SECTION 1 A:
The fifteenth century in Italy was characterized by the rise of humanism, the power of the Catholic Church and warring Italian city-states. A century later, there would be a backlash against secularism, the Protestant Reformation would break the power of the Catholic Church in many places and outside invasions would rack the Italian peninsula. The result of these dramatic events would greatly influence the trajectory of renaissance thought and development.
In the early fifteenth century, Italian humanists, living in powerful and secure city-states, felt free to expand the boundaries of what had been believed to be sacrosanct for a thousand years. Preferring the learning of the ancients to more recent studies, they worked to uncover ancient Roman and Greek documents, and they enshrined these works as the basis for a complete education. (King, 66) The humanists’ willingness to learn Greek was a critical development, as there were many more volumes from antiquity available in the Greek language than in Latin, which remained the Lingua Franca of the day. Also, the Greek written tradition extends to many areas untouched by the Latin, such as science, mathematics and philosophy. (King, 71)
Reading and rereading ancient texts, the humanists began to redefine what was preferable for one to study: poetry, history, philosophy, rhetoric and grammar. The works of Cicero, composed a century and a half before, set the standard for prose for centuries to come as Renaissance writers labored to imitate his style. (King, 67) The humanists busied themselves creating schools where the curriculum prepared students to think and write well on a broad range of subjects, rather than focus on a specific skill or trade that could be acquired later. They looked to instill general knowledge and basic principles of morality; as a result, a humanist education was especially appealing to elites, who wanted their sons groomed for political or mercantile leadership roles. (King, 73)
There were many elites in Italy in the fifteenth century, as the Italian city-states flourished in a time where Oriental trade moved overland through the Middle East and then across the Mediterranean and into Europe through Italian ports such as Venice and Genoa. In Florence, wealth wad developed through banking and a thriving wool industry. (King, 35) These rich and powerful city-states were at the same time both republican and tyrannical, due to the rise in each of certain groups who gained control by conquering another. The losing faction would often be exiled, where it would conspire with sympathetic parties in rival city-states to regain power. If they succeeded, they would restart the process by exiling those they had deposed, replicating on a grand scale the ancient custom of the family vendetta. (King, 196) Because there was no permanent, legitimate government, mercenaries, called Condottieri, were employed to prop up the leadership of the moment. As a result, there was no significant standing army that might defend the city-state from a serious outside threat, should one arise.
Early in the fifteenth century, the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon, and the Church worked to reestablish supremacy in the Italian Peninsula, using the highly specialized (and effective) bureaucracy that it had developed in France. Creating a coalition of nobles with whom the leadership could work, the Church was able to quickly reclaim lost territory and become active again in the local politics of Italy. As it focused on cementing its leadership in the very materialistic world of power politics, the Church practically abdicated leadership in daily church life, which led to local excess and abuses that flourished unchecked, much to the dismay of church reformers. (King, 168) Rather than turn its attention to individual bishoprics and archbishoprics, Rome looked inward as the Popes rebuilt the city, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, as well as the Vatican complex itself. It also greatly expanded the office of Cardinal into a high-paying place of power, as princes and kings vied to have their representatives named to the body of men who would choose the next Pope. (King, 170) This willingness of the fifteenth century to ignore provincial abuses, in much the same way it excused its own, would lead to a crisis of monumental proportions in the next century.
While the humanist movement of the fifteenth century clearly encouraged the critical examination of Church doctrine and policy, it did not, in Italy at least, represent a complete shunning of Catholic Christianity. On the contrary, the Italian people were fiercely loyal to the Church, even as they mocked its representatives on earth. As often as they made jokes about wayward nuns or greedy monks, Italian Catholics might speak with reverence of a Catherine or Bernardino of Siena.
In this way, they were drawn to the charismatic preaching of Girolamo Savonarola, who led a “Great Awakening” of sorts in Florence in the 1490s, which encouraged the rejection of the secularism that had so dominated public life in the fifteenth century. Savonarola convinced Florentines to burn the outward signs of their attachment to the temporal world in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” in the Piazza della Signoria. Prophesying both the apocalypse and the coming of the French, he inspired a mass following of piagnoni, or “weepers,” who were typically overwhelmed by great emotion as they contemplated their sins and the sins of the world. After the successful French invasion and subsequent withdrawal, Savonarola persuaded Florence to keep the Medici from power and to instead install a “republic of God” based on Christian law. Having immersed himself in vendetta politics, it is not surprising that when the Medici eventually reclaimed power, they retaliated against Savonarola by having him hanged and burned in 1498. (King, 190-191) What the Medici could not realize is that 5,000 miles away, events were transpiring that would shift power away from the Italian city-states northward to Central and Western Europe.
It is perhaps ironic that it would be an Italian, and a Genoan at that, who would, by reaching the New World in 1492, hasten the demise of the Italian city-state. When Columbus’ discoveries were added to De Gama’s voyage to India two years later, the trading monopoly of places like Genoa and Venice were a thing of the past, and with it, the wealth and power necessary to maintain Italian city-states. It is not surprising that in the years after these discoveries, as trade patterns shifted to other European cities such as Lisbon, Seville, Nantes and London, that the Italian peninsula was racked by repeated invasions culminating in the sack of Rome by a combined force of Germans and Spaniards in 1527. It is also not surprising that Spain, the primary recipient of Columbus’ New World largess, would come to dominate the peninsula (not to mention sixteenth century Europe as a whole) and that as Italian prestige diminished, so would the dominance of the Catholic Church in Northern Europe. (King, 241)
This weakening of Church authority, combined with the church’s unwillingness to police itself, would lead to challenges from individuals such as Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his parish church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. By 1530, Lutheranism would be established in Germany, Henry VIII was moving toward religious autonomy in England and the break with the Catholic Church can be said to have become permanent. For the people who lived in Northern Europe, centuries of religious warfare and persecutions now lay ahead of them and their lives, and the lives of their descendants, would be altered forever by this shift.
The century between 1430 and 1530 saw humanism flourish and then fall into disfavor in the fires of religious fervor; Italian city-states expand by warring with each other, and then be unable to resist invasion from outside the peninsula; and the advent of the Protestant Reformation. All of these combined to make the sixteenth century markedly different from the one that preceded it. It was a time of shifting wealth, power and allegiances, and a time where mere questioning turned to direct confrontation. By comparison, the fifteenth century was the quiet before the storm.
Rome, the home of the Vatican and the seat of the Catholic Church, was invaded and pillaged by a combined army of Spaniards and Germans technically under the rule of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on May 6, 1527. The troops who sacked the city did so without specific orders, and were, in fact, mutinying due to not having received the payment they had been promised. For them, Rome would supply the overdue wages from its wealth, both public and private. This marked the end of the Renaissance in Rome.
For Rome, the problems had begun when Pope Clement VII decided that he’d had enough of the domination of the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. Attempting to alter the balance of power in Italy, the pope had sided against Spain and Charles, who decided to launch an attack against Rome in retaliation. To make matters even more dire for Rome, many of Charles’ troops were Lutherans who had participated in the rebellion against the Church in 1520, and were now eager to lay waste to “Babylon,” a place they considered to be the capital city of iniquity on earth. (King, 220) When they got to Rome, they laid siege to the city and had soon breached its walls. The city’s elite fled, as did Clement, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo while Rome wailed beneath him, suffering the “horrible and disgraceful acts” of a pillaging army.
When Matteo Bandello speaks of the sack of Rome, he mentions the “sins of that city.” In the previous hundred years, since the return of the Papacy from Avignon, the Popes had been in Rome rebuilding its glory (and their glory) while ignoring things spiritual within the Church. One of their first priorities had been the reclamation of territory lost during the Schism, and this they accomplished through advantages alliances with area princes and nobles. Consolidating their power, the Vatican then expanded the extensive bureaucracy it had been developing began a massive rebuilding project in Rome itself. The object of this activity was to make Rome a glorious city, a worthy place for the capital of a great earthly empire.
As the Church restored Rome, both the Papacy and local church hierarchy were immersed in many obvious abuses and immoralities. A number of high Church officials, including Popes themselves, fathered children out of wedlock, and then appointed them to positions of power. (King, 173) Reformers among the faithful found themselves increasingly disappointed in what they learned of life in Rome.
Even so, Italian Catholics were nothing if not loyal to their Church, and even with the abuses, they felt as if the punishment did not fit the crime. Bandello still considered Rome as the home of “God and His saints.” It must have been especially galling that many of the perpetrators were Christians, although the author allows that some may have also been “Lutherans, forced converts, and Jews.” To completely denigrate their behavior, Bandello compares them to the infidel Turks.
In this way, Bandello reveals much about the way Italian Catholics viewed the Catholic Church, which set them apart from Northern Europeans. When the Church was in need of reform, Italian Catholics pressed the case, but never considered an alternative to the Church itself, whereas Northern Europeans, far removed from Rome’s orbit and the power of the Popes, found themselves willing to separate. It must be remembered that in many ways, it was their church; the cardinals were almost entirely Italian, the Pope was Italian, and the bureaucracy was Italian. Even Lorenzo Valla, when he was taking the Church to task for perpetrating the fraud of The Donation of Constantine, never suggested that Catholics abandon what he clearly believed was a corrupt institution. For better or for worse, there could be no severing of the Church in Rome from Italian Catholics.
For Matteo Bandello, he is aware of the shortcomings of his church, and he is even willing to allow that just as God led the children of Israel into captivity, perhaps Rome was due for a degree of heavenly chastisement. When he looked back, however, and examined the extent of the punishment inflicted on the city, he concluded that they had gone too far.
For Pope Clement VII, he was indeed chastised, and for a time, a prisoner of Charles’. In this atmosphere, it is no wonder that the pope could never accede to the wishes of Henry VIII in seeking to divorce from the aunt of Charles V. Had Clement been successful in his political gambit, perhaps Henry would have gotten his annulment and today England would be Catholic, as is Ireland just 50 miles away.
Charles V would eventually allow the reduced pontiff to crown him Holy Roman Emperor, and to return to his (and Spain’s) good graces. Clement would be careful in the future, as Spanish dominance of Italy was an established political reality, and hopes of papal political independence were shattered.