Sixtus V., Pope

, whose proper names were Felix Peretti, was born in 1521, in the signiory of Montalto his father, Francis Peretti, for his faithful service to a country gentleman, with whom he lived as a gardener, was rewarded with his master’s favourite servant-maid for a wife. These were the parents of that pontiff, who, from the instant of his accession to the papacy, even to the hour of his death, made himself obeyed and feared, not only by his own subjects, but by all who had any concern with him. Though he very early discovered talents and inclination for learning, the poverty of his parents prevented their indulging it; for which reason, at about nine years of age, his father hired him to an inhabitant of the town, to look after his sheep: but his master, being on some occasion disobliged, removed him to a less honourable employment, and gave him the care of his hogs. He was soon released, however, from this degrading occupation: for, in 1531, falling accidentally under the cognizance of father Michael Angelo Selleri, a Franciscan friar, who was going to preach during the Lent season at Ascoli, the friar was so exceedingly struck with his conversation and behaviour, as to recommend him to the fraternity whither he was going. Accordingly, with the unanimous approbation of the community, he was received among them, invested with the habit of a lay -brother, and placed under ft the sacristan, to assist in sweeping the church, lighting the candles, and such little offices; who, in return for his services, was to teach him the responses, and rudiments of grammar."

With no other tutor, his education commenced, and by a quick comprehension, strong memory, and unwearied application, he made such a surprising progress, that in 1534 he was thought fit to receive the cowl, and enter upon his noviciate; and, in 1535, was admitted to make | his profession, being no more than fourteen. He pursued his studies with so much assiduity, that, in 1539, he was accounted equal to the best disputants, and was soon admitted to deacon’s orders. In 1545 he was ordained priest, and assumed the name of father Montalto: the same year, he took his bachelor’s degree, and two years after, his doctor’s; and was appointed to keep a divinity act before the whole chapter of the order, at which time he so effectually recommended himself to cardinal de Carpi, and cultivated so close an intimacy with Bossius his secretary, that they were both of them ever after his steady friends; and, indeed, he had frequent occasions for their interposition on his behalf; for the impetuosity of his temper, and his impatience of contradiction, had already subjected him to several inconveniencies, and in the subsequent part of his life involved him in many more difficulties. While all Italy was delighted with his eloquence, he was perpetuallyembroiled in quarrels with his monastic brethren: he, however, formed two new friendships at Rome, which were afterwards of signal service to him one with the Colonna family, who thereby became his protectors the other with father Ghisilieri, by whose recommendation he was appointed inquisitor-general at Venice, by Paul IV. soon after his accession to the papacy in 1555. But the severity with which he executed his office, was so offensive to a people jealous of their liberties, as the Venetians were, that he was obliged to owe his preservation to a precipitate flight from that city.

After his retreat from Venice, we find him acting in many public affairs at Rome, and as often engaged in disputes with the conventuals of his order; till he was appointed, as chaplain and consultor of the inquisition, to attend cardinal Buon Compagnon, afterwards Gregory XIII. who was then legate a latere to Spain. Here Montalto had great honours paid him: he was offered to be made one of the royal chaplains, with a table and an apartment in the palace, and a very large stipend, if he would stay there; but having centered his views at Rome, he declined accepting these favours, and only asked the honour of bearing the title of his majesty’s chaplain wherever he went." While things were thus circumstanced at Madrid, news was brought of the death of Pius IV. and the elevation of cardinal Alexandrine to the holy see, with the title of Pius V. MontaUo was greatly transported at | this news, the new pontiff having ever been his steadyfriend and patron; for this new pope was father Ghisilieri, who had been promoted to the purple by Paul IV. Montalto’s joy at the promotion of his friend was not ill-founded, nor were his expectations disappointed; for Pius V. even in the first week of his pontificate, appointed him general of his order, an office that he executed with his accustomed severity. In 1568 he was made bishop of St. Agatha; and, in 1570, was honoured with a cardinal’s hat and a pension. During this reign he had likewise the chief direction of the papal councils, and particularly was employed to draw up the bull of excommunication against queen Elizabeth.

Being now in possession of the purple, he began to aspire to the papacy. With this view “he became humble, patient, and affable; so artfully concealing the natural impetuosity of his temper, that one would have sworn this gentleness and moderation was born with him. There was such a change in his dress, his air, his words, and all his actions, that his nearest friends and acquaintance said, he was not the same man. A greater alteration, or a more absolute victory over his passions, was never seen in any one; nor is there an instance, perhaps, in all history, of a person supporting a fictitious character in so uniform and consistent a manner, or so artfully disguising his foibles and imperfections for such a number of years.” To which may be added, that, while he endeavoured to court the friendship of the ambassadors of every foreign power, he very carefully avoided attaching himself to the interest of any one; nor would he accept favours, that might be presumed to lay him under peculiar obligations. He was not less singular in his conduct to his relations, to whom he had heretofore expressed himself with the utmost tenderness; but now he behaved very differently, “knowing that disinterestedness in that point was one of the keys to the papacy. So that when his brother Antony came to see him at Rome, he lodged him in an inn, and sent him back again the next day with only a present of sixty crowns; strictly charging him to return immediately to his family, and tell them, ‘That his spiritual cares increased upon’him, and he was now dead to his relations and the world; but as he found old age and infirmities begin to approach, he might, perhaps, in a while, send for one of his nephews to wait on him‘,| Upon the death of Pius V. which happened in 1572, Montalto entered the conclave with the rest of the cardinals; but, appearing to give himself no trouble about the election, kept altogether in his apartment, without ever stirring from it, except to his devotions. He affected a total ignorance of the intrigues of the several factions; and, if he was asked to engage in any party, would reply, with seeming indifference, “that for his part he was of no manner of consequence; that, as he had never been in the conclave before, he was afraid of making some false step, and should leave the affair to be conducted wholly by people of greater knowledge and experience.” The election being determined in favour of cardinal Buon Compagnon, who assumed the name of Gregory XIII. Montalto did not neglect to assure him, “that he had never wished for any thing so much in his life, and that be should always remember his goodness, and the favours he received from him in Spain.” The new pope, however, not only shewed very little regard to his compliment, but during his pontificate, treated him with the utmost contempt, and deprived him of the pension which had been granted to him by Pins V. Nor was he held in greater esteem by the generality of the cardinals, who considered him as a poor, old, doting fellow, incapable of doing either good or harm; and who, by way of ridicule, they were used frequently to style, “the ass of La Marca.” He seldom interfered in> or was present at any public transactions; the chief part of his time was employed in works of piety and devotion; and his benevolence to the indigent was so remarkable, that, when a terrible famine prevailed at Pome, the poor said openly of him, “that cardinal Montalto, who lived upon charity himself, gave with one hand what he received with the other; while the rest of the cardinals, who wallowed in abundance, contented themselves with shewing them the way to the hospital.

Notwithstanding this affected indifference to what passed in the world, he was never without able spies, who informed him from time to time of every the most minute particular. He had assumed great appearance of imbecility and all the infirmities of old age, for some years before the death of Gregory XIII. in 1585; when it was not without much seeming reluctance, that Montalto accompanied the rest of the cardinals into the conclave, where he maintained the same uniformity of behaviour in which he had | so long persisted. “He kept himself close shut up in his chamber, and was no more thought or spoken of, than if he had not been there. He very seldom stirred out, and when he went to mass, or any of the scrutinies, appeared so little concerned, that one would have thought he had no manner of interest in any thing that happened within those walls;” and, without promising any thing, he flattered everybody. This method of proceeding was judiciously calculated to serve his ambition. He was early apprised, that there would be great contests or divisions in the conclave; and he knew it was no uncommon case, that when the chiefs of the respective parties met with opposition to the person they were desirous of electing, they would all willingly concur in the choice of some very old and infirm cardinal, whose life would last only long enough to prepare themselves with more strength against another vacancy. These views directed his conduct, nor was he mistaken in his expectations of success. Three cardinals, who were the heads of potent factions, finding themselves unable to choose the persons they respectively favoured, all concurred to elect Montalto. As it was not yet necessary for him to discover himself, when they came to acquaint him with their intention, “he fell into such a violent fit of coughing, that they thought he would have expired upon the spot.” When he recovered himself, he told them, “that his reign would be but for a few days that, besides the continual difficulty of breathing, he had not strength enough to support such a weight; and that his small experience in affairs made him altogether unfit for a charge of so important a nature.” Nor would he be prevailed on to accept it on any other terms, than that “they should all three promise not to abandon him, but take the greatest part of the weight off his shoulders, as he was neither able, nor could in conscience pretend, to take the whole upon himself.” The cardinals giving a ready assent to his proposal, he added, “If you are resolved to make me pope, it will be only placing yourselves on the throne; we must share the pontificate. For my part, I shall be content with the bare title; let them call me pope, and you are heartily welcome to the power and authority.” This artifice succeeded; and, in confidence of engrossing the administration, they exerted their joint interests so effectually, that Montalto was elected. He now immediately pulled off the mask which be had worn for fourteen years, with an | amazing steadiness and uniformity. As soon as ever he found a sufficient number of votes to secure his election, he threw the staff with which he used to support himself into the middle of the chapel; and appeared taller by almost a foot than he had done for several years. Being asked according to custom, “Whether he would please to accept of the papacy,” he replied somewhat sharply, “It is trifling and impertinent to ask whether I will accept what I have already accepted: however, to satisfy any scruple that may arise, I tell you, that I accept it with great pleasure; and would accept another, if I could get it; for I find myself strong enough, by the divine assistance, to manage two papacies.” Nor was the change in his manners less remarkable than in his person: he immediately divested himself of the humility he had so long professed; and, laying aside his accustomed civility and complaisance, treated every body with reserve and haughtiness.

The lenity of Gregory’s government had introduced a general licentiousness among all ranks of people; which, though somewhat restrained while he lived, broke out into open violence the very day after his death. Riots, rapes, robberies, and murders, were, during the vacancy of the see, claily committed in every part of the ecclesiastical state; so that the reformation of abuses, in the church as well as the state, was the first and principal care of Sixtus V. for such was the title Montalto assumed. The first days of his pontificate were employed in receiving the congratulations of the Roman nobility, and in giving audience to foreign ministers; and though he received them with seeming cheerfulness and complaisance, yet he soon dismissed them, desiring to be excused, “for he had something else to do than to attend to compliments.” It having been customary with preceding popes to release prisoners on the day of their coronation, delinquents used to surrender themselves after the pope was chosen; and several offenders, judging of Montalto’s disposition by his behaviour while a cardinal, came voluntarily to the prisons, not making the least doubt of a pardon: but they were fatally disappointed; for when the governor of Rome and the keeper of St. Angelo’s castle waited on his holiness to know his intention upon this matter, Sixtus replied, “You certainly do not either know your proper distance, or are very impertinent. What have you to do with pardons and acts of grace, and releasing of prisoners? Don’t you | think it sufficient, that our predecessor has suffered the judges to lie idle and unemployed these thirteen years? Would you have us likewise stain our pontificate with the same neglect of justice? We have too long seen, with inexpressible concern, the prodigious degree of wickedness that reigns in the ecclesiastical state, to think of granting any pardon. God forbid we should entertain such a design! So far from releasing any prisoners, it is our express command, that they be more closely confined. Let them be brought to a speedy trial, and punished as they deserve, that the prisons may be emptied, and room made for others; and that the world may see, that Divine Providence has called us to the chair of St. Peter to reward the good, and to chastise the wicked; that we bear not the sword in vain, but are the minister of God, and a revenger to execute wrath upon them that do evil.

In the place of such judges as were inclined to lenity, he substituted others of a more austere disposition, and appointed commissaries to examine not only their conduct, but also that of other governors and judges for many years past; promising rewards to those who could convict them of corruption, or of having denied justice to any one at the instance or request of men in power. All the nobility, and persons of the highest quality, were strictly forbidden, on pain of displeasure, to ask the judges any thing in behalf of their nearest friends or dependants; at the same time the judges were to be fined in case they listened to any solicitation. He further commanded every body, “on pain of death, not to terrify witnesses by threats, or tempt them by hopes or promises. He ordered the syndics and mayors of every town and signiory, as well those that were actually in office, as those who had been for the last ten years, to send him a list of all the vagrants, common debauchees, loose and disorderly people in their districts, threatening them with the strappado and imprisonment, if they omitted or concealed any one.” In consequence of this ordinance, the syndic of Albano, leaving his nephew, who was an incorrigible libertine, out of the list, underwent the strappado in the public market-place, though the Spanish ambassador interceded strongly for him. He par ticularly directed the legates and governors of the ecclesiastical state to be expeditious in carrying on all criminal processes; declaring, “he had rather have the gibbets and gallies full, than the prisons.” He aUo intended to have | shortened all other proceedings in law. It had been usual, and was pleasing to the people, as often as his holiness passed by, to cry out, “Long live the pope:” but Sixtus, having a mind to go often unexpectedly to the tribunals of justice, convents, and other public places, forbade this custom in regard to himself; and punished two persons who were ignorant of this edict, with imprisonment, for crying out, “Long live pope Sixtus.” Adultery he punished with death: nor was he less severe to those who voluntarily permitted a prostitution of their wives; a custom at that time very common in Rome. The female sex, especially the younger part, attracted, in a very particular manner, the attention of Sixtus; not only the debauching of any of them, whether by force or artifice, but even the attempting of it, or offering the least offence against modesty, was very severely punished. For the more effectual prevention, as well of private assassinations, as public quarrels, he forbade all persons, on pain of death, to draw a sword, or to carry arms specified in the edict; nor would he be prevailed on to spare any who transgressed this order: even to threaten another with an intended injury was sufficient to entitle the menacer to a whipping and the gallies; especially if the nature of their profession furnished the means of carrying their threats into execution. The banditti, who were numerous when Sixtus was advanced to the papacy, were rendered still more so by the junction of many loose and disorderly people; who, conscious of their demerits, and terrified at the severities they daily saw practised, had fled from justice. Their insolence increased with their numbers; insomuch, that no one could live in the ecclesiastical state with saiety to his person or fortune, nor could strangers travel without imminent danger of being robbed or murdered. The public security more especially required the extirpation of these plunderers, which, by the prudence, vigilance, and resolution of this pope, was effectually performed in less than six months. He obliged the nobility of Rome, and the country round it, to an exact payment of their debts. He abolished all protections and other immunities, in the houses of ambassadors, cardinals, nobles, or prelates. To this purpose, he sent for all the ambassadors, and ordered them to acquaint their respective masters, “that he was determined nobody should reign in Rome but himself; that there should be no privilege or immunity of any kind there, but | what belonged to the pope; nor any sanctuary or asylum but the churches, anil that only at such times, and upon such occasions, as he should think proper.

Thus far we have heheld Sixtus acting in his civil capacity; and if we take a view of his conduct as a politician, in his transactions with foreign powers, we find him maintaining the same degree of firmness as in his treatment of his own subjects. Before he had been pope two months he quarrelled with Philip II. of Spain, Henry III. of France, and Henry king of Navarre. His intrigues in some measure may be said to have influenced, in his day, all the councils of Europe. Sixtus had caused the Vulgate Latin edition of the Bible to be published, which occasioned a good deal of clamour; but far less than his printing an Italian version of it, which excited the in lignation of all the Roman Catholic part of Christendom. Count Olivares, and some of the cardinals, ventured to expostulate with him freely upon it; and said, “It was a scandalous as well as a dangerous thing, and bordered very nearly upon heresy,” But he treated them with contempt, and only said, “We do it for the benefit of you that do not understand Latin.” Though this pope’s behaviour may not command universal applause, yet it is certain the Roman see was under very great obligations to him. His impartial, though rigorous, administration of justice, had a very happy effect; he strenuously defended the rights of the poor, the widow, and the orphan; he refused audience to nobody, ordering his masters of the ceremonies to introduce the poorest to him first; but was more particularly ready to hear any accusation against the magistrates: the same conduct he observed between the clergy and their superiors, always applying quick and effectual, though mostly severe, remedies. In short, he had wrought such a reformation, that the governor told him one day, the place of a judge was now become a perfect sinecure. At his accession to the papacy, he found the apostolic clia.-nber, or treasury, not only exhausted, but in debt: he lei’t it, not only clear, but enriched itwith five millions of gold; he also augmented the revenue to double its former amount. To him the city of Rome was obliged for several of its greatest embellishments, particularly the Vatican library, began by Sixtus IV.; and to him its citizens were indebted for the introduction of trade into the ecclesiastical state. Though he was naturally an enemy to profusion, he was never sparing | in expence to relieve such as were really necessitous; and, among many other noble charities, his appropriation of three thousand crowns a year, for the redemption of Christian slaves out of the hands of the infidels, will hardly be reckoned the least meritorious.

In respect to his private character, it appears, from several instances, that he was, as well in his habit as diet, generally temperate and frugal; that he remembered, and greatly rewarded, every service that was conferred upon him when he was in an inferior station. Nor did his elevation make him unmindful of his former poverty: his sister once intimating, that it was unbecoming his dignity to wear patched linen, he said to her, “Though we are exalted, through the Divine Providence, to this high station, we ought not to forget, that shreds and patches are the only coat of arms our family has any title to.” The behaviour of Sixtus to his relations, previous to his exaltation, has been already noted: soon after his accession to the pontificate, he sent for his family to Rome, with express orders, that they should appear in a decent and modest manner. Accordingly, his sister Camilla, accompanied by her daughter and two grandsons, and a niece, came thither. The pope’s reception of them was as singular as any other part of his conduct; for some of the cardinals, to ingratiate themselves with his holiness, went out to meet her, dressed them all in a very superb manner, and introduced them with great ceremony to the Vatican. When Sixtus saw Camilla, he pretended not to know her, and asked two or three times who she was; upon which one of the cardinals, who handed her in, said, “It is your sister, holy father.” “My sister!” replied Sixtus, with a frown, “I have but one sister, and she is a poor woman at Le Grotte: if you have introduced her in this disguise, I declare 1 do not know her; and yet I think I should know her again, if I was to see her in such clothes as she used to wear.” Their conductors then thought it expedient to send them to a common inn, where they were disrobed of their finery. When this was done, Sixtus sent two of his ordinary coaches for them; and being introduced a second time, the pope embraced them tenderly, and said to Camilla, “Now we see it is our sister indeed: nobody shall make a princess of you but ourselves.” The terms Sixtus stipulated with his sister, as the conditions of her advancement, were, “not to | ask any favour in matters of government, or make the least intercession for criminals, or otherwise interfere in the administration of justice;” assuring her that every suit of that kind would meet with a refusal not less mortifying to her than painful to himself. This being settled, he made, indeed, a princely provision, not only for his sister, who took care punctually to obey his orders, but also for all the family.

The pope’s severity could not exempt him from several poignant satires, though we have only one instance wherein he thought them worth his resentment; and that related to his sister. Pasquin was dressed one morning in a very dirty shirt; and being askedby Marforio, why he wore such dirty linen answered, “He could get no other, for the pope had made his washer-woman a princess;” meaning Camilla, who had formerly been a laundress. The pope ordered strict search to be made for the author, and promised to give him a thousand pistoles, and his life, provided he would discover himself; but threatened to hang him, if he was found out by any body else. The author, though he had trusted no person with the secret, was so tempted with the offer, that he was simple enough to make a full confession of it to the pope; demanding the money, and to have his life spared. Sixtus was so astonished at his folly and impudence, that he could not speak for some time; and at last said, “It is true we did make such a promise, and we shall not be worse than our word; we give you your life, and you shall have the money immediately; but we reserved to ourselves the power of cutting off your hands, and boring your tongue through to prevent your being so witty for the future:” which was directly executed, Sixtus declaring, that he did not deserve the punishment so much for the pasquinade, as for being so audacious to avow it.

This extraordinary man, who was an encourager of arts as well as arms, died, not without a suspicion of being poisoned by the Spaniards, Aug. 27, 1500, having enjoyed the papacy little more than five years. 1


Life by Gregorio Leti, translated by Farneworth, folio, 1754, and which the translator, with justice, calls one of the most, remarkable and entertaining lives in ancient or modern history.