Saturday, May 24, 2008

BOOK: Pius II, "Commentaries" (Vol. 2)

Pius II: Commentaries. Vol. 2: Books III–IV. Edited by Margaret Meserve and Marcello Simonetta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 29. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674024893. xxvi + 421 pp.

This is the second volume of Pius' autobiography; see my post about Vol. 1 from a few years ago.

Book III

Pius invites various European rulers to a congress in Mantua, hoping to persuade them to organize some kind of latter-day crusade against the Turks, who meanwhile are making good progress in the Balkans — having recently captured e.g. Constantinople, they are now making inroads into Bosnia and Serbia, and it seems clear that Hungary is likely to be next on their menu. Anyway, Pius doesn't get quite the response he may have been hoping for. Many of the princes he'd invited are too busy fighting amongst themselves, or too afraid of possible revolts or conspiracies against their rule to leave their countries for any length of time. So when Pius arrives at Mantua, few of the other supposed attendees are there, and even his own cardinals keep complaining about the hot and humid weather and looking for excuses to leave. It is only after much waiting, prodding and some diplomatic efforts on Pius' part that he collects a decent assembly of princes (or at least their representatives), though even then several of the major ones (e.g. France and England) are missing. Among the attendees is Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan, and Pius includes a short biography of him in this book (3.15–19) — Francesco and his father together form an impressive rags-to-riches story.

He also includes a short overview of Venetian history (3.26–30) before the point where the Venetian delegation belatedly arrives to his congress. You can see that he isn't terribly fond of Venice and its politics. “But in a republican regime nothing is sacred or holy. A republic is a soulless thing and does not fear the fires of hell. The Venetians exiled many of their doges, blinded some, and put others to death; [. . .] they are an uncompromising nation and enforce their laws with stringency.” (3.29.1.) Which is in a way a very nice and clear statement of Pius' own political preferences: I guess he would prefer to deal with a monarchy, where the pope would have better chances of exploiting, for the benefits of the papacy, the monarch's fear of eternal damnation. And he would prefer to deal with a nation of servile sheep than with people who stand up for their own interests. The things he criticizes about the Venetians are in fact, from the present-day point of view, some of their greatest virtues.

On the positive side, he does include a few enthusiastic paragraphs about the city itself, praising its commerce and prosperity, the magnificent shipyards and the splendid buildings, etc. (3.30.2–3).

Pius has a very high opinion of his position as the pope, and is in no doubt that he is above any and all secular rulers. He comments thus on the establishment of Charlemagne's empire: “then the pope of Rome — the true Vicar of Jesus Christ, to whom God the Father gave universal power on heaven and earth — transferred possession of the universal empire from the Greeks to the Germans in the person of Charlemagne” (3.28.1). What amazing and utter arrogance!

Anyway, eventually the congress of Mantua finally begins and Pius includes a few chapters about the progress of the discussions. The attendees agree that the Christian countries must step together for a war against the Turks; that the ones closer to Turkey (especially Hungary) should provide soldiers, while the ones farther away (e.g. Italy) should focus on providing the money (because it would be difficult to transport enough soldiers over such a distance); and that the Turks should be attacked both by land and by sea (with the latter effort being led chiefly by Venice). See e.g. 3.34, 3.47.

The Venetians, however, refuse to make any firm commitments, let alone sacrifices, for this cause, and demand huge sums of money for their participation in the war (3.35). Pius' annoyance is palpable, and he's seething with the sort of contempt which a person with ideals but no money rightfully feels for people who have plenty of money but are unwilling to use it for any good purpose: “The Venetians are never ones to embrace a grand project. They are merchants by and large who care only for profit. The very idea of a glorious deed that can only be achieved at a cost repels them.” (3.35.4.) Interestingly, Pius continues: “They feared that if was were declared against the Turks, their Eastern trade, the very basis of their livelihood, would dry up” — I was surprised by this, as the impression I had from J. J. Norwich's History of Venice (but it's been years since I've read it, so maybe my memory is quite inaccurate) was that it was precisely the presence of the Turks that was causing the Venetian's Eastern trade to dry up. For as long as the weak Byzantine empire existed, the Venetians had many privileges there and were able to do business there with great profit; but the Turks, on the other hand, were quite brutal and didn't care much for trade with Venice. Besides, the presence of the Turks required Venice to plunge into a series of costly (and ultimately unsuccessful) wars in which they had to defend their various Aegean islands from the Turks. In short, the impression I had from Norwich is that the Venetians had a lot to gain from any defeat which the Turks may incur, and they knew it and often pestered other Christian states for help against the Turks (‘we're the bulwark of Christianity, yadda yadda yadda’).

Another problem that Pius had with the Venetians was due to sexual incompatibility. You see, he had a foot fetish that they regrettably didn't share: “even though they saw the ambassadors of kings and of the emperor himself, and mighty princes, too, all prostrate themselves for some time after kissing the pope's feet, they themselves, either out of innate arrogance or with the boorishness of a race of fishermen, would rise at once.” (3.35.8.) He goes on to complain about their arrogance, which struck me as somewhat rich since, as we saw above, Pius was not exactly a meek sheep himself.

Pius is also annoyed with the French, who are more interested in bickering with other Christian countries than in his anti-Turkish war (3.37–40). Chapter 3.40 is entitled “The worthless French legation, concerned only with its own grievances, offers absolutely nothing for the crusade” :))

England was busy with the Wars of the Roses at the time, and Pius describes some of the Church's diplomatic involvement in English affairs (3.41–42).

Book IV

This book was somewhat less interesting than the previous one, because a lot of it deals with the usual regional-level warfare that the history of Renaissance Italy is so full of. The papal state, of course, was inevitably one of the players in this warfare, so Pius couldn't afford to ignore it. We get no further news about the war against the Turks that has been agreed upon at the end of book III — either it will be forgotten altogether or we'll get to hear about it in some later book. Anyway, the French are assiduously interfering in Italian affairs once again, and the very same Italian statelets who had solemnly agreed, at Pius' congress just a short while ago, to help and support each other, are back at each other's throats.

A more interesting part of this book deals with Pius' creation of new cardinals (4.9–11). The usual number of cardinals at that time was just 24 (translator's note 23, p. 390). All sorts of rulers importune the pope with names of their favourite candidates; he also discusses the matter with the existing cardinals, who do not favour the creation of new cardinals, presumably because the influence of the old ones would decrease a bit with this. But apparently Pius needed, or at least wanted, to obtain their consent, so there is a fair amount of haggling before they finally agree on the number and names of the new candidates. I was surprised by the fact that the old cardinals insisted that, if he is going to name any new cardinals at all, he must also include among them his nephew (who was barely legal at the time :) namely 21 and had just recently been made the archbishop of Siena); Pius protests that this nephew is too young for a cardinal, but eventually yields to their pressure anyway. This was in 1460; much later, this nephew himself became a pope (Pius III), and ruled for a grand total of 26 days.

There's an interesting rant about the contemporary mercenaries, listing familiar complaints: “The modern Italian soldier is a faithless thing: he treats war like a business and prolongs each campaign to keep his profits flowing. Bloodshed in battle is rare;” etc. (4.13.1). Once again Pius seems honestly surprised that people selfishly look to their own interests, rather than to his own :)

There's also a pleasantly salacious episode of incest, corruption and bureaucracy, involving a certain French nobleman named Jean of Armagnac, who wished to obtain a papal dispensation that would allow him to marry his sister and thus legalize their incestuous relationship: “His parents had died while he was still a youth, leaving him with a single sister with whom he went too far in his demonstrations of affection until, at last, passion overcame him and he seduced her.” (4.19.2.) His other excuse was that he was too poor to provide him with a dowry which would enable her to marry a man of their rank, and surely you aren't suggesting that he should marry her off to a mere commoner? :) (4.19.1, 4.21.2.) Anyway, in the efforts to obtain his dispensation, the poor count gets into the clutches of corrupt bishops and papal scribes who fleece him in a manner not unlike that of the modern-day Nigerian scammers. His complaints eventually reach the pope, whom he approaches in an honest belief that a dispensation has actually already been granted to him by the previous pope, and that the problem is just that corrupt officials refuse to send it to him (4.19.11). The pope, alas, is not amused, sends the said officials to prison and issues a stern rebuke to the count, ordering him to never see his sister again, to fast on Fridays for a year, and to join the up-coming war against the Turks (4.21.6).

There's an interesting description of a musket in 4.25.5. I guess that personal firearms were just beginning to establish themselves at that time, and Pius was not assuming that his readers are familiar with them. It's a good and clear description, and he even gives the composition of gunpowder.

There's a very amusing anecdote in 4.32.4–8. A middle-aged woman requested an audience with the pope, complained that a certain priest is trying to seduce her, and requested Pius to tell him to stop. “The pope was astonished by this tale. But then he recalled a story by Boccaccio, in which a woman falls in love with a young man and, unable to find any other way to tell him of her passion, asks her confessor to chastise him for annoying her”; eventually the man “realizes what she is after, and finding the way to her house, satisfies her passion. The unsuspecting confessor, in trying to prevent sin, had only encouraged it” (4.32.6). In light of all this, Pius refuses to cooperate: “ ‘My lady, you are very cunning, and far bolder than the woman in Boccaccio's tale. She made her confessor a pimp, but you want the pope to serve your passion. [. . .]’ ” (4.32.7.)


I was surprised by this passage in 3.27.5: “In the year 870 he [= the Venetian doge Orso Participazio] sent the emperor at Constantinople a present of twelve bells, said to be the first ever seen in Greece.” Can it be that there hadn't been any bells in Greece until then? I find this quite incredible. This web page for example says that bells were known e.g. in ancient China and are mentioned in the bible; how could the Greeks have ignored them?

He says in 3.27.7 that around the year 1000, “the people of Hadria met the Venetians in battle at Loreo and were utterly destroyed; and so the remnants of that famous city which gave its name to the Adriatic Sea fell into ruin.” I have only recently noticed that the Adriatic sea is named after this town, so I'm always curious to hear more about it, but the thing that surprised me here is that according to the wikipedia, Adria still exists and has approx. 20000 inhabitants nowadays. Perhaps it was rebuilt after Pius' time?

Another thing that surprised me is this passage about how the Bretons originated in Britain and were driven from there by the Angles: “The Bretons sailed to the continent and settled between the Gascons and the Normans.” (3.36.4.) What surprises me is that the Angles invaded Britain in the 5th century, and the Normans settled in Normandy only in the late 9th or 10th. So unless the Bretons endured Anglo-Saxon occupation for 400-500 years before finally deciding to leave, they cannot have settled between the Gascons and the Normans, because there weren't any Normans there yet.

At some point, Francesco Sforza “sent the pope three marvellously fat bulls which had been raised on a regime of turnips, warm water baths, daily grooming, and beds of clean straw. [. . .] The meat tasted wonderful; everyone swore they had never tasted anything better.” Sounds like a medieval version of Kobe beef (= beer & daily massages). :)

From 3.47.3, where Pius discusses why some countries won't help in his war against the Turks: “Scotland [holds out no hope], lying as it does in the farthest reaches of the ocean. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are also too remote to send soldiers and they have no money to contribute, for they live on fish alone.”

“Italian custom is such that bastards often succeed to power” (4.8.3.) Alas, it's the same everywhere! :)) But I don't know whether the pun is present in the original Latin as well; quite possibly it only works in English. Anyway, the direct reference is to Federico of Urbino, who really was a bastard.

Pius visits the baths at Petriolo (4.16.3): “The pope stayed here for twenty days, having warm waters poured through a pipe over the top of his head; the doctors said that this would be good for his health because his brain was too moist.” :))

On a fortress that was conquered by bribery: “What they say is true: no fortress is impregnable if a donkey laden with gold can climb inside.” (2.25.9.)

Among the bits of advice that Pius gives to the citizens of Siena: “Keep an account of your exports and imports; a state that buys more than it sells is in poor shape indeed.” (4.34.2.) Heh, try telling that to the Americans :)


This was certainly a very pleasant read and I'm looking forward to the remaining volumes of Pius' autobiography.

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Anonymous jin said...

Hey man, get up and start writting again! You haven't revieved a book since may and I doubt you haven't read anything in all these months. Even I have and I have huge problems finding time lately.

lp :)

Sunday, October 26, 2008 9:29:00 AM  
Blogger haha said...

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009 4:49:00 AM  

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