Pius II, one of the first truly Renaissance popes, is best known for the Commentaries, an autobiographical account of his life and pontificate. In the Commentaries we read of his triumphs over rebellious Roman nobles, power-hungry cardinals, and depraved despots. While scholars have long recognized the Commentaries as a form of self-propaganda of the hubristic Pius, they have also valued them for showcasing Renaissance values, particularly those of individualism and humanism. Others, such as the great historian of the early modern papacy, Ludwig von Pastor, read them uncritically, taking them as literal historical truth.
In this erudite study, Emily O'Brien argues that the Commentaries should be seen as a highly personalized form of apologetic literature in which Pius addressed the criticism launched at his pre-papal days and of his pontificate. O'Brien shows that Pius, sensitive to his former advocacy of conciliarism and his prominent role in the Council of Basel, minimized or even obliterated traces of this past rather than directly address them. In other parts of his apology, Pius self-fashioned a different historical memory of events, all calculated to make his enemies appear weak, self-interested, and downright diabolical while giving him the character of powerful, wise ruler, often cast in secular rather than the religious terms generally associated with the papacy. Thus Pius comes out on top in his struggles with the king of France over the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, with the recalcitrant princes reluctant to take part in his crusade, and with the Italian despots and condottieri he faced off for hegemony over the Italian League. Moreover, as O'Brien argues, Pius not only sought to shore up his own reputation but also that of the papacy itself, as he defended it from both conciliarists and the princes of Italy and Europe, bent on limiting and controlling its authority for their own needs.
O'Brien structures her tome into six chapters, the first three of which provide the historical background in which Pius wrote the Commentaries. This background, O'Brien asserts, help scholars give a proper reading and analysis of Pius's apology. She begins the first chapter with an account of the state of the papacy on the eve of Pius's election. Here she paints a picture of a church battered by the Great Schism and under constant threat from the conciliar movement and the machinations of princes, especially the French kings. Rather than seeing these threats as being dispelled during the pontificates of Nicholas V and Calixtus III, she argues that they remained powerful. Accordingly, Pius had to address them throughout his pontificate and sparred with them in his Commentaries. Chapters two and three concentrate specifically with Pius's role in the great events of his lifetime, both as Aeneas the humanist secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor and as pope. Chapter two reveals the extent of Pius's conciliarist past, which O'Brien maintains he held onto longer than scholars have previously thought (well into Eugenius IV's pontificate). Working for the Empire in various guises, Pius--then Aeneas--was a forceful advocate of papal reform, conciliarism, and the role of secular princes in regulating the ecclesiastical affairs in their own territories. These views naturally changed once Aeneas became a cardinal and then pope. In chapter three O'Brien examines Pius's relationship with secular princes. Once again his attitude evolved from staunch defender of the rights of princes and their involvement in church councils to the complete rejection of secular intervention in church affairs. O'Brien takes this account up to his struggles with Italian and European princes over the ultimately failed crusade of 1464.
In the next two chapters, O'Brien gives the Commentaries a deep reading based on the context she provided in the previous three chapters. In chapter four we seen a Pius haunted by the specter of his conciliarist past using the Commentaries to re-write history by expunging any trace of his involvement with the movement. Unlike his previous apologetic writings, most famously in his bull In minoribus, where he acknowledged his past, most famously with the metaphorical phrase, "Accept Pius, Reject Aeneas," in the Commentaries, he scarcely mentions his former allegiance to the conciliarism. When he does he adopted an apologetic tone, blaming youth and the over-reliance on others for his conciliarist errors. Chapter five has O'Brien again showing how Pius re-wrote history and even recent events in the Commentaries by examining his struggles with secular lords and princes. Again, Pius refuses to admit defeat, rather he cast his pontificate in triumphal terms, portraying the image of a strong pope who negotiates with kings and emperors, leads Italian princes, and tames unruly despots and condottieri. O'Brien convincingly demonstrates how, in the Commentaries, Pius used ceremony and oratory skills to hide weakness and project strength. When these tools fail, he had recourse to obfuscation, neglecting to mention or hiding outright historical events unfavorable to his cause and the papacy. Finally, he used the Commentaries to depict his enemies, such as Sigimondo Malatesta and Jacopo Piccinio, as lazy, recalcitrant, corrupt, and depraved to attack their ability to lead Europe against the Ottoman Turks. Meanwhile, he depicted himself as the only prince with the moral authority and wherewithal to unite the squabbling European princes in a crusade. In making a claim to lead Europe, Pius donned the trappings of a secular ruler. This is O'Brien most interesting argument: she makes the claim, rightfully so, that Pius's pontificate used the secular images of princes to shore up the papacy and in doing so helped contribute to the absolutist, dual image of the papacy that Paolo Prodi described in his magisterial The Pope's Two Souls.
In the final chapter, perhaps the most original of the book, O'Brien continues to demonstrate how Pius modelled himself on secular rulers in his Commentaries. She makes the explicit argument that Pius patterned the Commentaries on Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars and Civil Wars, and on Virgil's Aeneid. From Caesar, Pius borrowed the apologetic mode of writing, the disinterested use of third person, and the secular symbols of political hero. From Virgil, he modelled himself on Aeneas, a true moral leader who used his own reason, skill, and talent to achieve his goals rather than divine aid. O'Brien argues that not only did classical authors provides models from which he worked but so did contemporary humanist writers working in the courts of princes and condottieri in the Italian peninsula. From humanists working for Alfonso of Naples and Jacopo Piccinio, he borrowed the apologetic tone of the commentary. Meanwhile, the Renaissance epics coming from various courts such as the Filefo's Sforziad and Basinio's Hesperis (interestingly enough, written for Pius's main rival, Sigismondo Malatesta) influenced the more bombastic and heroic aspects of the Commentaries.
O'Brien persuasively shows how Pius used the Commentaries to remake the past, to hide some of his unflattering and damaging former beliefs, and to project a strong leadership role for himself and for the position of the pope itself. Throughout the introduction, and especially in chapters five and six, she makes broader contributions to the study of the papacy. One question, however, remains unanswered. This is the question of readership. She never delves deeply (only two pages) of whom Pius's intended audience might have been. In the introduction she suggests briefly that the Commentaries as we know them were meant to be an archetype from which other manuscripts editions were to be copied. She proposes that Pius wrote it for his advisors and followers. However, that belies the question: what was the need for an apologetic work geared towards allies and friends? Despite this shortcoming, O'Brien provides a solidly researched and argued work that furthers our understanding of both Pius's Commentaries and the fifteenth-century papacy.