The Renaissance Papacy was a period of papal history between the Western Schism and the Reformation. It was a period of transformation in the style of the papacy. The popes now live securely in Rome. The challenge posed by conciliarism to papal authority ebbed out. The popes became somewhat identified with the Renaissance. Renaissance means rebirth. It refers to the literary and artistic revival which began in 14th century Italy, resulting in the revival of the study of the literature of antiquity, the Greek and Latin classics, revival of painting, sculpture, architecture etc., in short, the revival of art and culture in Europe. It had a secular outlook and openness to the world. It was facilitated by Greek Scholars who fled from Constantinople in 1453 in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city and took refuge in Rome. Some of the greatest names of the Middle Ages, like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Fra Angelico, etc. belonged to this period.
A number of popes from Nicholas V (1447-54) to Leo X (1513-21) came under the spell of this movement and spent considerable amount of their time and attention to the rebuilding of the city of Rome, to make it the capital not only of Christianity but also of art and culture. Of course it would be incorrect to say that the popes identified themselves with this movement totally. That is a construction of some later historians. The popes in question had many concerns and interests besides the promotion of art, architecture and scholarship. Nevertheless most of them devoted considerable attention for a variety of motives to rebuilding the city of Rome and to the patronage of art and scholarship.
Nicholas V (1447-54) who is considered the first of the Renaissance popes is considered the founder of the Vatican Library, thanks to his enormous collection of some 1,200 Greek and Latin manuscripts which came to the library. Sixtus IV (1471-84) was another noted Renaissance pope of the fifteenth century. The elegant bridge constructed over the Tiber still bears his name (Ponte Sisto). The Sistine Chapel and Sistine Choir remain famous today and still acknowledge his crucial contributions in art and music by being named after him. Scholarship too remains in his debt, thanks to his promotion of the Vatican Archives. Unfortunately the period also saw figures like the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia who took the name Alexander VI (1492-1503), the most notorious of the Renaissance popes, indeed perhaps of all popes. Promotion of family interests and of his illegitimate offspring and the accumulation of wealth dominated much of his reign. But for all the enigmas of his personal life, he was devout after a fashion and defended orthodoxy which ended in the tragic condemnation and execution of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. He engaged Michelangelo to draw up plans for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome.
But with the investment of so much time and energy in promoting art and culture, the spiritual cause suffered. But we should also say that the papacy’s promotion of the values that came to be associated with the Renaissance should be appreciated. The Reformation tended to see the darker side of these values and used it as one more stick conveniently at hand with which to beat the papacy and has termed Renaissance Papacy a proverbial expression for worldliness of the church and papacy, corruption, nepotism, sensuality and vice. The moral failure of some of the popes and their worldly lifestyle provided for later Catholic apologists too a convenient explanation for the success of the Reformation. Yet appreciation of the beauty of creation and recognition of human achievement which were central features of the Renaissance are right in line with the Incarnation, the central belief of Christianity that God came in human form in the person of Jesus Christ thus setting a divine seal of approval on the basic goodness of creation and humanity. In many ways, therefore, the popes of the Renaissance were promoting a healthy and more positive vision of Christianity, a move away from the rather negative spirituality of excessive emphasis upon suffering and the Cross, and of retreat from the world, which had been widely prevalent for some time as exemplified in Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)