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1st - 8th century
9th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
15th - 17th century
     Rome and the Renaissance
     Julius II
     St Peter's
     Albert of Mainz
     Luther's ninety-five theses
     Diet of Worms
     Italian realignment
     Paul III
     Society of Jesus
     Council of Trent

18th - 21st century

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Rome and the Renaissance: 15th century

Martin V takes three years on the journey south to Rome, moving cautiously between warring principalities and armies of condottieri. This is an Italy in which unscrupulous men are beginning to establish courts of glittering brilliance.

The pope newly crowned at Constance looks a tentative figure among such dangers, but over the following decades the papacy adjusts to the realities of Renaissance Italy. By the beginning of the next century unscrupulous popes have made Rome the most brilliant court of all.


The pope who begins the transformation of Rome, in the mid-15th century, has none of the scurrilous characteristics associated with the pontiffs of half a century later. He is Nicholas V, a scholarly man who founds the Vatican library, employing hundreds of scholars and copyists to provide the basis of a great collection of manuscripts.

The familiar image of a Renaissance pope begins a little later, with the election of Sixtus IV in 1471. His patronage of the arts is evident in the Sistine chapel and the Sistine choir, both named after him. But his lavish patronage goes hand in hand with a very worldly conduct of the Vatican's affairs.


Sixtus, a Franciscan friar from a poor family in the region of Genoa, brings the papal practice of nepotism to new heights. While greatly enriching his nephews (seven of whom he makes cardinals), he also uses them as his agents in the power politics of rival Italian states. The scheming of one nephew even results in the murder of one of the Medici in the cathedral at Florence during High Mass.

Another nephew learns his trade so well with Sixtus that he easily outdoes his uncle, both in politics and patronage, when he is elected to the papacy as Julius II.


Between the pontificate of Sixtus IV and of Julius II comes the most notorious of the Renaissance popes, Alexander VI. He manipulates Italian politics not with the help of nephews but through his son, Cesare Borgia (see the Borgias).

Alexander's successor Julius II is even more a man of his time. He is a pope who rides out in person to direct military campaigns, but he also commissions work from Raphael and Michelangelo. The frescoes of the Vatican and the Sistine chapel are created among the abuses which prompt the Reformation.


Julius II: 1503-1513

Pope Julius II, reigning from 1503 to 1513, represents the best and the worst of the newly self-confident Rome of the Renaissance. His energetic sense of purpose on behalf of the holy see emerges as naked aggression in territorial matters; yet the same boldness and ambition makes him the greatest patron of the arts in the history of the papacy.

In 1503, his first year in office, Julius launches the great scheme to rebuild St Peter's. In 1509 the pope invites Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and persuades Raphael to decorate three rooms in the Vatican. Christian Rome's greatest glories have been conceived within a space of six years.


Julius's territorial ambitions are fired by a determination to restore the papal states, recently much reduced by the activities of Cesare Borgia and by encroachment from Venice. To achieve his purposes, this pope even marches into battle in armour at the head of the papal forces.

Erasmus is in Italy in 1506 when Julius II scores his first military success with the capture of Bologna. Erasmus is so shocked that he writes a play satirising this militant pope. Entitled Julius Exclusus and published anonymously, it depicts a furious Julius, after death, arriving in armour at the gates of heaven and finding them locked against him.


The Barbed comments of St Peter, as the gatekeeper in conversation with the excluded pope, reflect a hostility to the Renaissance papacy which will soon find violent expression in the Reformation.

The temporal schemes of Julius II are designed to serve Rome's best interest within the turmoil of Italy. By the time of his death, in 1513, that seems to have been largely achieved. Papal land has been recovered from the Venetians. The French have been driven from northern Italy. But a more lasting threat to the papacy is about to emerge in Germany - prompted, ironically, by Julius's ambitious scheme for the rebuilding of St Peter's.


St Peter's: 1506-1590

In April 1506 Julius II and his architect, Bramante, are ready to lay the foundation stone of the new St Peter's. A commemorative medal is struck with the classical inscription Templi Petri Instauracio (Renewal of the Temple of Peter), showing a view of a great domed basilica with a classical portico.

In spirit - though not in detail - this design is similar to the church which is eventually completed in 1590, by which time Raphael and Michelangelo and several others have succeeded Bramante as official architect for the scheme.


Meanwhile the need for funds for the vast new project, together with the unscrupulous manner in which Renaissance popes are willing to raise them, provokes the great central crisis of Europe in the 16th century - the Reformation.

The flash point proves to be Germany. And it is not hard to see why.


Albert of Mainz: 1517

Germany provides a context in which materialism within the Roman Catholic church is offensively evident. Some of the principalities, which together make up the Holy Roman empire, are ruled by unscrupulous prelates living in the style of Renaissance princes. Foremost among them is Albert, archbishop of Mainz and one of the seven imperial electors.

By the age of twenty-four Albert holds a bishopric and a second archbishopric in addition to Mainz. Such plurality is against canon law. But the pope, Leo X, agrees to overlook the irregularity in return for a large donation to the building costs of the new St Peter's.


Both pope and archbishop are men of the world (the pope is a Medici). Leo makes it possible for Albert to recover his costs by granting him the concession for the sale of indulgences towards the building of St Peter's. Half the money for each indulgence is go to Rome; the other half will help to pay off Albert's debts (he has borrowed the money for the original donation from the Fuggers of Augsburg).

This secret arrangement might distress the faithful if they knew of it. But more immediately shocking to some is the behaviour of the friar Johann Tetzel, whom Albert employs to sell the indulgences.


Tetzel is a showman. When preaching to gullible crowds in German towns he goes far beyond the official doctrine of indulgences. He promises the immediate release of loved ones from the pain of Purgatory as soon as a purchase is made. He even has a catchy jingle to make the point: 'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs.'

In October 1517 some parishioners return to Wittenberg with indulgences which they have bought from Tetzel - indulgences so powerful, some have been led to believe, that they could pardon a man who had raped the Virgin Mary. News of this travesty reaches the ears of a professor at the university of Wittenberg.


Luther's ninety-five theses: 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.


Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than Tetzel's impudent selling of God's grace. Luther has often argued against the sale of indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.


Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred which lasts in some Christian communities down to the present day. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther is as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which now engulfs him - slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two. Its violence derives from several unusual elements.


The papacy is determined to suppress this impertinence. Luther's writings are burnt in Rome in 1520; his excommunication follows in 1521. This is the predictable part. The unexpected elements are the groundswell of support in Germany, nourished by a deep resentment of papal interference; and the effect of the relatively new craft of printing.

Before Gutenberg, news of Luther's heresy would have circulated only slowly. But now copies of the ninety-five theses are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate develops, with pamphlets pouring from the presses - many of them from Luther's pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe's printers produce 1300 different editions of his tracts.


In these circumstances it is impossible for the issue to be swept under the carpet. Any action taken against Luther in person is certain to provoke a crisis - though in the early years his safety depends heavily on the protection of Frederick the Wise, proud of his university and reluctant to hand over to Rome its famous theologian, however controversial.

Support for the excommunicated monk is so strong among German knights that the young emperor, Charles V, is prevailed upon to hear his case at a diet held in 1521 in Worms. Luther is given a safe conduct for his journey to and from the diet. He is no doubt aware of the value of an imperial safe conduct to John Huss a century earlier, but he accepts the challenge.


The Diet of Worms: 1521

Where Huss had slipped into Constance in 1414 almost alone, Luther arrives at the diet at Worms supported by a large number of enthusiastic German knights. Nevertheless the purpose of the confrontation, from the emperor's point of view, is a demand that he should recant.

In a lengthy speech Luther explains that he will recant any of his views if they can be proved wrong by scripture or reason. Otherwise he must remain true to his conscience and to his understanding of God's word. The presses soon reduce this to the pithy statement which has been remembered ever since: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders., 'Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.'


Luther's stand leads, eventually, to the emergence of the first sect to break away from the Roman Catholic church and to survive the opposition of the papacy - Lutheranism, finally established by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. This first Protestant faith is soon followed by others, violently disagreeing among themselves. Zwingli goes further than Luther. The Anabaptists far outstrip either. Meanwhile Henry VIII devises a new English church for personal purposes.

The papacy, unable to stem the tide, calls the council of Trent and develops the Catholic Reformation - Rome's own rigorously virtuous programme of reform.


Italian realignment: 1508-1540

A series of shifting alliances, often brokered by the papacy and ending in inconclusive battles, redraws the map of Italy during the first decades of the 16th century.

Between the league of Cambrai (1508) and the treaty of Cambrai (1529), the territories of Milan, Venice, the papal states and Naples grow or shrink, and abruptly suffer changes of allegiance, according to the temporary effects of battles such as Agnadello (1509), Marignano (1515), Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome by imperial troops in 1527.


Among the Italian players in this board game, the Medici are among those who gain - being restored, with Spanish support, to their rule in Florence. Venice, an early loser when alone against all the others in 1508, later recovers most of its territory and retains its independence.

The papacy, responsible for the scheming alliances which foster so much of the conflict, appears to receive its just deserts in the sack of Rome in 1527. But it too emerges much strengthened a decade or two later. Once the Catholic Reformation is under way, Rome and Spain - allies in spiritual severity - are well equipped to exercise strict control over the entire peninsula apart from republican Venice.


Paul III: 1534-1549

Alessandro Farnese, elected pope in 1534 as Paul III, seems likely to prolong the worst aspects of the Renaissance papacy. He was appointed cardinal at the age of twenty-five because his sister Giulia was having an affair with the Borghese pope, Alexander VI. While a cardinal, he kept a mistress in Rome by whom he had four children. As pope, he outdoes many of his predecessors in the favours he heaps upon his family. He detaches Parma and Piacenza from the papal states and turns them into hereditary duchies for his eldest son. Two of his grandsons are in their teens when he creates them cardinals.

Yet, as it turns out, this is the pope who launches the Catholic Reformation.


Two details in particular during Paul's pontificate signal the start of the Catholic Reformation (also often known as the Counter-Reformation, being the church's response to the Protestant reformers). One is Paul's convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. He achieves this after several attempts and against considerable opposition.

The other great innovation of his reign is more of a God-given accident than any result of papal initiative. Paul is visited in Rome in 1537 by a group of passionately committed students from the university of Paris. Headed by Ignatius of Loyola, they offer their services directly to the pope.


Society of Jesus: 1540-1541

The visit to the pope by Ignatius Loyola has echoes of St Francis and St Dominic with Innocent III. Like those 13th-century saints, with their mission to live and preach among the poor of the expanding towns, St Ignatius is very much of his own time - a man of the 16th century, where the twin challenge is the drift of much of Europe into the Protestant heresy and the opening up of a far-flung pagan world, bringing fruitful fields for mission work in this new age of ocean travel and exploration.

To these challenges Ignatius can bring the energy and the organizing skills of a trained soldier.


Offered a force of spiritual commandos, answerable directly to himself in fighting Rome's battles, Paul III seizes his chance. In September 1540 he authorizes a new order, to be known as the Society of Jesus. In April 1541 Ignatius's colleagues elect him as the first general; the title, in use to this day, accurately reflects the nature of the campaign being undertaken.

Ignatius writes simple rules for his order. There is to be no specific form of dress, no regular commitment to attend particular services. Jesuits, as they soon come to be called, are to be free to move fast wherever they are needed. Obedience to the pope is central. Jesuit theologians are already at the pope's side during the Council of Trent.


Council of Trent: 1545-1563

Pope Paul III first proposes in 1536 a council to tackle the issues raised by the Protestant reformers. He also sets up a commission of cardinals to report on abuses within the church. The cardinals find evidence of many of the failings pointed to by Luther, including inadequate training of priests, incompetence of bishops, laxity in the monastic and mendicant orders and the scandal of prelates holding multiple appointments.

It is nine years before Paul III finally assembles his council, at Trent in 1545. The delay is caused by many conflicting interests - including those of the emperor Charles V, who insists on it being held in imperial territory, and Francis I of France who fears it may somehow benefit Charles.


From an unpromising start (only 3 papal legates and 31 prelates at the first session), the council grows in stature during a period of 18 years. There are long intervals during which it is not convened. The sessions occur in 1545-47 under Paul III, in 1551-52 under Julius III and in 1562-63 under Pius IV.

By the end it proves a turning point for the Roman Catholic church, largely because the council responds differently to the two prongs of the Protestant challenge - in each case with considerable vigour.


On the question of abuses within the church, the council accepts the validity of the criticism and puts in place corrective measures - improved seminaries to educate clergy, strict rules about bishops residing in their dioceses, reforms within the monastic orders.

With these practical steps taken, the council refuses by contrast to yield an inch on doctrinal matters. The number of Sacraments remains at seven, marriage for priests is rejected, justification by works as well as by faith is endorsed, and the efficacy of relics and indulgences is reaffirmed - as also is the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints.


With the ancient colourful certainties thus reinforced, and an improved priesthood entering service (including the invaluable Jesuits), the Roman Catholic church after the Council of Trent is suddenly well placed to confront the Protestant challenge.

During the period of the council, in 1562, the Spanish mystic and ascetic, Teresa of Avila, founds the first of many convents in the movement known as the Carmelite Reform. The same reforming zeal is applied to monasteries by St John of the Cross.


Saints such as Teresa of Avila (and there will be several during the 17th century) are the perfect Roman Catholic response to the Protestant reformers. They are as morally severe as any northern puritan, but there is an ecstatic quality to their religion which is distinctly southern. In its new style, the baroque, the Roman church has the ideal medium in which to hint at religious ecstasy.

It is conventional to call this renewal of Roman Catholicism the Counter-Reformation, but the phrase is too negative. Originally a response to northern reform, the movement amounts in the end to a full-scale southern alternative. Catholic Reformation is a more accurate description.


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