The most controversial pope of the Renaissance

A look at the reactions to the only Dutch pope

In 1522 there was elected for the first time in history, and so far still the last, a Dutch pope. Nowadays this is no more than a fun fact, to be told at parties. But at the time this was a more serious shock. This Dutchman, born as Adriaan Florensz. in Utrecht, wasn’t expected to ever become pope. In fact, he wasn’t even present at his own election. When most of the cardinals had gathered in Rome for the conclave, he was busy in Spain ruling the country as regent for the German emperor, Charles V.

So how is it that he was chosen? At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Catholic Europe was in both a religious and a political crisis. Religiously, the main danger was Luther and the wider troubles that would turn into Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Politically, the most direct problem was the enmity between the French king and the German emperor. This enmity influenced even the papal conclave which came to an impasse between the royal and imperial factions among the cardinals, who were thus completely unable to choose among themselves. In desperation, someone proposed electing an absent cardinal and thus they elected Adriaan.

When this news reached Adriaan in Spain some weeks later, he reluctantly accepted, taking the name Adrian VI. It took another nine months of arduous travel before he arrived in Rom. Once there he immediately set to work trying to solve both crises plaguing Europe and reforming the Catholic Church, beginning with the Curia. Naturally, this unusual election of a reform-minded foreign pope, unfamiliar with Roman ways, produced a variety of reaction across Europe. Three such responses to this pope are preserved at the KNIR: a short German dialogue, a letter written in Latin from Parma and a biography by a famous Italian historian. 

The front of the pamphlet. Note the man's devilish feet sticking out from under the monk's robe.
Talking with the devil

In 1522, probably in Wittenberg, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, Eyn Dialogus wie d’heylig vatter babst Adrianus eyngeritten ist zcu Rom was published. A pamphlet and written in German, it was clearly intended to be read by the more or less general public. It is a short and satirical dialogue between a papal courtesan, an abbot and the devil. The courtesan meets the abbot on his way from Rome and starts complaining about Adrian’s sobriety and modesty which have cost him his job at the Papal court. He would rather have a ‘Russian pope, than a theologian.’ After thus convincing the abbot to turn back and not go to Rome they meet a monk who later reveals himself to be the devil. This ‘monk’ speaks high praises of Luther for turning so many souls away from the good faith. He then says he is hasting to Rome to tell lies about ‘pious Adrian.’
The dialogue thus does not have much to say about Adrian directly. It is rather satirizing the attitudes of the clergy and the teaching of Luther. Yet we get here some taste of some of the reactions to his election. First we might note that overall, at least in the early period after his election, the reaction to it was positive in the Northern countries for the simple reason that one of their own was elected pope. And while there is not much mention of that fact, there is also a distinct lack of any mention of the pope’s ‘foreign’ nature, which is always present in the Italian texts. More importantly, the speech of the courtesan gives an accurate, though very negative, portrayal of the feelings of much of Adrian’s papal court. Adrian was very much downsizing the Curia and it made plenty of people angry. And perhaps we can also see, through the devil’s dislike of Adrian, some of the hope that many people felt at Adrian’s election. Adrian’s wish for a simpler and more ‘spiritual’ Vatican was not his alone.

Batti’s barbarian
An entirely different view of Adrian VI is represented by a letter written by Cristoforo Batti. Not much is known about Batti, other than that he was a humanist fond of particularly obscure Latin. The print at the KNIR is dated January 1504, but on the assumption that he wasn’t a prescient humanist, this is more likely to be 1524. Perhaps by then people had so little interest in Adrian that they didn’t even bother to get the date right. Batti, however, is fiercely negative of Adrian, claiming that it was a sign that the pest came to Rome just as the pope arrived from Spain. He certainly was not alone in this opinion as much of Rome was at first outraged by the election of a ‘barbarian’ and then hardly appeased by the very un-Roman behaviour of the pope.

In the bigger picture
A final example is the biography of Adrian by Paolo Giovio. Originally written and printed in Latin in 1549, it was quickly translated by Ludovico Domenichi into Italian; the KNIR owns the 1557 reprint of this edition. So it was a fairly popular book. But we should not be too quick in attributing this popularity to Adrian, as his biography is bundled with the much larger biography of his predecessor, Leo X. At around 70 pages, it is much larger than the previous two works discussed, and therefore also more complex and measured. Generally interpreted as at least partly satirical or ironic, Giovio's biography sketches a picture of the pope as well-meaning, but hopelessly inept as an Italian ruler. Adrian lacked the social niceties and the decisiveness that was expected of him. Nevertheless, Giovio lays at least part of the blame of Adrian’s horrible failure at the feet of the Romans themselves, who refused to accept his ‘Christian medicine.’

While calling Adrian’s papacy a horrible failure is harsh, it is also unfortunately accurate. Whatever our opinion of the man, it is an unhappy truth that he failed at all his goals, and after little more than a year of ruling Rome, he died. With Pope Francis’ simplicity winning the praises of the world, we might concur with the epigraph on Adrian’s tomb: ‘Alas! Even the best of men may be born in times unsuited to their virtue.’ Daniel Groen


Pamphilus Gengenbach [Eyn Dialogus] Eyn Dialogus wie der heilig Vatter Bapst Adrianus eyngeritten ist zcu Rom : auff den xxvij. Tag des Monats Augusti. Im iar. M.D.xxij : Dar von ein gesprech von dreyen personen Curtison, Teuffell, Aptt. (no imp).

4°, [1]-6 p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Pamphlet EE 1.41 dia

Cristoforo Batti [Adriani. VI. Pont. Max] Adriani. VI. Pont. Max. ex primo epistolarum C. Batti Parmensis iuuenis eloquentis (no imp.).
4°, [1]-6 p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato Pamphlet EE 1.41 b

Paolo Giovio [le vite di Leoni Decimo er d’Adriano VI] Vite di Leon Decimo et d’Adriano Sesto et del Cardinal P. Colonna 1557 (imp. In Vinegia, Appresso Giovanni de’Rossi, MDLVII).
4°, [10]-358-[3] p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato MR 104

   Cools, Hans, Catrien Santing, and Hans de Valk, eds. Adrian VI: A Dutch Pope in a Roman  Context. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012.
   Gaisser, Julia Haig. Pierio Valeriano on the Ill Fortune of Learned Men. Ann Arbor: University of  Michigan Press, 1999.
   McNally, Robert E. “Pope Adrian VI (1522-23) and Church Reform.” Archivum Historiae Pontificae  7 (1969): 253-285.
  Sterck, Johannes Franciscus Maria. “Over Paus Adriaan VI.” Mededelingen van het Nederlandsch  Historisch Instituut te Rome 7 (1927): 101-112.
   Verweij, Michiel. Adrianus VI (1495-1523): De Tragische Paus uit de Nederlanden. Antwerpen-  Apeldoorn: Garant, 2011.
  Zimmerman, T.C. Price. Paolo Giovio: The Historian and the Crisis of Sixteenth  Century  Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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