15.06.41, Gießmann, Der letzte Gegenpapst: Felix V

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Thomas Izbicki

The Medieval Review 15.06.41

Gießmann, Ursula. Der letzte Gegenpapst: Felix V. Studien zu Herrschaftspraxis und Legitimationsstrategien (1434-1451). Papsttum im mittelalterlichen Europa, 3. Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2014. pp. 410. ISBN: 9783412223595 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Izbicki
Rutgers University

Amadeus VIII of Savoy, who reigned as Pope Felix V from 1439 to 1449, is usually eclipsed by the Council of Basel (1431-49) and its opponent, Pope Eugenius IV (1431-47). In 1439, after Eugenius broke with Basel, convoking a council to meet with the Greeks in Ferrara, the assembly declared conciliar supremacy a dogma. A decree deposing Eugenius followed, as did the election of a new Roman pontiff. Duke Amadeus, who had retired to a hermitage in Ripaille, was chosen by a single cardinal and a group of conciliar fathers representing the different nations present in the Swiss city. No papal election since has produced such a competition over the see of Peter, making Felix, in modern terminology not used in his time, the last anti-pope.

Ursula Gießmann's book, based on her doctoral dissertation, details the pontificate of Felix from the election in 1439 to resignation in 1449. The research behind it is solid, and the author's exposition of Felix's papal history is lucid.

The book begins with a brief look at Amadeus as a "retired" duke, including his continuing political and cultural roles. Ripaille remained a political center between the duke's apparent retirement and his election as pope. The author examines the election in November of 1439, the communication of its results to Amadeus and his continued residence at Ripaille or nearby Thonon until well into 1440. A residence was prepared by the council at the bishop's palace in Basel for Pope Felix V. It was a combination, as Gießmann notes, of Rome and Savoy. The documentation shows efforts both to follow papal protocol and to honor the pontiff's family. Coats of arms of Savoy and of the duke's late wife, a daughter of the house of Burgundy, were displayed. Felix's noble ancestry never was forgotten in planning for the residence and the ceremonial inaugurating his pontificate. Princely magnificence was part and parcel of this effort to set up Rome in Basel.

Gießmann provides detailed accounts of Felix's formal entry into Basel and coronation in the summer of 1440. The ceremonial entry of the new pontiff was based on past precedent, and no expense was spared to impress both onlookers and participants. This display was part of the campaign to convince all Christendom that Felix had indeed succeeded Eugenius IV. Like the residence, the ceremony, although rooted in tradition, never neglected the dignity of a duke of Savoy. Similarly, the coronation, held on 24 June 1440, was based on established ceremonial norms. The event took place in the public space in front of Basel's cathedral. (It was described by the humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini in a letter to John of Segovia, the council's most important historian.) With only two cardinals, one created by Felix in the spring of that year, resident in Basel, adaptation of known ceremonies was inevitable. One innovation was the inclusion of Felix's sons in the coronation.

The record of Felix' early pontificate is followed by the author through the notarial protocols of the Council of Basel. Most of the entries treat the pope's ceremonial role. Basel had its own curia, but Felix needed a college of cardinals in order to reign as pope. New cardinals were created once a year from the coronation through 1444, following established ceremonial but acknowledging the reforms of the college enacted by the council. These cardinals were assigned titular churches in Rome, churches they never would possess. Occasionally evidence surfaces of disagreements between Felix and the conciliar fathers. Some of Felix's cardinals, leading figures in the Council of Basel, may have been chosen to smooth relations between pontiff and conciliar fathers. Politics aside, the costs sustained by a cardinal helps explain why some of Felix's choices hesitated to accept a red hat or even declined it.

Felix also had to name certain of his cardinals and others present in the city of Basel as curial officials. Whatever reforms Basel had attempted, the creation of a pope required the creation of a bureaucracy based on that of a universally accepted Roman pontiff. Among the pope's servants were his secretaries, men of letters including Piccolomini and the poet Martin Le Franc. Even a partial curia, overlapping the council's bureaucracy, was costly. The financial transactions of this papal curia, therefore, required banking; and the Medici were among those who provided this service to the year 1444.

Members of Felix's curia represented him in the many meetings of the German princes claiming neutrality in the contest between Basel's pope and Eugenius. Here too Savoyard interests overlapped with papal. Thus when Frederick III, the Hapsburg king of the Romans, visited Basel in late 1442, Philip of Geneva, Felix's younger son, was involved in receiving him. In 1445, a daughter of Felix married the Count Palatine of the Rhine, one of the seven imperial electors and an important figure in German discussions of neutrality and choice of allegiance. The Council of Basel had chosen a prince to oppose the Eugenian interest, but that required entangling the interests of the House of Savoy with those of the Church.

Shortly after Frederick visited Basel, Felix left the city. This transfer may reflect a sense that the diplomatic initiatives of the council and its pope were failing. Eugenius had won wide support by the time of his death in 1447. The next pope resident in Rome, Nicholas V, completed this diplomatic success, especially by making concessions to the princes of Europe. With his efforts succeeding, Nicholas could afford to offer generous terms to Felix. In 1449, Amadeus abdicated, "electing" Nicholas pope; and he accepted a place in the sacred college as Cardinal Bishop of Sabina. Felix already had treated Savoy as if it were the Patrimony of Peter, the papal lands in central Italy. Nicholas granted Amadeus the status of legate in the territories of Savoy, the bishopric of Geneva and the disposition of benefices within his lands, the control of patronage granted other princes in recent concordats. In this case, the interests of Savoy triumphed even when the duke gave up the hope of being Roman pontiff. Gießmann describes Amadeus as pope in his own territory.

Amadeus resided most often near Geneva in his later years. Evidence of his chapel's music and other cultural interests survives. Amadeus, Cardinal of Sabina, died on 7 January 1451, a successful ruler but not an accepted Roman pontiff. Gießmann provides an overview of this pontificate, much of which is known from previous studies. The Savoy aspects of Felix's reign are the most interesting aspect of this book, because one too easily loses sight of them in studying the larger conflict of pope and council in the Basel period.

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