Saturday, November 26, 2005

BOOK: Pius II, "Commentaries" (Vol. 1)

Pius II: Commentaries. Vol. I: Books I–II. Edited by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 12. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011643. xxvi + 421 pp.

This is the first volume of the autobiography of the 15th-century pope Pius II, a.k.a. Enea Silvio Piccolomini. It's readable enough, although nothing to write home about. Much of the underlying story would be fairly boring by itself, but fortunately Pius inserts interesting anecdotes, quotations and other curious bits of information regularly enough that the reader doesn't really have time to get bored.

Book I covers Pius' life up to the point when he became pope. He started his career as a secretary to various prelates, attended the Council of Basel and was sent to various diplomatic missions. He was apparently quite a capable orator, and he emphasizes in several passages how he was able to change somebody's opinion by delivering a suitable speech at the right moment. He served for some time as bishop of various cities, and later became a cardinal. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book are the passages describing the various European countries that he visited (e.g. Britain). Much of the story, however, deals with the sort of low-level politics that was perhaps interesting at the time when it was taking place, but that makes for fairly dull reading now. Chapter 36 near the end of the book, however, is very interesting, providing a detailed description of the conclave at which he was elected pope.

Eighteen cardinals attended the conclave (1.36.2), and a successful candidate had to have two-thirds of their votes, i.e. twelve of them (1.36.9, 1.36.26, 1.36.29). Each cardinal could “submit one or two or even more names, on the understanding that the one first named is the one preferred, but if he should not get enough votes to be elected, the next is to be counted in his place” (1.36.23). If nobody had the majority even then, the cardinals could, after the results of the vote had been announced, transfer their vote to some other candidate (voting ‘by accession’, 1.36.24). Once you had eleven votes, it was usually easy enough to find the twelfth one: “someone is always ready to jump up and say ‘And I make you pope,’ to win the favor those words always bring” (1.36.9). Aeneas is very good at building up suspense during this chapter and describing the wheeling and dealing, the haggling and intriguing that was going on in the background; a group of cardinals conspires in the latrines (1.36.8), there are attempts to cheat when counting the votes (1.36.22), etc. I must admit that the more I look at democratic elections, the more enthusiastic I am about the ancient Greek method of selecting candidates by random rather than by voting. Incidentally, I was surprised that there were only eighteen cardinals; according to this interesting chart at Wikipedia, there were around 50–60 cardinals at most conclaves in the last 300 years, except from the mid-20th century onwards, when the number soars to 80 and finally to ca. 110.

One of the big topics in European politics at the time was the coming of the Turks. They captured Constantinople in 1453 (five years before Pius II became pope), and European rulers began wondering how to stop their further progress. Obviously it would be helpful if several states could form an alliance against the Turks (or even organize a kind of crusade), but the rulers didn't trust each other enough — nobody wanted to risk going to war against the Turks and returning a few years later only to find his country occupied by his neighbours. Pius felt that doing nothing against the rise of the Turks would be a serious blot upon his papal career (not to mention a serious danger to Christendom), so immediately after becoming pope, he called for a conference at Mantua, where various European rulers should meet and discuss how to proceed against the Turks. Book II describes Pius' journey from Rome to Mantua; he stops at a great many Italian cities on the way, and takes his time to describe various notable things about them, as well as going into boring details about the inevitable party squabbles, bickering between cities, and so forth.

There are a couple of curious anecdotes from his journey to Britain. He spent a night just south the Tweed; after sunset, all the men “were going to withdraw to a distant tower for fear of the Scots, who often crossed the river at low tide to make raids on them in the night”; they didn't take their women with them, however, “For they think the enemy can do their women no wrong, as they do not consider rape a crime” (1.6.5)! Nor would they take Aeneas along, so he remained behind with the women. “After a good part of the night had passed and Aeneas had grown quite sleepy, two girls showed him to a chamber strewn with straw. Such being the custom of the country, they were prepared to sleep with him, if asked.” (1.6.6.)

The Tyrolean valley of Sarntal looks like a veritable bucolic idyll: “They have no fear of war nor are they tormented by any ambition nor consumed by greed for gold. Their wealth is in their flocks, which they feed on hay in the winter and which provide them with all the means of life. There are men among them who have never tasted wine: their diet consists solely of milky porridge. [. . .] Happiest of mortals—if they would only think on their blessings and bridle their lust; but they spend day and night feasting and fornicating and no girl is ever a virgin on her wedding day.” (1.12.2.)

In book 2 there are several passages describing various delightfully notorious condottieri of that period. Perhaps not everything that Aeneas says should be taken entirely at face value, however: “In reality, these petty barons were simply watching out for their own interests, seeking to turn the chaotic course of events to their best advantage, but they made the mistake, from posterity's point of view, of trying to disadvantage the papacy during the reign of an able propagandist.” (From the editors' introduction, p. xii.) Everso of Anguilarra made his subjects work on Sundays as well, for Sunday is the Lord's day “and the lord, he said, was he. He raped their wives and daughters in his palace; he constantly indulged in adultery and fornication and was even accused of incest, as if the chastity of his own daughters meant nothing” (2.12.4). Then there's the cruel Braccio da Montone, tyrant of Perugia: “When eighteen friars in the convent of the Minorites dared to oppose him, he had their testicles beaten to a pulp on an anvil” (2.18.3). And then, of course, there's Sigismondo Malatesta: “He was a slave to avarice, prepared not only to plunder but to steal, so unbridled in his lust that he violated both his daughters and his sons-in-law. As a boy he often played the bride; later, he who had so often taken the woman's part used other men like whores. No marriage was sacred to him. He raped Christian nuns and Jewish ladies alike; boys and girls who resisted him he would either murder or torture in terrible ways.” (2.32.2.)

As the quotations from the last three paragraphs show, Pius wasn't exactly a prude. Indeed, according to the editors' note on p. xxiv, he had written a collection of erotic poems in his youth, and fathered two bastard sons, though he doesn't mention any of these things in his autobiography. Indeed I think one of the main faults of this book is that it describes the whole of Pius' life before his becoming pope (fifty-three years!) so briefly — it's all in Book I, while the remaining twelve books of the autobiography cover his six-year career as pope. This volume contains Books I and II; I wonder what the remaining books will be like. The pace will likely be quite glacial.

He fell ill with the plague in 1439; “This was the treatment: since his left thigh was infected, they opened a vein in his left foot. Then they kept him awake all that day and part of the night before making him drink a powder, the nature of which the physician would not reveal. Sometimes they applied chopped-up bits of green, juicy radish to the sore and infected part, and sometimes lumps of moist clay.” (1.9.5.) This treatment left him more dead than alive, but he eventually recovered nevertheless.

Of an opportunist (1.16.2): “Meanwhile Johann if Lysura, finding that events were not going to his liking, changed his liking to suit events.”

Aeneas was originally from Siena, from a noble family, and was disgruntled by the fact that the nobility in Siena was forbidden from holding influential political positions. Perhaps that's why he wasn't particularly fond of democracy: “The reins of government must never be handed to the people for they, as he knew, hated the rule of princes. Between princes, friendship was sometimes possible, but between the people and a king the hatred was undying.” (1.29.2.)

Supposedly, the tomb of the elder Africanus can be seen at Trajetto, “not far from the river Liri, which we now call the Garigliano” (1.30.7). And at Mantua, one could see the hill “where the divine Vergil made his home” (2.43.1).

Here is a sardonic comment from 1.36.1, referring to the funeral of pope Calixtus, Aeneas's predecessor: “In the course of the funeral ceremonies, however, the cardinal of Fermo came down with a slow fever. He had aspired passionately, excessively even, to follow Calixtus, and so he did—to the grave.”

Here's a curious quote from 2.9.1: “Of course, a good man does well to die as soon as he can.” I guess what he means is that, from a christian point of view, if you're a good man, you can look forward to a pleasant afterlife, while life before death is likely to be troublesome, painful, or to expose one to temptations. But the sentence, if taken literally, is surely unacceptable: “to die as soon as he can” means right now, by suicide; which is very fine as far as I'm concerned, but christianity, as far as I know, doesn't approve of it.

To honor Pius' passage through Florence, the Florentines “brought lions on the piazza to fight with horses and other animals, and they held equestrian tournaments in which much more wine was drunk than blod spilled” (2.31.2). I wonder what sort of fight the poor horses were able to put up against the lions...

In 2.35.2, Pius discusses possible etymologies of the name ‘Apennines’, including the theory that “the name derives from the Illyrian word for mountaintop, pianina, with a few letters changed”. He wisely refuses to commit to any of the theories. I guess that by “Illyrian”, he really means Croatian — I doubt that the real Illyrian language is preserved well enough for us to know its word for a mountain. It's a charming hypothesis, although I haven't got the slightest doubt that it's wrong.

And a curious statement from 2.36.1: “Some think the Franconians are the remnants of the Boii, but their history indicates that they are Slavs.” The Boii, according to the Wikipedia, were various Celtic tribes. I'd never heard of either of these two hypotheses; at any rate, I doubt that the Slavs had ever settled in that area.

What to say at the end? This book may have a few boring parts, but overall it's still one of the more interesting ITRL books I've read so far. It's certainly more interesting than Bruni and Manetti. I'm looking forward to reading the remaining volumes of Pius' autobiography.

[See also: Vol. 2.]

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