Renaissance and Reformation Pope Sixtus IV
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0413


The humbly born Ligurian Francesco della Rovere (b. c. 1414–d. 1484) was entrusted to the Franciscan Order from the age of nine and educated in Chieri, near Turin, and at the university of Padua. By 1460 his distinguished academic career had taken him from Padua to Bologna, Pavia, Siena, Florence, and Perugia. He then served as Roman procurator and vicar general of the Friars Minor, and minister general from 1464, before being made a cardinal by Pope Paul II in 1467. His learning was demonstrated in three theological treatises: De sanguine Christi, De potentia dei, and De futuris contingentibus. If the cardinals reckoned on securing a meek scholar-pope when they elected him to the highest office in August 1471, they miscalculated, for what emerged from the Franciscan chrysalis was an enthusiastic player of papal politics who advanced the interests of his kinsmen with greater zeal than had any of his recent predecessors. Pope Sixtus IV was a rarity in the higher echelons of the Church precisely because he was of non-noble birth, and he clearly sought to compensate for this not only by promoting so many of his relatives, both clerics and laymen, but by commissioning numerous building projects that could be decorated with oak trees and acorns, the Della Rovere emblems. The holy year or jubilee of 1475 presented the ideal opportunity for such assertions of the family’s newly established status. Toward the end of the pontificate, Sixtus’s taste for entering political alliances embroiled the papacy in a sequence of peninsular wars, the first of which was triggered by the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478. The broad outline of his pontificate can be traced in various Reference Works and Overviews, but attention should focus on the sheer quantity of Primary Sources, which are subdivided into Election Capitulations, Histories, Letters, and Panegyrics and Polemics in this article. Sixtus was first and foremost a Franciscan Pope, which was duly reflected in the visual and literary culture of Rome. Again reflecting the quantity of available publications, Culture is subdivided into Architecture and Sculpture, the architectural and artistic composite that is the Sistine Chapel, and Other Painting, before concluding with the literary culture of the Written and Spoken Word. Beyond the realm of culture, other facets of the pontificate are featured under Governing the Church and Prelates and Princes, though it should not be implied that there was a neat division between “internal” and “foreign” policies. All aspects of the pontificate are explored in Collections of Papers and Journals.

Reference Works

Eubel 1913 is the standard reference work consulted by historians of the Church in the fifteenth century. It provides basic information about popes, cardinals, and bishops. The Catholic Hierarchy website is in essence an online version of Eubel, but is being constantly expanded so that it now ranges somewhat beyond the information found in the older work. In addition to Catholic Hierarchy, the only other exclusively online resource cited here is Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, a compendium of information relating to the entire history of the cardinalate. The remainder of the present selection are all texts of varying lengths. The shortest entries, on Innocent VIII and all the other popes, are to be found in Kelly and Walsh 2010. Depending on the student’s precise need, that may be sufficient, but Levillain 2002 is a more substantial English-language text and provides information beyond brief biographies of popes, thereby encouraging the reader to acquire a wider range of relevant information. The two other works cited in this section are intimately related: the entry on Sixtus in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani (DBI) is an abbreviated version of that in the Enciclopedia dei papi, albeit with a lengthier bibliography. Either version will suffice for academic purposes, and both encourage the student to make connections, between a wide variety of contemporaries in the case of the DBI, and between popes in that of the Enciclopedia dei papi.

  • Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.

    On this user-friendly website, Francesco della Rovere can be found in the general list of cardinals, from where biographical material, a bibliography, and a webography can be accessed. The general list also contains the thirty-four cardinals created by Sixtus. Elsewhere, he is listed among the cardinal-priests of S. Pietro in Vincoli, cardinals who were members of religious orders, and the eighteen electors in the conclave of 1471.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    This website is essentially a more flexible but less scholarly version of Eubel 1913 and the other tomes in the nine-volume Hierarchia catholica series. As with Eubel 1913, the impact of Francesco della Rovere/Sixtus is limited by the fact that he was never a diocesan bishop. Information about him can nevertheless be accessed via “events by year,” “consistories” (for the creation of cardinals), and “conclaves.”

  • Dizionario biografico degli italiani. 100 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960–2020.

    Now that the DBI has reached completion, short biographies are available for all the most notable characters in Sixtus IV’s story. The entry for “Sisto IV, papa” by Giuseppe Lombardi is in Volume 92 (2018). It is a shortened version of his text for the Enciclopedia dei papi, with the bibliography updated to cover publications up to and including 2011.

  • Enciclopedia dei papi. 3 vols. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2000.

    The entry for “Sisto IV” is by Giuseppe Lombardi and is to be found in Volume 2, at pp. 701–717. It deals in turn with Francesco della Rovere’s family, religious formation, Franciscan career, theological works, and Marian devotion, before accounting for his papal election and subsequent events, with particular emphasis on his relations with secular princes. Both text and bibliography have been adapted for the Dizionario biografico degli italiani.

  • Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia catholica medii aevi. Vol. 2. 2d ed. Münster, Germany: Sumptibus et Typis Librariae Regensbergianae, 1913.

    This most authoritative of resources details all cardinalitial and episcopal appointments. In view of the fact that Francesco della Rovere was never a bishop before becoming pope, he appears only among the cardinals created by Paul II. On the other hand, a great many episcopal appointments were made during his pontificate, each of which can be traced by means of archival references.

  • Kelly, J. N. D., and M. J. Walsh. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199295814.001.0001

    This accessible volume provides useful introductions to each pontiff from St Peter to Benedict XVI, including an entry on Sixtus IV at pp. 252–254. This entry covers the ground well enough, especially with regard to the pope’s dealings with other states. The bibliography is limited to primary sources and reference works, limiting its utility. First published as a single-authored work; revised by Walsh.

  • Levillain, Philippe, ed. The Papacy: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    This work is a cornucopia of useful material on all aspects of papal history. Paola Placentini’s entry on Sixtus IV appears in Volume 3, at pp. 1433–1436. It covers his career and dealings with various Italian states, before focusing on nepotism and the cultural life of Rome during his pontificate. The bibliography should be preferred to that in Kelly and Walsh 2010.

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