14.04.19, Pattenden, Puis IV and the Fall of the Carafa

Main Article Content

Michael J. Levi

The Medieval Review 14.04.19

Pattenden, Miles. Pius IV and the Fall of The Carafa: Nepotism and Papal Authority in Counter-Reformation Rome. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 168. ISBN: 9780199670628.

Reviewed by:

Michael J. Levi
The University of Akron

Miles Pattenden, in this slim but densely packed book, presents us with a microhistory with a twist. Like many historians who write in this genre, Pattenden relies on the records of a trial to help illuminate broad social or political developments in the early modern period. Unlike such famous historians as Natalie Zemon Davis or Carlo Ginzburg, however, Pattenden focuses on the trial of several members of a rich and powerful family, rather than a person on the margins of society. Carlo Carafa, a cardinal, and his brother Giovanni, the duke of Paliano, were two of the most influential men in mid-sixteenth- century Rome, largely thanks to their uncle, Pope Paul IV (1555-9). In 1560, mere months after Paul's death, his successor Pius IV (1559-66) had the Carafa brothers arrested, charged with corruption and abuses of clerical authority, and executed. But why? What did Pius hope to accomplish? Pattenden argues that Pius' agenda and motivations have been misinterpreted ever since the nineteenth century, if not earlier. By carefully examining court records, and placing the trial in its political and social context, Pattenden seeks to change our understanding of the trial's significance.

As Pattenden explains in his introduction, most previous interpretations of the Carafa trial have focused on the problem of papal nepotism. The common political practice of rewarding family members with lucrative and influential jobs was perfected in the Renaissance papal court; by the sixteenth century the "cardinal- nephew" had become an established institution in Rome (the word "nepotism" derives from the Italian nipote, or nephew). Most historians of the papacy, from von Ranke on, have claimed that Pius IV targeted the Carafas in an attempt to end this abusive practice, and that this was a sign of a shift from a decadent Renaissance papacy to a more austere Counter-Reformation model of papal policy. But Pattenden argues that this interpretation misses the point of the trial, and that previous historians have failed "to historicize the subject of their inquiries or to contextualize it in relation to the practices of other contemporary states" (2-3). According to Pattenden, the Carafa trial was not really about corruption; it was about power.

Pattenden argues convincingly that neither Pius nor anyone else involved in the trial appeared to be motivated primarily by concern about clerical abuses; indeed they displayed "surprisingly flexible, and perhaps even undeveloped, understandings of the legitimate bounds of nepotism" (4). Pattenden suggests that instead of focusing on the Carafa and their alleged crimes, we should examine Pius' motives and place the trial in the context of his overall political strategy. According to Pattenden, what Pius really wanted was to assert his authority over the College of Cardinals, and the Carafa trial was essentially a vehicle to advance that agenda. Far from being a righteous crusader, Pius IV emerges as a calculating, opportunistic, wily politician, bent on establishing dominance over the cardinals of Rome. In Pattenden's view, the Carafa were little more than convenient fall guys in Pius' quest "to increase the arbitrary authority of the pope himself and to subordinate the position of the cardinals without necessarily making the rules and norms governing papal action more transparent" (6).

Pattenden argues his case in five chapters. Throughout the book his two central themes are the early modern papacy's attempts to establish personal control over the Roman court, and the efforts individual popes made to aggrandize their families. Chapter one sets the stage by briefly summarizing the papal reign of Paul IV and tracing the rise of Paul's nephews. Pattenden notes that within days of his election Paul arranged for friends and family to receive titles and wealth, including the duchy of Paliano for his nephew Giovanni. Paul was less successful in pursuing his dream of ending the king of Spain's political domination of Italy; the "Carafa War" of 1556-7 against the Spanish Habsburgs resulted in humiliating defeat. By the time of Paul's death in 1559, the Roman populace was so disgusted with him and his failed policies that they turned on his entire family, an important factor in Pius' calculations. Despite this, however, Carlo and Giovanni Carafa held on to their positions of power, and few would have predicted their rapid fall from grace.

Chapter two, "The Motivations for the Trial," is where we see most clearly the strengths and weaknesses of Pattenden's arguments. Pattenden here admits that his arguments are partially based on speculation, because Pius never explicitly stated his motives. As Pattenden writes, "In the absence of significant direct evidence, it is hard to reconstruct exactly how Pius viewed [recent] developments in the nature of papal authority" (43). Similarly, Pattenden acknowledges that Pius never actually said that he intended to make an example of the Carafa in order to intimidate the College of Cardinals. That being said, Pattenden's careful analysis of Pius' actions and their political context is convincing. Evidence suggests that Pius was not morally disgusted by the practice of nepotism, for he himself practiced it. Nor did Pius seem to hold a personal grudge against the Carafa--in fact, Carlo Carafa cast a decisive vote in Pius' election. Furthermore, Pius took considerable risks in pursuing the trial. Earning the resentment of many cardinals was guaranteed, but obtaining a guilty verdict was not. No pope had successfully engineered the execution of a cardinal since 1517, and since then the College had become increasingly large and fractious. Pattenden concludes that "the only rewards for Pius that would really have justified the risks of initiating the prosecution… [involved] the general act of imposing his authority over the entire political class" (39). Pattenden suggests that assertion of monarchic authority was the primary purpose of Pius' entire pontificate, and that he chose his victims well. The Carafas lost numerous allies through political ineptitude, which made them vulnerable; moreover, Giovanni Carafa murdered his unfaithful wife and her lover, which did not help his case. By May 1560, the Carafas had become "dangerously exposed to Pius' malevolence" (54).

Pattenden next describes in detail the arguments of the prosecution (chapter three) and the defense (chapter four) during the trial proceedings. Pius proceeded cautiously at first: he had to convince the cardinals of the Carafas' guilt, but more importantly he had to persuade them that he had the right to prosecute a cardinal. Tellingly, during the actual trial neither side focused on the question of whether the Carafas were guilty of corruption. Instead they concentrated on the more nebulous issue of papal authority. The prosecution argued that the Carafas had exceeded their authority as the unofficial executors of their uncle's policies; the defense maintained that the Carafas had acted in accordance with Paul's wishes, and that traditionally cardinal-nephews did not need explicit permission from the pope to enact his policies. The paradox for the defense team, as Pattenden points out, was that they ended up confirming the same principle of "papal authority" that Pius was trying to assert. Worse, many cardinals personally disliked both the Carafas and the papal policies with which they had been associated. Furthermore, Pope Pius stacked the deck by creating eighteen new cardinals, most of whom hated the Carafa family. In the end, the College of Cardinals acquiesced to the Carafas' conviction with remarkably little resistance. On March 3, 1561, the College agreed to condemn the Carafas, and they were executed the next day.

In chapter five, "The Aftermath of the Trial," Pattenden argues that through the remainder of his reign, Pius was "largely successful in preserving the principle of papal supremacy intact" (108). Pattenden also stresses that while Pius enjoyed more success than Paul IV, they were not fundamentally different kinds of popes. For the most part Pius' religious and political policies mirrored those of his predecessor; the only real difference was that Pius was a better politician. This was particularly true of his practice of nepotism. Pius shamelessly indulged his own nephews, but he was also aware that he had set a dangerous precedent when he persecuted his predecessor's nephews, and he took care to protect his own family from future popes. It was well that he did so, for the next pope, Pius V (1566-72), immediately set out to establish his papal authority by overturning many of Pius IV's accomplishments. In 1567 Pius V officially reversed the guilty verdicts against the Carafa brothers, and Pius IV's nephews, sensing the danger, quietly left Rome before they could be targeted.

Pattenden concludes by reiterating that the Carafa trial did nothing to end the practice of papal nepotism--indeed, by the seventeenth century the practice had been institutionalized. The Carafa lost not because they were corrupt, but because they were less politically astute than Pius. On the other hand, the issue of papal authority had not been settled either. Pattenden somewhat undermines his own arguments, suggesting that it is unclear whether the Carafa trial decisively altered Pius' relationship with the College of Cardinals. He cautiously suggests that the only certain conclusion one can reach is that in the mid-sixteenth century, there was no consensus about how popes should use or delegate their authority. It also seems clear that "the process of establishing personal authority had to be revisited by each pope at the start of his pontificate" (135). This is an important point, because much of the recent historiography of the early modern papacy has focused on the idea of the "modernization" of the papacy in this period, implying a steadily increasing and centralized state-like authority. Pattenden warns us correctly that this characterization oversimplifies the actual situation in early modern Rome.

Article Details

Author Biography

Michael J. Levi

The University of Akron