- A Sudden Terror: The Plot to Murder the Pope in Renaissance Rome
A plot to kill the pope! Gay scholars tortured! Menacing Turks! D’Elia offers a readable book that provides textured background and a number of previews for what will be the final volume of his valuable four-volume translation of Platina’s Lives of the Popes.1
The “sudden terror” of the title refers to the fear that seized Pope Paul II when, on Mardi Gras, 1468, a masked reveler told him that “an army of four hundred to five hundred criminals . . . lay hidden in the ancient Roman ruins next to the pope’s family palace,” waiting “to rise up, overwhelm the papal guard, and kill the pontiff” (1). The anonymous tipster disappeared into the crowd, but soon, thanks to information that certain cardinals presented to the pope, a group of humanists in papal service was charged with the conspiracy. Under torture, these paganizing [End Page 457] scholars, many of them homosexual, divulged that, in cahoots with the Turkish sultan, they were involved in a plot to kill the pope during Ash Wednesday mass. What was intended afterward never became clear, not under duress and not even with the pope conducting interrogations himself. None of the alleged conspirators was executed; instead, they were sent to prison. Two days later, the pope informed one of the humanists that he feared “an early release . . . might signal that the humanists were innocent and had been unjustly tortured” (157). Within a year, they were all freed.
Much in the surviving accounts of the 1468 conspiracy seems illogical; some scholars argue that the so-called conspiracy was an instance of papal paranoia. Yet D’Elia maintains that the assassination plot was “probable, even likely” (190). Often, in such dubious cases, historians provide a careful scrutiny of the evidence. D’Elia, however, opts to keep his primary sources obscure, building his case, instead, through collateral arguments that serve as springboards for amusing digressions. He recounts previous revolts and assassination attempts to lend substance to the affair. Collateral charges of sodomy against several of the humanists were almost certainly true, leading D’Elia to speculate about a practice that he claims to have been continuous from antiquity.
That one of the humanists, and possibly a second, had dealings with the Turks encourages D’Elia to take readers on a romp through the Balkans in a chapter about Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror; this digression is almost entertaining enough to justify D’Elia’s apparent agreement with the plotters’ conviction. But plaintive letters from the prisoners (and controversies of our own time) prompt even D’Elia to reverse course and chastise the pope: “Pope Paul II deserves condemnation for subjecting the humanists to torture and confinement in inhuman conditions, which should never be condoned” (185).
At book’s end, D’Elia confesses his inability to resolve “the complexity of the situation” (190). But like Platina, he can spin some good yarns.
1. See Bartolomeo Platina (trans. D’Elia), Lives of the Popes. I. Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass., 2008; orig. pub. 1479).