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Pope Sixtus IV (July 21, 1414 – August 12, 1484), born Francesco della Rovere, was Pope from 1471 to 1484. He founded the Sistine Chapelmarker where the team of artists he brought together and introduced the Early Renaissance to Rome with the first masterpiece of the city's new artistic age.


Francesco was born to a modest family near Savonamarker, Liguria, Italymarker: the son of Leonardo della Rovere and Luchina Monteleoni. The precise town is variously stated to be Albisolamarker or, more often, Celle Liguremarker, a town near Savonamarker in the Republic of Genoamarker.

As a young man he joined the Franciscan Order, an unlikely choice for a political career, and his intellectual qualities were revealed while he was studying philosophy and theology at the University of Paviamarker. He went on to lecture at many eminent Italian universities.

At the age of 50 he was elected Minister General of the Franciscan order in 1464. In 1467, he was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul II (1464–1471).

Papal election

Upon election to pope he adopted the name Sixtus - a name that had not been used since the 5th century. One of his first acts was to declare a renewed crusade against the Ottoman Turks in Smyrnamarker. Fund-raising for the crusade was more successful than the half-hearted attempts to storm Smyrna, with little to show in return. Some fruitless attempts were made in unification with the Greek Church. For the remainder of his pontificate he turned to temporal issues and dynastic considerations. Sixtus continued the dispute with Louis XI of France (1461–1483), who upheld the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438), according to which papal decrees needed royal assent before they could be promulgated in France. This was a cornerstone of the privileges claimed for the Gallican Church and could never be shifted as long as Louis XI maneuvered to replace Ferdinand I of Naples with a French prince, thus being in conflict with the papacy, which as a princely strategist could not permit it.


Like a number of Popes, Sixtus IV adhered to the system of nepotism. In the fresco by Melozzo da Forlì he is accompanied by his Della Rovere and Riario nephews, not all of whom were made cardinals: the protonotary apostolic Raffaele Riario (on his right), the future Pope Julius II (1503–1513) standing before him, and Girolamo Riario and Giovanni della Rovere behind the kneeling Platina, author of the first humanist history of the Popes. His nephew Pietro Riario also benefited of his nepotism, becoming one of the richest men in Rome and being entrusted of Sixtus IV's foreign policy, but died prematurely in 1474, his role passing to Giuliano della Rovere.

The secular fortunes of the Della Rovere began when Sixtus invested his nephew Giovanni with the signoria of Senigalliamarker and arranged his marriage to the daughter of Federico III da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino; from the union came a line of Della Rovere dukes of Urbino that lasted until the line expired, in 1631.

In his territorial aggrandizement of the Papal Statesmarker Sixtus IV's niece's son Cardinal Raffaele Riario, for whom the Palazzo della Cancelleriamarker was constructed, was a leader in the 1478 failed "Pazzi conspiracy" to assassinate both Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother and replace them in Florencemarker with Sixtus IV's other nephew, Girolamo Riario. Francesco Salviati, archbishop of Pisa and a main organizer of the plot, was hanged on the walls of the Florentine Palazzo della Signoriamarker. To this Sixtus IV replied with an interdict and two years' of war with Florence. He also encouraged the Venetiansmarker to attack Ferraramarker, which he wished to obtain for another nephew. The angered Italian princes allied to force Sixtus IV to make peace, to his great annoyance.

Foreign policy

As a temporal prince who constructed stout fortresses in the Papal Statesmarker, Sixtus IV committed himself to Venice'smarker aggression against Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, inciting the Venetians to attack in 1482 in the so-called War of Ferrara. Their combined assault was opposed by an alliance of the Sforzas of Milanmarker, the Medicis of Florencemarker along with the King of Naples, normally a hereditary ally and champion of the Papacy. For refusing to desist from the very hostilities that he himself had instigated (and for being a dangerous rival to Della Rovere dynastic ambitions in the Marche), Sixtus IV placed Venice under interdict in 1483.

On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV published the Papal bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, through which the Spanish Inquisition was established in the Kingdom of Castile. Sixtus IV consented under political pressure from Ferdinand of Aragon, who threatened to withhold military support from his kingdom of Sicily. Nevertheless, Sixtus IV quarrelled over protocol and prerogatives of jurisdiction, was unhappy with the excesses of the Inquisition and took measures to condemn the most flagrant abuses in 1482.

In ecclesiastical affairs, Sixtus IV instituted the feast (December 8) of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. He formally annulled (1478) the confusedly reformist decrees of the Council of Constancemarker.


The two papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V, "Dum Diveras" (1452) and "Romanus Pontix" (1455), had effectively given the Portuguese the rights to acquire slaves along the African coast by force or trade. These concessions were confirmed by Sixtus in his own bull, "Aeterni regis" (21 June 1481). Arguably the "ideology of conquest" expounded in these texts became the means by which commerce and conversion were facilitated. Sixtus's earlier threats in "Regimini Gregis" (1476) to excommunicate all captains or pirates who enslaved Christians could have been intended to emphasise the need to convert the natives of the Canary Islandsmarker and Guineamarker and establish a clear difference in status between those who had converted and those who resisted. The ecclesiastical penalties were directed towards those who were enslaving the recent converts.


Sixtus IV has been accused of having had male lovers. The basis of this being the diary records of Stefano Infessura who recorded documented episodes, but also unsubstantiated rumours. He was accused of awarding benefices and bishoprics in return for sexual favours, and nominated a number of young men as cardinals, some of whom were celebrated for their looks. While it is indisputable that Sixtus favoured his relatives in the hope of having faithful executors of policy; there is less evidence of direct corruption or favouritism. The exception may perhaps be Giovanni Sclafenato, who was created a cardinal according to the papal epitaph on his tomb for "ingenuousness, loyalty and his others gifts of soul and body". The English theologian John Bale attributed to Sixtus "the authorisation to practice sodomy during periods of warm weather". However, such accusations by Protestant polemicists can be dismissed as attempts at anti-Catholic propaganda.

Princely patronage

Pope Sixtus IV appoints Platina as Prefect of the Library, by Melozzo da Forlì
As a civic patron in Rome, even the anti-papal chronicler Stefano Infessura agreed that Sixtus IV should be admired. The dedicatory inscription in the fresco by Melozzo da Forlì in the Vatican Palace records: "You gave your city temples, streets, squares, fortifications, bridges and restored the Acqua Vergine as far as the Trevimarker..." In addition to restoring the aqueduct that provided Rome an alternative to the river water that had made the city famously unhealthy, he restored or rebuilt over 30 of Rome's dilapidated churches, among them San Vitale (1475) and Santa Maria del Popolo, and added seven new ones. The Sistine Chapelmarker was sponsored by Sixtus IV, as was the Ponte Sisto, the Sistine Bridge – the first new bridge across the Tiber since antiquity – and the building of Via Sistina (later named Borgo Sant'Angelo), a road leading from Castel Sant'Angelomarker to Saint Peter. All this was done to facilitate the integration of the Vatican Hillmarker and Borgomarker with the heart of old Rome. This was part of a broader scheme of urbanization carried out under Sixtus IV, who swept the long-established markets from the Campidogliomarker in 1477 and decreed in a bull of 1480 the widening of streets and the first post-Roman paving, the removal of porticoes and other post-classical impediments to free public passage.
Ponte Sisto, the first bridge built at Rome since Antiquity
At the beginning of his papacy in 1471, Sixtus IV donated several historically important Roman sculptures that founded a papal collection of art that would eventually develop into the collections of the Capitoline Museumsmarker. He also refounded, enriched and enlarged the Vatican Librarymarker. He had Regiomontanus attempt the first sanctioned reorganization of the Julian calendar and increased the size and prestige of the papal chapel choir, bringing singers and some prominent composers (Gaspar van Weerbeke, Marbrianus de Orto, and Bertrandus Vaqueras) to Rome from the North.

In addition to being a patron of the arts, Sixtus IV was a patron of the sciences. Before becoming Pope, spent time at the then very liberal and cosmopolitan University of Padua, which maintained considerable independence from the Church and had a very international character. As pope, he issued a papal bull allowing local bishops to give the bodies of executed criminals and unidentified corpses to physicians and artists for dissection. It was this access to corpses which allowed the anatomist Vesalius along with Titian's pupil Jan Stephen van Calcar to complete the revolutionary medical/anatomical text De humani corporis fabrica.


His bronze funerary monument, now in the basement Treasury of St. Peter's Basilicamarker, like a giant casket of goldsmith's work, is by Antonio Pollaiuolo. The top of the casket is a lifelike depiction of the pope lying in state. Around the sides are bas relief panels, depicting with allegorical female figures the arts and sciences (Grammar, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Painting, Astronomy, Philosophy, and Theology). Each figure incorporates the oak tree ("rovere" in Italian) symbol of Sixtus IV. The overall program of these panels, their beauty, complex symbolism, classical references, and arrangement relative to each other is one of the most compelling and comprehesive illustrations of the Renaissance worldview.

The cardinals of Sixtus IV

Sixtus created an unusually large number of cardinals during his pontificate (twenty-three), drawn from the roster of the princely houses of Italy, France and Spain; thus ensuring that many of his policies continued after his death:


  • "The Historical Encyclopedia of World slavery", Editor Junius P. Rodriguez, ABC-CLIO, 1997, ISBN 0874368855
  • "Black Africans in Renaissance Europe", Thomas Foster Earle, K. J. P. Lowe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0521815827
  • "Christopher Columbus and the enslavement of the Amerindians in the Caribbean. (Columbus and the New World Order 1492-1992).", Sued-Badillo, Jalil, Monthly Review. Monthly Review Foundation, Inc. 1992. HighBeam Research. 10 Aug. 2009
  • "Castile, Portugal, and the Canary Islands: Claims and Counterclaims, 1344-1479", Joseph F. O'Callaghan, 1993, p. 287-310, Viator, Volume 24


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