Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
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Artists that Changed the World
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



The Italy of Popes and Princes



Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, Italy was contested by the rulers of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. It disintegrated into interdependent political structures that quarreled with each other and maneuvered between the great powers. The popes and the northern Italian princes were united by ruthless power and family politics in their battle against municipal freedoms and fashioned their courts into shining centers of the arts and literature.


see also:






CLASSICAL MUSIC-The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, The Baroque Era


The Renaissance Papacy

The popes of the Renaissance were politically unscrupulous and had a love of splendor and worldly pleasures. They made their families exceedingly rich and were also patrons of the arts.


In the Papal States, the "Renaissance papacy" began in the middle of the 15th century.

While its first representatives in the mid-to late 1400s, notably Nicholas V and 2 Pius II (formerly the celebrated poet Enea Silvio Piccolo-mini), were significant and respected humanists, moral decay set in with the pontificate of Six-tus IV in 1471.

2 Pius II located in the 'Piccolomini library' in the Duomo in Siena, by Pinturicchio

2 Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II,
being crowned as poet laureate by Emperor Frederick III,
fresco by Pinturicchio, ca.1502

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The popes sold Church offices and favored their families.

Rome became a city of frivolous celebrations, rather than of religious piety.

1 St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Popes and cardinals, who were mostly members of leading noble families and related to one another, enriched themselves with church properties and monies.

However, the court of the Renaissance popes was also a center of culture and the arts where significant artists such as Raphael and 7 Michelangelo  were commissioned by the ecclesiastical princes to create artworks.

7 The creation of Adam, from ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, 1511

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The integrity of the papacy reached a low point with the self-aggrandizing Alexander VI between 1492 and 1503.

His successor, Julius II, personally fought at the head of his troops in defense of the Papal States and against the rivalling Italian cities, while the popes from the Medici family, 4 Leo X and Clement VII, were patrons of the arts.

4 Portrait of Pope Leo X and his cousins, cardinals Giulio de' Medici and  Luigi de' Rossi,
painting by his protege

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Clement VII allied himself with France against the Holy Roman emperor and consequently provoked the plundering of Rome by imperial mercenaries in the 3 sacco di Roma in 1527.

5 The Council of Trent, which was convened in 1545 and lasted until 1563, eventually introduced a far-reaching program of internal ecclesiastical reorganization after vcars of debate.

3 Charles' mercenary army ridicule the pope during
the sacco di Roma, copper engraving

5 Congregation of the Council of Trent,
painting, 18th century

Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) and Julius III were transitional popes who, although they continued to live like Renaissance princes, were coaxed by Emperor Charles V into making reforms.

6 Alessandro Farnese as a cardinal,
Raphael, 1509-1511

see also collection:  Raphael

Pope Paul III with his cardinal-nephew Alessandro Cardinal Farnese (left)
and his other grandson (right), Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma by


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Pius II

Pius II by Pinturicchio

original name Enea Silvio Piccolomini
born Oct. 18, 1405, Corsignano [now Pienza], Republic of Siena [Italy]
died Aug. 14/15, 1464, Ancona, Papal States

outstanding Italian humanist and astute politician who as pope (reigned 1458–64) tried to unite Europe in a crusade against the Turks at a time when they threatened to overrun all of Europe. He wrote voluminously about the events of his day.

Early life and career
Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born in the village of Corsignano, near Siena, Italy, into a noble family in very reduced circumstances. He acquired his humanistic education by assiduous work under unfavourable conditions. To earn a living he became secretary to Cardinal Domenico Capranica and went with him to the Council of Basel, a meeting of bishops concerned with church reform (1431–37), which was already at loggerheads with Pope Eugenius IV. With Cardinal Niccolò Albergati he visited many European countries on a diplomatic mission. On returning to Basel in 1436, he became an official of the council, which gave him opportunities to show his great skill as an orator. He became secretary to the antipope Felix V, elected on Nov. 5, 1439, by the remnant of bishops at Basel, who refused to obey Pope Eugenius’ order to transfer the council to Ferrara and Florence.

As representative of the Basel remnant at the Diet (imperial assembly) of Frankfurt, he attracted the attention of Frederick III of Austria, who invited him to Vienna (1442) and made him imperial poet laureate and his private secretary. Thereupon, he broke his connection with the antipope in 1445 and was absolved of the ban of excommunication that he had been under. A serious illness is said to have led him to amend his dissolute life (he was the father of several illegitimate children). In Frederick’s name he proposed to end the rivalry between the papal council at Florence and the rebellious council at Basel by summoning a third council but could persuade neither Eugenius nor the bishops at Basel. Hitherto a layman, Enea received sacred orders in 1446. He next managed to calm the storm raised by Eugenius’ deposition of two of the German archbishop electors and was chiefly responsible for reconciling the German princes with the Pope and for Frederick’s withdrawal of support for the council at Basel.

Made bishop of Trieste by the new pope, Nicholas V, in 1447, he continued his successful mediation between the German states and the Holy See, explaining in a “letter of retractation” his change of role from supporting Basel to being advocate of the papacy. He was transferred in 1449 to the see of Siena, where he was still able to be of service to King Frederick by negotiating his marriage with a Portuguese princess and arranging his coronation as Holy Roman emperor in Rome by Nicholas V (1452). Nicholas’ successor, Calixtus III (1455–58), made Enea cardinal-priest of Santa Sabina as a reward for negotiating peace with Alfonso V, king of Aragon and Naples, and persuading him to cooperate in the crusade against the Turks that Calixtus was energetically promoting.

On Calixtus’ death Enea Silvio was elected pope as Pius II (Aug. 19, 1458). As pope he had one main purpose: to organize a grand crusade to drive back the Turks, who, having captured Constantinople in 1453, were threatening to overrun the rest of Europe. He summoned the Christian princes to a congress in Mantua to study and meet the danger. When he arrived on the appointed day, June 1, 1459, he was alone. Very gradually some came but only to squabble for advantages to themselves.

The patient diplomacy of the Pope achieved little. A condition for success was to restore peace to the West. In Italy, Pius slowly regained control of the Papal States. His negotiations with France for the repeal of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (of 1438, which made France largely independent of the papacy in ecclesiastical jurisdiction) failed with King Charles VII but succeeded with his son Louis XI (1461). The Greek cardinal Bessarion was sent to Germany (1460) to promote the crusade, but local feuds and wars blocked his efforts. He was equally unsuccessful in Vienna and returned to Rome in the following year but had some success later in Venice. Wars in the Tyrol and discord in Bohemia increased the general unrest. A lull in some hostilities and promises of support from the emperor Frederick and Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, encouraged the intrepid but sick pope to proclaim in October 1463 a crusade, which he himself would lead. Pius left Rome on June 18, 1464, for the rendezvous of the armies in Ancona, an Adriatic seaport on the east coast of Italy, where he arrived to find nearly no one. Two Venetian ships arrived on August 11. Pius died during the night of August 14–15. His heart was interred at Ancona, still facing, as it were, the infidel East. His body was taken to Rome and there buried in St. Peter’s; it was transferred to the Church of San Andrea della Valle when the new St. Peter’s was being built.

Pope Pius II’s great knowledge of conditions in Germany and elsewhere inspired a scheme of wide church reform, but the political conditions of the time and the resistance of the various vested interests rendered its application impossible. He did what he could, particularly by encouraging the movements toward strict observance of the rules of life within religious orders. On the whole, he created worthy cardinals, and on Jan. 17, 1460, he issued a bull condemning appeals from a pope to a general (ecumenical) council of the church. A voluminous writer about the events he had participated in, he wrote also general history and geography, poetry, and at least one scurrilous novel (The Tale of Two Lovers). Pius II was a patron of humanists, and he commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform his native village of Corsignano into the town of Pienza. Rossellino’s buildings and town plan in Pienza represent one of the earliest examples of Renaissance urban planning.

The Rev. Joseph Gill, S.J.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Pope Pius II, fresco by Pinturicchio



Pope Pius II, fresco by Pinturicchio



Pope Pius II, fresco by Pinturicchio




Leo X

Leo X

originally Giovanni de’ Medici
born December 11, 1475, Florence [Italy]
died December 1, 1521, Rome

one of the leading Renaissance popes (reigned 1513–21). He made Rome a cultural centre and a political power, but he depleted the papal treasury, and, by failing to take the developing Reformation seriously, he contributed to the dissolution of the Western church. Leo excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521.

Early life and ecclesiastical career
Leo X was born Giovanni de’ Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the Florentine republic, and by custom was thus destined for a religious life. At the early age of eight de’ Medici received the tonsure—a ceremony involving the cutting of hair from the head, thus indicating the change of status from lay to clerical—and five years later he became the cardinal-deacon of Santa Maria in Dominica. At the court of his father, he received the finest education available in Europe; one of his several tutors was the philosopher Pico della Mirandola. From 1489 to 1491 de’ Medici studied theology and canon law at the University of Pisa. In 1492 he became a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals and attempted to take up residence in Rome. The death of his father later in the same year, however, brought him back to Florence, where he lived with his older brother, Piero.

The election of Pope Alexander VI took de’ Medici back to Rome for the conclave (assembly of cardinals to elect the pope); otherwise he lived in Florence until he was exiled in November 1494 with the other members of the Medici family on the charge of betraying the republic. For the next six years Cardinal de’ Medici traveled throughout northern Europe. In 1500 he returned to Italy and settled in Rome. Upon the death of his brother Piero, he became the head of the Medici family. In 1503 he took part in the conclaves that elected first Pope Pius III (in September) and then Pope Julius II (in October). Named papal legate to Bologna and Romagna in 1511, he supervised the reestablishment of Medici control of Florence the following year; although his younger brother Giuliano actually held the first place in the Florentine republic, it was the cardinal who ruled.

Election to the papacy
After the death of Julius II on February 21, 1513, the Sacred College of Cardinals was summoned to elect a successor. The conclave met on March 4, and, with minimal deliberation, the cardinals, who desired a peace-loving successor to the warlike Julius, elected Cardinal de’ Medici on March 11. Taking the title of Leo X, the pontiff-elect was ordained a priest on March 15 and consecrated bishop of Rome on the 17th. Two days later the papal coronation took place.

The new pope was the personification of Renaissance ideals. Having spent his youth at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, he had acquired the mannerisms and tastes of one of the most brilliant societies of Europe and posed a sharp contrast to the soldier-pope whom he succeeded. He fit extremely well into the atmosphere of calm and quiet of which Rome was desirous after 10 years under Julius II. Leo was lavish in his spending not only of the church’s money but also of his own. Under his patronage Rome again became the cultural centre of Europe. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica—initiated under Julius II—was accelerated, the holdings of the Vatican Library were greatly increased, and the arts flourished. Even the piety of the papacy was restored to some extent after the low reputation it had reached under the Borgia popes (Calixtus III and Alexander VI).

The fifth Lateran Council occupied the new pope during the first five years of his pontificate. Called by Julius II two years before his death, the council was designed to nullify the efforts of nine rebellious cardinals who had called for a council to meet at Pisa in order to revive the conciliar movement, which promoted the idea that a general church council had greater authority than the pope and could depose him. Although “Pisa II” collapsed when first the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I and then the French king Louis XII withdrew their support, the Lateran Council opened in 1512. Leo X, who inherited the council before it was a year old, was little inclined to preside over the sweeping reforms that the church so desperately needed on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Poorly attended and dominated by Italian bishops, the council debated the principal issues of the day; but there was neither direction nor encouragement from the pontiff, nor the urgency and necessity that would spur on the Council of Trent some 40 years later. The Lateran Council was dissolved on March 16, 1517, without significant action, just before Martin Luther’s circulation of his Ninety-five Theses. (See Researcher’s Note.)

Struggle for political power
Leo X was not only the head of the Christian church but also the temporal ruler of the Papal States and head of the Medici family that ruled the Florentine republic. To exert his influence in Italy, he resorted to the common practice of nepotism (granting offices or benefits to relatives, regardless of merit). He appointed his cousin Giulio de’ Medici (the future pope Clement VII) to the influential archbishopric of Florence. He also named his younger brother Giuliano and his nephew Lorenzo to be Roman patricians. Giuliano’s premature death in 1516 brought an end to the pope’s plan to create a central Italian kingdom for him. On July 1, 1517, following, and as a result of, an attempt upon his life earlier in the year, Leo named 31 new cardinals in order to secure the support of the College of Cardinals. One cardinal, Alfonso Petrucci, was strangled in prison, and several others were imprisoned and executed when they were implicated in the attempted assassination.

In his struggle to dominate Italy, Leo X was confronted by the awesome power of Spain and the determination of the French kings. Louis XII of France marched into Italy in 1513 to make good his claims to Milan and Naples. Reluctantly Leo formed the League of Mechlin, in which Spain provided the major military strength. The French were defeated at Novara, and Louis renounced his claims and withdrew his army. The peace was short-lived. The ascent of Francis I in 1515 to the throne of France led to the renewal of the war. Although Leo again formed the coalition of Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and England, Francis won the Battle of Marignano (September 14, 1515). The pope made peace with the French king and then followed it up with the Concordat of Bologna. Promulgated in the form of a papal bull (Primitiva) on August 18, 1516, the concordat regulated church-state relations in France for the next 275 years. The French kings were given the power to nominate bishops, abbots, and priors, though the popes did retain the right to nominate candidates to fill vacant benefices in curia and certain other benefices. Though the pope always had the power to veto the king’s nominations, in practice the lay monarch’s choice was tantamount to an appointment. This control over the church in France on the part of the kings explains, in part, why the monarchy showed little interest in Protestantism during the 16th century.

The death of the Holy Roman emperor, Maximilian I, in 1519 brought Leo further into the political arena. The Habsburg candidate, Charles I of Spain, had succeeded his maternal grandparents Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1516 and now sought to follow his paternal grandfather, Maximilian, to the powerful German throne. Both Francis I and Frederick the Wise of Saxony, however, immediately put forward their candidacy. Leo—fearing that if the empire were joined to either France or Spain, Italy would come under the power of the victor—threw his support in favour of Frederick. The election of Charles I of Spain as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire led to war between France and Spain, and, although Leo would have preferred to remain neutral, he cast his lot with the new emperor when Francis again invaded Italy.

Conflict with Luther
The ever-pressing financial undertakings of the papacy kept Leo X in constant need of new means of raising revenue. The wars with France, his lavish support of the arts, the construction of St. Peter’s, and a projected Crusade against the Turks all contributed to the financial needs of the papacy. One important source of revenue had long been the dispensing of indulgences (remission of the temporal penalty for sins) for money. During the reign of Julius II, indulgences had been authorized for financial contributions for the construction of St. Peter’s. Leo, who was very much interested in continuing this work, reaffirmed the indulgence shortly after his ascent. Nevertheless, because of its unpopularity in northern Europe, based primarily on economic reasons, it was not until early in 1517 that Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, actually began to preach the indulgence in the archdioceses of Mainz and Magdeburg (Germany). In response to this preaching, Martin Luther circulated his Ninety-five Theses.

By the following year (1518) Luther’s ideas had reached Rome, and Leo ordered the head of the Augustinian order, of which Luther was a member, to silence him. When this failed, the pope tried to work through Frederick of Saxony, but again to no avail. On June 15, 1520, Leo issued Exsurge Domini, a papal bull that charged Luther with 41 instances of deviation from the teaching and practice of the church and ordered him to recant within 60 days or suffer excommunication. Luther, who by this time had gained the support of influential figures in Germany, defied the pope. Thus, Leo was left no alternative but to issue a papal bull (Decet Romanum Pontificem) of excommunication on January 3, 1521.

Leo X had not viewed the Lutheran movement with the seriousness that history later indicated was warranted. He could recall that the church, after all, had withstood the teachings of an English Reformer, John Wycliffe, and a Bohemian Reformer, Jan Hus. Leo believed Luther was another heretic whose teachings would lead some of the faithful astray but, as had happened in the past, the true religion would triumph in time. In December 1521 Leo X died suddenly, leaving behind him political turmoil in Italy and religious turmoil spreading across northern Europe.

John G. Gallaher

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Paul III

Pope Paul III by Titian

original name Alessandro Farnese
born Feb. 29, 1468, Canino, Papal States
died Nov. 10, 1549, Rome

Italian noble who was the last of the Renaissance popes (reigned 1534–49) and the first pope of the Counter-Reformation. The worldly Paul III was a notable patron of the arts and at the same time encouraged the beginning of the reform movement that was to affect deeply the Roman Catholic Church in the later 16th century. He called the Council of Trent in 1545.

Background and early years.
Alessandro was the son of Pier Luigi Farnese and Giovannella Gaetani. In service to the papacy since the 12th century, the Farnese family had extended its possessions from a stronghold on Lake Bolsena south and westward to include most of the fiefs between Perugia, Orvieto, Sermoneta, and the sea. In 1417 Ranuccio Farnese (the Elder), one of the most celebrated condottieri (mercenary soldiers) of his time, had been made a Roman senator by Pope Martin V. Ranuccio’s son Pier Luigi, by marriage with the Gaetani heiress, solidified the Farnese position in the Roman nobility. In 1489, Pier Luigi’s daughter Giulia la Bella married Orsino Orsini, a relative of the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Borja), and became a favourite at the papal court. Her brother Bartolommeo became lord of Montalto; her other brother, Alessandro, was destined for the church.

Sensitive and talented, Alessandro Farnese was entrusted to the Humanist Pomponio Leto for his early education and then joined the Medici circle in Florence under Lorenzo the Magnificent. There he was associated with Giovanni de’ Medici (the future Pope Leo X) and attended the University of Pisa.

Because of an obscure family quarrel, Alessandro’s early sojourn in Rome was interrupted by a short prison term under Pope Innocent VIII. But his career was assured when Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became his patron. On Rodrigo’s election to the papacy (taking the name Alexander VI), he made Alessandro treasurer of the Roman Church and a year later, on Sept. 20, 1493, created him a cardinal deacon. Gossip traced Alessandro’s rapid preferment to the intimacy between his sister Giulia and the Borgia pope, and Alessandro was referred to as the “petticoat cardinal.”

Although a prelate, Alessandro did not become an ordained priest until 1519. Meanwhile, he conducted himself like a Renaissance nobleman. Of wide artistic tastes and philosophic interests, he increased his revenues with multiple benefices. He travelled on diplomatic missions, enjoyed the hunt, and delighted in majestic religious and secular ceremonies. Favoured also by Pope Leo X, he used his wealth to enhance his family position and constructed the famous Palazzo Farnese, on the Via Giulia in Rome. Moreover, despite his unfeigned personal piety, the Farnese cardinal kept a wellborn Roman mistress by whom he fathered four children—Pier Luigi, Paolo, Ranuccio, and Costanza. (Later, as Pope Paul III, he provoked serious charges of nepotism by using his papal influence to further the interests of his children and their families, going so far in one celebrated incident as to appoint two of his grandchildren, still in their teens, to the cardinalate.)

In 1509 Pope Julius II invested Cardinal Alessandro Farnese with the bishopric of Parma. Selecting Bartolomeo Giudiccioni as his vicar general, the Cardinal took seriously the obligation of governing the diocese and decided to change his private way of life. In May 1512 he served as Julius’ legate for the Fifth Lateran Council in Rome; then, having discontinued his liaison with his mistress in 1513, he put the reform decrees of that council into effect in Parma with a visitation in 1516 and, three years later, with a synod. In June 1519 he was ordained a priest and said his first mass on Christmas of that year. Thereafter, his private life was without reproach, and the Cardinal was identified with the reform party in the Roman Curia.

The Council of Trent.
In May 1536 Pope Paul published a bull of convocation for his proposed council to be held in Mantua. He also authorized a select group of cardinals to draw up a report on the abuses within the church. Guided by Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, this group denounced the ordination of poorly prepared priests, the selection of incompetent bishops, the accumulation of benefices, and the decadence of the religious orders, preaching, and the care of souls. The report, however, fell into Protestant hands and was used by Luther in a violent attack on the Roman Church and the papacy. Nevertheless, the Pope pursued his plans to hold the council, scheduled to open on May 23, 1537, at Mantua. With infinite patience, Paul sought to overcome the opposition of Emperor, kings, prelates, and princes, proroguing and postponing the council’s opening again and again over the course of nine years, but finally succeeding in having it inaugurated by his legate, Cardinal Giovanni del Monte, in Trent on Dec. 13, 1545.

In deference to the clamouring of the Protestants, the Emperor insisted that the council confine itself mainly to dealing with discipline and reform. Nevertheless, the Pope’s decision that doctrinal matters be given precedence prevailed, and, in its early sessions, the Council of Trent hammered out decrees on the canon of the Scriptures, original sin, justification, and the sacraments, as well as on reform. Fears of the plague and the menace of an attack by armed Protestant forces induced the Pope to accept the council’s transfer to Bologna in February 1548. But the Emperor forbade the Spanish and German prelates to go to Bologna, and the Pope had to suspend the Council on Sept. 17, 1549. Nevertheless, this first phase of the Council of Trent had achieved a substantial step forward, leading to a thorough reform of the Church’s teaching and discipline.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Paul frequently visited trouble spots in the Papal States and beyond. He was in Civitavecchia in 1535 and 1537; visited Lucca and Piacenza on his way to Nice in 1538; appeared in Perugia to pacify the city after his forces broke the power of the Colonna family in 1540; and in 1543 visited Bologna on his way to Busseto to meet the Emperor.

Patronage of the arts.
As a patron of the arts, Pope Paul restored the University of Rome, increased the subsidies and importance of the Vatican Library, and showed favour to theologians and canonists but did not neglect the fine arts. He cajoled Michelangelo into finishing the fresco “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, decorating the Pauline Chapel, and completing the plans for the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. He used Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and a host of architects to renew the fortifications of Rome and the Papal States, continued the construction of the Sala Regia (Royal Hall) in the Vatican, and ordered the reconstruction of the buildings on the Capitoline Hill.

In the midst of grave family, political, and military setbacks, the Pope visited the Quirinal Palace in Rome in early November 1549 and was taken with a raging fever. Clear-minded to the end, he received the last sacraments and died on November 10, in his 82nd year. On his deathbed he is reported to have repented of his nepotism.

Whatever the faults of his early career and the political intrigues of his pontificate, Pope Paul III was remembered by contemporaries as “good hearted, obliging and supremely intelligent . . . worthy to be described as magnanimous.” He led the church out of the decadent splendour of the Renaissance into the austere rejuvenation of the post-Reformation epoch. His grandiose tomb in St. Peter’s by Michelangelo’s pupil Guglielmo della Porta befits the place he occupies in the church’s history.

The Rev. Francis Xavier Murphy, C.SS.R.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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