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August 9: The Terrible Sixtus

Sixtus IV (1471)

Sixtus IV

It was on this date, August 9, 1471, that Franciscan Friar-turned-Cardinal Francesco della Rovere was elevated to the Papacy as Sixtus IV. A pious man, Sixtus also loved his family – he had a brother, three sisters, and fourteen nephews and nieces (two of those nephews may have been his own sons!) – and from the papal treasury Sixtus spared no expense to make them comfortable.

As Pope, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, Sixtus "fell more and more under his dominating passion of nepotism, heaping riches and favours on his unworthy relations." He gave cardinal's hats to his sexually profligate nephews Giuliano della Rovere and Pietro Riario, as well as to Sanseverino (loose and worldly), Giovanni Cibo (the father of several illegitimate children), Venier (loose and luxurious), Ascanio Sforza (more passionate about hunting and gambling than about the Church, and notoriously loose), Christoforo della Rovere (another loose nephew), Battista Orsini (whose mistresses were the worst-kept secret in Rome), and Savelli, Sclafenati, and Giovanni Colonna (all of whom were sexually profligate and luxury-loving).

Lest you think this is an exaggeration, here is a summary of what contemporary chroniclers record about Sixtus's young nephew, Pietro Riario:

At age twenty-six Pietro was elevated from his friary and made a cardinal. To assure a lavish income, Sixtus gave him bishoprics and abbeys, but even this was not enough. Pietro wore gold-laden clothes; he kept a mistress, Tiresia, who wore expensive pearl slippers. When he entertained Leonora of Naples in 1473, the banquet lasted six hours – in a palace he had built for the day. The randiest youths and most expensive prostitutes were guests at his palace, where the several hundred servants wore silk. This kind of life he couldn't sustain, and he ran down his health as fast as he ran through his money, leaving the Pope in debt.

When he died, says one chronicler, "all Rome wept for him."

It is generally agreed that Sixtus himself was of good character – his enemy, Infessura, an anti-Papal Italian, accused him groundlessly of unnatural vice and general unscrupulousness – but in secular affairs he was particularly inept. Sixtus attempted without success to temper the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. He decreed a failed crusade against the Turks. He failed to get French King Louis XI to allow papal decrees to be published without royal consent. And he failed to reunite the Russian Church with Rome.

Sixtus got involved in the Pazzi conspiracy, planned by his nephew, Cardinal Rafael Riario, and aiming to overthrow the Medici and bring Florence under his control. During mass at a cathedral in Florence, on 26 April 1478, agents of this nephew wounded Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de'Medici and killed his brother, Giuliano. Though Sixtus did not approve of the plot, he did not stop it. He made war on Florence for two years, with Venice as his ally, but turned against Venice with an interdict – effectively excommunicating the state – all for the sake of acquiring territory. In this, too, Sixtus failed: the Italian princes formed a coalition and forced the Pope to make peace.

It is true that Sixtus sponsored the building of the Sistine Chapel and Sistine Bridge, which are named for him, and revived the Vatican Library, opening it to scholars – but these were accomplished with nepotism, heavy taxation and simony. It is with this history in mind that historian Jacob Burckhardt calls this particular Pope, "the terrible Sixtus."

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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