DAILY CATHOLIC    TUESDAY     March 2, 1999     vol. 10, no. 42


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      After a string of Popes who were seemingly oblivious to culture, along came Pope Nicholas V, a reverent man with a great love for the arts. He is credited with bringing the Renaissance to Rome and setting in motion the great Renaissance movement that would transform the Vatican into a world treasure of the arts. He dispensed many to search the old monasteries and churches for manuscripts that could be preserved in the new papal library. While Nicholas was a humanistic master of the cultures and arts, he was also a tactful politician who was able to reunify the Church and Italy by reconciling with the "rump council" of Basle and the antipope Felix V who abdicated in favor of Nicholas' supremacy as the one true Sovereign Pontiff. So consumed with affairs of state and the Renaissance movement, Nicholas did not have the time and energy to foster reform as various abuses and heresies cropped up throughout Europe. Due to the failure of his predecessor Pope Eugene IV to suppress the Hussites, that cancer began to spread as a severe gout crippled Nicholas leaving him practically disabled during his final years of his pontificate, a time that found him depressed because of his conviction of the rebel Roman Stefano Porcaro and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. While he may have been critical of his reign, historians have been more kind, bestowing on him the titles - "Father of the Renaissance in Rome" and founder of the Vatican Library.
Installment Ninety-five

Pope Nicholas V: First in the line of the Renaissance Popes

          Hailing from the rich Florentine environment where the Renaissance was first born, Cardinal Tommaso Parentucelli was the compromise choice of the Conclave to replace the deceased Pope Eugene IV. Born in Sarzana, Italy near La Spezia, Tommaso was the son of a caring and giving doctor who truly lived his Hippocratic Oath. While his father was not wealthy, he was able to save enough to send his son to Bologna to study. Young Tommaso excelled so well that he was the choice of many Florentines to tutor them in their homes. Thus he was exposed to the arts in central Italy and carried this enthusiasm for the humanistic arts to the Vatican. On March 6, 1447 he took the name Pope Nicholas V out of respect for his bishop in Bologna Bishop Niccolo Albergati whom Tommaso had succeeded. Nicholas possessed something few of his predecessors had exhibited - patience and political savvy. He also had an excellent rapport with the influential Roman families and Italian patriarchs who had been at odds with many of his predecessor Popes. The people hailed Nicholas as the great unifier as he brought peace back to the eternal city, disbanding all mercenary troops and decreeing independence for his beloved Bologna which had been in revolt. With Italy in accord with the Holy See, he turned his attentions to Germany where, through the Concordat of Vienna he received recognition from Frederick III to make papal appointments in Germany without interference from the king or princes and dukes.

          One of his great accomplishments followed when he was able to do the impossible - bring to a peaceful conclusion the schism that had erupted at the Council of Basle with the "rump council" and the antipope Felix V. Through Nicholas' gentle persuasion he was able to convince King Charles VII of France to mediate between the Church and Felix. It worked to perfection with Felix willfully abdicating and reconciling with Rome and Nicholas on April 7, 1449. Nicholas willingly readmitted Felix's cardinals to good standing in the Church and, in celebration of the reunification of all in the Western Church, proclaimed 1450 a Jubilee Year. He established Rome as the focal point for pilgrims to come during this year and it was then when Nicholas made grandiose plans for a lasting Vatican City people could visit, one that would remind them of the great traditions of the Church and her saints and instill a reverence that would last. He foresaw the Church as the trendsetter of culture. Thus he initiated the Renaissance at the Vatican, employing the great Fra Angelico and his able assistant Benozzo Gozzoli to begin adorning the churches, palaces and other buildings throughout Rome and Vatican Hill. It was the beginning of a makeover of the exterior of the Holy See that over the next century would prove to fulfill his vision with the emergence of such Renaissance masters as Raphael, Michelangelo and Bernini. Nicholas can be considered the true founder of the Vatican Library having left over a thousand Greek and Latin manuscripts to posterity.

          Besides being a great lover and visionary of the arts, Nicholas was a stickler for reform but lacked the manpower and time-management to truly put this in motion. He did elevate the great Franciscan reformer Saint Bernardine of Siena to sainthood as an example to all and, in the face of various heresies and abuses arising throughout Europe, he dispatched legates to "hotspots" throughout Europe accompanied by the renowned Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa and Saint John Capistrano to Germany and Cardinal d'Estouteville to France.

          In Nicholas' growing passion to develop more arts, sculptures and paintings Nicholas often was duped by artists who flocked to Rome because of the generous stipends they would receive with little thought to living their faith. Scandal often accompanied these early Renaissance artists and this was one of the faults Stefano Porcaro used to try to blackmail and depose Nicholas after he himself had been rebuked for his own fanatical humanistic views. Porcaro grew to be a burr in Nicholas's saddle in 1453 and, though the attempt to overthrow Nicholas thankfully failed, this insubordination affected Nicholas's health greatly in his final years. It began on March 19, 1452 when Nicholas crowned Frederick III as Holy Roman Emperor. He would be the last emperor to be so crowned in Rome. Early in 1453 the good times of Nicholas' papacy seemed to fade with two events. The first was the revelation of a plot by Porcaro, an avowed republican fanatic who envisioned a return to the political and cultural times of ancient Rome, who, as mentioned above, sought to try to discredit the Pope and depose him. This plot failed and Nicholas signed the execution of Porcaro and his fellow-conspirators. This capital punishment haunted Nicholas for the rest of his papacy. Adding to this was news that the great Constantinople had fallen at the hands of the Saracen Turk Mohammed II, thus bringing to an end the magnificent Byzantine Empire and adding a heavier burden on him as the leader of Christendom which had badly been defeated in the east by the Saracens. These weighed heavily on Nicholas' conscience and a severe case of the gout disabled him greatly over the final two years of his pontificate. Though he had disdained any desire for nepotism and greed as a loyal pontiff intent on rebuilding the Church, he felt he had failed both for the previous two reasons and that he felt he had failed to become the restorer of Rome that he had hoped to be. In retrospect, he hadn't really failed at this, but he had set the bar so high that anything that came in under it would have been considered a failure in his eyes. But his eyes never left the ultimate Prize - his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Whom Nicholas represented on earth as His vicar. He died on March 24, 1455 after a productive eight year pontificate despite his own feelings of inadequacy. It would be left to his successor Pope Callistus III to carry on what Nicholas had begun, but the former had no interest in the arts, only in reclaiming Constantinople for Christianity to which he poured most of his efforts.

    Next issue: Pope Callistus III: The Constantinople Crusade consumes Callistus

March 2, 1999       volume 10, no. 42


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