Cardinals and the War of Ferrara
By Stella Fletcher
Royal Studies Journal, Volume 4, Number 2, 2017
Introduction: Cardinals form an easily defined cohort that can be examined in terms of anything from social origins and educational experience to career patterns and causes of death, yet, as the present collection confirms, group studies of Renaissance cardinals are clearly outnumbered by those devoted to individual purpled persons.
While it is true that isolating the career of one individual can serve to illustrate the greater whole, it comes at the expense of understanding how the Sacred College of Cardinals functioned as a group or, indeed, how it split into contending factions. The actions and interactions of that group are most apparent in the brief—or sometimes not so brief—intensity of a conclave, but any span of time could be selected in which to observe cardinals of different ages, geographical origins, and life experiences responding to the issues of the day.
For the purposes of the present exercise cardinals are observed responding to the War of Ferrara (May 1482 – August 1484), a conflict that saw Pope Sixtus IV initially allied with Venice against Naples, Milan, and Florence, only to switch sides and become so determined to defeat Venice that he placed the republic under interdict. There were thirty-four cardinals alive at the outbreak of hostilities and thirty-two at their conclusion, figures that conceal eight deaths and the creation of six new ecclesiastical princes, though only Élie de Bourdeille fell into both of those categories. Thanks to the politicisation and Italianisation of the college by Sixtus and his immediate predecessors, Pius II and Paul II, the vast majority of cardinals came from states directly or indirectly involved in the war.
Cardinals were supposed to have but one patria, Rome, but where did their loyalties really lie when their kinsmen or fellow-countrymen were at war with the pope? When a conflict of interests arose, what did it reveal about cardinals, individually and collectively?