It would be no easy job to decide which popes made the greatest contribution to religion and culture. The best of them, no doubt, are written up in heaven in St Peter’s book; just for fun, we’ve tried to find the worst for ours. This too has its difficulties; out of the myriads of scoundrels, drunkards, thieves, children, idiots, poisoners, gluttons and perverts who have decorated St Peter’s throne, we have found some prime candidates, based on a bare minimum of scholarship and a good dose of spleen. We cannot agree with the obvious choice: Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia pope (1492-1503). Though a reasonably effective looter of Church money, a sex-crazed hedonist, and possibly a closet pagan, his greatest sins to have been first, not spreading the grease widely enough, and second, not having been born an Italian. The constant vilification he received from his contemporaries convinces us he wasn’t such a bad fellow after all, and didn’t poison nearly as many people as he is given credit for.
Sifting through the evidence, here are some top contenders for the prize:
Benedict IX (1033-46), the third pope in succession to come from the family of the Counts of Tuculum. Elected at the age of ten, this ‘Nero of the papacy’ took to rapine and homicide at an early age. Twice he was deposed, and once he put the papacy up for auction in order to marry an unwilling sweetheart.
Boniface VIII (1294-1303), a lawyer and the most arrogant and unlovable of popes, who wrecked the powerful medieval papacy with his impostures. He got the job by tricking his predecessor, the saintly but not too clever hermit, Celestine V, into abdicating. During a council in Naples, Boniface whispered through a hidden tube into the pope’s cell, pretending to be the voice of God commanding him to quit.
Leo X, the Medici pope (1513-22). “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us,’ laughed Leo. In fact it wasn’t God, but Leo’s dad Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose money purchased the office. Enjoy it he did – and almost bankrupted it, while his attempts to make up the deficit by selling indulgences and bishoprics were the immediate cause of the Reformation.
Stephen VII (896-7), an agent of the Dukes of Spoleto who was so rotten, he exhumed the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and put it on trial.
No one could dispute the credentials of Paul IV (1555-59), one nasty piece of work. Giovanni Carafa was the real father of the Inquisition, and his reign of terror in his native Naples caused a revolt there. As pope, he presided over the height of the Counter-Reformation, burning more books and more Christians than any other pope, all the while milking the Church to enrich his family. Paul’s hobby was persecuting Jews, and one of his proudest acts was the creation of the Roman Ghetto.
But there is a sentimental favourite. Not as vicious as many, and living in a quiet and decorous age, he nevertheless could claim the award for his pure grasping, grubby mediocrity – Innocent X (1644-55).
Felix I didn’t have a very happy papacy, and Urban VI was really a country boy from Campania, but it is this Innocent who can claim the honour of being the most mis-named pope. A tremendous grafter, Innocent devoted his undistinguished papacy entirely to the enrichment of his vile family, the Pamphili. A fair judge of art, he oversaw the development of Piazza Navona (meant to increase property values around his new family palace), and he installed all the metal fig leaves and dresses on the Vatican’s nude statues.
Innocent met a memorable end, dragging out his last hours while his relatives looted everything around him, even his clothes. Finally there was nothing left but the brass candlestick on his night table—until a servant came back and stole that too. No one could be found to pay for the funeral, and for a while the body lay in a tool shed in the Vatican crypt, in a plain coffin so small the pope’s feet stuck out the end. Francis Marion Crawford, who tells the tale (in Ave Roman Immortalis), remarks that eventually the corpse was taken to the new family church, Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, where ‘in the changing course of human and domestic events, it ultimately got an expensive monument in the worst possible taste.’
© Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls
Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls can be reached at: email@example.com