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  • A Sudden Terror: The Plot to Murder the Pope in Renaissance Rome
  • Konrad Eisenbichler (bio)
Anthony F. D'Elia . A Sudden Terror: The Plot to Murder the Pope in Renaissance Rome. Harvard University Press. 2009. 256. US$24.95

Plots to murder the pope in Renaissance Rome were certainly not a rarity, but the 1468 attempt was, in many ways, unique. It's still not clear how, exactly, the assassination was to be carried out or by whom, but the warning shouted by an unknown stranger at Pope Paul II as he sat watching the Carnival revellers from his throne high above the boisterous Roman crowd frightened the normally carefree pontiff enough to make him rush for safety into his palace and, in a matter of days, throw more than twenty scholars into the dungeons of Castel Sant'Angelo. While no one today would suspect scholars of murderous intents against the head of state and church, such was clearly not the case in fifteenth-century Italy. The recent revival of interest in classical culture had inspired bright young minds to emulate the heroes of ancient Roman republicanism and to question, much as Cicero or Brutus had done, the rising autocracy of personal power. These alone were reasons enough for the pope to see the humanists flocking to Rome in search of advancement as possible conspirators and to throw them in jail where, with the help of well-tried interrogation techniques, he could seek to extract the information and confessions he needed. In the end, however, no one confessed and no plot was uncovered, proof perhaps that the mysterious stranger had been a greater troublemaker than the bookish humanists who suffered from his warning.

But the humanists may very well not have been completely innocent. As D'Elia points out, for fifteenth-century humanists scholarship was political. By its very nature it questioned both the inherited assumptions of religion and the new assertions of statecraft. But, at the same time, humanists were also quick to serve both church and state in their unrelenting search for patronage and employment. Paul II knew that there were many underemployed and unhappy humanists in Rome, so his suspicions, though unfounded, were not unwarranted. [End Page 256]

These suspicions provide the outline for D'Elia's examination of this mysterious episode. In following each lead and analyzing its validity, D'Elia paints an enthralling picture of fifteenth-century Rome and the humanists who worked (or tried to work) in the city. He sets the scene by describing Carnival celebrations and Paul II's own contribution to their growing popularity, then follows through with considerations on Paul's own insecure political position. He examines the meteoric career of Pietro Balbo, the Venetian would-be merchant who changed course, joined the church, and rose to become Pope Paul II. A lover of magnificence (but not of scholars), Paul spared no expense in using spectacle to reaffirm the power of the papacy. At the same time, he was no dissolute fool - he knew his history and its lessons. He had learned them watching his uncle, Pope Eugenius IV, struggle against local barons and external enemies, but also watching how his predecessors Nicholas V and Pius II had dealt with conspirators. Paul moved swiftly and severely against his alleged assassins - but not irrevocably, for he did not approve of capital punishment and consistently preferred to imprison, rather than execute, his enemies. The humanists Pomponio Leto and Bartolomeo Platina were the beneficiaries of such a policy. Although jailed and tortured as suspected conspirators, they were spared capital punishment and eventually freed, the first returning to his post at the University of Rome, the second becoming prefect of the Vatican Library. D'Elia also examines the homoerotic culture of the Roman Academy that, in seeking to retrieve classical philosophy, was naturally attracting suspicions of immorality and heresy; and the unprecedented courting of the brilliant and powerful sultan, Mehmet II, by Italian humanists and governments. The volume ends with a detailed description of the papal fortress and prison, Castel Sant'Angelo, and life within it for the jailed humanists.

Written in elegant prose touched by a subtle sense of humour, this...


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