlad the Impaler) encouraging him to fight against the Turks; Vlad was only too happy to find some Turks or anyone else who might help him earn his moniker.   Pius—who would have rather sat down with a glass of wine and some ancient Roman inscriptions, found himself very busy trying to organize the crusade envisioned by Callistus.  He called a Council for Mantua to get a Crusade going and in the end determined to lead it himself, but died before he could set out.  He did rebuild his home town, renamed in his honor (and well worth the visit, especially if you like Italian delis) renamed after him: Pienza (in the province of Siena in Tuscany).  And he was anxious for Church Reform, employing Nicholas of Cusa, as had Nicholas V, in making significant progress in addressing problems in the Church in the Netherlands and Rhineland.  The Basilica remained overlooked.  Nicholas of Cusa should have tried to clean up problems closer to home: just wait and see how    bad things get,  After Pius II, the next pope was Paul II—a paranoid Venetian who used excommunication of opponents—political, religious, or administrative—like other people send Christmas cards. Furthermore, he reveled in ignorance and as much a humanist as had been Pius II, Paul II was opposed to the Renaissance and its scholarship.  He much preferred eating melon and being sodomized by papal pages, one or the other (depending on whom you read) caused a fatal heart attack.  (Of course, it might have been both/and rather than either/or.)  No progress on the Basilica.  His successor, Sixtus IV, spent his time trying to murder the Medici and making his nephews cardinals.  He also had a reputation for making handsome young men cardinals (fact), supposedly in return for certain, hmmm, “favors” (allegation).  Well, I suppose it is better than pages and at least today a requisite for membership in the Sacred College is somewhat advanced age and withered looks.  Basilica status: unchanged.  But he did build the Sistine Chapel.  Sixtus was succeeded by Innocent VIII.  He was preoccupied by the problem of witches and magicians in Germany. 
"It has recently come to our attention—and not without great pain—that in some parts of Germany…Mainz, Koln, Trier, Salzburg and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, spells, and other abominable superstitions, foolish beliefs, offences, crimes, and misdeed cause the ruin and loss of offspring of women, the offspring of animals, the fruits of the earth, the grapes on the vine, the fruit of tress, as well as men and women, oxen, sheep, goats and cattle  and render men sterile."   ok--maybe there was a problem with witches in Germany but it sure sounds to me like this guy's reality coordinates could have used some realigning.  Also, I think he could have taken a bit better care of his own issues rather than worry about what was happening north of the Alps.   Innocent, (rather unusual name for such a man) himself had as many as sixteen illegitimate children.  He like hunting.  He built the “Belvedere” in the Vatican as a summer house.  He appointed Tomas de Torquemada as the Grand Inquisitor of Spain and gave Ferdinand of Aragon the sobriquet of “Catholic Majesty” long used by the Spanish Monarchs. He introduced simony in the Curia by putting up Church offices for auction.  He called for a Crusade against the Waldensians (Italian proto-Protestants in the Italian Piedmont.)  Pope Innocent was a busy boy—but as for the Basilica, well, he obviously had other things to do. 
To be continued with even worse popes.  Where did we find these guys?   

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