Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700

By Minnich, Nelson H. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700


Minnich, Nelson H., The Catholic Historical Review


Early Modern European Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700. Edited by Gianvittorio Signorotto and Maria Antonietta Visceglia, translated by Mark Roberts, Thomas V. Cohen, Domenico Sella Joseph Bergin, et al. [Cambridge Studies in Italian History and Culture (Nr. 23).] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2002. Pp. viii, 257. $60.00.)

This collection of ten essays documents the various changes that occurred in the papal court over the course of two centuries, giving particular attention to the role of nepotism and to the factions within the College of Cardinals. The studies are frequently archival-based and enriched with surveys of the historiography on a particular issue. They advance our understanding of the factors that help to explain how the court of the pope as temporal ruler actually functioned. The quality of the translations is generally good, but split infinitives abound in places, and a more careful editing would have eliminated the original text left standing after revisions were made.

One of the important sources of information about Rome during this period comes from the avvisi or newsletters that are the subject of a useful study by Mario Infelise. By 1550 these secret reports were being regularly produced in Rome in the copyist shops in the Parione region near the statue of Pasquino. Not unlike pasquinades, they were written in a refined but also vivacious and critical style. Their anonymous authors had access to sensitive information on religious, political, economic, and military matters and on leading figures, information that was leaked from the court, curia, and embassies. Papal efforts to control the contents of these handwritten reports by arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and even executing copyists who divulged slanderous, inaccurate, or confidential information ultimately failed since their sources remained unidentified and the newsletters were sold with care. Their audience was persons of power in embassies, courts, and governments. Distribution was by way of the postal system, and ambassadors often incorporated into or attached to their reports material from these newsletters. By the mid-seventeenth century printed newsletters appeared that had a wider audience and were often abridgements of the handwritten reports with sensitive and critical information deleted. While describing the situation in Rome and elsewhere, they were never printed there and helped to shape public opinion.

Information about Rome coming from eighteen years (1569-1587) of correspondence between Cardinal Ferdinande de' Medici (1549-1609) and his father, Cosimo I, or his brother Francesco Maria is analyzed by Elena Fasano Guarini, who sees Rome as the training ground in political skills ("the workshop of all the practices of the world," as Ferdinando described it) for the future grand-duke of Tuscany (1587-1609), who resigned his cardinalate in 1588 and married the following year. While in Rome, Ferdinando learned how to maintain a princely court (the appropriate ceremonials, pomp, and palaces) that projected an image of power and munificence and how to develop a network of friendships, clientages, and matrimonial alliances with leading families by hosting banquets, giving gifts and subsidies, doing favors, and refining his negotiating skills to such an extent that he became the leader of the anti-Farnese faction. He also learned about international affairs, became briefly the cardinal-protector of Spain (1582-1584), and developed a vision of the balance of powers that served him well as grand-duke so that he came to support the absolution of Henry IV and thus provided a counter-balance to Spanish hegemony. What seems amazing from Guarini's analysis of the correspondence is how little interested Cardinal Ferdinando was in reporting on the religious issues of his day.

Rome as the "world theatre" for the period 1570-1650 is the subject of Marco Rosa's study. Rome was a center where major questions were discussed, ambassadors of leading powers took residence, and decisions having world-wide implications were made by the pope, curial officials, and generals of religious orders. …

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