Renaissance and Reformation Pope Sixtus IV
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • 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 of April 1478: one of the pope’s lay nephews, Girolamo Riario, supported the plot against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, and another, Cardinal Raffaele Sansoni-Riario, witnessed the murder of Giuliano in the Florentine duomo. The Pazzi War was followed by a realignment of the Italian powers, which then went to war over the duchy of Ferrara in 1482–1484. Sixtus’s death on 12 August 1484 was said to have been caused by his fury at the peace terms agreed between Milan and Venice. Relations between Sixtus and the secular powers beyond Italy are perhaps best approached via the ecclesiastical policies of the relevant princes. The broad outline of his pontificate can be traced in various Reference Works, but attention should focus on the sheer quantity of Primary Sources, which are so numerous that they are divided between Histories, Letters, and Panegyrics and Polemics in this article. Collections of Papers also form so rich a resource that relatively few individual articles have been selected for individual treatment. Lives and Times can be consulted for the political, diplomatic, and military history of Sixtus’s pontificate, while A Franciscan Pope addresses some aspects of its ecclesiastical history. Again reflecting the quantity of available publications, it seems appropriate to allow Culture to be subdivided into Architecture, the architectural and artistic composite that is the Sistine Chapel, and other Painting and Sculpture, before concluding with the literary culture of the Written and Spoken Word.

Reference Works

The starting point for an inquiry into the life and career of any 15th-century prelate is Eubel 1913, some paper copies of which are so well thumbed that it comes as no surprise that the volume has been made available online and is also among the sources of inspiration for Catholic Hierarchy. These sources provide the most basic building blocks for an appreciation of Sixtus IV. Miranda 1998– adds another level of appreciation by turning these building blocks into text, but falls short of a full biography. This will be supplied in due course by Dizionario biografico degli italiani. In the meantime, a brief outline of Sixtus’s career and pontificate can be found in the highly accessible Kelly and Walsh 2010, much valuable information can be gleaned from Levillain 2002, and the most detailed survey of all is located in Enciclopedia dei papi.

  • Catholic Hierarchy. 1996–2017.

    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. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960–.

    “Sisto IV, papa” will appear in a forthcoming volume of this authoritative resource. In the meantime, entries can be consulted on Cristoforo, Domenico, Giovanni, and Leonardo della Rovere (Volume 37), Giuliano della Rovere (“Giulio II, papa,” Volume 57), and Girolamo and Pietro Riario (Volume 87), all featuring appropriate emphasis on the relationships between these nipoti and their papal kinsman, Sixtus.

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

    The entry on Sixtus 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. There is an extensive 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. 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. However, the bibliography relies so heavily on other reference works as to suggest that Walsh’s update did not extend to seeking out more specialist studies.

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

    This work is a treasure trove 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.

  • Miranda, Salvador. Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. 1998–.

    Francesco della Rovere does not have the greatest presence in this user-friendly website, but can be found in the general list of cardinals, from where Biographical Material, a bibliography, and a webography can all 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 and the eighteen electors in the conclave of 1471.

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