Paul II

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Paul II

The papacy of Paul II (1417–1471) was marked by few accomplishments and an autocratic rule over the College of Cardinals. Because of this and his devotion to games and festivities, scholars rank him as one of the worst of the Renaissance popes.

The future Pope Paul II was born Pietro Barbo in Venice in 1417, the nephew of Pope Eugenius IV. His father was the nobleman Niccolo Barbo and his mother, Eugenius's sister, was Polixena Condulmer. Like many Venetians of his class, Barbo anticipated a career in business; but when his uncle became pope the course of his life changed. Barbo's rise through the ecclesiastical ranks was precipitous. He was first archdeacon of Bologna, then bishop of Cervia, and later bishop of Vicenza. In 1440 Pope Eugenius elevated him to cardinal-deacon. He was twenty-three years old at the time. Nicholas V, his uncle's successor, named him cardinal-priest of San Marco. He also enjoyed the favor of Pope Calixtus III, Nicholas's successor. Following the death of Pius II in 1464 he was elected pope (August 30, 1464) on the first ballot. He took the name Paul II, though he had considered the name Formosus II, after the ninth-century pope whose body was exhumed and placed on trial in what has come to be known as the Cadaver Synod.

Reneged on His Pledge

Paul immediately made himself unpopular with the cardinals. Prior to his election the cardinals had drawn up an eighteen-point pact; the primary clauses redefined the powers of the pope and called for an ecumenical council within three years. Among the pact's other important points were the reform of the Curia (the Vatican ministries and departments), fixing the number of cardinals at twenty-four, and the resumption of war against the Turks. Cardinal Barbo signed the pact with his colleagues; but upon his election he refuted it, especially the points dealing with papal power. He declared the pact to be guidelines rather than a mandate. Paul II drew up an alternate agreement that amended the original pact and forced the cardinals to sign it with threats of excommunication. All but one signed the new document.

Paul delighted in the outward trappings of his position. He elevated the papal court to one of splendor that would rival, if not outdo, any of the European kings. Considered vain and an intellectual lightweight, he promoted carnivals and games. In 1470 he decreed that beginning in 1475 there would be a holy year every twenty-five years, ostensibly to promote the festivities he enjoyed.

Initiated Unpopular Reforms

In 1466 Paul moved the papal residence from the Vatican to the newly completed Palazzo di San Marco (now the Palazzo di Venezia). He had begun building the palace when he was a cardinal. That same year Paul abolished the college of abbreviators, or apostolic writers, who were in charge of the Vatican's formal documents. This unpopular move led to a protest by the historian Bartolomeo Platina, and Paul had him imprisoned and tortured. In 1468 Paul took action against the Roman Academy because he suspected it to be a bastion of pagan rituals and ideas. He also forbade the teaching of pagan poets to Roman children. Nevertheless Paul was a collector of ancient art and during his reign protected universities and supported the newly invented technique of printing.

In 1466 he also summoned the king of Bohemia, George Podiebrad, to Rome, charged him with heresy, excommunicated him, and nominally stripped him of his title and power. Podiebrad was suspected of being a Hussite, or follower of the Czech theologian and reformer John Hus. Podiebrad's apologist, Gregory of Heimberg, subsequently accused Paul of immorality; a move that resulted in Gregory's own excommunication. As a result, a power vacuum was created in Central Europe, especially after Podiebrad's death in 1471. Paul allied himself with Matthias Hunyadi, the King of Hungary, who not only wished to claim Bohemia but also needed support for his war against the Turks. Ultimately Hunyadi did not secure Bohemia for himself, and the area was politically and militarily weakened. After the fall of Negropont (present day Khalkis, capital of the island of Evvoia in the Aegean Sea) to the Turks in 1470, Paul supported Hunyadi and his Albanian ally, Scanderber, in their attempt to repel the invaders. Negropont had been under the rule of Venice, and Paul's support was chiefly financial as he could not muster other European rulers to provide troops. The military result was a stalemate.

Was a Strong Civil Ruler

Paul did provide strong government in Rome and throughout the Papal States. He reorganized the municipal government, revising statutes and defining the duties of the officials and the courts. He also oversaw the establishment of a special court to deal with the crime of murder. Regarding the Papal States, Paul almost immediately moved to secure Vatican control in rebellious areas. In 1465, the year of his election as pope, Everso, Count of Anguillara, died. Everso had succeeded in prying loose most of the Patrimony and placed himself as its ruler. (The Patrimony was the area of the central Italian peninsula that formed the basis of the Papal States; according to legend the Emperor Constantine had bequeathed it to Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century following his conversion). In 1465 Paul sent troops to fight and defeat Everso's sons, thus reestablishing the Vatican's political authority over the area.

Paul's final act of diplomacy was to negotiate a marriage between Ivan III of Russia, who was the first to be called Tsar (of Muscovy), and the Catholic daughter (some believe niece) of the last Byzantine emperor. In the midst of these negotiations, Paul died suddenly of a stroke on July 26, 1471. He was buried in St. Peter's Basilica. Paul's reputation was damaged by a posthumous biography published by Bartolomeo Platina, whom Paul had once imprisoned.


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, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.


"Pope Paul II," Catholic Encyclopedia, (October 21, 2002).