The Roman Italian Response

The fifteenth century, which witnessed the dominance of French clergy on the one hand and the stirrings of "heretical" activity on the other, was pivotal. During this time the Vatican's response to internal and external events was to circle the wagons around Italy and, within Italy, around Rome. This process was underway when Luther first mounted his threat against Catholicism, and was still in evidence thirty years later when the Council of Trent began. Italian cardinals so dominated the Council of Trent that historian Michael Foss proclaims they were "so numerous that they were accused of bringing the Holy Spirit in their baggage train.''32 This dominance carried over to the selection of popes as well. Table 6.2 shows the extent of Italian dominance of papal conclaves (convocations to elect a pope) between 1431 and 1523.

Table 6.2

Italianization of the papacy before the Council of Trent

Number of Italian

Table 6.2

Italianization of the papacy before the Council of Trent

Number of Italian

Date of

cardinals

Percent

conclave

present

Others

of Italians

Election of

1431

6

6

50

Eugenius IV

1447

11

7

61

Nicholas V

1455

8

7

53

Calixtus III

1458

9

9

50

Pius II

1464

11

8

58

Paul II

1471

6

2

75

Sixtus IV

1484

21

4

84

Innocent VIII

1492

22

1

96

Alexander VI

1503

27

11

71

Julius II

1513

18

7

72

Leo X

1522

36

3

92

Adrian VI

1523

34

5

87

Clement VI

Source: Adapted from Denys Hay, The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 38.

Source: Adapted from Denys Hay, The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 38.

It can be seen that the Italianization of the Vatican was proceeding a century before Luther. As the papacy came increasingly under Italian control, it sought to maintain dominance not only by appointing a disproportionate number of Italians to the College of Cardinals but also by increasing the number of cardinals (by two-thirds between 1450 and 1500). The entire field of (thirteen) popes elected after Martin V, the first pontiff to take office after the Great Schism, was drawn from only nine Italian families. At the same time, the curia, which also expanded over this period, was increasingly made up of Italians. Denys Hay remarked that despite the "contraction of business'' over this period, the size of the curia (papal government officials) grew to be between roughly 450 and 500 persons, "of which two-thirds were in the main departments of the camera [treasury], the chancery [judiciary] and the penitentiary and the rota [appellate court], the rest being in the familia [household] and the bodyguard, police and so forth.''33 Interestingly, the trend toward Italianization that began in the fifteenth century has continued to this day. Membership in the College of Cardinals, the governing body of the church, increased progressively to a maximum of seventy in 1586 (where it remained until increased further in the 1960s by Pope Paul VI). With the exception of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all popes over the half-millennium since 1526 have been Italian. The only two non-Italians of the preceding century were Alexander VI (1492-1503), a Catalan, and Adrian VI (1522-1526), a Frenchman.

Despite the outward appearance of reform established by the Council of Trent, the Italian monopoly in Rome was reluctant to curtail its economic interests. Historian B. M. Hallman gives numerous examples of intensified rent-seeking by the princes of the Church in the sixteenth century.34 These activities took the form of nepotism (use of sacred office to aggrandize one's family); simony (the purchase of sacred office); and other financial abuses, such as pluralism of benefices (possession of more than one sacred office) and alienation of property by last will and testament.

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