August 19, 1458—They ate and slept alone in dark cells specially built for their irregular meetings. They huddled in the hall and even in the privies, engaging in zenophobia, browbeating, bribery, and maybe a couple of prayers. When they were finished, the College of Cardinals had elected Aeneus Silvius Piccolomini, a humanist and reformed roué, who took the name Pius II.
That brief description only hints at what happened in the papal conclave. In its way, Pius’ election was as much a free-for-all and scandal as the American elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, 1960, and 2000.
In choosing Pius, the 19 cardinals assembled picked an aging poet who epitomized “The New Learning” of the Renaissance, a descendant of an aristocratic Italian family fallen on hard times—a marked contrast to his chief opponent, Guillaume d'Estouteville of Rouen, a Frenchman not above using family wealth and the power of the French king to his advantage.
Men both holier and more corrupt than Piccolomini have succeeded to the ancient leadership position once held by St. Peter. Few, however, have exceeded Pius in strength of intellect, complexity of character, or the surprising twists of his life.
How can I give you an idea of what he was like? Okay, try this: a cross between Geoffrey Chaucer and St. Thomas Becket.
Were he alive in the 20th century, I suspect Piccolomini would probably have spent the first part of his life as an auteur of the kind of Italian sex comedies that featured actresses such as Sophia Loren, Laura Antonelli, and Monica Bellucci. Instead, living in the High Renaissance, he made do with poetry, and especially De Duobus Amantibus (“A Tale of Two Lovers”), which readers couldn’t wait to snap up at the time. (Years later, after becoming pope, he attempted to round up and put out of circulation as many copies of this now-embarrassing work as possible. To his regret, nobody wanted to part with it.)
Verses, dialogues and letters poured from his pen. (Even one of his uncompleted works-- Historia rerum ubique gestarum—served a useful purpose as a vast compendium of scientific and geographic knowledge of the day, and was heavily annotated by Christopher Columbus as he sought to persuade one royal patron after another to back his voyage to the Indies.) Even the poet’s first name reminded humanist admirers of the recovery of ancient civilization.
By the time he turned 40, Piccolomini’s romantic exertions (including liaisons with a Scotswoman and an English lady that produced children) had physically and spiritually exhausted him. He was not only ready to renounce women for good (“Women is an imperfect creature…without faith, without fear, without constancy, without piety!”) but to take a step he’d been avoiding for years: holy orders. His rise through the upper ranks of the Vatican after that point was inexorable, rendering him papabile (like it sounds, “pope-able,” or a potential Pope candidate).
On opening day of the 1458 conclave, the odds-on favorite of the cardinals, Domenico Capranica, died suddenly, and factions formed quickly to seize his supporters. The principal point at issue was the rising influence of the French king in the wake of the Hundred Years War.
One of the fullest—albeit most biased—contemporary accounts of the ensuing events was a chapter in Pius’ autobiography, heavily redacted by Vatican censors after his death. His summary of d'Estouteville’s campaign pitch, in Secret Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope, reeks of the latter's naked ambition: “I am learned in pontifical law and can boast of royal blood. I am rich in friends and resources with which I can succour the impoverished Church. I hold also not a few ecclesiastical benefices, which I shall distribute among you and the others, when I resign them.”
In what Pius would call “the conspiracy of the privies,” d'Estouteville’s cabal among the cardinals met in the toilets because it was secluded. “A fit place for such a Pope to be elected!” Pius fumed. “For where could one more appropriately enter into a foul covenant than in privies?”
If Pius had given up on lust, he was not without pride, sometimes to an absurdly unself-conscious degree (“it was common talk that Aeneas, Cardinal of Siena, would be Pope, since no one was held in higher esteem,” he observes about his standing with the people). Now that stood him in good stead, as he faced down d'Estouteville’s pledged supporters.
One by one, he peeled them off, until he stood tantalizingly close to becoming pope. In particular, Aeneas played on the international situation, shrewdly appealing to the patriotism of the Italian cardinals, warning that d'Estouteville could very easily shift Vatican operations to France altogether.
The French cardinal had one last trick up his sleeve. As one of the three appointed to certify the accuracy of each vote, he announced at one point that Aeneas had eight votes. Nobody spoke until Aeneas urged the counters to “look more carefully at the ballots.” They did, and discovered that he had nine votes.
When one of the voters, Cardinal Prospero Colonna, changed his mind and decided to cast his lot with Aeneas, supporters of d'Estouteville tried to push him out of the room by force. But it was too late.
Pius was about to embark on a term short (five years) but not without fireworks (in one extraordinary confrontation, he wheeled on one of his tormenters among the cardinals, who had claimed that he should be made a saint, and announced that he'd do so, all right-- he would “canonize him to hell!”) or consequences (he was about to lead another Crusade when he caught fever and died).