Renaissance and Reformation Pope Paul II
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0481


Wedged between the prolific humanist Pius II and the arch-nepotist Sixtus IV, Paul II is one of the more easily overlooked popes of the 15th century. Pietro Barbo was born in Venice in 1417, into an extensive network of interconnected clerically dominated families that had recently produced two popes, Gregory XII (r. 1406–1415) and Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447). It was Eugenius who raised Barbo to the cardinalate in 1440. Nicholas V (r. 1447–1455) promoted him from being cardinal deacon of S. Maria Nuova to cardinal priest of S. Marco, the most fitting choice for a Venetian, but when Pius II (r. 1458–1464) chose him to fill the episcopal vacancy at Padua in 1459 it created a diplomatic crisis between Venice and Rome. On 30 August 1464 Barbo was elected to succeed Pius, but his initial desire to take Mark as his papal name was rejected by the cardinal electors and he became Pope Paul II. He died on 26 July 1471. The key features of his life and pontificate can be found in any number of Reference Works, though separate Overviews are relatively scarce. Primary Sources are certainly not in short supply, meaning that they are divided for present purposes into Papal Lives and Other Sources. Those sources duly inspired the classic history of the papacy and the recent biography which are paired under the heading Lives and Times, as well as the more detailed research published in Collections of Papers and a specialist Journal. From that point the structure of this article is dictated by the distinctive features of Paul’s pontificate. Curia Romana brings together a number of studies on papal administration, but its positioning is dictated by a relatively minor organizational change. That triggered a reaction among the curialists who lost their employment and can therefore be linked to the humanists of the Roman Academy and their alleged plot to murder the pope in 1468. That episode provides the bulk of the material included as Literary Culture, which might otherwise appear less prominently. Paul’s literary interests have been a matter of debate, but there is no doubt about his interest in and patronage of Art, Architecture and Urban Planning. If this article is thought of in terms of concentric circles, the pope was in his palace adjacent to the church of S. Marco, from which one can move outwards into Rome and the Papal States and, beyond that, Rome and the Secular Powers of western Christendom, including Venice.

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 Paul II 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 and O’Malley 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, for the entry on Paul in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani 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. Additionally, King 1986 includes an entry on Pietro Barbo (Paul II) with particular reference to his literary interests.

  • Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.

    Within the general list of cardinals, Ludovico Trevisan(o) and Pietro Barbo are grouped together because they were both promoted to the cardinalate on 1 July 1440. Basic biographical information, a bibliography and a webography are provided there. The cardinals by Paul in 1467 and 1468 are on separate pages. Elsewhere, under “Papal Elections and Conclaves”, Pietro Barbo is listed among the electors in 1447, 1455, 1458 and 1464.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    This website is essentially a more flexible but less scholarly version of Eubel 1913 and the entire nine-volume Hierarchia catholica series. Paul’s personal page can be used as a gateway to different parts of the site: “Bishops,” “Dioceses,” “Events,” “Holy See,” “Various,” the last of which includes sections on “Conclaves” and “Consistories,” though the emphasis is modern and not all lists go back as far as the fifteenth century.

  • 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 Paul II’s story. The entry for “Paolo II, papa” by Anna Modigliani is in vol. 81 (2014) (pp. 93–98). It is a shortened version of her text for the Enciclopedia dei Papi 2000, with the bibliography updated to cover publications up to and including 2011.

  • Enciclopedia dei Papi. 3 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2000.

    The entry for “Paolo II” is by Anna Modigliani and can be found in vol. 2 (pp. 685–701). Both the text and the bibliography are lengthy and comprehensive. Both were condensed to create the corresponding entry in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, which also accounts for works published between 1998 and 2011. The fullest coverage is therefore provided by the Enciclopedia and the DBI bibliography.

  • 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, including those of Pietro Barbo as cardinal deacon of S. Maria Nuova, bishop of Cervia, cardinal priest of S. Marco, and bishop of Padua, as well as the additions he made to the College of Cardinals and appointments to bishoprics made during his pontificate. Each appointment is 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 Paul II (pp. 251–252), which emphasizes his personal characteristics, building work, and relations with extra-Italian states. The bibliography is limited to primary sources and reference works.

  • King, Margaret L. Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400854349

    This is not a reference work, but it does contain a reference-like section divided into individual profiles of its “core group,” including Pietro Barbo. Like the other profiles, his begins by indicating his kinship to other members of the group, after which a number of relevant monographs and studies are listed, his career is summarized, published correspondence sent to him is listed, his literary significance is discussed, and his tutors are identified.

  • Levillain, Philippe, and John W. O’Malley, eds. The Papacy. An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    Between them, the three volumes contain a rich abundance of useful material on all aspects of papal history. Anna Esposito’s entry on Paul II appears in Volume 2 (pp. 1121–1123). As the work of a specialist on 15th-century Rome, Esposito’s survey of the key features of Paul’s pontificate should be preferred to the version in Kelly and Walsh 2010. The same applies to the bibliography.

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