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Nicholas V - The First Renaissance Pope

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Nicholas VIn the person of Nicholas V the Renaissance mounted the fisherman's throne. An enthusiastic patron of artists, scholars, and men of letters, Nicholas did much to create a humanist atmosphere around the papal court.

Thomas Parentucelli was born November 15th, 1397, probably at Sarzana in Liguria. The son of a poor physician who died while Thomas was yet a youngster, he was forced by lack of funds to interrupt his studies at the University of Bologna to serve as tutor to Florentine noble families. This stay at the capital of the Renaissance during two formative years probably did much to make him the humanist he was. He finally finished his course at Bologna and joined the staff of Bologna's holy bishop Nicholas Albergati. Ordained priest soon after, Thomas followed his master to Rome when Albergati was made a cardinal. His wide reading stood him in good stead when he was employed in delicate negotiations with the Greeks at Florence. After this his rise was rapid. Bishop of Bologna in 1444, cardinal in 1446, he was elected pope in 1447. He took the name Nicholas V.

Nicholas achieved some brilliant successes. He arranged the Concordat of Vienna with the Emperor Frederick III in 1448 and put an end to any possibility of imperial support for the Basel schismatics. In 1449 that ghost of a gathering, now in session at Lausanne, wheezed its last. Antipope Felix V resigned. Nicholas by his kindness made submission easy for all.

Emperor Frederick III came down to Rome in 1452 to be crowned by Nicholas. He was the last emperor to be crowned at Rome. In 1450 Nicholas had proclaimed the jubilee and once more Rome was filled with pilgrims.

Nicholas did much to promote reform. He sent out excellent legates like the great Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and the Franciscan St. John Capistrano to work for reform in Germany. Unfortunately on the other hand, Nicholas contributed to creating a decidedly worldly atmosphere around the papal court by employing such men as Lorenzo Valla, Pozzio, and Filelfo, brilliant scholars, to be sure, but also downright filthy writers.

A true child of the Renaissance, Nicholas was enthusiastic about all forms of culture. His reign was a real golden age for hungry artists. While humanists like Valla were put to work translating Thucydides, artists like Fra Angelico were painting masterpieces on Vatican walls and architects like Alberti were working on the Belvedere. Meanwhile, spurred on by lavish papal rewards, searchers were combing ancient monasteries for classical manuscripts. And here, perhaps, is the chief title of honor for Nicholas V. He was the founder of the Vatican Library.

Two events saddened the last years of the humanist Pope. In 1453 his heart was wrenched by the fall of Constantinople. While the West supinely stood by, Mohammed II broke through the walls and put a final period to the Roman Empire of the East. Nicholas had given what help he could. It was not enough and it was not in time.

Early in 1453 a gentleman named Stephen Porcaro, on fire with humanist ideals of ancient republican Rome, launched a conspiracy to overthrow the Pope. Though the plot was foiled, Nicholas was badly shaken. From 1453 to his death in 1455 Nicholas was tormented by gout and other sicknesses. On November 15, 1455, the humanist Pope died, his eyes fixed on the crucifix.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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