Da Vinci Demon[s]

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James Faulkner plays Pope Sixtus IV, who plots to use Da Vinci’s genius for his own plans to help the Church’s wealth and authority.

There was general surprise when his successor, Cardinal Francesco della Rovere, took the name of Sixtus IV; Sixtus III had died in 440, more than a thousand years before. The new pope had been a Franciscan—indeed, general of the order—and as a distinguished theologian was deeply respected by Cardinal Bessarion and other senior churchmen. Much in demand as a preacher, he had to all appearances been zealous for reform. Franciscans are noted for their love of poverty; it can only be said that Sixtus, on becoming pope, proved an exception to the rule. From one day to the next, his whole character changed. He spent money like water; his coronation tiara alone cost 100,000 ducats, more than a third of the Papacy’s annual income. To raise additional funds, he sold plenary indulgences on a scale previously unparalleled, together with high-sounding papal titles and sinecures. He bestowed the see of Milan on an eleven-year-old and the archbishopric of Lisbon on a boy of eight. His nepotism was on a similar scale. Among his first actions was the bestowal of red hats on two of his eleven nephews, Giuliano della Rovere and Pietro Riario (who was widely rumored to be the pope’s son by his own sister). A third nephew, Girolamo Basso della Rovere, had to wait a year or two, until after his cousin, Cardinal Pietro, had died of dissipation at twenty-eight. Four more nephews and two nieces were married into the ruling houses of Milan, Naples, and Urbino and to the Orsini and Farnese families in Rome.

Meanwhile, the rebuilding went on. Sixtus continued where Nicholas V had stopped. He gave the city its first new bridge across the Tiber—the Ponte Sisto—since the days of antiquity, to ensure that there was no repetition of the disaster of 1450; he was also responsible for the churches of Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo, which was to effectively become the mausoleum of the della Rovere family. He revived the Roman Academy. He restored the Hospital of Santo Spirito—still a hospital today—and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol. He carved out new piazzas, replacing the medieval labyrinths of narrow alleys with broad new thoroughfares. He left Rome a Renaissance city. Within the Vatican, he carried on Nicholas’s work in the library, trebling it in size and appointing the formerly disgraced Platina as its librarian.

But above all the name of Sixtus lives on in the Sistine Chapel, the greatest of all his benefactions, intended primarily for the holding of conclaves but also for the regular services attended by the cappella papalis, the exalted group of cardinals and other dignitaries who accompanied the pope at his devotions. When the basic construction was completed in 1481, a whole troop of painters was brought in to provide the frescoes. Chief among them were Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino, though several others, including Pintoricchio and Signorelli, also contributed. (Michelangelo was only six at the time; it was to be another twenty-seven years before he was reluctantly persuaded by Julius II to take over the east wall and the ceiling.)

It is ironic indeed that the originator of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world should also have been the inspiration for one of its most odious institutions. In Spain the Reconquista—the recovery of those parts of the country that had been conquered by the Moors—was almost complete, but there was grave concern over the many thousand forcibly baptized Jews, the Marranos. In the previous reign, that of King Henry IV, they had enjoyed considerable power, reaching high positions in government, in business and finance, and even in the Church. Now the suspicion was growing that a large number of them were tenaciously clinging to their old beliefs. Accordingly, in 1478, Sixtus issued a bull ordering a major inquiry. This was the beginning of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, which enabled the Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada to introduce, with the full approval of the monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella, a regime of brutality and terror unparalleled in Spain until the twentieth century and the Civil War.5

Where Italy was concerned, Sixtus could perfectly well have elected to stand aside from the power struggle that continued to lacerate the peninsula as Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and other, lesser powers endlessly jockeyed for supremacy; alas, he did not. He plunged in and by doing so did untold damage to the moral prestige of the Holy See, which became just another party to the eternal squabble. Historians are still debating how far he was implicated in the so-called Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, the purpose of which was to replace the Medici as the de facto rulers of Florence with the pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario.

Already in 1473, the Pazzi bank—a lesser rival of that of the Medicis—had lent Sixtus most of the purchase price of 40,000 ducats for the town of Imola, which the pope wanted for two of his nephews. The Medici, who had already for their own reasons refused the loan, were predictably furious, and more furious still in the following year when Sixtus dismissed them as his principal bankers, adding insult to injury by appointing to the archbishopric of Pisa, which was under Florentine authority, one of the closest associates of the Pazzi, Francesco Salviati. Lorenzo de’ Medici (“the Magnificent”) refused to recognize the appointment, forbidding the new archbishop entry into Pisa or even into Florence itself; Sixtus replied by threatening excommunication and an interdict of the whole Florentine state.

And so, as relations between the two factions grew steadily worse, the plot was hatched; and on Sunday, April 26, 1478, principally on the orders of Francesco de’ Pazzi and Archbishop Salviati, it went into operation. At a prearranged moment—it was, typically, the ringing of the bell marking the elevation of the Host—in the course of High Mass in Florence Cathedral, a whole team of assassins (including Francesco) fell upon Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano, stabbing him in the chest and back at least a dozen times (some witnesses say nineteen). A moment later it was the turn of Lorenzo. He, however, seized his short sword and fought back before leaping over a low rail into the choir and taking refuge in the sacristy. He was quite badly hurt, but his wounds were not life-threatening; Giuliano, on the other hand, was dead.

Immediately, all Florence was up in arms. The conspirators were quickly rounded up and were shown no mercy. The official place of execution outside the eastern walls was ignored; the punishments, Lorenzo decided, must be exemplary. Jacopo Bracciolini, son of the great humanist Poggio, was hanged from a high window overlooking the Piazza della Signoria; Francesco de’ Pazzi met a similar fate from a top window of the Loggia de’ Lanzi, as did the archbishop and his brother Jacopo Salviati. Angelo Poliziano, the humanist and classical scholar who was a protégé of Lorenzo de’ Medici, reports that, presumably through some involuntary spasm, the dying archbishop, hanging as he was next to Francesco, bit into him so savagely that long after his death his teeth remained locked in the other’s chest.

Was Pope Sixtus embroiled in the conspiracy? Certainly he must have known about it and quite probably gave it his active encouragement, for no one was more anxious than he to dislodge the Medici once and for all. He is said to have insisted that there should be no bloodshed, but since the object of the conspiracy was assassination, it is difficult to see how he could have had it both ways. And now at last he decreed the excommunication of the Medici which he had long threatened and the interdict over Florence—and all Italy flared up in war.

The attempted coup had failed—just. But if Lorenzo had been a little less lucky and had suffered the fate of his brother, the successful conspirators could easily have brought about a change of government in Florence; and no one would have applauded the change more heartily than Pope Sixtus IV.

It is somehow characteristic of Pope Sixtus that his death, on August 12, 1484, should have been generally attributed to frustration at having peace forced upon him by the princes of Italy. He certainly died unlamented; indeed, the news of his death caused two weeks of rioting in Rome, inspired by his greatest Roman enemies, the Colonna. Characteristic too is his superb free-standing bronze tomb by Pollaiuolo in the Vatican—probably the most magnificent of any pope, if we except that by Michelangelo which was planned by his nephew Giuliano (the future Julius II) for himself but never properly completed.

It need hardly be said that Giuliano had his eye on the Papacy; so, too, did Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. Neither, however, despite offers of huge bribes and lucrative promotions, was able to raise the necessary degree of support in the Sacred College. And so, rivals as they were, they worked together to ensure that at the ensuing conclave the cardinals’ choice would fall on some second-rate puppet whom they could dominate. It can only be said that they succeeded. The Genoese Cardinal Giambattista Cibo, Pope Innocent VIII, was a hopeless nonentity. He too was much given to nepotism, with the difference that the beneficiaries were not his nephews but his own children by a Neapolitan mistress—one of whom, his hopelessly dissolute son Franceschetto, he was to marry off to the daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent in return for the grant of a red hat to Lorenzo’s thirteen-year-old son, Giovanni.6 When, three years later, Giovanni took his place in the College, his father wrote to him warning him of the evils of Rome, “that sink of all iniquity,” and urging him “to act so that you convince all who see you that the well-being and honor of the Church and the Holy See are more to you than anything else in the world.” Above all he must beware of the temptations to evildoing among the College of Cardinals, which is “at this moment poor in men of worth.… If the cardinals were such as they ought to be, the whole world would be better for it, for they would always elect a good pope and thus secure the peace of Christendom.”

Sixtus had left the Papacy with enormous debts, and when it came to spending Innocent himself was no slouch; despite, therefore, the continued sale of indulgences, offices, and titles, his financial situation would certainly have become desperate but for a sudden windfall from a most unexpected source: the Ottoman Empire. On the death of an Ottoman sultan, the usual practice—to avoid any dispute over the succession—was for his eldest son instantly to have all his brothers garrotted, but when Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, died in 1481, his son and successor, Bayezit II, had unaccountably failed to dispatch his younger brother Cem, who also made a bid for the throne. He lost and fled for his life, taking refuge on Rhodes with the Knights of St. John whose grand master, Pierre d’Aubusson, had become famous all over Europe for his successful defense of the island against Cem’s father, Mehmet, in 1480. D’Aubusson welcomed him but secretly came to an agreement with the sultan to keep him under guard in return for an annual subsidy of 40,000 ducats. Soon, realizing that Rhodes was too close to Ottoman lands for comfort, d’Aubusson sent him on to one of the Knights’ commanderies in France. There Cem remained until 1489, when Pope Innocent took him over—he was, after all, an invaluable diplomatic and political asset—in return for red hats for d’Aubusson and a nominee of the French king. On his arrival in Rome he was given a splendid reception and escorted by Franceschetto to the Vatican, where he and his suite were lodged in magnificent apartments and lavishly entertained.

The subsidy, however, continued to be payable, and the following year the pope received a Turkish embassy which presented him with 120,000 ducats—almost the total annual income of the Papal States—for the prince’s maintenance over the next three years. He also brought, as a present, the Holy Lance which had pierced Christ’s side at the time of the Crucifixion; a special chapel was built for it in St. Peter’s. Cem had by this time settled contentedly down with his court in the Vatican, where the appearance of groups of Muslims in their caftans and turbans must have caused even more raised eyebrows than the sight of the papal grandchildren playing in the gardens.

By this time, however, the pope was sinking fast. To quote a recent authority:

He slept almost continuously, waking to gorge himself on gargantuan meals.… He grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman. When he seemed to be dying, an attempt to save his life was made by sacrificing the lives of three healthy young men to provide a blood transfusion. (Ironically, this attempt was made by a Jewish doctor.) The young men supplying the blood were paid one ducat each. They perished in the process and, with the onset of rigor mortis, the coins had to be prised from their clenched fists.

Innocent himself died on July 25, 1492, having lived just long enough to learn of the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain. His had been a deeply undistinguished pontificate. Under his governance Rome, which always needed a firm hand at the helm, had subsided into hopeless disorder, and the Papal States were not far off anarchy. On his deathbed he begged the assembled cardinals for their forgiveness for his shortcomings and enjoined them to choose a worthier successor.

Alas, they did not do so.

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Da Vinci’s Demons

The series explores the fictitious early life of Leonardo da Vinci during the renaissance in Italy. He is an eccentric genius who has struggled to deal with his inner demons and unruly imagination, as he yearns for acceptance from his estranged father. Their sometimes antagonistic relationship results in Leonardo working for the House of Medici. While there he becomes embroiled in a political scheme to control Florence, as he hunts for a spy who is revealing information to the Catholic Church and the Pazzi family. He also begins an affair with Lucrezia Donati who is the mistress of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The series depicts many of Leonardo’s inventions and subsequent works as a military engineer for the Duke of Milan and the Borgias.

These events coincide with Leonardo’s quest to uncover the Book of Leaves. He is guided by a mystic to unlock the hidden areas of his mind by accessing the Fountain of Memory, as he gets involved with a mysterious cult known as the Sons of Mithras. They inform him that he has the power to not only see the future but to shape it.

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