In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Renaissance Papacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Individual Renaissance Popes
  • Canon Law
  • Papal Authority
  • Popes and Councils of the Church
  • Papal Family, Court, and Chapel
  • The Cardinalate or Sacred College of Cardinals
  • Cardinals’ Finances, Culture, and Social World
  • Individual Renaissance Cardinals
  • The Papacy and the Jews

Renaissance and Reformation The Renaissance Papacy
Frederick McGinness
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0110


A study of the papacy or the Holy See (the episcopal office of the bishop of Rome) between the years 1350 and 1650 must take into account the long history of the papacy, which extends back to the early centuries of the Common Era and continues to the present day. In this long stretch were laid, often haphazardly, the foundations of papal authority, the claims of the popes as spiritual leaders of the Western church, and the development of the complex administrative machinery centered on Rome to govern the institutional church. A study of the papacy must look as well at the continuous involvement of popes in the major religious, political, economic, and cultural movements in Europe and the East. In these centuries papal government and assertions of authority and influence extended into virtually every aspect of European life and thought. Scholars generally place the beginnings of the Renaissance papacy at Rome around 1421, when Odo Colonna, Pope Martin V, returned to his native city after the papal residence at Avignon (1309–1378), the resolution of the Western Schism, the dampening of the conciliarist crisis after the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–1445), and the reassertion of papal sovereignty and political power over the city of Rome and the Papal States. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453) and the “loss” of the Eastern church, the papacy in the later 15th century assumed greater prominence as a princely power and as spiritual leader of Christians at a time of increasing peril to Christian Europe, and by this time most of the elements of the papacy as we know it today were set. The Renaissance at Rome is seen as waning after Martin Luther’s challenge to papal authority, the Reformation in northern Europe, and the devastating sack of Rome (1527) at the hands of the army of the Holy Roman Emperor. Only after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and a series of zealous, reform-minded popes did the papacy appear to regain prestige and authority. By the 17th century the papacy’s spiritual and temporal authority and eminence were again acknowledged throughout the Catholic lands of Europe, and the institution played a major hand in the contest of empires throughout the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and in the New World. At the war’s close, however, with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659), the pope’s role as a major player in the politics of Europe was largely exhausted.

General Overviews

General histories of the papacy and of popes continue to be popular, with works on the subject appearing almost yearly. Useful is Schimmelpfennig 1992, which goes into the complex historical origins of the papacy as an institution. Collins 2009 provides a comprehensive survey of the institution from its beginnings to the present, examining those significant historical moments and events that defined the pope as spiritual head of the Western church and provided justification for claims of supremacy over all Christendom. Most important for the Renaissance papacy is still the forty-volume work Pastor 1923–1969, which, though apologetic and dated and not covering the early history of the papacy, remains the standard reference and point of departure for every student of the papacy from the late Middle Ages to the close of the 18th century. Newer essays, like Hudon 2001 and those in Alazard and La Brasca 2007, make clear the directions of modern scholarship on the papacy and its strides since Pastor 1923–1969. Specific works, like Hay 1979 and Mollat 1965, focus on crucial, formative eras of the Italian church and the papacy, as does Setton 1976–1984 with the Eastern churches and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Wright 2000 reevaluates positively the papacy’s achievements beyond the late Renaissance.

  • Alazard, Florence, and Frank B. La Brasca, eds. La papauté à la Renaissance. Paris: Champion, 2007.

    Useful reexamination of much scholarship on the Renaissance papacy—cultural, political, institutional, and spiritual—in consideration of the totality of activities in which popes were involved: governance, patronage of the arts and sciences, ecclesiastical reform, liturgy and music, the fabric of Rome, and papal building projects. Important for the status quaestionis (status of the question) on many aspects of papal scholarship.

  • Collins, Roger. Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

    Arguably the best book to date for a short history of the papacy from Peter to Benedict XVI. Based on the latest, best, and copious scholarly research, it captures succinctly the individuality of important pontificates and their self-projection at the time. Pertinent to the student of the Renaissance papacy are chapters 13–17.

  • Hay, Denys. The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    A brief introduction to the church in Italy from the Western Schism to the end of the 15th century. Lays out the diocesan and parochial arrangements of the Italian states, their religious communities, and their relationship to Rome; assesses the church’s ministries, care of souls, and the calls for reform. Excellent for placing the Roman church in its Italian context.

  • Hudon, William F. “The Papacy in the Age of Reform, 1513–1644.” In Early Modern Catholicism: Essays in Honour of John W. O’Malley, S.J. Edited by Kathleen M. Comerford and Hilmar M. Pabel, 46–66. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

    Informative, critical, synthetic, brief overview of the latest scholarship on the papacy in the Early Modern era. Addresses shifts in historiography, continuing problems with writing on the history of the papacy, new avenues of research, historians’ greater appreciation of the complex historical realities behind the papacy of this era.

  • Mollat, Guillaume. The Popes at Avignon, 1305–1378. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

    Though dated, still the authoritative work on the popes’ residence at Avignon down to the Western Schism. Reviews the seven Avignonese popes, their pastoral and external activities, relations with temporal powers, and maneuverings in face of mounting international criticism for not being in Rome and the curial bureaucracy’s avarice. Valuable study of the papal Curia and its officials.

  • Pastor, Ludwig von. History of the Popes: From the Close of the Middle Ages. 40 vols. Edited by F. I. Antrobus, Ralph Francis Kerr, and Ernest Graf. St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1923–1969.

    Published first in sixteen volumes, 1886–1933. Begins with Martin V (1417–1431), the sole pope after the Western Schism and its resolution at the Council of Constance (1414–1418); ends with Pius VI (d. 1799). Chronicles changes in the institutions of papal governance, political involvement, religious and cultural movements, and more. Standard reference for all popes in the Renaissance and beyond.

  • Schimmelpfennig, Bernard. The Papacy. Translated by James Sievert. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    Examines the bishop of Rome and church structure from early Rome to the Reformation; argues that the preeminence of the Roman bishop in the early church was nonexistent. In theological and jurisdictional disputes the papacy made claims on the basis of ties to Peter and Paul, the idea of an apostolic succession, the martyrs at Rome, and certain forgeries.

  • Setton, Kenneth M. The Papacy and the Levant, 1204–1571. 4 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976–1984.

    Exhaustive study of papal and to a large extent Venetian politics and diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean and in parts of western Europe. Chronicles the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the West’s failure to mount opposition, the papacy’s concern to check Turkish advances in the Balkans, the capture of Constantinople (1453), and Ottoman successes until the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

  • Wright, A. D. The Early Modern Papacy: From the Council of Trent to the French Revolution, 1564–1789. Harlow, UK: Longmans, 2000.

    For the more advanced student. Wright offers a fresh interpretation of the early modern papacy, one generally seen by scholars as stagnant or in decline and tied to oppressive institutions like the Inquisition and claims of papal absolutism. The author argues that scholars have been too influenced by the views of Ludwig von Pastor and others (e.g., Paolo Prodi) of the institution and need to look beyond to what the papacy did, in fact, accomplish.

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