A name never to be mentioned without reverence by every lover of letters, born at Sarzana in Liguria, 15 November, 1397; died in Rome, 24-5 March, 1455. While still a youth he lost his father, a poor but skilful physician, and was thereby prevented from completing his studies at Bologna. He became tutor in the families of the Strozzi and Albizzi at Florence, where he made the acquaintance of the leading Humanist scholars of the day. In 1419 he returned to Bologna, and three years later took his degree as master of theology. The saintly bishop of Bologna, Niccolò Albergati, now took him into his service. For more than twenty years Parentucelli was the bishop's factotum, and in that capacity was enabled to indulge his passion for building and that of collecting books. Unlike many bibliophiles he was as well acquainted with the matter contained within his volumes as with their bindings and value. Some of them are still preserved, and contain many marginal notes in his beautiful writing. His knowledge was of the encyclopedic character not unusual at a time when the learned undertook to argue de omni re scibili . His mind, however, was receptive rather than productive. Nevertheless, he could make good use of what he had studied, as was shown at the Council of Florence where his familiarity with Patristic and Scholastic theology gave him a prominent place in the discussions with the Greek bishops. He accompanied Albergati in various legatine missions, notably to France, and was always watchful for rare and beautiful books. Eugene IV wished to attach such a brilliant scholar to his own person ; but Parentucelli remained faithful to his patron. On the death of the latter he was appointed to succeed him in the See of Bologna, but was unable to take possession owing to the troubled state of the city. This led to his being entrusted by Pope Eugene with important diplomatic missions in Italy and Germany, which he carried out with such success that he obtained as his reward a cardinal's hat (Dec., 1446). Early next year (23 Feb.) Eugene died, and Parentucelli was elected in his place, taking as his name Nicholas in memory of his obligations to Niccolò Albergati (6 March, 1447).
As soon as the new pontiff was firmly seated on his throne, it was felt that a new spirit had come into the papacy. Now that there was no longer any danger of a fresh outbreak of schism and the Council of Constance had lost all influence, Nicholas could devote himself to the accomplishment of objects which were the aim of his life and had been the means of raising him to his present exalted position. He designed to make Rome the site of splendid monuments, the home of literature and art, the bulwark of the papacy, and the worthy capital of the Christian world. His first care was to strengthen the fortifications, and restore the churches in which the stations were held. Next he took in hand the cleansing and paving of the streets. Rome, once famous for the number and magnificence of its aqueducts, had become almost entirely dependent for its water supply on the Tiber and on wells and cisterns. The "Aqua Virgo", originally constructed by Agrippa, was restored by Nicholas, and is to this day the most prized by the Romans, under the name of "Acqua Trevi". But the works on which he especially set his heart were the rebuilding of the Leonine City, the Vatican, and the Basilica of St. Peter. On this spot, as in a centre, the glories of the papacy were to be focused. We cannot here enter into a description of the noble designs which he entertained (see Pastor, "History of the Popes ", II, 173 sqq., Eng. tr.). The basilica, the palace, and the fortress of the popes are not now what he would have made them; but their actual splendours are due in no small measure to the lofty aspirations of Nicholas V. He has been severely censured for pulling down a portion of the old St. Peter's and planning the destruction of the remainder. He defended his action on the ground that the buildings were on the verge of ruin (Müntz, "Les Arts à la Cour des Papes", p. 118); but the almost equally ancient Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura was preserved by judicious restorations until it was destroyed by fire in 1823. The pontiff's veneration for antiquity may have yielded to his desire to construct an edifice more in harmony with the classical taste of the Renaissance school, of which he himself was so ardent an adherent. Nothing but praise, however, can be given to him for his work in the Vatican Palace. Indeed it was he who first made it the worthy residence of the popes. Some of his constructions still remain, notably the left side of the court of St. Damasus and the chapel of San Lorenzo, decorated with Fra Angelico's frescoes.
Though a patron of art in all its branches, it was literature that obtained his highest favours. His lifelong love of books and his delight in the company of scholars could now be gratified to the full. His immediate predecessors had held the Humanists in suspicion; Nicholas welcomed them to the Vatican as friends. Carried away by his enthusiasm for the New Learning, he overlooked any irregularities in their morals or opinions. He accepted the dedication of a work by Poggio, in which Eugene was assailed as a hypocrite ; Valla, the Voltaire of the Renaissance, was made an Apostolic notary. In spite of the demands on his resources for building purposes, he was always generous to deserving scholars. If any of them modestly declined his bounty, he would say: "Do not refuse; you will not always have a Nicholas among you." He set up a vast establishment in the Vatican for translating the Greek classics, so that all might become familiar with at least the matter of these masterpieces. "No department of literature owes so much to him as history. By him were introduced to the knowledge of western Europe two great and unrivalled models of historical composition, the work of Herodotus and the work of Thucydides. By him, too, our ancestors were first made acquainted with the graceful and lucid simplicity of Xenophon and with the manly good sense of Polybius" (Macaulay, Speech at Glasgow University). The crowning glory of his pontificate was the foundation of the Vatican Library. No lay sovereigns had such opportunities of collecting books as the popes. Nicholas's agents ransacked the monasteries and palaces of every country in Europe. Precious manuscripts, which would have been eaten by the moths or would have found their way to the furnace, were rescued from their ignorant owners and sumptuously housed in the Vatican. In this way he accumulated five thousand volumes at a cost of more than forty thousand scudi . "It was his greatest joy to walk about his library arranging the books and glancing through their pages, admiring the handsome bindings, and taking pleasure in contemplating his own arms stamped on those that had been dedicated to him, and dwelling in thought on the gratitude that future generations of scholars would entertain towards their benefactor. Thus he is to be seen depicted in one of the halls of the Vatican library, employed in settling his books" (Voigt, quoted by Pastor, II, 213).
His devotion to art and literature did not prevent him from the performance of his duties as Head of the Church. By the Concordat of Vienna (1448) he secured the recognition of the papal rights concerning bishoprics and benefices. He also brought about the submission of the last of the antipopes, Felix V, and the dissolution of the Synod of Basle (1449). In accordance with his general principle of impressing the popular mind by outward and visible signs, he proclaimed a Jubilee which was the fitting symbol of the cessation of the schism and the restoration of the authority of the popes (1450). Vast multitudes flocked to Rome in the first part of the year; but when the hot weather began, the plague which had been ravaging the countries north of the Alps wrought fearful havoc among the pilgrims. Nicholas was seized with a panic; he hurried away from the doomed city and fled from castle to castle in the hope of escaping infection. As soon as the pestilence abated he returned to Rome, and received the visits of many German princes and prelates who had long been upholders of the decrees of Constance and Basle. But another terrible calamity marred the general rejoicings. More than two hundred pilgrims lost their lives in a crush which occurred on the bridge of Sant' Angelo a few days before Christmas. Nicholas erected two chapels at the entrance of the bridge where Mass was to be said daily for the repose of the souls of the victims.
On this occasion, as in previous Jubilees, vast sums of money found their way into the treasury of the Church, thus enabling the pontiff to carry out his designs for the promotion of art and learning, and the support of the poor. As the Jubilee was the proof that Rome was the centre towards which all Christendom was drawn, so at its conclusion Nicholas sent forth his legates into the different countries to assert his authority and to bring about the reform of abuses. Cardinal D'Estouteville was sent to France ; Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, one of the most devout and learned men of his day, was sent to North Germany and England ; and the heroic Franciscan, St. John Capistran, to South Germany. They held provincial and other synods and assemblies of the regular clergy, in which wholesome decrees were made. Nicholas of Cusa and St. John preached the word in season and out of season, thereby producing wonderful conversions among both clergy and laity. If they did not succeed in destroying the germs of the Protestant revolt, they certainly postponed for a while the evil and narrowed the sphere of its influence. It should be noted that Cusa never reached England, and that D'Estouteville initiated the process for the rehabilitation of Bl. Joan of Arc. The restored authority of the Holy See was further manifested by the coronation of Frederick III as Sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, the first of the House of Habsburg raised to that dignity, and the last of the emperors crowned in Rome (1452).
Meantime the pontiff's own subjects caused him great anxiety. Stefano Porcaro, an able scholar and politician, who had enjoyed the favour of Martin V and Eugene IV, made several attempts to set up a republic in Rome. Twice he was pardoned and pensioned by the generous Nicholas, who would not sacrifice such an ornament of the New Learning. At last he was seized on the eve of a third plot, and condemned to death (Jan., 1453). A deep gloom now settled down on the pontiff. His magnificent designs for the glory of Rome and his mild government of his subjects had not been able to quell the spirit of rebellion. He began to collect troops and never stirred abroad without a strong guard. His health, too, began to suffer seriously, though he was by no means an old man. And before the conspiracy was thoroughly stamped out a fresh blow struck him from which he never recovered. We have seen what a prominent part Parentucelli had taken in the Council of Florence. The submission of the Greek bishops had not been sincere. On their return to Constantinople most of them openly rejected the decrees of the council and declared for the continuance of the schism. Eugene IV vainly endeavoured to stir up the Western nations against the ever-advancing Turks. Some help was given by the Republics of Venice and Genoa ; but Hungary and Poland, more nearly menaced, supplied the bulk of the forces. A victory at Nish (1443) had been followed by two terrible defeats (Varna, 1444, and Kosovo, 1449). The whole of the Balkan peninsula, except Constantinople, was now at the mercy of the infidels. The emperor, Constantine XII, sent messages to Rome imploring the pope to summon the Christian peoples to his aid. Nicholas sternly reminded him of the promises made at Florence, and insisted that the terms of the union should be observed. Nevertheless the fear that the Turks would attack Italy, if they succeeded in capturing the bulwark of the east, induced the pontiff to take some action — especially as the emperor professed his readiness to accept the decrees of the council. In May, 1452, Cardinal Isidore, an enthusiastic Greek patriot, was sent as legate to Constantinople. A solemn function in honour of the union was celebrated on 12 Dec., 1452, with prayers for the pope and for the patriarch, Gregorius. But the clergy and the populace cursed the Uniates and boasted that they would rather submit to the turban of the Turk than to the tiara of the Roman Pontiff. After many obstacles and delays a force of ten papal galleys and a number of vessels furnished by Naples, Genoa, and Venice set sail for the East, but before they reached their destination the imperial city had fallen and the Emperor Constantine was no more (29 May, 1453). Whatever may have been the dilatoriness of Nicholas up to this point — and it must be acknowledged that he had good reason for not helping the Greeks — he now lost no time. He addressed a Bull of Crusade to the whole of Christendom. Every sort of inducement, spiritual and temporal, was held out to those who should take part in the holy war. Princes were exhorted to sink their differences and to unite against the common foe. But the days of chivalry were gone: most of the nations took no notice of the appeal; some of them, such as Genoa and Venice, even solicited the friendship of the infidels.
The gloom which had settled upon Nicholas after Porcaro's conspiracy grew deeper as he realized that his warning voice had been unheeded. Gout, fever, and other maladies warned him that his end was at hand. Summoning the cardinals around him, he delivered to them the famous discourse in which he set before them the objects for which he had laboured, and enumerated with pardonable pride the noble works which he had accomplished (Pastor, II, 311). He died on the night between 24 and 25 of March, 1455, and was laid in St. Peter's by the side of Eugene IV. His splendid tomb was taken down by Paul V, and removed to the crypt, where some portions of it may still be seen. His epitaph, the last by which any pope was commemorated, was written by Æneas Sylvius, afterwards Pius II.
Nicholas was small in stature and weakly in constitution. His features were clear-cut; his complexion pale; his eyes dark and piercing. In disposition he was lively and impetuous. A scholar rather than a man of action, he underrated difficulties, and was impatient when he was not instantly understood and obeyed. At the same time he was obliging and cheerful, and readily granted audience to his subjects. He was a man of sincere piety, simple and temperate in his habits, He was entirely free from the bane of nepotism, and exercised great care in the choice of cardinals. We may truly say that the lofty aims, the scholarly and artistic tastes, and the noble generosity of Nicholas form one of the brightest pages in the history of the popes.
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