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Pope Sixtus V (13 December, 1520 – 27 August, 1590), born Felice Peretti di Montalto, was Pope from 1585 to 1590.


Felice Peretti was born at Grottammaremarker, in the Papal Statesmarker, son of Piergentile di Giacomo, nicknamed "Peretto", and Marianna da Frontillo. He took the surname "Peretti" in 1551 and was more generally known as "di Montalto". He was reared in poverty; born in a shanty so ill-thatched that the sun shone through the roof, he later jested that he was "nato di casa illustre" — born of an illustrious house. His father was a gardener and it is said of Felice that, when a boy, he was a swineherd.

According to Andrija Zmajević's chronicle, his father originated from the Bay of Kotormarker (modern-day Montenegromarker) and was born in Bjelske Kruševice, a village near Bijela, into the Šišić family, possibly called Slavjan. The theory that he comes from the Svilanović family is unfounded. As a child, he served in a Catholic monastery in Kotormarker, where he converted from Serbian Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism and was subsequently taken to Italymarker by an Italian friar. He settled in Anconamarker, where he married and had Felice Peretti (Srećko Perić in modern Croat). Not much else is recorded about Peretti's family, but when he eventually became Pope Sixtus V, the church of Saint Jerome in Romemarker (finished in 1589), was rebuilt to be used specifically for the people who spoke the Illyrian language. He also established a college of eleven Slavonic clerics in his papal bull Sapientiam Sanctorum of 1 August, 1589. This was later transformed into the Pontifical Croatian College of St. Jerome.

At an early age he entered a Franciscan monastery at Montaltomarker and was known as Felice di Montalto. He soon gave evidence of rare ability as a preacher and a dialectician. About 1552 he was noticed by Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi (1500–64), protector of his order, Cardinal Ghislieri (later Pope Pius V) and Cardinal Caraffa (later Pope Paul IV), and from that time his advancement was assured. He was sent to Venicemarker as inquisitor general, but was so severe and carried matters with such a high hand that he became embroiled in quarrels. The government asked for his recall in 1560.

After a brief term as procurator of his order, he was attached to the Spanish legation headed by Ugo Cardinal Boncampagni (later Pope Gregory XIII) in 1565, which was sent to investigate a charge of heresy levelled against Archbishop Bartolome Carranza of Toledo. The violent dislike he conceived for Boncampagni exerted a marked influence upon his subsequent actions. He hurried back to Romemarker upon the accession of Pius V (1566–72), who made him apostolic vicar of his order, and, later (1570), cardinal.

During the pontificate of his political enemy Gregory XIII (1572–85) the Cardinal Montalto, as he was generally called, lived in enforced retirement, occupied with the care of his property, the Villa Montalto, erected by Domenico Fontana close to his beloved church on the Esquiline Hillmarker, overlooking the Baths of Diocletian. The first phase (1576–80) was enlarged after Peretti became pope and could clear buildings to open four new streets in 1585–6. The villa contained two residences, the Palazzo Sistino or "di Termini" ("of the Baths") and the casino, called the Palazzetto Montalto e Felice. Displaced Romans were furious. The decision to build the central pontifical railroad station (begun in 1869) in the area of the Villa marked the beginning of its destruction.

Cardinal Montalto's other concern was with his studies, one of the fruits of which was an edition of the works of Ambrose. As pope he personally supervised the printing of an improved edition of Jerome's Vulgate -- said to be "as splendid a translation of the Bible into Latin as the King James version is into English."

Though not neglecting to follow the course of affairs, Sixtus V carefully avoided every occasion of offence. This discretion contributed not a little to his election to the papacy on 24 April, 1585; but the story of his having feigned decrepitude in the conclave, in order to win votes, is a pure invention. One of the things that commended his candidacy to certain Cardinals was his physical vigour, which seemed to promise a long pontificate.

The terrible condition in which Pope Gregory XIII had left the ecclesiastical states called for prompt and stern measures. Against the prevailing lawlessness Sixtus V proceeded with an almost ferocious severity, which only extreme necessity could justify. Thousands of brigands were brought to justice: within a short time the country was again quiet and safe. Next Sixtus V set to work to repair the finances. By the sale of offices, the establishment of new "Monti" and by levying new taxes, he accumulated a vast surplus, which he stored up against certain specified emergencies, such as a crusade or the defence of the Holy See. Sixtus V prided himself upon his hoard, but the method by which it had been amassed was financially unsound: some of the taxes proved ruinous, and the withdrawal of so much money from circulation could not fail to cause distress.

Immense sums, however, were spent upon public works, in carrying through the comprehensive planning that had come to fruition during his retirement, bringing water to the waterless hills in the Acqua Felicemarker, feeding twenty-seven new fountains; laying out new arteries in Rome, which connected the great basilicas, even setting his engineer-architect Domenico Fontana to replan the Colosseummarker as a silk-spinning factory housing its workers. The Pope set no limit to his plans; and what he achieved in his short pontificate, carried through always at top speed, is almost incredible; the completion of the dome of St. Peter'smarker; the loggia of Sixtus in the Basilica di San Giovanni in Lateranomarker; the chapel of the Praesepe in Santa Maria Maggioremarker; additions or repairs to the Quirinalmarker, Lateran and Vaticanmarker palaces; the erection of four obelisks, including that in St Peter's Square; the opening of six streets; the restoration of the aqueduct of Septimius Severus ("Acqua Felice"); the integration of the Leonine Citymarker in Rome as XIV rione (Borgomarker); besides numerous roads and bridges, he sweetened the city air by financing the Pontine Marshes. Good progress was made with more than reclaimed and opened to agriculture and manufacture; the project was abandoned upon his death.

But Sixtus V had no appreciation of antiquities, which were employed as raw material to serve his urbanistic and Christianising programs: Trajan's Columnmarker and the Column of Marcus Aureliusmarker (at the time misidentified as the Column of Antoninus Pius) were made to serve as pedestals for the statues of SS Peter and Paul; the Minerva of the Capitolmarker was converted into an emblem of Christian Rome; the Septizonium of Septimius Severus was demolished for its building materials.

Church administration

The subsequent administrative system of the Church owed much to Sixtus V. He limited the College of Cardinals to seventy; and doubled the number of the congregations, and enlarged their functions, assigning to them the principal role in the transaction of business (1588). He regarded the Jesuits with disfavour and suspicion. He meditated radical changes in their constitution, but death prevented the execution of his purpose. In 1589 was begun a revision of the Vulgate, the so-called Editio Sixtina.

Foreign relations

In his larger political relations, however, Sixtus V showed himself visionary and vacillating. He entertained fantastic ambitions, such as the annihilation of the Turks, the conquest of Egyptmarker, the transporting of the Holy Sepulchremarker to Italy, and the accession of his nephew to the throne of Francemarker. The situation in which he found himself was embarrassing: he could not countenance the designs of heretical princes, and yet he mistrusted Philip II of Spain (1556–98) and viewed with apprehension any extension of his power.

Sixtus V agreed to renew the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603), and to grant a large subsidy to the Armada of King Philip II, but, knowing the slowness of Spain, would give nothing till the expedition should actually land in Englandmarker. In this way he was saved his crown millions, and spared the reproach of having taken futile proceedings against what Roman Catholics viewed as the heretic Queen. This excommunication which Catholics of the day considered richly deserved, and there is extant a proclamation to justify it, which was to have been published in England if the invasion had been successful. It was signed by Cardinal Allen, and is entitled "An Admonition to the Nobility and Laity of England". It was intended to comprise all that could be said against Queen Elizabeth I, and the indictment is therefore fuller and more forcible than any other put forward by the religious exiles, who were generally very reticent in their complaints. Allen also carefully consigned his publication to the fire, and we only know of it through one of Elizabeth's ubiquitous spies, who had previously stolen a copy.

Sixtus V excommunicated Henry of Navarre (future Henry IV of France), and contributed to the Catholic League, but he chafed under his forced alliance with Philip II, and looked for escape. The victories of Henry and the prospect of his conversion to Catholicism raised Sixtus V's hopes, and in corresponding degree determined Philip II to tighten his grip upon his wavering ally. The Pope's negotiations with Henry's representative evoked a bitter and menacing protest and a categorical demand for the performance of promises. Sixtus V took refuge in evasion, and temporised until death relieved him of the necessity of coming to a decision (27 August, 1590).


On his death bed his subjects loathed Sixtus V, but history has recognised him as one of the great figures of the Counter Reformation. On the negative he could be impulsive, obstinate, severe, and autocratic. On the positive he was open to large ideas and threw himself into his undertakings with a lot of energy as well as determination. This often led to success. His reign saw great enterprises and large achievements. He slept little and worked hard. He had inherited a bankrupt treasury, administered his funds with competence and care, and left five million crowns in the Vatican coffers at his death. Though not the greatest man, he was by far the greatest statesman who has ever sat on the papal throne.

The changes wrought by Sixtus V on the streetscape of Rome were documented in the film, "Rome: Impact of an Idea", featuring Edmund N. Bacon and based on sections of his book Design of Cities.



  1. The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church - Biographical Dictionary - Consistory of May 17, 1570
  2. Church Chronicle Andrija Zmajević
  3. Durant, Will, "The Story of Civilation: Vol. VII", Chapter ix, p. 241
  4. Catholic encyclopedia article The Spanish Armada: IV. Catholic co-operation.
  5. Ibid.#3,p.241

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