Stella Fletcher is a graduate of the University of Warwick, where she specialised in Italian Renaissance history. Her doctoral thesis examined Venetian cardinals in Rome between 1471 and 1492. Since then she has taught for various universities, most recently the University of Manchester. She has also served as editor of the Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies and as honorary secretary of the Ecclesiastical History Society.
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: Welcome Stella and thank you for agreeing to this interview with us!
Stella: I’m flattered to have been asked.
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: In the Royal Studies Network we are interested in cardinals because they are ecclesiastical princes, but your account of the War of Ferrara (1482–4) reveals that some of them were royal or noble by birth as well, so we are particularly interested in those individuals. Were cardinals of noble birth expected to be equally knowledgeable about worldly and spiritual matters?
Stella: My suspicion is that you are thinking principally of Cardinal Giovanni d’Aragona, who was the son of King Ferrante of Naples, making him a prince by birth and by profession. Giovanni was dynastically connected to Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza of Milan, so perhaps you are thinking of him as well. Other names come to mind, but those will do for now. There is one rather useful distinction that can be observed concerning cardinals of elite birth in the later fifteenth century. Just as the clerical body is formed of a hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, so there were – and are – cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons. If you look at each cardinal in turn you can see a distinction between the venerable cardinal bishops, who were effectively a short list of candidates for the next papal election, the more numerous cardinal priests, who had a lifetime of ecclesiastical service and often much learning behind them, and the cardinal deacons, who were often younger, less learned and – yes – of noble birth. Sure enough, Giovanni d’Aragona and Ascanio Maria Sforza were both made cardinal deacons, as was the young and apparently irresponsible Giovanni Colonna. It seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement that they were not quite the thing. Fortunately for them, they could be cardinals without even being in holy orders, which is a bit like the president of France being a canon of the Lateran basilica in Rome in spite of being a layman. All sorts of rules can be tweaked for persons of such distinction. There are certain responsibilities that fall to the most senior of the cardinal deacons. They include making the ‘Habemus papam’ declaration when a new pope has been elected, but do not happen to involve cure of souls. In the century of Bernardino of Siena, Girolamo Savonarola and any number of other notable preaching friars, there was no shortage of men to teach the faith, hear confessions and so forth. For practical purposes, it didn’t make any significant difference if a small number of prelates did not possess the faculties to do that sort of thing.
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: How much was the education of future cardinals as political assets part of a noble family’s long-term planning?
Stella: That depends on which generation you have in mind, though it is something we can see coming into focus in the decades around the War of Ferrara. If you look at earlier generations, there was no shortage of cardinals from ‘noble’ families, though we could be here for some time if we try to identify precisely what counted as noble status and whether it meant precisely the same thing in different regions of Christendom. I remember sitting round a table in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome with a diverse group of people from around the globe. Each one declared him or herself to have noble blood, leaving me to comment that I was the only person present who came from a country where noble birth actually entitled certain individuals to have a seat in parliament – the rules have changed slightly since then – and I was pleased to say I had no noble blood in my veins whatsoever. If nobles can apparently outnumber non-nobles in a random group of people, how much has the term been stretched over the centuries? In the fifteenth century a handful of cardinals came from the higher nobility but, like many of the bishops throughout Christendom, a much larger proportion was recruited from the minor nobility. The novelty came when close relatives of ruling princes – who perhaps had no overlord other than the distant and ineffectual emperor – were made cardinals. Think of it as beginning with Pius II’s promotion of the seventeen-year-old Francesco Gonzaga in 1461. That opened up all sorts of possibilities. If the ruling family of Mantua could have its own cardinal, families of similar or higher status wanted them too. It paralleled an inflation of secular titles in the same period, an inflation that can also be illustrated by the Gonzaga. Thus, the cardinalate became politicised in a way that it had not been previously. You ask about ‘long-term planning’. The clearest case of that in the fifteenth century comes not from a noble family at all, but from one that chose to marry into noble families and live the noble lifestyle. In the Florentine republic Lorenzo de’ Medici positively groomed his son Giovanni for great things in the Church, and it worked: he was a cardinal at thirteen and pope at thirty-seven. In the following centuries it became the norm for elite families to have a cardinal in each generation as a matter of course, regardless of whether their candidates were intellectually suitable for it or had illustrious careers behind them. That’s the ancien reégime for you!
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: In view of the political divisions among the Italian states, how much self-regulation and compromise was involved in the creation of cardinals and papal elections?
Stella: The creation of cardinals was and remains entirely in the gift of the pope, so it is up to him whether he chooses to create balances of one sort or another, geographical, theological or whatever might be relevant. I would rather not generalise but, instead, suggest that you look at the precise circumstances behind each creation. In the article I account for Sixtus IV’s creation of five new cardinals in 1483 and emphasise the balancing acts that went into that. The political context surely influenced his decisions. Similar patterns can be found among his earlier promotions, but there is also evidence of a certain lack of caution, not least in his choice of Giovanni d’Aragona. The existing cardinals advised against it precisely because Giovanni was the son of the king of Naples and would retain that allegiance. More broadly, they sought to block increases in their number because each individual cardinal enjoyed more authority and significance if the college was smaller and found his personal authority diminished by each addition to their number. There was a financial dimension to this because certain sums of money were divided between those cardinals who were resident in Rome: the fewer of them there were, the greater the income each one received. The sums didn’t increase to match a larger number of cardinals. Think of it as a cake being divided into pieces. There was no possibility of baking a larger one. On the other hand, it was in the pope’s interest to promote a greater number of cardinals because that meant none of them were too powerful to be any sort of threat to his authority. Sixtus IV was a strong pontiff who created many cardinals. His successor, Innocent VIII, was much weaker and created fewer in proportion to the length of his pontificate. It is well known that cardinals voting in conclaves have often reacted against the previous pontiff and gone for a deliberate contrast for the next pope. Sixtus was so strong a character that there was much to react against though, as you saw in the article, in 1484 Giovanni Battista Cibo was not necessarily chosen because he was meek and mild in comparison, though it must have helped his chances. The nature of conclaves means that compromise is almost inevitable. It is part of how the world works.
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: Did Sixtus IV’s experience of the Ferrarese war influence the way in which subsequent popes dealt with the secular powers?
Stella: You might be forgiven for thinking so, especially because the next four pontiffs – Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Pius III, and Julius II – were among those cardinals featured in the article, men who had direct experience of the conflict. However, that would be to assume that the War of Ferrara was somehow exceptional. It wasn’t, even during Sixtus’s pontificate. Not long before the Ferrarese war there had been the Pazzi War, in which papal and Neapolitan forces encountered those of Florence and Venice. Tensions were usually high, and the pope employed soldiers as a matter of course. The War of Ferrara was part of a continuum of conflicts among the states of later fifteenth-century Italy, so it made no decisive difference to how any of the major political players operated, including the popes. Between 1454 and 1494 the Italian states were pretty much always jostling with one another in such a way that we can look back at it now and see that what they did had the effect of maintaining a balance of power. Relations between the popes and the secular princes did change from 1494 onwards and that was because non-Italian powers – France, the Spanish kingdoms, the emperor, the Swiss – began using Italy as a convenient battlefield on which to fight each other, which challenged the popes in unprecedented ways. Back in 1482 the fear was that Venice had become too dominant and, indeed, it is a measure of Venetian strength that most of the Italian states were in league against the republic and yet failed to defeat it in two years of conflict. As we have seen in the article, that was a measure of the League’s weakness as much as it was a sign of Venetian strength. Venice was not defeated and continued to be conscious of its vulnerability to attack from the south, which it countered by seeking influence down the coast south of Ferrara … in the Papal States. One of the cardinals who appears in the article, Giuliano della Rovere, became Pope Julius II in 1503 and effectively took up where his uncle, Sixtus, had left off, being determined to drive the Venetians out of papal territory. That is just one example of continuity, of the Ferrarese war marking no obvious difference in relations between the states. As long as the popes were territorial princes as well as spiritual leaders of Christendom they had no option but to defend their state. How could they have done otherwise?
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: The bellicose Pope Julius was roundly condemned in the satire Julius exclusus, so how did his uncle’s involvement in the War of Ferrara affect the reputation of the papacy a generation earlier?
Stella: Just because we have the Julius exclusus does not mean that it should be allowed to speak for anyone except its author – presumably Erasmus – and his learned circle of friends. Just because you know what happened in the sixteenth century does not mean that it should be allowed to colour appreciation of the fifteenth. The sixteenth gets us into a world of polemical tracts and therefore into something we can regard as public opinion. The fifteenth-century printers were busy educating and currying favour with patrons, rather than stirring up trouble and biting the hands that fed them. What the pope did at a political level was therefore communicated by ambassadors in their dispatches to their princes, so who knew what depended on the quality and quantity of information they received from Rome and was limited to the princes and their ministers. The pope belonged to their world: they took up arms to defend their territory, so there was no reason for secular princes to be surprised if he did likewise. He was, of course, expected to inspire men to take up arms against the infidel, and the Venetians were not slow to point out the irony when that enthusiasm was directed against fellow Christians, but they were playing politics when they did so. The political elites knew what was happening and why it was happening, so the pope’s reputation was not really an issue.
Elena, Cathleen, Kristen: Thank you very much for giving us these fascinating insights into your topic. What is your next project?
Stella: I have a list of potential projects, ranging from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, most of which deal with some sort of cross between religion and diplomacy. It would be satisfying to do all of them in due course, but the precise order will have to be dictated by whatever circumstances happen to arise.