How Papal History Was Invented

Daniel Woolf on Stefan Bauer

Stefan Bauer, The Invention of Papal History. Oxford University Press, 2020. $90.00 (hardback)

The papacy has survived heresy, schism, the Protestant Reformation, and internal challenges to papal authority—to say nothing of scandals both financial and sexual. And, like most institutions of such longevity, it has evolved and adapted itself along the way. The ups and downs of the “bishops of Rome” (as protestant reformers insisted on referring to popes in the sixteenth century) are legion, and they run through history, like a basso profundo against which both the high politics and religion of the past two millennia unfolded. The institution has done good at different times, but also supported great evil: the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited books and the moral failure of the Papacy to condemn Jewish deportations prior to and during World War II.

Unsurprisingly, there have been many attempts over the centuries to chronicle the vicissitudes in the history of the papacy, and it is virtually a discreet subfield of a somewhat broader sub-discipline of history, ecclesiastical history, to say nothing of its overlaps with other areas–Italian and European history most notably, and the history of religions (which is not the same as the history of the Church). There had been medieval documents such as the Liber pontificalis (“Book of Popes”) the work of several hands over several centuries. Among the earliest efforts by an author whose identity we do know, during the Renaissance, was that of an Italian named Bartolomeo Sacci who called himself Platina. A soldier turned scholar (and author of cookbooks), Platina’s well-known Latin Lives of the Popes first appeared in 1479, in the early decades of the printed book. Platina’s work proved a popular survey. It went into several editions between its first printing and 1700, and it was widely translated into vernacular tongues.

But for all Platina’s importance, and the success of his work, full-blown papal history achieved a higher level of maturity in the work of his immediate successor, who is little known outside the circles that study Renaissance humanism or the history of historical scholarship. Onofrio Panvinio was an obscure friar who had a relatively short life, dying at 38. The author or editor of over 30 books (roughly half of which appeared posthumously), Panvinio was quite prolific, as is evident in Stefan Bauer’s excellent new study of his life and career.

Bauer’s volume appears in the Oxford Warburg Studies, perhaps the most prestigious English-language book series concerned with Renaissance and early modern intellectual and cultural history. Like Panvinio’s own works, about which more below, Bauer’s study is extremely erudite and wide-ranging. Its bibliography is 34 pages long, including 5 pages of archival materials pored over at nearly 30 different repositories in Italy, Denmark, France, Germany and Britain. To master all this requires a significant skillset: the ability to read humanist Latin, German, and Italian, which itself had several distinct dialects during this period. The task also requires paleographic acuity—the ability to decipher not merely the language, but the actual handwriting. It was humanists such as Panvinio himself, and seventeenth-century clerical successors including the Belgian “Bollandists” and French “Maurists,” who laid the foundations of what are sometimes dismissively called the “ancillary disciplines” in history. Aside from paleography these include the study of inscriptions (epigraphy), how manuscripts were assembled, by whom, when and in what order, and which recension of a work descends from another (codicology), and the study of what we would now call boiler-plate—the formulae, salutations, and stylistic features of documents (diplomatic). Great nineteenth-century scholars such as Leopold van Ranke, himself the author of a papal history despite his lack of access, as a protestant, to the Vatican Library, and his catholic counterpart, two generations later, Ludwig von Pastor, formalized these skill-sets and instructed generations of graduate students who in turn created what we now call the “discipline” of history. The actual story of this is more complex than I’ve made it sound and was by no means a steady march of progress, but it’s worth relaying it here to set Bauer’s work in a longer and distinguished tradition of recondite scholarship.

However, Bauer’s work is neither narrow nor arcane, and it is certainly not dull. While Bauer pays close attention to his subject’s labors and his published and unpublished output, the religious and political context is just as fascinating. Sixteenth-century Rome was, to put it mildly, a rough neighborhood. Scarcely the glorious home to an ancient civilization that it had once been, the city itself was an architectural palimpsest of ancient, medieval and early modern architecture, whose ruins had fascinated earlier antiquaries such as Flavio Biondo and would, two centuries after Panvinio, inspire Edward Gibbon to write his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The city was sacked in 1527, three years before Panvinio’s birth, and the pope of the day, Clement VII, taken hostage by the Emperor Charles V, who was also king of Spain, the emerging European super-power. This in itself was merely the most recent episode in a half-millennium series of disputes between emperors and popes. It was a long-running see-saw conflict that saw popes imprisoned, captured or deposed, antipopes set up and, on the other team, secular rulers occasionally brought low: England’s King John was humiliated by a papal interdict in the early thirteenth century, while the German emperor Henry IV, in a celebrated episode, had to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII by kneeling in the snow at Canossa during a January 1077 blizzard, an incident the exact details of which remain murky. (The emperor would have the last laugh as things turned out a few years later, outmaneuvering and imprisoning the pope). Much of the internecine politics in the northern Italian city states of the late Middle Ages turned on fights between Guelfs (supporters of papal power) and Ghibellines (such as Dante, an advocate for the empire).

By the time Panvinio was born, the scene had changed. Popes and emperors were forced, not always successfully, to bury the hatchet against a common foe: heresy. This foe arrived in the shape not only of protestant reformers in northern and western Europe, but also of heterodoxy within the church. This wasn’t new—there had been a number of major heresies going back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, most of which had been extinguished, often with extreme violence. But the success of Protestantism in earning the support of secular princes, chafing at least as much against imperial as papal authority, upped the stakes considerably, as did the need to plant orthodoxy in the newly conquered territories of New Spain and Peru. To aid the Church in this, a multiplicity of new religious orders was created such as the Oratorians and the Jesuits, on top of the older medieval monastic and mendicant orders. Both the Counter-Reformation and the related but distinct Catholic Reformation were launched in Panvinio’s lifetime. These reforms culminated, doctrinally at least, in the Council of Trent held between 1545 and 1563, precisely the years of Panvinio’s intellectual life and his greatest productivity. The phrase “post-Tridentine Catholicism” is used to describe the new Catholic Church that emerged from that Council.

If the religious and secular political stage was complex, the internal Vatican politics could be even more so. The popes were still not merely spiritual but temporal figures, whose papal states embraced a significant chunk of northern and central Italy for a millennium prior to the country’s unification (remember that there was no “Italy” except in a geographic sense till 1860). They owned property, were regarded as princes, and fought wars—Julius II personally led an army in a campaign in 1507. The papacy was a prize campaigned for arduously by powerful Italian, and sometimes non-Italian, families—the infamous Borgias who produced Julius’ last-but-one predecessor, Alexander VI, were Spaniards—and their princely and religious allies. Panvinio himself was caught in the middle of this, as some of his patrons, notably the Hispanophile Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, were on the outs with popes such as the fierce counter-reformer and anti-Spaniard Paul IV (r 1555-59), himself one of the nastier pieces of work to sit on St Peter’s throne. This wasn’t merely the equivalent of corporate boardroom jockeying for position: as with the royal courts of the day, those on the losing end of such struggles could find themselves facing the business end of an axe or hangman’s rope, or even the dreaded charge of heresy, penalties for which were worse still.  At times the factionalism in Rome, replete with executions and assassinations, is indistinguishable from that in other princely courts– less Godly than Godfatherly, and less St Philip Neri than Al Neri. Panvinio appears to have kept his own head down and he made himself useful to his superiors in other ways than scholarly, including diplomatic missions. He found a strong lay supporter in the Augsburg bibliophile Hans Jakob Fugger, scion of the famous banking family, at least until Fugger’s spending forced him into bankruptcy—his vast library ended up as a cornerstone of what is now Munich’s Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Bauer handles all of this background deftly and conveys the difficult circumstances that Panvinio often faced, not merely with gaining access to his sources and obtaining a rare dispensation to live apart from his religious order but having also to thread the needle carefully in writing about papal history. How even to enumerate the popes given assorted pretenders and antipopes (and even the legend of a female pope much beloved of protestant polemicists)? How to provide a portrait that was faithful to the ancient historian Tacitus’s injunction to write history sine ira et studio (without anger or bias) when so many popes disliked their predecessors and rivals. (Think of trying to write a balanced biography of Barack Obama while on the staff of  his successor.) Platina, a century earlier, had run into this, first finding favor with the scholar-pope Pius II (himself a historian of some ability), then persecuted by Pius’ successor Paul II, and ultimately gaining his revenge when he published his Lives with the support of a later pro-scholarship pontiff, Sixtus IV. Panvinio’s trajectory was similarly up and down, with strong support from cardinals such as Marcello Cervini (whose eventual pontificate as Marcellus II unhappily lasted barely three weeks in 1555), and a choppier patch under Marcellus’ successor Paul IV, when the scholar-friar followed his patron, Cardinal Farnese into exile for a time. Panvinio’s challenges were perhaps even greater than Platina’s, occurring against the shifting doctrinal and ecclesiological sands of the Counter-Reformation, but they laid the table for Catholic historians of the next generation. These included Cesare Baronio, a cardinal and Oratorian priest who wrote his voluminous Ecclesiastical Annals to counter the protestant historical narrative (most expressly that contained in a multi-authored Lutheran work known as the Magdeburg Centuries, published between 1559 and 1574, but in wide circulation in other works across Europe) by demonstrating the antiquity and continuity of the papacy and the church itself since St Peter. Baronio indeed claimed to have been told in a dream by no less a personage than the soon-to-be-sainted Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians, to take up Panvinio’s work. A picture of this dream taken from an eighteenth-century book is included as an illustration in Bauer’s text.

A great merit of Bauer’s study is that while it unquestionably asserts Panvinio’s position among the formidable scholars of the mid-sixteenth century, it is no panegyric. For all Panvinio’s efforts at precise scholarship, he was, like many of his era, not above twisting or eliding facts when circumstances demanded it, beginning with his own birth date which he presented to a would-be biographer in 1564 as having occurred on the very day (24 Feb 1530) that Charles V had been crowned by his erstwhile hostage, Clement VII. (It’s likely, Bauer tells us, that he was actually born four days earlier, but the date was only part of the fiction Panvinio spun around his birth and illustrious forebears). On the plus side, Panvinio seems to have been indefatigable in his hunt for materials, including inscriptions as well as manuscript and literary materials. But these, too, were sometimes embellished or given a spin not warranted in the sources. When Sigonio warned him in 1558 that he’d aroused the fury of a violent young nobleman, Panvinio remedied the situation by inserting fulsome praise of the youth’s ancestors into an augmented and updated edition of Platina’s earlier history that he published in 1562. Panvinio also practiced a degree of self-censorship when circumstances required, sharing with Fugger a work the latter had commissioned on express condition that the manuscript did not leave his patron’s house. Some topics, because they had contemporary relevance, were tricky; others, on topics less remote in time, followed truth more closely, though not necessarily so given the reluctance of ecclesiastical authorities to concede that the powers of and even the method of selecting pontiffs had, like much else, been subject to historical change.

Of course there was plenty of other censorship to be had. After Panvinio’s death, Pius V prohibited reprints of his works, though of course many were reprinted and translated outside Italy or in cities such as Venice where papal writ did not run so strongly. (One of my favorite rare books is a 1594 Venetian edition, in Italian, of one of Panvinio’s late works, the 1568 Chronicon ecclesiasticum, the binding of which is a medieval manuscript likely of thirteenth-century origin; Renaissance book owners were nothing if not thrifty, frequently recycling older materials for re-use). Panvinio’s pal Sigonio suffered even more from the keepers of the Index of Prohibited Books (another charming creation of the aforementioned Pope Paul IV): a manuscript that Sigonio submitted to authorities for approval disappeared never to be seen again. And for even players on his own team Panvinio was often not effusive enough in support of the popes. Late in the sixteenth century the Spaniard Carlos Peña, who exhibited what the noted ecclesiastical scholar Monty Python once called “an almost fanatical devotion to the pope,” virtually accused the now-dead Panvinio of being a closet Ghibelline. With friends like these….On the other hand, it’s worth noting that non-Italians such as the French antiquary and virtuoso Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc had a high opinion of Panvinio’s scholarship despite a relative lack of interest in religious disputation, and the great Huguenot philologist and chronologer Joseph Scaliger had similar views.

Bauer’s conclusion that Church-sponsored ecclesiastical history receded in its ambitions (notwithstanding Baronio’s work) reflects this familiar topos of a late-sixteenth century decline in scholarly freedom and vigor which has never been entirely convincing and is fortunately not pushed strongly here. Some of Bauer’s evidence, especially for details of Panvinio’s life and influences, is patchy, and now and again he is forced to venture beyond the sources and conjecture, for instance, that his subject participated in the selection and arrangement of historical scenes used to illustrate the “Room of the Farnese Deeds” in Caprarola. But none of these speculations is implausible, and in this instance the scenes actually do correspond with ones Panvinio used for his life of Pope Paul III in the 1562 Platina edition.

Stefan Bauer’s The Invention of Papal History is an admirably readable and fascinating portrait, not only of its principal subject, Panvinio, but also of the culture of late Renaissance humanism at a time of profound instability in Europe. It is a significant achievement by this author, who, one hopes, has a great deal more such scholarship ahead of him without some of the  same problems that beset Panvinio and Sigonio.

Daniel Woolf is Professor of History and Principal and Vice-Chancellor Emeritus at Queen’s University. Tweets @woolf_atthedoor