Pius II (1405-1464) was pope from 1458 to 1464. He is remarkable for the contrast between his early life as a writer and poet of the Renaissance and his later life as a conservative pope.
Pius II was born Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini (often in Latin, Aeneas Sylvius) at Corsigniano, Italy. He did not take Holy Orders until the age of 41, having spent most of his life enjoying a worldly existence as a writer of profane literature and as secretary to many prominent men. Piccolomini spent many years at the Council of Basel and helped elect the antipope Felix V. In 1442 he met Emperor Frederick III, who created him poet laureate and made him his private secretary. In 1445 Piccolomini was converted from the disorderly life he had been leading and made his peace with the orthodox ranks of the Church. Pope Nicholas V made him bishop of Trieste in 1447 and of Siena in 1449, and he became a cardinal in 1456. On Aug. 19, 1458, he was elected pope, taking the name Pius II in honor of the "pius Aeneas" of the Roman poet Virgil.
Pius II's character now changed rather dramatically. His supporters had expected him to be a patron of the arts, but he chose instead to be a medieval pope, completely out of step with his times. Throughout his pontificate his main concern was to organize a crusade against the Turks, who had captured Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. This preoccupation made him neglect more practical matters, notably the settlement of the Hussite problem, which quarrel he continued with the Bohemians led by George of Podebrad, and French aggression in Italy. Formerly a skilled diplomat, Pius II handled these problems badly. His papal conservatism is shown by his bull Execrabilis (1460), which declared heretical the idea that a general council of the Church is superior to the pope. With this bull he helped to kill the conciliar movement, which had attempted urgent reforms in the Church.
In June 1464 Pius II took the cross and set out on a crusade against the Turks. He had almost no support, and he probably hoped that other princes would be shamed into following him. Pius II became ill and died at Ancona on Aug. 15, 1464. Although his writings lack depth of conviction, he had considerable charm both as an artist and as a person; and this charm may have accounted for his rise to prominence. Deep conviction came to him only after he had assumed the responsibilities of the papacy, and although his pontificate may be justly criticized as an anachronism, his thwarted crusade of 1464 testifies to his courage and to his devotion to duty. He had changed from a lighthearted young man to a dedicated religious leader, but unfortunately his conception of papal duty belonged to a vanished era.
Pius II's own writings are important documents of the early Renaissance, as well as enjoyable reading. An abridged translation of his Commentaries by Leona C. Gabel and F. A. Cragg was published under the title Pius II: Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope (1960). The standard biography of him is Catherine M. Ady, Pius II: The Humanist Pope (1913). □
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