Pope Nicholas V reigned from 1447 to 1455. He was a true Renaissance pope who welcomed humanists and other intellectuals in his court. His reign was relatively stable so he was able to restore Rome and the Vatican to their former beauty. Unfortunately, he permitted the Portuguese raiders to capture non-Christians in Africa on the pretext of a crusade in the mid-1400s. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during this time.
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Early Life and Career
Tommaso Parentucelli was born on November 15, 1397, in the little town of Sarzana, near La Spezia. His father worked as a physician and died when Tommaso was young. Because of his father’s death and his family’s poverty, he was forced to stop his education in Bologna. He traveled to Florence where he became the tutor of the sons of the wealthy Florentine families, such as the Albizzi and Strozzi clans. It turned out to be a blessing for the young scholar. Florence was one of the centers for humanism, and the young Tomasso met many of them during his time there.
He returned to Bologna in 1419 and received his Masters in Theology three years later. The Bishop of Bologna, Niccolo Albergati, hired him as a jack-of-all-trades. However, he was most useful to the bishop as a book collector–then a popular Renaissance pursuit. He was able to visit Germany, France, and England in search of precious manuscripts. Some of his collections even survived into modern times.
Bishop Albergati died in 1444, and Tomasso succeeded him as Bishop of Bologna. However, he failed to work effectively as a bishop as Bologna was wracked with chaos at that time. Pope Eugene was so impressed with Bishop Parentucelli that he appointed him as the papal legate to the Holy Roman Empire. He was later appointed as the cardinal-priest of the church of Santa Susanna in Rome in 1446.
As Pope Nicholas V
Pope Eugene IV died on February 23, 1447, and Cardinal Parentucelli’s election as the new pope came soon after. He took the name Nicholas V to honor his mentor and patron, the deceased Bishop Niccolo Albergati. The chaos of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism led to Rome’s deterioration. The city became more stable during the reign of the previous popes. Because of this stability and the availability of funds, the new pope decided to restore Rome’s crumbling buildings, fortifications, streets, and churches.
The restorations in the Leonine City, the Vatican, and many structures in Rome became a lifelong project for Nicholas V. He first ordered that the restoration of the city walls and bridges. Many of these structures dated back to the Roman Empire era. The Aqua Virgo built by Emperor Agrippa was also restored and used again during the reign of Nicholas V. It was later renamed as Acqua Vergine.
He also had several church buildings in Rome restored. Some of the churches which underwent restoration were the Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The Palazzo dei Conservatori and other government buildings were also repaired thanks to the efforts of Pope Nicholas V.
Pope Nicholas was a lifelong collector of books and patron of the arts. His love for classical Greek and Roman texts carried over into his papacy. As an avid collector, he sent his men all over Europe to search for long-forgotten manuscripts. His extensive manuscript collection eventually gave way to the Vatican Library. He also commissioned scholars to translate Greek classics and sent ships to recover manuscripts from Constantinople before the siege of 1453. The ships, however, did not reach Constantinople on time. Greek scholars who fled the Ottomans later smuggled manuscripts into Italy and the rest of Europe.
Unlike the previous pope who looked at the humanists with suspicion, Pope Nicholas welcomed them into his court. Poggio Bracciolini dedicated his translation of Diodorus Siculus’ The Library of History to Nicholas himself. Pope Nicholas also appointed the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla as an apostolic secretary. The pope was known to be a generous patron of scholars.
Pope Nicholas V dissolved the Council of Basel in 1449. Pilgrims flocked to Rome after he announced a Jubilee one year later to celebrate the end of the Great Western Schism. The offerings that the pilgrims brought were added to the papal treasury. Unfortunately, the crowd that descended on Rome slowed to a trickle after an outbreak of the plague.
Pope Nicholas V and the European Slave Trade
The man who was responsible for the spread of humanism in Europe was also responsible for the misery of enslaved Africans. On June 18, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull called Dum Diversas which he addressed to Alfonso V of Portugal. The bull allowed the Portuguese king to launch a campaign against, capture, and enslave non-Christians of Africa. The campaign was justified as a crusade. The pope also promised the remission of sins for anyone who joined this “crusade.”
Three years later, Pope Nicholas issued another papal bull titled Romanus Pontifex. The bull granted the Portuguese trade monopoly on all lands south of Cape Bojador in Western Sahara. This second papal bull reinforced the Dum Diversas’ encouragement to enslave non-Christians which included “heathens” and Muslims.
The year 1453 was not kind to the pope. The middle-aged Nicholas was sick and depressed after an unsuccessful appeal to European nobility to help the Byzantines for the last time. The rebellion and execution of the Italian humanist Stefano Porcari also took its toll on the pope. Pope Nicholas V died on March 24, 1455.
Picture by: Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Burroughs, Charles. “Below the Angel: An Urbanistic Project in the Rome of Pope Nicholas V.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 45 (1982): 94-124. doi:10.2307/750968.
Noel, Gerard. The Renaissance Popes: Culture, Power and the Making of the Borgia Myth. London: Hachette UK, 2016.
Rodriguez, Junius P. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997.
Scannell, Thomas. “Pope Nicholas V.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 25 Jan. 2017 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11058a.htm>.
Strong, James. Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 7. Harper, 1894.
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