By Monica Azzolini
Horoscopes and Public Spheres, eds. Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin and Kocku von Stuckrad (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005)
Introduction: In fifteenth-century Italy (much as now) the election of a Pope was a momentous event, one that could be predicted with the help of one of the most common prognostic practices of the time: horary astrology. On 20 July 1492 Ludovico il Moro, then the acting duke of Milan, wrote to his most prominent court astrologer to make inquiries regarding the health of Innocent VIII, a Genoese pope unsympathetic to the Milanese Duchy. Ludovico wrote to his personal astrologer Ambrogio Varesi da Rosate asking him to foretell if the Pope’s illness would result in death or not. For want of a nativity chart (genitura), Varesi cast a horoscope for the time of the inquiry, and reportedto Ludovico that the position of the planets in the sky indicated that Innocent VIII was likely to die either on August 3, or sometime between August 10 and 11.
Innocent VIII died on July 25, earlier than predicted, but neither Ludovico nor his brother, Cardinal Ascanio, questioned the reliability of their source. Rather, Ludovico relied on Varesi’s reassurances in the same letter that the next Pope would be favorable to the Sforzas. A week later, however, Ludovico was far more cautious. He reported to Ascanio that Varesi’s further investigations at the time of Innocent VIII’s death suggested that their plans for the election of the new Pope could be jeopardized because of avarice or disloyalty. Accordingly, he encouraged his brother to be liberal towards other cardinals and cautious in choosing his allies. Confident in the influence of the stars, Ascanio exerted his political power among the Roman curia and succeeded in getting Rodrigo Borgia elected as Pope Alexander VI.
Varesi’s prognostication is only one of many examples of astrological practice that can be traced in contemporary sources. Such stories reveal a worldview in many ways alien to our own, and reveal much more besides. They show how in the Renaissance politics was played at various levels, notonly by making alliances and strengthening diplomatic ties, but also by using predictive arts such as judicial astrology (of which horary astrology was one mode of practice), which were believed to rest on sound ‘scientific’ principles. Among other things, therefore, this account is a story of the role of astrology in fifteenth-century political life. Varesi’s interrogation reveals how horary astrology was skillfully exploited in political circles and suggests that, far from being irrelevant to our understanding of Renaissance Italy, astrology played an important role in shaping its history. This paper explores some of the ways astrology played a political role in the lives of early modern elites.