Nicholas, Pope, V

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Pope Nicholas V

Nicholas V (1397–1455) was first of the Renaissance popes. Befitting the times, Nicholas V was a complex man whose character mixed humanism with religious fervor.

Born Tommaso Parentucelli in 1397 at Sarzana, Papal States, near Lucca, he was the son of a poor physician. Nevertheless, he was educated at the University of Bologna and was a tutor in the Strozzi household in Florence. As an impoverished priest, Parentucelli rang bells in the churches of Florence. During these years, he developed a love of antiquity and the arts that fully complemented his love of learning. While at the university he came under the patronage of Niccolò Albergata, the bishop (and later cardinal) of Bologna. After Bishop Albergata died in 1443, Parentucelli entered the service of Cardinal Candriani. Parentucelli learned much about papal diplomacy during these years.

Garnered Early Successes

In 1444 Pope Eugenius IV elevated him to Bishop of Bologna. In 1446 he and Aeneas Sylvius (later Pope Pius II) held successful negotiations on the Vatican's behalf in Germany with Frederick III. The German princes withdrew their opposition to Eugenius, which left the antipope, Felix V, out on a limb. For his work, Eugenius made Bishop Parentucelli a cardinal in December 1446. In less than three months, Eugenius died; and on March 6, 1447, Cardinal Parentucelli was elected pope. He was a compromise choice; but one of the candidates and faction leaders, Cardinal Prospero Colonna, quickly embraced his election. The Cardinal announced the decision and crowned him on March 19. As pope he took the name Nicholas V in honor of his first patron.

Outmaneuvered the Antipope

The dynamic Nicholas had early political successes, including removing mercenaries from the Papal States, renewing the allegiance of other Italian cities to the Papal States, and restoring order to Rome. The Concordat of Vienna of 1448 further sealed the Vatican's hold over Germany. By its agreement Frederick III recognized both the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican over his subjects and all Vatican appointees and annates (annual taxes). This repudiated the decrees of the Council of Basle.

Hostile to the papacy because of corruption and the nepotism of Pope Martin V, the Council of Basle had convened on March 7, 1431. By the end of the year, the Council was clashing with Pope Eugenius IV, who had ordered it dissolved. In 1435 the Council passed a decree abolishing annates. On January 24, 1438, the Council deposed Eugenius IV and voided his acts. They replaced him with the former duke of Savoy, Amadeus VIII, who in 1431 had taken up a life of religious contemplation. Amadeus took the name Felix V. However he enjoyed very little support among Europe's powers, and by the irregularity of his election became an antipope.

The Council of Basle was permanently weakened by the Concordat of Vienna, and Nicholas was able to focus on Felix V. In April 1449, he persuaded Felix to resign his dubious office with the generous terms of the rank of cardinal-bishop and a pension. In addition, he was to be viewed as second only to Nicholas in the Church. Within weeks of Felix's resignation, the Council of Basle dissolved itself.

Nicholas proclaimed 1450 to be a jubilee year, which further enhanced Rome's prestige as pilgrims came to the city. He also organized several missions aimed at reform and reconciliation within the church in Germany, France, and Austria. In 1450 Pope Nicholas canonized the charismatic St. Bernardino of Siena, whose preaching style had attracted numerous followers throughout the Italian peninsula. On March 19, 1452, Nicholas crowned Frederick III Holy Roman Emperor, the last time the emperor was crowned in Rome. The papacy had reached its most prestigious level in decades.

Dealt with Setbacks

Although largely successful, Nicholas also faced numerous crises that went badly. The jubilee, for instance, was twice marred by tragedy. The summer of 1450 was a plague season that took the lives of many pilgrims in Rome and throughout the Italian peninsula. When the plague subsided, the pilgrims resumed their journeys. But on December 19, 1450, during the jubilee's final week, a stampede of pilgrims on the Ponte Sant' Angelo (begun by a bucking mule) caused the deaths of more than 200 people; some were trampled and others fell in the Tiber River and drowned. Nevertheless, the jubilee was a success; and the money the Vatican acquired through tributes funded Nicholas's restoration programs.

Setbacks of a political nature could not be overlooked. A plot to assassinate Nicholas was uncovered in January 1453. Later that year, after Constantinople fell to the Turks, Nicholas sought ways to aid the Greeks. On September 29, 1453 he issued a decree calling for a crusade, but his call went unheeded. Elsewhere, the Vatican played no part in the 1454 Peace of Lodi between Milan and Venice, which took place in spite of Nicholas's failed efforts at a peace conference of Italian city-states. Subsequently, Nicholas and the king of Naples and Sicily agreed to the terms of the Peace of Lodi, and the Italian League was formed. It was Nicholas's final important diplomatic act. He died on March 24, 1455 and was buried in St. Peter's Basilica.

Initiated Rebuilding Program

By far Nicholas's most enduring successes, that for which he has rightly earned the title of the first Renaissance pope, were the numerous architectural and art projects he sponsored in Rome. Although it was Eugenius IV who brought Fra Angelico to Rome, Nicholas is most associated with the early Renaissance artist and his frescoes of the lives of Sts. Stephen and Lawrence that adorn the chapel of San Lorenzo. The chapel itself was completed during Nicholas's tenure as part of his restoration program. Nicholas's rebuilding program also attracted some of the finest architects of the time, including Leo Battista Alberti. Nicholas sponsored the renovation of churches and ancient walls, the Castle of San Angelo, and a good deal of the Capitol, as well as roads and bridges. He began rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica; the construction of the Vatican Palace was also begun in his time.

Beginning in his student days, Nicholas had accumulated manuscripts and achieved a reputation as a collector even before his elevation to pope. His personal library consisted of 807 manuscripts in Latin and 353 in Greek. After his death, this collection became the foundation for the Vatican Library.


Duffy, Eamon, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997.

John, Eric, editor, The Popes: A Concise Biographical History, Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1964.

McBrien, Richard P, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II, HarperCollins, 1997.


"Pope Nicholas V," Catholic Encyclopedia, (February 28, 2006).

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