Pope Innocent VIII
(1432-1492; r. 1484-1492)
"If you have any doubt about Cibo's balls, note carefully what he has bequeathed: eight awful boys and just as many girls were born to him; thus does he truly deserve the title
'Father of his country.'" - Michele Marullo
It is beyond a cliché today to suggest that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church was corrupt in the Middle Ages (or at any period of time, for that
matter). While one could try to make the argument that it is no more or less corrupt than any other institution that has existed for as long a period of time as it has, it is worth noting that
there are probably no organizations in existence today that can lay claim to as long a lifespan. The highest office in the Catholic church, of course, is that of the Pope, famously described as
God's vicegerent on earth. While perhaps viewed as a rather boring affair today, the election of a Pope was actually a really big deal once upon a time. Of course, this was back in the time
when the Pope was the secular ruler of vast lands (rather than just the single square mile that is Vatican City today) and had the power to make and break kings. The Popes who reigned during
the Italian Renaissance (ca. 1350-1550) are in particular notorious for their power, corruption, and indulgence in earthly pleasures. This is the story of one such Pontifex Maximus.
Giovanni Battista Cibo was born in the city of Genoa in 1432 to the son of a Roman Senator. Calling him a "Senator" makes him seem a bit more impressive than he really was, however,
since by that time the Roman Senate was basically a city council with a fancy name. On the other hand, Rome was a possession of the Papacy, part of the lands of north-central Italy called the
Papal States. In other words, he was at least somewhat involved in the secular power structure of the country. Being born into power certainly has its privileges, and we can have no doubt that
Cibo greatly benefited from his father's station. As a youth, he was sent to serve in the court of King Alfonso of Naples before being permitted to finish his studies in Padua and later Rome
(where by this time his father seems to have become an ally of the reigning Pope Callixtus III (r. 1455-1458)).
Cibo's career in the church probably started around 1454; it's uncertain because there are significant gaps in the various biographies of the man. While we know little of what his official
duties in Naples entailed, we know that Cibo was involved in a few indiscretions with a noblewoman whose name has been lost to us. Sometime before 1452, he managed to have two children (a son,
Franceschetto, and a daughter, Teodorina) out of wedlock with this lady in Naples. We'll never know exactly what prompted Cibo to enter the priesthood at this time, but I don't think the events are
unconnected. Maybe he felt guilty; perhaps he needed a quick way to extricate himself without getting married. He could have been pressured in to it. Or -- and I think this is the most likely
scenario -- he needed a quick and easy way to provide an income for his family. Daddy's political connections certainly would not have hurt him in this pursuit.
He shortly thereafter got a pretty nice position as an assistant to the Cardinal of Bologna, who was the brother-in-law of the late Pope Nicholas V. This position allowed him to come into
contact with a number of influential Bishops and Cardinals to the point that he was promoted to Bishop of Savona himself around the year 1465; he was later granted the Bishopric of Melfi as
well, substantially increasing his income. During the reign of Pope Sixtus IV, he became a close ally of the Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, which was very fortuitous considering
della Rovere was Sixtus' nephew. This important relationship resulted in his being made a Cardinal in his own right in 1473.
The events of Giovanni Battista Cibo's cardinalte are not very well known. Indeed, he seems to have been a conspicuously inactive Cardinal, with contemporaries such as della Rovere, Ascanio
Sforza, Piero Riario, and Rodrigo Borgia being significantly more prominent. When Sixtus died in 1484, there was no clear-cut successor, although the two main contenders seem to
have been Cardinals della Rovere and Borgia. In addition to Giuliano, Sixtus had made several other nephews Cardinals. While nepotism was not a new feature in ecclesiastical politics, it
reached its highest level yet during Sixtus' papacy. This had the unfortunate side effect of making other Cardinals resentful of their influence and therefore not inclined to support another della
Rovere for the papal throne. Borgia was considered a doubly unacceptable choice, since he was a nephew of the late Callixtus mentioned earlier in addition to being a Spaniard at a time when
there was significant hostility toward the concept of another foreign Pope. Aware that they would be unable to win the papal election, della Rovere and Borgia put Cibo's name forward for
consideration as a compromise candidate.
If you aren't aware of the procedure, the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope after the death of the previous one. They are collectively locked inside a building and allowed no access to
the outside world until a new Pope is chosen. At the time, these conclaves were notoriously corrupt. Popes were chosen not so much because of their abilities or even their popularity, but rather
because of what they would promise to deliver to their electors after the fact. It is claimed that during the 1484 conclave, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza held up his list of personal demands and said
that he would support whichever candidate would first agree to meet them. Cibo -- as a relative non-entity at that point -- supposedly entertained all the different requests for money, positions,
and lands his colleagues asked for to the point that he simply signed the pledges without bothering to read them. As a result, Cibo was elected Pope on the 29th of August, 1484. He chose as his
regnal name Innocent VIII.
While we have absolutely no idea what the Cardinals might have demanded from him, we can be certain that Innocent did virtually nothing to honor the agreements he might or might not have made
during the conclave. The two chief beneficiaries of his election were della Rovere and Borgia, who were granted the positions of Bishop of Ostia and Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church,
respectively. The Bishopric of Ostia was highly coveted as it was the default see awarded to the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and therefore extremely lucrative; the position of Vice-
Chancellor made Borgia the de facto prime minister of the Catholic church. Innocent was perfectly content to allow these two (especially the former) to guide his decision-making.
Pope Sixtus had been a great patron of the arts and of civil society but left the church basically bankrupt at the time of his death. To refill the coffers, Innocent was not above selling
various offices in the church and in accepting bribes to forgive grievous sins; these practices are generally referred to as simony today. He also used his papacy as a vehicle to enhance his
dynastic standings by marrying his illegitimate children off to the wealthiest and most prominent families in Italy. Franceschetto Cibo was married off to a daughter of Lorenzo de Medici in
exchange for a cash payment as well as making his son, Giovanni, a cardinal at the age of 14.
There is no shortage of competing views about Innocent's character. Many sources regard him as personally very kind while others see him as a detestable monster. The true number of his
illegitimate children is also unknown; while the 16 referenced in the opening quotation seems extremely unlikely, it is commonly supposed to he had more than just the two. The one area where most
sources seem to agree is that of Innocent's papacy; it is almost universally regarded as ineffective and indolent. One of Innocent's first official acts was an attempt to proclaim a new Crusade
to recapture the Holy Land as well as Constantinople; a bemused Christendom displayed muted enthusiasm for the attempt. Innocent's main claim to fame was his proclamation that witchcraft
was responsible for the poor weather and harvests for the year he was elected Pope, which prompted the creation of the infamous book Malleus Maleficarum -- literally translated, it means
"Witch Hammer." This was the standard guide book to determining someone's status as a witch and how to proceed against them (usually this involved a painful death).
At della Rovere's instigation, Innocent involved himself in a dispute with the King of Naples. Ever short on cash, Innocent demanded that King Ferrante pay him for his crown -- despite the fact
that he had been King for almost 30 years by that point. Callixtus III had declared the Neapolitan throne void in 1458 and said that the kingdom had reverted to the status of a papal fief. This
claim was in practice impossible to defend and the notion seems to have been abandoned altogether until Innocent's time. When Ferrante balked at Innocent's blackmail attempt, the Pope supported an
aristocratic rebellion against Ferrante. When this failed, Ferrante began naming his own Bishops, which drew even more ire from Rome. Cardinal della Rovere was famously pro-French, so he
suggested that Innocent allow the king of France, Charles VIII, to press his own claim for the throne of Naples. The Pope agreed to this, blind to ruinous consequences this debacle would have in
later years (Charles would go on to invade Rome during the reign of Innocent's anti-French successor).
Toward the end of his reign, Innocent secured at least one significant propaganda victory. The Muslim Ottoman Empire -- which controlled almost all of the former territory of the Byzantine
Empire it had destroyed as well as the Holy Land -- was in the midst of a civil war between the Sultan Bayezid I and his brother Djem. The Sultan arranged for Innocent to keep Djem as an
indefinite houseguest for a mighty sum of money as well as the return of the Holy Lance to Christian hands. The Holy Lance -- also called the Spear of Longinus or the Spear of Destiny -- was
supposedly the spearhead of the lance that had been used to pierce Jesus' side during his crucifixion. While the claims surrounding this particular relic are extremely doubtful, Innocent was
nevertheless extremely eager to receive it (and have a potential pawn to use in a future Crusade). His cause would be bolstered somewhat in 1492 when the last Muslim enclave of the Iberian
Peninsula, Granada, was surrendered to the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. Innocent gave them the title of "Catholic majesties," unique in Europe up to that point.
Innocent's health declined precipitously in the summer of 1492. It's unclear what exactly was wrong with him, but it is known that he was unable to eat solid foods. The only form of sustenance
he was able to accept was breast milk from a midwife. Someone -- it is unclear who -- had the idea that the Pope's life could be saved through a primitive blood transfusion. To this end, a
Jewish doctor was brought to the Vatican with three poor 10 year old boys whose parents had been paid a ducat a piece for their blood. Of course, the transfusion did not work and all
three of the boys as well as Innocent died. The doctor mysteriously vanished without a trace afterwards.
The conclave following Innocent's death was said to have been more corrupt than the one following Sixtus', with the usual bribes, threats, and pledges popping up. In this instance, Rodrigo
Borgia was elected as Innocent's successor, choosing as his regnal name Alexander VI. After his own infamous papacy, a compromise candidate would be elected and die within a month, resulting in
another conclave which would see Giuliano della Rovere elected as Julius II. Julius' own successor would be the aforementioned Giovanni de Medici as Leo X.
Innocent VIII is notable for a few reasons, not many of them good. He was the first Pope to acknowledge and use his children as political tools (a tradition which would continue under his
immediate successors). He also failed to realize that asking the French to invade Naples meant they would have to march right through the Papal States, setting up a conflict that would engulf the
first few years of Alexander VI's reign. While Innocent did much to restore the church's finances, he did it at the expense of its credibility, selling such privileges as the ability to use the
Papal Seal and (evidently) to murder one's own father without legal consequence. He was extremely passive, reacting to events rather than shaping them, which is a stark contrast to his predecessor
and his successors. I suppose the very best thing that can be said about Innocent VIII is that he probably doesn't deserve all of the venom that gets slung his way by contemporary writers, but it's
sometimes hard to know where to draw the line between "malicious" and "brutally honest."