1902 Encyclopedia > Pope Sixtus V

Pope Sixtus V
(also known as: Felice Peretti)
(Pope from 1585 till 1590)

SIXTUS V. (Felice Peretti), pope from 1585 to 1590, was born 13th December 1521 at Grottamarina, in the district of Fermo, of a family said to be of Dalmatian extraction. His parents were undoubtedly in humble circumstances, but the story of his having been a swine-herd in his youth seems to be a mere legend. He entered the Franciscan order at an early age, and obtained great celebrity as a preacher. After having been successively professor at Rimini and at Siena, he became inquisitor-general in Venice (where his firmness in controversy with the Venetian Government exposed him to personal danger), theologian at the council of Trent, and ultimately vicar-general of his order. In 1565 he accompanied the papal legate to Spain, and in 1570 was created cardinal by Pius V, and entrusted with the publication of a correct edition of the works of St Ambrose, which appeared in 1579-1585. Finding himself out of favour with Pius's successor, Gregory XIII., he withdrew to a villa which he had purchased, and lived in strict retirement, affecting, it is said, to be in a precarious state of health. According to the usual story, which is probably at least exaggerated, this dissimulation greatly contributed to his unexpected elevation to the papacy on the next vacancy, 24th April 1585. If the electors had indeed anticipated a weak or ephemeral pontificate, they were grievously disappointed. Sixtus speedily proved himself one of the most vigorous popes, both in body and mind, that had ever occupied the chair of St Peter. Within two years he issued seventy-two bulls for the reform of religious orders alone. Ardent, despotic, indefatigable, he did everything by himself, rarely invited advice and still more rarely followed it, and manifested in all his actions a capacious and highly original genius, in most respects eminently practical, but swayed in some things towards the visionary and fantastic by the inevitable effects of a monastic training. His first great aim was to purge the papal dominions of the robbers who had overrun them under the weak administration of his predecessor. This salutary undertaking was effectually accomplished, not without many instances of tyranny and cruelty which have left a stain upon his name; but security of life and property returned. Sixtus's financial management seemed on a superficial view equally brilliant; he had found the exchequer empty, and speedily accumulated an immense treasure. But this end was obtained partly by excessive taxation, partly by the sale of offices which had never before been venal; and the withdrawal of such an amount of specie from circulation impoverished the community. His intention was to amass a fund for use in special emergencies, such as a crusade or a hostile invasion, which never arose. Much, nevertheless, was expended by Sixtus in the encouragement of agriculture and commerce, and in public works, cither of signal utility, like his supply of Rome with water, or such at least as impressed the popular imagination with his munificence, as the completion of the cupola of St Peter's, the construction of six new streets, and the eleva-tion of four Egyptian obelisks in various parts of Rome. Though a scholar, Sixtus was no humanist, and did much mischief to the monuments of antiquity, ruthlessly destroying some, and disfiguring those which he repaired by the addition of Christian attributes. In his ecclesias-tical and foreign policy good sense contended with eccentricity but usually obtained the upper hand. He thought of attacking Turkey with the alliance of Poland and Russia, of subjugating Egypt by his own forces, of making a descent into Syria and carrying off the Holy Sepulchre. But he never attempted to realize these projects, and his conduct of the affairs which imperatively required his attention evinced more moderation than could have been expected. After having strongly sided with Spain and the League, he allowed himself to be convinced by the Venetian ambassador of the evil consequences of Spanish preponderance in Italy, and showed a manifest disposition to acknowledge Henry IV. as king of France, on condition of his abjuration. This led to violent altercations with the Spanish ambassador, and the death of the pope on 27th August 1590 was attributed by many to poison, though without sufficient ground. He was succeeded by Urban VII. Sixtus V. left the reputation of a zealous and austere pope,—with the pernicious qualities insepar-able from such a character in his age,—of a stern and terrible but just and magnanimous temporal magistrate, of a great sovereign in an age of great sovereigns, of a man always aiming at the highest things and whose great faults were but the exaggeration of great virtues.

The best view of his character and government is that given by Ranke. Leti's well-known biography is full of fables ; Tempesti is too panegyrical; and Lorentz is little more than a compiler from the two. The most valuable part of Baron von Huebner's Sixte Quint (Paris, 1870) is the rich appendix of documents. Sixtus's note-books and drafts of letters in the Chigian library, frequently referred to by Tempesti and Ranke, were published by Cugnoni in 1882. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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