Pope Gregory XI had left instructions that a conclave should be held immediately after his death: most of the cardinals were French, but some of them remained in Avignon and did not participate in the conclave;
as the rumour spread that a French cardinal had been elected pope, a mob of Romans made their way into the Vatican and so frightened the cardinals that
they announced the false election of a Roman pope. Ten days later they eventually announced
the appointment of the Archbishop of Bari, who became Pope Urban VI. At the beginning the French cardinals, including those who had
not attended the election, accepted the new pope, but a few months later, because he refused
to move yet again the papal court to Avignon, they met at Anagni and declared void Pope Urban's election, because it
had been influenced by the Romans. They elected a new pope, Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who had earned a reputation for the massacre of Cesena.
In April 1379 the mercenary troops of the two popes clashed at
Marino and Antipope Clement VII was forced to flee to Avignon where he was regarded as the legitimate pope.
This was the beginning of a period of great confusion which is known as the Great (Western) Schism. The Rome and the Avignon popes continued to quarrel for years about who was the legitimate successor of St. Peter and at their death the schism continued with their successors Boniface IX in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon.
Pope Boniface IX, in an attempt to strengthen his position, legitimated the rule of the local lords in the towns of the northern part of the Papal State in return of financial and military support, e.g. at Matelica. He took advantage of the 1400 Jubilee year to replenish the finances of the Papal State and his own: the selling of indulgences (papal grants of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory) was of such magnitude that even the kings who supported him, declared their dissatisfaction with his behaviour.
Narni: coats of arms of Pope Boniface IX on the tallest tower of the fortress
During the Great Schism the popes had little time and resources to devote to the development of Rome: Pope Urban VI spent many years in Naples and other nearby towns under the protection of the King of Naples; Pope Boniface IX managed to reside in Rome where he strengthened Castel Sant'Angelo and he built a tall tower to protect Palazzo Senatorio. He also took care of improving the fortresses which controlled the access to Rome, e.g. at Narni.
In 1406, after the death of Pope Boniface IX and the short pontificate of Pope Innocent VII, the cardinals before entering the conclave decided
that the elected pope should commit to abdicate if the Avignon pope did the same with the aim of paving the way
to the end of the schism. They elected Pope Gregory XII, aged 83, who initially acted to find an agreement with his opponent; the members of his family however put pressure on
him to delay his abdication.
Negotiations between the two parties dragged on inconclusively for some time until a group of cardinals (and bishops) both from Rome and Avignon met in 1409 in Pisa and declared that both Pope Gregory XII and Antipope Benedict XIII were deposed. Although the cardinals had the support of many kings the Pope they elected (Alexander V) did not achieve a general consensus: so the purpose of the so-called Council of Pisa was not met and the confusion increased with three popes claiming to be the legitimate successor of St. Peter. Pope Alexander V passed away in 1410 most likely poisoned by Cardinal Baldassarre Cossa who arranged a hasty conclave which appointed him Pope John XXIII (Note: while Pope Alexander V was considered a legitimate pope by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia who at his election in 1492 became Pope Alexander VI, the same did not occur to Pope John XXIII in 1958 when the elected pope (Cardinal Angelo Roncalli) chose to call himself Pope John XXIII, by this meaning that his predecessor by the same name had not been a legitimate pope).
In 1413 Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of Germany, took the initiative to convene an ecumenical council in the town of Constance in southern Germany: the invitation was not limited to the cardinals, but was extended to bishops and representatives of the monastic orders as well as to representatives of five European nations: Germany, England, France, Italy and Iberia. The Council opened in November 1414 and on July 1415 its activities were authorized by Pope Gregory XII, who at the same time resigned from the papal throne. The Council forced the other two contenders to resign; the assembly chose to delay the election of a new pope until it had reviewed many aspects of the roles and authorities of the pope, the cardinals, the bishops and the ecumenical council, including the financial aspects of the ecclesiastical activity.
(left) Palazzo - Gesta Pontificum Romanorum - portrait of the Pisan Pope John XXIII: the book (published in 1688) included John XXIII among the legitimate popes
although with some doubts about the right number to be associated with him which ranged from XXI to XXIV;
(right) coat of arms of Pope Gregory XII on his monument in the Cathedral of Recanati: it is that of a cardinal,
because when he died he was no longer a pope
Terra di vacai (land of cowherds) were the words used by the Florentines to define Rome in the early XVth century with a reference to the cattle and goats which grazed in Campo Vaccino and Monte Caprino. There was an enormous difference between the economic and cultural situation of Milan, Venice, Florence and other Italian towns and that of Rome, where the rival popes sought the support of mercenary troops or that of the King of Naples, so that the city was pillaged in 1413 and 1417 by Neapolitan troops.
The Council of Constance eventually elected a new pope through a very special conclave composed of 23 cardinals and 6
representatives for each of the five nations participating in the council:
the choice fell on Cardinal Oddone Colonna, a
member of a very important Roman family.
He chose to be called Martin V and he chaired the final sessions of the
council: he had to accept several limitations to the papal authority and
to promise to convene another council in 1423: both Sigismund and Charles VI, King of France
asked him to reside in their countries, but Pope Martin V felt he had to return to Rome; he did so in
1420 after having ensured the appropriate political and military alliances.
The fact of belonging to a powerful family gave him the strength to rule without the interested help of kings and emperors and he also managed to control the inconclusive outcome of a council held in Siena in 1423-1424. He took however the commitment to convene another council in 1431 in Basel.
(above) S. Lorenzo in Miranda: XVIIIth century mass pricelist (on the right the coat of arms of Pope Martin V);
(below) S. Maria sopra Minerva: plaque
recording a flood (in the year 1422 on the day of St. Andrew the water of the Tiber reached the top of this tablet:
placed by Pope Martin V in the VIth year of his pontificate)
Pope Martin V is regarded by some historians as the founder of modern Rome. He called a Jubilee year in 1423
to celebrate the end of the schism and to provide Rome with an opportunity to restart its economic and artistic development. The Pope had sojourned for more than a year in Florence and he invited several Florentine artists to visit Rome: among them Masaccio and Masolino who painted a large polyptych
(an altarpiece consisting of more than three panels) depicting the Miracle of the Snow in S. Maria Maggiore (now the panels can be seen in museums in London, Philadelphia and Naples).
Frescoes by Masolino can be seen in S. Clemente.
Pope Martin V restored many churches and in particular S. Giovanni in Laterano (the floor) where he chose to be buried.
He also took care of more practical aspects of an effective administration of Rome. By entrusting the care of S. Lorenzo in Miranda to the guild of the Speziali (pharmacists) he started a process through which many churches were taken care of by associations of private citizens thus contributing to their maintenance and embellishment.
He appointed two magistri viarum who were in charge of overseeing the streets of Rome, a first step towards a more effective town planning activity. Even the first modern recording of the Tiber floods is due to the action of this pope.
Pope Martin V died in 1431 when the Council of Basel was about to start: the fourteen cardinals who were in Rome hastened to elect his successor,
maybe to avoid a repetition of the 1417 conclave to which also lay representatives of the Christian nations took part.
The cardinals agreed that the future pope would not take important decisions without their agreement; they then elected Cardinal Gabriele Condulmer, a nephew of Pope Gregory XII, who chose to be called Eugenius IV. His first acts
were aimed at reducing the influence of the Colonna family; he then dissolved the Council of Basel just four days after its opening, causing
the reaction of most of the participants who went along with their proceedings and declared that
the Council authority was superior to the papal one.
Only the intervention of Sigismund avoided another schism and eventually Pope Eugenius accepted that the Council continued. In return Sigismund was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on May 31, 1433 in S. Pietro.
After Sigismund returned to Germany the position of Pope Eugenius IV in Rome became so weak that he was forced to flee to Florence where he placed his residence in the Dominican Convent of S. Maria Novella.
In 1438 he tried to close the Council of Basel by convening another one in Ferrara; this council, due to a pestilence, was moved to Florence where the Pope was able to directly supervise its sessions: at the council an agreement was reached with the Orthodox church to put an end to the schism which had started in 1054. A delegation led by Byzantine Emperor John VIII attended the council: the Florentines were very impressed by the luxury of the imperial retinue. Pope Eugenius IV reached agreements with other eastern churches and he gained such an authority that in 1443 he was able to return to Rome.
Pope Eugenius IV commissioned a new bronze door for S. Pietro to Antonio Averlino known as
il Filarete (lover of virtue), a young Florentine sculptor who is mainly known for his later
activity as an architect in Milan. Filarete had most likely worked with
Lorenzo Ghiberti whose eastern door of the Baptistery of Florence (according to Michelangelo) was fit to be that of Heaven (Porta del Paradiso).
It took 12 years to Filarete and to his assistants to complete their work which was so highly regarded that Pope Paul V made use of the door also for the new basilica.
The main panels show episodes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, while smaller panels depict events of the Pope's life. A very interesting detail of the door is the elaborate decoration of its frame, where Filarete portrayed the loves of Jupiter and other mythological tales (more on this in a page on Ovid's tales).
S. Pietro - Porta del Filarete: (above) an Arabic inscription used for a decorative purpose; (middle) the signature of the sculptor; (below) inner side relief showing Filarete's seven assistants
Filarete portrayed himself in two small medallions and his assistants in a bronze panel placed in the lower part of the inner side of the door. The seven men are dancing for the joy of having completed such a complex work: the dance is led by Filarete's chief assistant: they all hold their tools and next to each of them we can read their names: in this door the spirit of Renaissance, with its focus on the human being, made its first Roman appearance.
On March 25, 1436 Pope Eugenius IV and the papal court attended the solemn ceremonies
for the completion of the dome of S. Maria del Fiore,
the Cathedral of Florence. The size of the church built by the proud
Florentines surpassed that of any other church, its external walls were covered by coloured marbles,
an elegant bell tower designed by Giotto stood next to it and the
daring dome by
Filippo Brunelleschi seemed to defy all known physical laws.
It was not religious fervour which had led the Florentines to support such an
expensive undertaking: there were no relics to worship, or saints to invoke;
the Cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but del Fiore meant of Florence, so it was a monument to the city itself, a visible evidence of the wealth and power
reached by the (very lay) Florentine Republic.
The Pope realized that the primacy of S. Pietro in Vaticano, the Roman basilica upon which the authority of the pope rested, was challenged by S. Maria del Fiore. It was the starting point of a process which eventually ended up in the construction of a totally new basilica.
S. Pietro: (left) Rota Constantiniana; (right-above) star indicating the length of Florence Cathedral; (right-below) star of London's St. Paul's Cathedral
The primacy of S. Pietro Nuovo over all the other churches is made evident by bronze stars placed in the marble floor of
the basilica marking the length of the largest churches in the world (the measures are taken from the apse of the basilica) .
Florentina Metropolitana indicates S. Maria del Fiore, the benchmark for the construction of S. Pietro;
another star closer to the entrance marks the greater
length of Londinense S. Pauli Fanum (St. Paul's Cathedral) which was built towards the end of the XVIIth century.
Few things of the old basilica were deemed important enough to be placed in the new one: among them the circular porphyry stone (Rota Constantiniana - Constantine's wheel/circle) upon which the emperors knelt during the coronation ceremonies.
At the death of Pope Eugenius IV, many thought the new pope would have been Cardinal Prospero Colonna, but the
cardinals chose differently and elected Cardinal Tommaso Parentucelli, who was known for his
diplomatic skills and for his wide cultural interests.
Pope Nicholas V, the new pope, had to face the hostility of the Colonna family and he sought the support of their rivals, the Orsini; after some time however he was accepted also by the Colonna. In 1449 he declared a Jubilee for the next year: he had managed to convince the last antipope to give up and recognize his legitimacy and at the same time to avoid calling other ecumenical councils which could undermine his authority, so the Jubilee year 1450 celebrated the recovery of the papal role after a very long period of crisis.
In 1453, the fall of Constantinople led to the reopening of the eastern schism: in 1439 the Emperor John VIII supported the recognition of the papal supremacy in the hope of being helped in his fight for survival against the Ottomans, but the Patriarch of Constantinople who accompanied the Emperor at the Council of Florence died a few days after having signed the agreement by which the schism was ended. His successor and the majority of the Orthodox clergy were unhappy about what they saw as a capitulation to the Roman thesis; Mehmet II, the sultan who conquered Constantinople, recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as head of the Christian millet (community) living in the Ottoman Empire: in this way the patriarchs gained a de facto authority they did not have during the rule of the Byzantine emperors: they preferred to retain their religious independence from Rome, although this meant accepting the Ottoman yoke.
Pope Nicholas V vainly tried to promote a crusade to free Constantinople. His calls did not impress the European sovereigns and not even the public in general as the fall of Constantinople was an expected event.
S. Maria sopra Minerva: (left) Renaissance portal; (right) coat of arms and inscription celebrating Francesco Orsini for having completed the construction of the fašade in 1453
Pope Nicholas V had an ambitious plan to enable Rome to close the gap with the more advanced cities of central and
northern Italy: he justified this objective by saying that the people could only understand the greatness of the Lord
from the monuments celebrating his glory. His plan was based on five points:
a) the restoration of the city walls, aqueducts and bridges: a section of the walls he strengthened can still be seen between Porta S. Paolo and the Tiber: he also modernized the fortifications of Castel S. Angelo and added another tower to Palazzo Senatorio (it is shown in the image used as background for this page). He restored Acqua Vergine, one of the old aqueducts, Ponte Nomentano, Ponte Milvio, Ponte degli Angeli (damaged during the Jubilee when a mule became unruly during a crowded procession and many people fell into the river) and Ponte Rotto (damaged by the 1422 flood).
b) the restoration of the 40 chiese stazionarie which worshippers visited during Lent: among many others it is worth citing the restoration of S. Stefano Rotondo, S. Teodoro and that of S. Maria della Minerva.
c) the redesign of Borgo which should have become a Citadel of the Faith (eventually the Pope had time only to start work to strengthen il Passetto).
d) the enlargement of S. Pietro: Leon Battista Alberti carried out a study to straighten the basilica's tottering walls and Bernardo Rossellino developed the design of a new larger apse.
e) the modernization of the papal palace adjoining the basilica: a chapel dedicated to the Pope (Cappella Nicolina) is the main remaining work of art of that period: its frescoes by Beato Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli while officially illustrating the life of St. Lawrence, actually portrayed Pope Nicholas V and his court.
The Pope suffered from gout and he died in March 1455 without having the time to see the completion of his plans. His pontificate marked the beginning of Modern Rome.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page; they open in another window:
The Magi (the retinue of Emperor John VIII) by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-97) - Florence.
Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini (1479).
Stories of St. Lawrence (the Papal Court at the time of Pope Nicholas V) by Beato Angelico (1446) - Rome.
Next page: Part III: Modern Rome
Rome's Early Renaissance
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome
II - The Iron Age of Rome
III - The Investiture Controversy
IV - The Rise and Fall of Theocratic Power
V - The Popes Leave Rome