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Issue 17 – Trinity 2023

Historia Ecclesiastica

Aeneas the Poet

On Pope Pius II.


Hidden in a long-suppressed republic lies a particular kingdom of romance. At the Piccolomini Library in Siena, a cultivated, sadly fleeting pope, Pius III, caused the various adventures of his more famous predecessor, namesake, and uncle, Pius II, to be commemorated by the fresco cycle of Pinturicchio. Some of the more unexpected of the elder Pius’s experiences predated his ascension to the chair of Saint Peter. The most incongruous of all is Pinturicchio’s version of fifteenth-century Scotland. Here a venerably bearded monarch, draped in bolts of gleaming raiment, oversees a jostling, cosmopolitan court. He is receiving a beautiful and very obviously articulate youth, blessed with a confident, mischievously charming demeanor, somewhere between the Archangel Gabriel and the young Saint Nicholas. The prosperous seaport and ostentatious black marble pillar in the background may somewhat overegg 1430s Leith, but the impression given of Enea Silvio Piccolomini early in his unusual career does not seem altogether misleading, even if it grants flatteringly tender years and luscious looks to the prematurely arthritic, toothache-plagued, thirty-year-old envoy. According to Pius II’s unique papal memoirs, the Commentaries, Pinturicchio’s king, James i of Scots, was also, inevitably, less attractive in reality—“small and fat, hot-tempered and greedy for vengeance.”

This condensed verdict is quite typical of Pius’s prose—ubiquitously connected, simple, personal, candid, perceptive, amusing, implicitly self-aggrandizing, disdainful of violence, all but irresistibly seductive. His own character, so disarmingly set forth, reveals much about the sometimes enigmatic if often alluring Quattrocento. Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born in 1405, into an ancient noble family in the very place in Italy, perhaps in Europe, where politics and economics were arranged to the greatest disadvantage of the old feudal aristocracy. During the future pope’s entire lifetime the republic of Siena, by 1405 the most faction-ridden and moribund sovereign state on the Italian peninsula, had since the late thirteenth century more or less debarred its nobility from any share in its governance. Enea Silvio’s father, Silvio Piccolomini, had been born with just enough cash to afford a nobleman’s education, one completely unsuited to the life of agricultural obscurity to which subsequent poverty consigned him; Silvio’s wife, Vittoria, née Forteguerri, belonged to the same caste and predicament.

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About the author

Minoo Dinshaw

Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman and a contributing editor at The Lamp.