Charles Keenan is the Assistant Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston College. He is also author of the article The Limits of Diplomatic Ritual: The Polish Embassy of Giovanni Francesco Commendone (1572-1573) and Criticism of Papal Legates in Early Modern Europe in the special issue of the Royal Studies Journal on Taking Possession.
Cathleen and Kristen: Thank you, Charles, for your interesting article in the Royal Studies Journal! In your article, you follow the papal legate, Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Commendone, to Poland-Lithuania during the interregna and elections of the 1570s. Such a mission of a legate was uncommon, especially since the use of papal nuncios spread across early modern Europe. Could you tell a bit more about the context of this mission, and why the apostolic nuncio in Poland was not enough?
Charles: Thanks for inviting me to appear on this blog! The original purpose of Commendone’s mission was to help organize a defensive league against the Ottoman Turks, which was a priority of Pope Pius V (r. 1566-1572) and his successor, Gregory XIII (r. 1572-1585). (As context, this was the same period as the famous naval battle of Lepanto.) Commendone was instructed to travel to the courts of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to secure military support. This task could not have been entrusted to nuncios both because Commendone needed to speak to multiple rulers (nuncios were typically “in residence” at a single court and were only credentialed to function as a diplomatic representative there) and because of the delicate nature of negotiations regarding the league: this was a significant request that would entail substantial financial commitments, something that even the powerful Philip II of Spain balked at when asked. Of course, following the death of King Sigismund II Augustus in 1572 Commendone was instead instructed to oversee the election of the next Polish king, and the issue of the league faded from view.
Cathleen and Kristen: So, his mission changed from gathering support to overseeing the election – and he failed, as you also stated in your article! How and why did Commendone fail?
Charles: I suggest there were two reasons for his failure. The first was related to the rituals surrounding diplomatic embassies, which were interrupted by the vicissitudes of the interregnum. As mentioned, the fact that Commendone was already in the middle of another embassy complicated the procedures for beginning a “new” mission to oversee the royal election, and, with no king in place, it was unclear who should receive him – the Polish diet, or only certain factions in the diet, or the one of several individuals claiming to be “leaders” of the commonwealth during the interregnum. The second, less obvious issue was Commendone’s authority as a papal representative to intervene in secular political affairs. As I try to show in this essay, there was widespread disapproval of the legate’s role in the Polish election, which points to a larger critique of the papacy’s involvement in secular government.
Cathleen and Kristen: The close connection between a diplomat and whoever send him seems to be at the heart of Commendone’s failure. What can this failure of diplomatic ritual tell us about the bigger context of European politics, especially in a time of confessionalisation?
Charles: The rituals surrounding this particular diplomat – the legate a latere – derived their efficacy from the authority of the figure whom the legate represented, the pope. The failure of legatine rituals thus suggests a larger problem with papal authority in sixteenth-century Europe, which should come as no surprise. In many ways Commendone’s story points to a larger development, the secularization of European politics and the removal of the Roman papacy from international affairs, something that is evident during Commendone’s mission but which is unmistakable by the time of the Thirty Years’ War.
Cathleen and Kristen: Going from the subject of research to the researcher himself: How did you get started working papal diplomacy, and how does it differ from other kinds of early modern diplomacy? Was the pope still regarded as superior to all kingdoms, or was he just another ruler?
Charles: Well, if you asked one of the popes from this period, I’m sure they would maintain their superiority! It’s an interesting question. Some of the earliest resident ambassadors in Europe were stationed in Rome, and the pope was among the first rulers to send ambassadors abroad. But from the sixteenth century onward, the respect and honor paid to papal diplomats began to wane sharply. In many ways that is my argument in this paper: that there was a growing disjuncture between the papacy’s conception of itself and its authority and how other European states viewed the papacy. I became interested in papal diplomats after exploring the College of Cardinals in this period. Most of the literature on the Sacred College after the Reformation focus on cardinals’ roles in the growing papal bureaucracy (especially after Sixtus V reorganized the Roman curia in the 1580s), but a significant number of cardinals did not reside in Rome and instead served as papal diplomats across Europe.
Cathleen and Kristen: Finally, the events surrounding Commendone during the election of the new Polish king are described much like a game of Chinese whispers – what was the role of rumours, communication, representation, and so on?
Charles: Given the sheer distance involved, with diplomats active in courts stretching from Paris to Warsaw, it was inevitable that communication issues were an important factor in this story. Dispatches could be delayed or lost altogether, and competing diplomatic networks – papal, French, Polish, imperial, Spanish – picked up on different rumors and transmitted them to different locations at different speeds. One walks away with an appreciation for difficulties facing all the parties involved. Policy decisions were difficult to negotiate on their own, but the communication and implementation of those policies presented another set of challenges altogether.
Cathleen and Kristen: Charles, thank you for showing us how diplomatic failure can actually expand historical research! What are you working on now? Any interesting new projects we might soon be hearing more about?
Charles: I just finished preparing a translation of a sixteenth-century Jesuit devotional manual, Gaspar Loarte’s Exercise of the Christian Life, which is now available, and an overview to the historiography of Jesuit devotional literature should be appearing soon. Besides revising my book manuscript, which examines Catholic responses to edicts of toleration in the sixteenth century, I’m also drafting two articles at the moment: one that explores the difficulties Catholic diplomats faced in gathering information about Protestant Britain, and another that traces the career of Vincenzo Lauro, a contemporary of Commendone who was nuncio to Scotland, Savoy, and Poland before being created cardinal.
Cathleen and Kristen: Thank you so much for answering our questions, and good luck with your writing projects!