What should we make of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini? Even the cadence of his name falls happily on the ear. And the Siena frescoes depicting his rise to the papacy enchant the eye. Aside from fathering two children, he had an astonishing array of personal gifts – a writer of poetry, novellas, histories, geographies, letters. A struggling secretary with a ready pen, he earned his stripes as a conciliarist at the Council of Basel and Poet Laureate at the court of the future Emperor Frederick III.
His shift to an ecclesiastical career and champion of the papacy was not a Damascus Road experience, but it did demand explanation. For the rest of his life, even after his election as Pius II (the "pious Aeneas") he felt compelled to defend himself and revise his early history. The search for the real Aeneas/Pius has hardly exhausted itself even to this day.
Because she not only has admirable skills as a Renaissance scholar but also as a church historian, Emily O'Brien can lead us through a penetrating, yet readable, tour of Pius's best-known work, the Commentaries, and in her words, offer us the "rigorous, comprehensive analysis that it so deserves." The result is definitive.
Contrary to the impression that they are a threshold work tending toward modern, "objective" history, the Commentaries exemplify a historiography that is "a fundamentally political act." More specifically, it is a political apology – not a report of "what really happened" but a defence of the author's pontificate and his youthful dalliance with anti-papal conciliarism.
"Crisis," the term that O'Brien uses to describe the context in which Pius found himself, both individually and institutionally, can be notoriously [End Page 261] slippery, but when defined by the competing visions of church government – one conciliar, one princely – and especially as seen through the eyes of an anxious pope, it seems comfortably apt.
Thanks to recent scholarship on the fifteenth century, we are well aware that Aeneas/Pius revised his earlier exploits in De rebus and In minoribus, but O'Brien takes a significant step forward and distinguishes both of them from the Commentaries. Rather than attack conciliarism, as he had done earlier, the Commentaries simply erase the threat altogether. In its place, he regales us with attention-grabbing stories of his journey to Basel, his embassy to Scotland, and his brilliant victory in a speech competition. Not until he reaches Book Six is he finally ready to attack his opponents directly and charge them with a lack of moral discernment, even perversity; and not only does he castigate the conciliarists but also the princes of Europe, especially the kings of France.
Of special interest to Renaissance scholars is O'Brien's delineation of the humanist tools that proved to be a potent weapon in Pius's arsenal: the models and works of Roman antiquity, especially Caesar and Virgil, and the humanist portraits of secular rulers he found in contemporary courts. It may be hard to believe that Pius apparently intended to appeal primarily to his "base," but O'Brien makes it clear that the Commentaries still found their way into various humanist circles until a distant relative finally published an expurgated edition in the sixteenth century.
Despite his many flaws, O'Brien urges us to remember that Aeneas/Pius remained faithful to a vision – once it became clear to him after a serious dalliance with conciliarism. This vision was marked by a confidence in the universal authorities of papacy and empire. His belief that a crusade should be a top priority does not necessarily represent a naı¨ve, backward-looking policy or a disintegration of the medieval world but a forceful response to a Europe bent on petty, debilitating conflicts and inattentive to its real enemies.
For all the slings and arrows cast his way, perhaps deservedly, one has much to admire in the man and pope – his ear for language, his keen sense of observation, and above all his personal resilience which when applied to...