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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.

So young Enea Silvio grew up in what had become the last estate left to his family, the hilltop village of Corsignano. However harshly his parents felt their social diminution, their son, realistic and sanguine, had a happy childhood. He loved his native country and cherished memories of his bucolic Corsignanese playmates throughout his long ascent, searching them out, mostly in vain, when he eventually returned to his birthplace as pope. This obviously gifted boy benefited from a miraculous intellectual windfall in 1420, when the university, or more properly studio, of Siena took refuge from the plague amid Corsignano’s alternating winds and droughts. During his papacy, Pius was to make shrewd use of a highly mobile curia, settling in temporary, provincial, frequently disaffected small seats such as Tivoli, often despite the protests of cautious condottieri and soft-living cardinals. “What greater benefits,” he argued, “can be offered to any people than those which the Roman Curia brings?” He never forgot the impact of the Sienese studio, a far lesser tranche of the great world than was the papal court, upon his own beloved, dusty, gusty, word-deprived birthplace.

Young Piccolomini, though to his family and teachers evidently brilliant, was always more of a jackdaw than an owl. His writings, and even his political principles and rhetoric, suggest interest in history and myth, but he seems to have appreciated the value rather than understood the exact workings of the Greek language. He possessed no facility at all in Greek until the arrival of the studio, for his father had been reared at Visconti Milan as a knight with a splash of vernacular poetry, and the parish priest at Corsignano, scarcely proficient even in Latin, did not own a single classical text. Three years after the effervescent passage of the studio through the village, the eighteen-year-old Enea Silvio managed to pursue it back to Siena proper. He told himself, or at least his father and the mercantile urban relations with whom he lodged, that he meant to become either a physician or a lawyer, certainly not a priest. As to the impractically noble legacy, or burden, of the penniless house of Piccolomini, Enea Silvio, for all the proudly Virgilian family names he bore, seemed to have left it behind as the encumbrance it then seemed to be. Nor was he ever tempted to win back any dynastic honors through military exertion.

While he seems to have settled on civil law over medicine without much difficulty, Enea Silvio’s heart was soon unambiguously wedded to literature, in particular poetry. A great and subtle thinker, capable of distinguishing himself without becoming by any measure an academic recluse, he developed a Latin style in prose and verse that has been described as owing more to talent than technique. But the strictly formal shortcomings of his writing surely help to explain its charm, its ability to project his idiosyncratic personality, powerful, insinuating, but never—to readers and auditors, as opposed to professional and political adversaries—intimidating. To any but the most pedantic reader the Pius of the Commentaries is elegant, lucid, and funny, his wit less dry and kinder than that of his obvious canonical forerunner, Julius Caesar.

As for the law, like many another ambitious, hungry student Piccolomini both hated and excelled in it. He was lucky at least to learn from the admirable and inspiring Mariano Sozzini the Elder, from whose descendants were to derive the “Socinian” doctrines. Sozzini, a generous host and a lavishly charitable citizen, demonstrated “some experience of guile, not in practising but in shunning it.” Regarding Enea Silvio’s eight years as a student at Siena (which included sporadic visits to the even more lively humanist circles of Florence), one aspect of the city and university’s atmosphere and affinity was particularly important for Piccolomini’s subsequent career. This was Siena’s identity as a Ghibelline, or pro-imperial, city, and the studio’s foundation by an imperial, rather than papal bull. The student body contained an unusually large northern European contingent, including Englishmen and particularly Germans, which would lend to Enea Silvio crucial imperial connections. More importantly, since the Piccolomini family were Guelf exiles from Siena, pro-papacy and anti-empire by long-held if by then obsolete conviction, Enea Silvio now possessed a sympathy for, and understanding of, both the Italian and the wider European political traditions that would come to serve him (and his successive masters) exceptionally well.

Such ambiguities were doubtless assisted by the young Piccolomini’s vernacular reading. In the Commentaries, while describing and criticizing the states which did and did not send emissaries to his crusading Congress of Mantua, the pope allows himself the characteristically leisure of digressing on their history, politics, and literature. But when considering the Florentines, the archrivals of his own city, almost his first concern is Dante, “the greatest of them all,” whose “magnificent poem with its noble description,” he says, “seems to breathe a wisdom almost divine—although in his life he sometimes erred.”

If that decorous caveat suggests orthodox Guelf disapproval, then that complication is characteristic—and is also the same mild criticism that Pius publicly applied to his own political trajectory. In fact as a worldly statesman, Pius’s consistent, lifelong instincts were substantially similar to those of Dante, and even later Machiavelli, driven by the same purpose that animated all sensitive, intelligent, patriotic Italians: the protection, by skillful diplomacy rather than brute force, of their glorious, various, fractious, yet still just about independent peninsula from the bullying of overweening barbarians, whether French, German, Spanish, or Turkish.

In 1431 Piccolomini made his initial leap upon his cursus honorum as portrayed in the first panel of Pinturicchio’s fresco sequence—his departure for the Council of Basel as secretary to Domenico Cardinal Capranica. Despite his easy amiability and conciliatory manner, from his scrambling youth to his papal apogee Pius would generally display the same propensity, part cool-headed investment, part passionately chivalric adventure, to take apparent risks and pursue (almost always with ultimate success) distant but glorious rewards. Piccolomini inclined towards his recent education, rather than his family background, in choosing Capranica, a patron out of favor with the papacy and committed to the conciliarist movement that still disputed with the See of Peter for the supreme authority in the Church.

The idea that a general council of the Church could, in extremis, override the will of a pope had an attractive and comprehensible context and lineage, given the disasters wrought upon the Church and Christendom by conflicts between popes and emperors during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the humiliating “Babylonian captivity” of Avignon from 1309 to 1376, and the catastrophe of the Western Schism from 1378 to 1417. It is easy to see why the youthful Piccolomini was drawn to conciliarist theory, if harder to conceive how he endured in practice so many barren years at Basel.

His first employer Capranica, whose revenues as cardinal and bishop of Fermo were withheld by the hostile Venetian Pope Eugenius IV, almost immediately had to dismiss his entire household on the grounds of his own penury, while Enea Silvio with his colleagues scattered all over Basel’s fractious assemblage of light-pocketed rebel prelates. A brief stint with the Visconti bishop of Novara followed, introducing Piccolomini to the powerful Milanese sphere where his own father had been uselessly polished, and giving him the chance to shine as an advocate in a squabble over the rectorship of Pavia. Both more significant and sympathetic was Enea Silvio’s third patron, Niccolò Cardinal Albergati. In this household were two formative friends, the affectionate Piero di Noceto and the scholarly Tommaso Parentucelli. One interesting early mission with Albergati was undertaken to the Hermit-Duke of Savoy, Amadeus VIII, a princely recluse in the style of Love’s Labour’s Lost or As You Like It, himself already destined to become pope according to his subjects: “fortune-telling women with prophetic spirits, such as the mountains of Savoy abound in.” Throughout the Commentaries Pius pays special if sometimes avowedly skeptical attention to visionary predictions about future pontiffs, especially, not unnaturally, himself.

It was as Albergati’s messenger that Enea Silvio entered, in 1435, Pinturicchio’s second, Scottish panel. Both autobiographer and artist give this episode prominence in some ways out of proportion to its impact on its hero’s professional ascent. But Scotland—impoverished, remote, marginal—did command some respect as an exotic destination, and James i of the house of Stewart, though probably the pettiest king in Europe, was still remarkably enough the first of the many potentates with whom Piccolomini was to treat on equal terms. The story, besides leaving Pius II with a slight purchase on Anglophone historical memory, is rousing, piquant, and well-observed. It displays, initially, the novice diplomat’s quite endearing mixture of curiosity, timidity, and inexperience. Though the ineptly secret mission upon which he had been dispatched was palpably one to England’s disadvantage, Enea Silvio, obviously much more tempted at this point by the cultural sights of England than the unknown rigours of Scotland, obtained permission to travel to London via Calais from an exalted Basel acquaintance, Henry Cardinal Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, cousin of the boy king Henry VI.

Piccolomini saw and admired the architecture and artifacts of Saint Paul’s, Westminster, and Canterbury, but then ran out of luck, being unsurprisingly refused any safe conduct into Scotland. Enea Silvio slipped aboard an unofficial vessel (he had learnt this trick back with Capranica off the Sienese shore), but he was about to learn the difference between the Tyrrhenian and North Seas. Driven by storms almost to Norway, he sealed a characteristically impetuous bargain with the Blessed Virgin. The icy, ten-mile barefoot pilgrimage Enea Silvio made in gratitude after landing in Scotland, from Dunbar to Whitekirk, cost him the reliable use of his legs. Pinturicchio’s handsome, heroicized portrayals tactfully conceal that Piccolomini was from this point, both in sober fact and in the often disdainful eyes of contemporaries, “a pauper and a cripple.”

Perhaps Enea Silvio accepted his own responsibility for this plight. Though he did not take to the Scots king, his account of the country is by no means jaundiced. It is easy to discern what part of the Scottish population appealed to Piccolomini most:

The men are small of stature and brave, the women white and beautiful and very prone to love. To kiss a woman means less there than to touch her hand in Italy.

Pius unblushingly admits that the next year, after his return, he heard of the birth of a Scottish son, who did not live long. Later in his career Enea Silvio rejoiced at the birth of a second, equally ill-fated, son, to the pretty and cultivated Breton wife of a merchant, encountered at Strasbourg in 1442. One draws the pleasant conclusion that he preferred a Celtic “type” (Pius particularly praised the Bretons in his brief relation of their history marking their attendance at the Congress of Mantua).

His sprightly account of his return journey through northern England depicts Cumbrian men of all ages cowering to hide from possible Scottish raiders, while the women, left unescorted, vainly proposition their startled Sienese guest. Piccolomini left the British Isles after bribing a customs officer, having learnt the hard way to circumvent formal English procedures.

As a travel writer Pius has a vigilant eye for detail that never fails; he wisely accepts that the wonders of fable are meant to be sought and rumored, not found and captured. Witness his wry account of his search in Scotland for the origins of the barnacle goose, according to myth grown from a tree. The Scots assured him of this report’s truth, but regretted that such geese were born only further north in the Orkneys. In fact the Orkneys have geese but very few trees, so it seems probable that the Sienese envoy was being teased; but what is more distinctive is that Pius, recalling the incident in his memoirs, seems more than half in on the joke; as he wryly concludes, “miracles always recede further into the distance.”

Pinturicchio next takes up the future pope’s tale at around the same time as Enea Silvio’s Breton love affair, seven years after the voyage to Scotland. Piccolomini, now a polished courtier poet approaching Dante’s mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, is shown receiving warmer treatment from a far more exalted monarch than James Stewart. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III of Habsburg, crowns him imperial poet laureate, by implication appointing him as far above rival intellectuals as the emperor claimed to stand above lesser monarchs. This fittingly reflects the truth that both the emperor’s power and the laureateship’s fruits were often notional.

In 1439 Piccolomini had committed a rare false step by agreeing to become the Hermit-Duke of Savoy’s secretary, on the latter’s election to what would turn out to be the last antipapacy in history. Duke Amadeus, whom Pius claims to have recognized at their first encounter as a suspiciously ostentatious and still all-too-soft-living aristocratic holy man, took the name Felix v but did not live up to its auspicious timbre. Three years later Enea Silvio was desperate to escape the duke, the conciliarists, and Basel. He secured his spectacular getaway to Vienna through his powerful Italo-German friend Kaspar Schlick, imperial chancellor since 1433. Piccolomini had made this amusing and useful acquaintance during the visit of the Emperor Sigismund to Siena in 1432. In gratitude for his promotion into imperial service, Enea Silvio duly composed The Tale of Two Lovers, an epistolary roman à clef about a handsome German knight winning a Sienese beauty from her miserly husband. Pius II is still both the only autobiographer and the sole romantic novelist to have obtained the Vicariate of Christ.

After Rome, as the British colonial governor and aesthete Sir Ronald Storrs once put it, there can only be Jerusalem. After winning over the emperor, there remained only, for Piccolomini, the pope, who was unfortunately still Eugenius IV, a Venetian so irascible he had long warred with his natal republic, and a pontiff whose authority Enea Silvio had spent his entire career to date undermining. Yet the emperor and his poet laureate-cum-factotum recognized both the urgent necessity of reuniting Church, papacy, and empire, and Piccolomini’s own unmatched suitability for that perilous and demanding task. So, in 1445, his fortieth year, Enea Silvio headed for Rome, heedless of the (generally accurate) warnings of various Job’s counselors that Pope Eugenius “remembered nothing so well as injuries” and “was cruel, and greedy of revenge.” All of this is captured by Pinturicchio, whose subject—eternally youthful, angelic hair streaming about him—prostrates himself to kiss the papal buskin. The speech he, and the emperor, sorely needed came to him with its invariable facility:

They have not lied who informed against me. Many are the things that, while I was at Basel, I spoke and wrote and did against you. I deny nothing. And yet it was my intention less to hurt you than to defend God’s church. For when I persecuted you I thought I was obeying God. I erred: who would deny it? . . . But when I perceived the errors of [the conciliarists], I confess that I did not at once turn to you. Fearing lest I should slip from error into error, as men trying to avoid Charybdis slip into Scylla, I betook myself to those who were considered neutral, in order that I should not pass from one extreme to the other without time for deliberation, until no doubt was left me but that the truth resides with you . . . so it came about that, when Caesar desired me to make this journey, I willingly obeyed. . . . Now I stand before you, and because I sinned in ignorance I implore you to forgive me.

Had any of the standard-bearers of later church reform possessed a tongue, a spirit, a mind and art like this, Christianity and Europe might have been spared much hardship. In his defense of intellectual doubt, care, and enquiry as positive virtues, Piccolomini anticipated the theological liberality of William Chillingworth, that bird of paradise among the crows of mid-seventeenth-century England, who once recalled

A moderate Protestant turned a Papist, and the day that he did so (as all things that are done are perfected some day or other) was convicted in conscience, that his yesterday’s opinion was an error, and yet thinks he was no schismatic for doing so. . . . The same man afterwards upon better consideration, became a doubting Papist, and of a doubting Papist, a confirmed Protestant. And yet this man thinks himself no more to blame for all these changes; than a traveller, who using all diligence to find the right way to some remote city, where he had never been, (as the party I speak of had never been in Heaven,) did yet mistake it, and after find his error, and amend it.

But unlike the obdurate Puritan captors among whom Chillingworth was to pass his sad last days, Eugenius IV accepted Piccolomini’s plea and recognized the value of the man who made it. Within two years, his repentant enemy had helped to negotiate the honorable but total surrender of the conciliarists.

In her recent biography of Donne, Katherine Rundell argues that, pace Leslie Stephen and T.S. Eliot, her subject took holy orders willingly rather than as a result of professional disappointment and economic pressure. In the case of Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s similarly delayed entry into a fully ecclesiastical career, it is hard not to suspect a lack of ardor more reminiscent of the traditional view on Donne. Unlike Donne, Piccolomini had to choose between major orders and marriage, but in rejecting the latter his motivations were more realistic, fleshly, and, so to speak, Augistinian. His two known sons had been sired during his travels with gleeful inadvertency. Though he made a sincere enough suggestion that his own father should bring up the second boy at Corsignano, the child’s mother was still married elsewhere.

Indeed at no point does Piccolomini—who as a highly eligible bachelor would have stood to gain considerably by making a suitable match—seem to have considered marriage at all, unlike his close friend Piero di Noceto, who married, like Donne, for love and against his pecuniary advantage. In literature and even in politics, before and after his election as pope, Pius’s imagination was decidedly non-marital. Piccolomini’s Tale of Two Lovers, like most secular literature of the day, rejoiced in adultery, while Pope Pius once joked to the bishop of Orte that while Florence, “such a beautiful woman,” was without a husband (that is, a formal lord) she had instead “a lover,” her de facto tyrant Cosimo de’ Medici. The life of Piccolomini was itinerant, restless, ascetic in the manner of the traveler if not of the hermit, and never—despite his genuine feeling for the native land and family he very seldom visited—in the least domestic.

So much for marriage, but for celibacy Piccolomini had no more zeal, writing candidly to Piero di Noceto in 1443: “So far I have avoided taking Holy Orders because I fear chastity,” a virtue he considered “more becoming to philosophers than poets.” Though as pope he would be notably tolerant towards worldly young prelates, overpromoted with corrupt rapidity following dynastic bargains, still in the grip of desires proper to their age (he gently reprimanded but did not punish or cease to favor Callixtus III’s nephew Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, the future Alexander VI), he himself was his own man, of good but penniless lineage, never obliged to play the hypocrite. It seems that for many years Piccolomini simply preferred to remain “Aeneas the poet” rather than deprive himself (or his Muses, or muses) or to break vows of celibacy he regarded with seriousness not always observed during his era. At the same time his most obvious ambitions, talents, and opportunities were literary, diplomatic, but ultimately clerical.

In the period 1446 to 1447, just past forty, Piccolomini finally acknowledged this and was ordained priest and deacon. A few years earlier he had declared that “as I grow older, secular knowledge neither becomes me nor delights me,” but his most indulgent admirers may be forgiven for doubting this statement. Piccolomini had not long before this dismissal completed a satire on life at the imperial court and a Plautine comedy which, like The Tale of True Lovers, contained allusions to several acquaintances. His eventual papal name, that blatantly Virgilian pun, gracefully self-loving, yet possibly, subtly, genuinely transformed, implied inescapably that Pope Pius could never altogether reject “Aeneas the poet” and perhaps never really wished to do so.

The cantankerous Eugenius IV’s successor in 1447 was Nicholas v, once Cardinal Albergati’s librarian Tommaso Parentucelli, who took his old employer’s Christian name in gratitude. With Piccolomini, though his old friend, he proved a little reserved. Once a priest, Enea Silvio was quickly raised to the see of Trieste, just in time to reassure his mortally ill mother Vittoria about a vision she had once dreamt, that her baby son would grow up to wear a mitre—she had apparently feared all her life it would be the mocking one applied to disgraced criminals. But now he had seriously begun at last, Bishop Piccolomini was not likely to rest content with Trieste’s quiet beauties, and the three years he lingered there may have chafed upon him. Much more welcome was his translation in 1450 to Siena, to his own delight but mixed sentiments in the republic, which veered between celebrating him as an eminent countryman and fearing him as a dangerous nobleman. Pinturicchio takes up Enea Silvio’s story again not long after this happy elevation, the bishop, at last aged more naturalistically, presenting a demure Portuguese infanta as empress to his former master and almost reliable friend, Frederick III.

Nicholas v was a great humanist scholar, much greater at least in this regard than his eventual successor Pius. But in Pius’s emphatic statement, doubtless as sincerely as strongly held, that Nicholas’s otherwise laudable pontificate was marred and shamed by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, can perhaps be detected a note of resentment for Nicholas’s refusal to grant him the cardinal’s hat that everyone from the emperor down loudly proclaimed Piccolomini deserved. Nicholas’s successor, the elderly, stolid, sometimes unintentionally comical, oft-forgotten first Spanish de Borja pope, Callixtus III, was a convinced crusader. That it was Calixtus who admitted Piccolomini, in 1456, to the College of Cardinals (another moment selected for immortality by Pius III and Pinturicchio), and that after his own election Pope Pius proved largely Hispanophile in his princely policy, friendly to the Borgia papal nephews to boot, seems to make more sense than most of this period’s involved political horse-trading.

But, in this place and time, such simplicity always misleads. Cardinal de Borja’s main rival in the Conclave of 1455 was Bessarion, the greatest living Greek intellectual, the very man most passionately and intrinsically committed to rescuing Constantinople, whose election was thwarted by the French Cardinal Alain of Avignon’s resort to Latin xenophobia. Calixtus himself quarreled bitterly—for personal reasons, perhaps, or from pure dynastic envy—with his natal overlords the Spanish House of Aragon, later favored by Pius. At the next conclave of 1458 Bessarion, despairing of his own chances, remarkably and persistently favored a French papacy, only to be overcome by Piccolomini’s spectacular appeal to Italian pride and (reasonable) distrust of France.

Bessarion, de Borja, and Piccolomini were all truly devoted to a future Crusade. The French, in fact more lukewarm, exploited with partial success their glorious history and present power as such an enterprise’s likeliest sponsor, to pursue what their king truly desired, a tame papacy, an effectively independent Gallican Church, and the crown of Naples for a close kinsman. But when the dance was over, the French were, not for the last time, routed from their Italian pretensions, and Aeneas, poet, “pauper and cripple,” was now, at fifty-three, Pius II, responsible for the retrieval of Constantinople. This burdensome triumph was naturally and faithfully recorded by Pinturicchio: a sober rather than climactic scene, its preparatory atmosphere gesturing towards more momentous and essential events ahead.

Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pius II, was without dispute an accomplished poet, an intellectually enthusiastic humanist, and a conscientious and competent pope, “pious in fact as well as in name,” yet it is in retrospect clear that his particular greatness lies elsewhere. His prose autobiography—boundlessly fascinating, purely individual and historically priceless—constitutes his only timeless achievement as an author. Though Pinturicchio’s fresco cycle and Pius’s own extraordinary architectural legacy at Pienza, as his birthplace of Corsignano was somewhat vaingloriously rechristened, associate him with the Renaissance, in his moral principles, his personal character, and his most remarkable and consistent policy, he was an undeniably heroic, if not an ultimately successful, medieval prince and crusader.

Despite age, infirmity, and now a quarrelsome suite of sybaritic, untrustworthy cardinals in his train, Pius, who as his own court poet Campano put it had inherited “travel from his father” and “conquest from his mother,” insisted on maintaining a papacy quite as peripatetic as the endlessly mobile career that had eventually won him his tiara. And wherever the unwilling curia paused on its wanderings, Pius devoted his Commentaries to intricate, inquisitive, open-minded discussions of history, geography, folklore, and contemporary politics, full of striking descriptions of natural beauty (“the source of the river Sarno, a spring so cold that the darker kinds of wine, when submerged in it, quickly turn white”; the river Merse, “full of eels, small but very white and agreeable to eat”; Monte Cimino, where “people live jammed together like bees in their hives”), poetic grandeur (Civita Castellana, “built, some say, on the site of ancient Veii”), and gossip about bandits (the condottiere Jacobo Piccinino, who “shut himself up for several days, living only on wild plums”).

Toward Siena herself Pius maintained an affectionate patriotism complicated by politics, and attempted to support the republic, sometimes despite its own political drift, in Church and state. Pinturicchio’s version of the pope’s canonization, in 1461, of the fourteenth-century mystic and political agitatrix Saint Catherine of Siena, is somehow the most intimate of all his sequence. In the saint’s perfectly preserved corpse the viewer is compelled to see both Pius’s earthly mother Vittoria and his mother city, for all he could do doomed to be deprived, ultimately with all the Italian states save the papacy, of her self-government.

It is necessary to recall that Pius’s actual contemporary most gifted as a visual artist was not Pinturicchio, his nephew’s hireling, whose earliest work postdates his most famous subject, but Piero della Francesca, employed by the pope’s ally Federico of Urbino and his enemy Sigismondo Malatesta. But where the genius of Piero—mysterious, rich, allusive—is in keeping with the conventions of the early Renaissance, the plain-spoken, witty, and generous soul of Pius tears the arras back from his own time for the permanent, astonished attention of whoever has cared to look since.

The portraits of states and princes, digressive potted chronicles of nations, detailed natural scenes, and miniature masterpieces of political insight that make Pius’s account of his own papacy so delightfully complex to chase are, however, almost all structured around the single underlying theme and purpose of his crusade. Whether or not one agrees with the celebrated verdict of Sir Steven Runciman that the expeditions to Syria and Palestine of the High Middle Ages constituted “the last of the barbarian invasions,” it is important to realize that the enterprise urged by Pius II had a completely different character. After the fall of Constantinople the Balkans, central Europe, and even the Italian peninsula were in immediate danger of Turkish invasion and conquest by an aggressively expansionary rival dynasty, people, and faith.

Pius attended keenly to the warnings of the conquered, including the Byzantine prince Thomas Palaeologus and his own local expert among the cardinals, Bessarion, as well as to those states now closest to danger, such as Ragusa and Hungary. Indeed on one occasion he listened too avidly, allowing himself to be defrauded by a confidence trickster with a retinue of “oriental ambassadors,” as Pius gamely admits in the Commentaries. He realized that the only possible hope lay in concerted Christian unity and action, and he knew all too well how distant an objective that remained. The selfishness of France and the blindness to the threat shown by Venice appalled him. Pius was determined that he, at least, should do and be seen to have done everything that a pope could do in this dire emergency.

To this end he orchestrated and endured the Congress of Mantua of 1459, where, as he was informed that hostile cardinals complained through their curial spies, “the wine was terrible and so was the food” and “all you could hear was the croaking of frogs.” More offensive to the pope’s ears were the inadequate excuses, mostly expressed through ambassadors of relatively lowly rank, of the princes of Christendom. Here Pinturicchio shows us the pope overseeing a miscellaneous assemblage of representatives from West and East whose material power is signified by gorgeous raiment and distantly glinting halberds. For all that, there remains in the headmasterly patience of Pius’s profile the tactful admission of the congress’s all-too-predictable disappointments.

Regarding the crusade, the papal autobiographer and his nephew’s chosen painter operate completely in step. When Pius set down in the penultimate book of the Commentaries the almost martyrological set piece of his winning round (most of) the cardinals, after every political betrayal and setback, to join him against the odds—foremost among them, with critical symbolism, his French onetime rival for the triple crown, Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville—he still maintained some hope of mounting a substantial Crusade. Yet his reader feels that the nearly sixty-year-old pope, as much as the later painter, must have by now become aware of his true historical role, that of a Christian and chivalric hero in sacralized defeat.

Pius occupies the exact center of Pinturicchio’s panel, floating aloft, in a barely earthly apotheosis, on his papal chair (its bearers by custom several lords of the Romagna, amongst whom a disgruntled Sigismondo Malatesta had once been numbered). The fleet in the Anconese background bravely asserts that his worldly power is in proportion to his moral victory. In fact Pius largely awaited it in vain, the Venetians (“What care fishes for justice?” as the pope asks bitterly in the Commentaries) letting him down as ever, before his death amidst a tiny and diminishing mercenary army in 1464. But this always captivating figure, “Aeneas the poet,” who became Pope Pius, “ready to offer his life for his sheep,” should be remembered as both the most intimately knowable and altruistically motivated of crusading monarchs.

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