Of the 266 Popes who reigned for two thousand years, close to a hundred sleep forever in the Vatican Grottoes, underneath the Basilica of St. Peter’s.




The list doesn’t include 41 anti-Popes buried in the Papal states or elsewhere in the European continent.


In the Grottoes, the most venerated place is a memorial over the tomb of Peter the Apostle, the first Pope.

Petrusgrab_Petersdom_b (1)

Holy Fathers canonized as saints, like John Paul II, John XXIII, Gregory the Great, Innocent XI and Boniface IV, repose upstairs, some of them in glass coffins with wax or metal death masks, in the basilica chapels.




Others were lost, kicked out or buried in other churches.

Julius II, sworn enemy of the Borgias, dug up the tomb of his predecessor, Borgia Pope Alexander VI. The body ended up in Spain, interred with another Borgia Pope, Callixtus III.


The Vatican was a battleground for Europe’s great houses. During the Renaissance, it was the Spanish Borgias and the Florentine Medicis.

The Borgias produced three popes – Calixtus III, Alexander VI and his great-great-great-grandson Innocent X. The Medicis had four – Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI.


The Borgias committed adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery and murder by arsenic poisoning, no better than the power-hungry Medicis who employed violence to gain their ends, ala Mario Puzo’s “Godfather” series.


But both families sponsored great artists and the Popes they produced had strengths commensurate with their weaknesses.


Alexander VI, who committed his first murder aged 12, slept with his daughter Lucrezia Borgia and fathered eight children by at least three women by the time he bribed his way into the papacy, was a capable administrator and astute diplomat “however questionable his means of doing so.” He also built the Borgia Apartments decorated by Pinturicchio.


Julius II, famous for his long, bloody wars and “unnatural vices” conducted himself as an emperor-pope but started the 120 year construction of St. Peter’s and took two of the greatest Renaissance masters, Michelangelo and Raphael, under his wing.


His successor, 38-year old Medici prince, Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was in Florence, gravely ill of venereal disease when Julius died and had to be carried to Rome in a litter.


But the Medici bribed the cardinals to elect him as pope. They did so, convinced he’d die soon. He recovered in a snap the moment he clinched the throne.


When some cardinals conspired to kill him with poisoned bandages for his fistula, Leo ordered a hangman to get rid of one conspirator in his cell. The rest he commanded to be dragged by horses through Rome’s streets, their flesh gouged by red-hot pincers.


Leo was most famous for granting indulgences – pardon for sin in exchange for donations to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica.


This fueled the Protestant Reformation. Its prime instigator, German Augustinian monk Martin Luther, condemned indulgences as “frauds against the faithful and criminal offenses against God”.


No matter, Leo X lived as a hedonist. He had dinners with peacock’s tongue dishes, nightingales flying out of pies and naked children climbing out of puddings.


“God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it,” he quipped.


To support his lifestyle, Leo took on loans, pledging churches, the Villa Medici, Vatican silverware, tapestries, valuable manuscript collections and the very Chair of Peter, a relic on which the Apostle once sat.


Adrian VI, the only Dutchman in the history of the papacy, succeeded him, but reigned just a year and 8 months.


Clement VII, the second Medici to become Pope, lasted 11 years, through The Sack of Rome and the English Reformation when Protestantism became a separate religion in Germany and the English church broke away from Rome over Henry VIII’s divorce.


And there’s a string of lecherous pontiffs.



In 964, a 27 year old John XII was beaten to death by a jealous husband who caught him banging his wife. Elected pope aged 18, he raped women in the basilica, made toasts with the devil, maimed and mutilated those who opposed him.


The 15th-century Pope Paul II whose “sexual proclivities aroused a good deal of speculation” had two weaknesses — for good-looking young men and for melons — “though he enjoyed watching the former being tortured while he gorged himself on the latter.”


Benedict IX was accused of rape, adultery, homosexuality and bestiality. “His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it,” a later pontiff, Victor III, summed up.

If it’s not sex, it’s greed, corruption and racism, among countless things.


Paul IV, “the worst pope of the 16th century”, “opened the most savage campaign against the Jews”, forcing them into ghettos and destroying synagogues.


He initiated the Vatican’s Fig leaf campaign and threatened to whitewash the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He banned all books written by Protestants, together with Italian and German translations of the Latin Bible.


Even before Paul IV died, rioting crowds subjected his statue to a mock trial before beheading it and dumping it in the Tiber River.


Another Pontiff, Formosus, who died in 896, was exhumed by Stephen VI. He had the corpse clad in papal vestments, seated on a throne and tried for various crimes in the Cadaver Synod.



The court found the cadaver unworthy of the pontificate, tore off his papal vestments, cut off the three fingers of his right hand, which he used in consecrations, and threw him into the Tiber.


A monk fished out Formosus later and re-buried him in St. Peter’s.


A number of Popes suffered horrible deaths – about 31 were martyred; ten, murdered.


John VIII, one of the ablest pontiffs of the 9th century, was poisoned and beaten to death with a hammer.



In 99 AD, Emperor Trajan condemned Clement I for preaching the faith and ordered the pontiff tossed into the sea with an anchor around his neck.




Emperor Valerian beheaded Sixtus II in 258 AD.





Stephen I was sitting on his throne and holding mass when the emperor’s men stormed into the room and beheaded him.




Callixtus I was either “thrown down a well” or “murdered by a rioting mob”.


Martin I was exiled to the Crimea in 654 and starved to death. Clement VII was poisoned. Benedict VI was imprisoned then strangled in 974 by order of Boniface VII.


The Church and the state squabbled a lot. Monarchs and nobilities meddled with the clergy. Political interests corrupted the papacy.

St. Gregory VII picture 3

Reformer Gregory VII deposed and excommunicated German King Henry IV who seized Rome in 1084 and exiled the pontiff.


A pretender, an anti-Pope of Henry’s choosing, crowned him in St. Peter’s. His son and successor, Henry V, also fought with the Pope and forced Paschal II to crown him as emperor.


In the 13th century, French King Philip IV had a spat with Boniface VIII and tried to expel His Holiness. When French Clement V became Pope, he relocated the papacy to Avignon, in accordance with Philip’s wishes.


There, by the River Rhone, John XXII, Clement’s successor, who also happened to be French, built the Palace of the Popes.


The church split between Rome and Avignon, with two Popes, at one time even three, excommunicating each other, during the 39-year Great Western Schism which almost destroyed Christendom.


Only in 1377 did Gregory XI return to Rome, on the urging of St. Catherine of Sienna. The Schism ended in the beginning of the Renaissance papacy, when a general council elected Martin V in 1417.



But there was more trouble from France.


In the late 17th century, Pius VI condemned the French Revolution.  French troops captured him and he died a prisoner in France.


Napoleon Bonaparte captured his successor, the levitating Pius VII, and imprisoned him as well.


In 1849, Italians proclaimed a second Roman Republic and French troops helped restore Pius IX. But came 1870, Italian troops occupied the papal lands and proclaimed Rome the capital of Italy’s new kingdom.


In the next two hundred years, the power struggle between church and state raged on. It was only in 1929, in the reign of Pius XI, that the Vatican became a free city-state.


However, Pius XI and Pius XII feared Communism and refused to make pronouncements against Mussolini, Hitler and Franco.



Pius XII was accused of anti-Semitism when he failed to condemn the genocide of Rome’s Jews even as Nazis hauled them off to be gassed in Auschwitz.


As Vicars of Christ, Popes wielded great power. After the fall of the Roman Empire, they functioned as statesmen and rulers in their own right just as they were patrons of the arts.


Leo I protected Rome from the Huns and persuaded Atilla not to sack the city in 452. Leo IV fortified the basilica when the Saracens pillaged it in 846, transforming the Vatican to the Leonine City.



The 6th century Gregory the Great was a patron of musicians, singers, students, and teachers. He is credited with the Gregorian chant.


Benedict XIV kept the peace and implemented financial as well as liturgical reforms, making Rome Europe’s religious and cultural capital. Leo XIII, the “Rosary Pope”, reconciled the Church with the masses and ushered it into the industrial age.


Despite being “infallible”, Holy Fathers were human. The best leaders among them showed flaws. The scoundrels had redeeming virtues.



Innocent III, the greatest medieval pope, unified the Papal States. Yet he called for the Fourth Crusade, which culminated in the sacking of Constantinople, where Christians murdered Christians.




Sixtus IV commissioned the Sistine Chapel. But he also peddled indulgences and church positions and began the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.



Urban VIII patronized art on a grand scale. The greatest sculptor of the Baroque age, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was his protégé. But he imprisoned Galileo and banned all his works.


Gregory XIII commissioned the Gregorian calendar but emptied the coffers of the Vatican.


The corrupt, the debauched, the ruthless, the mediocre and those who never lasted long enough to create a difference outnumbered the great princes of the church.


Some Popes reigned only for a couple of weeks to over a month.


Urban VII had the shortest reign – 13 days. He contracted malaria the day after his election and died before he could be crowned. Boniface VI reigned 16 days; Celestine IV, 17 days and Theodore II, 20 days.


The most recent was John Paul I, the Smiling  Pope, who died in 1978, after 33 days in office.


Sadly, Romans don’t appreciate papal reformers and high achievers.


Sixtus V, the Iron Pope, accomplished the most in just five years. A retired monk hobbling on crutches when he came to the 1585 conclave, fellow cardinals elected him because they thought his reign would be brief.

Sixtus V


Then he flung away his crutches, declaring, “I’ve sought the key of heaven bent over and now I’ve found it.”


Sixtus V championed the Counter Reformation. He cleaned up Rome, executing 27,000 criminals and mob bosses within two years.


A master urban planner, he built roads linking outlying areas to the heart of the metropolis, raised obelisks, brought fresh water by tunnel and aqueduct, built the Lateran Palace and finished the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.


He slept little and worked hard. Prudent with funds because he inherited a bankrupt treasury, he left five million crowns in the Vatican coffers when he died of malaria.


Yet mobs tore down his statue at the Capitol after his death.




When another reformer, Adrian IV, the only English Pope, died choking on a fly in his wine, Romans rejoiced and placed garlands of flowers on the door of his bungling physician.







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