Urban, Pope, VIII

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Pope Urban VIII

Born to the esteemed Barberini family of Florence, which had produced many popes, Urban VIII (1568–1644) enjoyed a lengthy but controversial pontificate marred by war, nepotism, and anti-intellectualism. A complicated man, he was also a patron to artists, canonized a number of saints, and extended the papal territory. On his participation during the Thirty Years War, the Barberini pope remains a conundrum.

Educated by his Mother

Maffeo was born to the esteemed Florentine Barberini family in 1568. His father, Antonio (who died when Barberini was only three), and mother, Camilla Barbadoro, were both of the nobility. Barberini was educated by his mother, who later took him to Rome to begin his philosophical studies under his uncle Francis Barberini, "apostolical protonotary," a title denoting a member of the first college of prelates of the Roman Curia.

Continuing his formal education with the Jesuits at their leading seminary, the Collegio Romano, Barberini graduated from Pisa in 1589 with a doctorate in law. He returned to Rome, where Pope Clement VIII (1592) made him governor of Fano, then protonotary. In 1601, as nuncio to the French court, Barberini traveled to France to congratulate Henry IV on the birth of his son, the future Louis XIII. During his years of service he gained influence in the French court, and in 1606 Pope Paul V (1605–1621) named him cardinal.

Transferred in 1608 from Montorio to the See of Spoleto, Barberini completed the seminary there and built two additional ones at Spello and Visso. In 1617 Paul V appointed him legate of Bologna. In July 1623, Barberini joined fifty-four other cardinals to elect a successor to Gregory XV. Barberini garnered fifty of those votes.

Became Urban VIII

Barberini took the name Urban VIII. The coronation, however, was postponed for nearly two months as Barberini battled the fever epidemic that had struck Rome. It is said that he prayed to be left to die if his leadership would not be of benefit the Church.

On his first day in the office of pope he issued Bulls of canonization for three saints: Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola, and Francis Xavier. During his reign he canonized Elizabeth of Portugal (1925) and Andrew Corsini (1629), and beatified eight saints. In 1625, Urban VIII codified the regulations for beatification. He restricted, for example, the depiction of haloes to images of those beatified or canonized. Urban VIII also condemned the book Augustinus, the posthumous work of Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, who believed in predestination, which was in opposition to the Jesuits' beliefs.

The literary interests of his youth found expression in his writing of numerous hymns, Scriptural paraphrases, and revisions of the breviary. A book of Latin verse written while he was a cardinal, Maphei Cardinalis Barberini poemata, was published in 1637. But of all his proclamations, one in particular would have enormous historical impact.

Befriended, then Rejected Galileo

Urban VIII was initially enthusiastic about the scientific discoveries of Galileo, who dedicated his 1623 work on comets, Il Saggiatore (The Assayer), to his patron, friend, and pope, Urban VIII. While still a cardinal, Urban VIII had supported Galileo one evening at court as Galileo challenged Cardinal Gonzaga on a scientific question regarding floating bodies. And after ascending the throne, Urban VIII summoned Galileo to Rome, promising him that he could continue to write about Copernican theory, which put the sun rather than the Earth at the center of the universe, as long as he treated it as a mathematical hypothesis.

When Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, in 1632, however, the pope had a change in attitude. It is often suggested that the pope felt mocked by Galileo's Dialogue, rather than intellectually disagreed with its premises (Galileo has a character named Simplicio make the Church's official argument). Despite his ill health and the plague lingering just outside the city's gates, Urban VIII summoned Galileo from Florence to Rome. In Rome, Galileo was interrogated by the Inquisition, the part of the Catholic Church responsible for investigating possible heresies.

The Papal Court of the Inquisition found Galileo's work went against Church doctrine and thus seemed to question God's omnipotence. Having been found "vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine that is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture," as the Inquisition wrote, Galileo was condemned by the pope and exiled to Siena, where he lived the rest of his life under house arrest.

Urban VIII rejected all pleas to have Galileo exonerated. Galileo died in 1642. Over 350 years later, the Church issued a pardon for the scientist, diminishing centuries of accusations that the Church was opposed to scientific inquiry.

Extended the Papal Reign

Under Urban VIII, Catholic foreign missions flourished. He provided enormous financial assistance for missionary work, enlarged the bailiwick of the Congregation of Propaganda, and in 1627 created the Collegium Urbanum, whose purpose was to train missionaries for work in foreign countries.

One of the pope's most conspicuous weaknesses was his nepotism. Less than a week after his installation as pope, Urban named his nephew Francesco Barberini cardinal, then Vatican librarian, and in 1632, vice chancellor. Another nephew, Antonio, became cardinal in 1627, then commander-in-chief of the pope's army, and legate at Avignon, Urbino, Bologna, Ferrara, and Romagna. Taddeo Barberini, a third nephew, was created Prince of Palestrina and Prefect of Rome. The pope's brother (also named Antonio) became a cardinal in 1628. Additional members of the family won gifts of land and titles.

Urged by his nephews into a war with the Duke of Parma over a petty incident of protocol, in January 1642 Urban VIII excommunicated the duke and took control of his fiefs. Allied with Modena, Tuscany, and Venice, the duke marched on Rome and ousted the papal troops. Peace was declared, but Urban VIII refused to yield. The following year hostilities erupted once more, and by March 1644 the pope, humiliated, was forced to accept the peace.

Urban VIII spent lavishly on military fortifications, building a munitions factory at Tivoli, creating a military port at Civitavecchia, and erecting numerous forts along Rome's Tiber river. He also built numerous churches, monasteries and papal villas, and enhanced the city with a variety of civic beautification projects. Appreciative of the arts, Urban VIII hired the brilliant Baroque sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) to create the baldachin over the high altar at the Basilica of St. Peter, the Triton fountain in the Piazza Barberini in Rome, and his own famous tomb at St. Peter's.

War-Time Pontificate

Despite the raging of the Thirty Years War throughout Europe, a war that would last throughout his pontificate, Urban VIII was strangely remote and loathe to actively, zealously take the side of the Catholic Hapsburgs. Though the war began as a battle between Catholics and Protestants in Germany, it eventually spread throughout central Europe transforming itself into a struggle for dominance, and for Germany, by the powerful Hapsburg family of Austria and Spain.

The battle was critical for the Catholic Church, yet Urban VIII gave little support to the Catholic Hapsburgs. It has been suggested that Urban felt menaced by the powerful Hapsburgs and therefore failed to adequately assist the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in his war against Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus and the remaining Protestants. When France entered the fray, the pope had the option of excommunicating Louis XIII and his minister Richelieu, yet he refrained from doing so. By the end of his reign as pope, the Catholic Counterreformation had definitely subsided.

Urban VIII died July 29, 1644.


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