Essays and Articles

Papal Experiment

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Constantinople had begun as a Roman hope for security and safety. It was to be a haven safe from alien terrorists, safe from the barbarians. Back then, they were Vandals: stern-looking, focused foreigners. Too bad the citizens of Constantinople decayed into the abscesses of arrogant decadence.

Once long ago, so many dreams for a fresh start, for a new beginning, for a world of peace, spurred the Roman Empire to relocate from the Italian peninsula to Byzantium. Now, for more than one thousand years, Christianity focused upon the politics and policies, the pomp and feigned rituals of Constantinople caused her to lose her vision. The Islamic Ottoman capture of Constantine's city in1453 rocked a little Italian borgo called Corsignano as indeed it shook the Christian world as a whole. Such a cataclysm was almost replayed in 2001.

Fifteenth century hawks screamed for an assault to be massed upon the Ottomans. However, to achieve that goal, a coalition of multi-national forces with like-mindedness would be necessary and forging that rag-tag army from self-interest and feigned national pride, thereby presenting a united front of Christian versus Muslim would prove more complex than the various Crusades had ever been four hundred years earlier. The doves sought reconciliation or compromise: peace in our time.

The most powerful Western leader was, at the moment, the Bishop of Rome. Seated upon the throne of St. Peter was Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, a rather temporal leader by the standards and expectations of our modern time. Piccolomini had at least two natural children, conceived during his sojourns; one born in Strasburg and the second born in Scotland. He was truly a man of the world, relating his amorous escapades in The Tale of Two Lovers. Aeneas had participated first-hand in the schisms racking the Western Church at the return to Rome of Pope Martin V even supporting the anti-pope Felix V. His diplomatic path threaded the difficult path between Empire and Church.
During the three year papacy of Calixtus III (Alfonso de Borja) Borgia, Aeneas believed a cardinalate would be bestowed upon him. Instead, Borgia selected his family members to sit at the papal trough (including Roderic Llançol). Five years following the loss of Constantinople, there were few diplomats as capable as Piccolomini: an adventurer, author, licentious novelist, diplomat, and finally cardinal, when named pope, Aeneas cloaked himself with the name Pius, thus Father Pius or Pope Pius II set in motion events that continue to drive the modern world.

In the early winter of 1459 Pius and entourage took themselves from Rome to Mantova, seat of the Gonzagas, Imperial condottieri. Here the coalition met to resolve the conditions of a renewed Crusade. The troupe stopped in Corsignano, Pius' birth village. What a sorry sight this place must have been.

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Possibly waiting out the white winter snows overlooking the new Via Francigena's twists through the Val D'Orcia or perhaps realizing the Turks had forever taken the Christian capital, provoked some conversation about Saint Augustine's City of God, or possible insight from the papal inspector of monuments, a rector and all-around Renaissance genius, Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti had once before sought to make Rome the city of God. Pius set the course to test-drive urban redevelopment and town planning, not seen since the days of the Romans one thousand years prior. Pius only spent two freezing nights near the end of February in his native town before he was off again to Mantova. He left behind, however, money and architects, "...to build there a new church and a palace and he [Pius] hired architects and workmen at no small expense, that he [Pius] might leave as lasting as possible a memorial of his birth." Bernardo di Matteo di Domenico di Luca Gamberelli, better known as Bernardo Rossellino, was placed in charge of fabrication.

By 1462, when Pius once again returned to Corsignano, renamed Pienza he found two of the great buildings all but finished: the Church (Duomo) and the Papal Palace. Several cardinals had been cajoled to build their residences in the area, including Roderic Llançol: you know him as Rodrigo Borgia, then nearing thirty and ardently amorous; a ladies man. Just eight years later, his newest mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei bore four acknowledged children including Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.

Alberti dictum, "But if it is only a small town...it will be better...not for the streets to run straight to the gates...For thus, besides that by appearing so much the longer, they will add to the idea of the greatness of the town, they will likewise conduce very much to beauty and convenience, and be a greater security against all accidents and emergencies. Moreover, this winding of the streets will make the passenger at every step discover a new structure...whereas in larger towns even too much breath is unhandsome and unhealthy, in a small one it will be both healthy and pleasant, to have such an open view from every house by means of the turn of the street."

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The experiment saw case nuove, twelve identical town houses at the eastern edge of the city. This standardization, thought to belong to more modern movements, was alive and used in Pienza. The houses have survived for more than 500 years.

The modernist experiment lived for only five years, through 1464 when both Rossellino and Pius II were dead. Some believe Pius, on his way to Ancona to carry the Crusade forward died of gout, while others contend that his symptoms were from cantarella, an arsenic poison known as the Borgia "liquid of succession."

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