Archbishop Viganò has gone into hiding, supposedly saying that he feared for his life. Some have suggested he has read too many Dan Brown novels. Or perhaps he remembers how other popes have dealt with critics. We return to the learned John Bellairs and his portrait of a Renaissance pope under the topic Bad Popes:

The worst Renaissance Pope was Bragghimento dei Crudelissimi, who took the name Sporus VI (1540–1565). His election took place under most peculiar circumstances, since the Curia in 1540 had been drastically reduced by plague, sudden death, and a drowsy euphoria that came drifting out of the Pontine Marches like  the exhalation of some besotted giant.

At Sporus’ election, fifteen prelates were present, wot an average age of eighty-six. Eight were certainly senile, and there may be some question about Balbo of Genoa, who kept spilling his ink during the balloting, and who constantly referred to the cardinal next to him as “Rosa.”

The fifteenth ballot had been reached when a disturbance arose over pens. Old Cardinal Schotto of Mainz had broken his and could not secure another from the proctors, whom he accused (loudly) of being in the pay of the Italians. He advanced to the idle of the room, denouncing violently, and was met by three proctor, two Italian cardinals, and Scataphorus, the ninety-eight-year-old Patriarch of Alexandria, who was trying (in a general way) to find the bathroom.

(We shall draw a veil over the disturbance.)

After this unseemly tiff, the balloting proceeded,  although Cardinal Schotto never did get a pen, and afterwards boasted that he had  marked his ballot with soot from the Greek patriarch’s beard.

Sporus was elected and immediately acknowledged three mistresses, a concubine, and fourteen illegitimate children, supporting this move with his campaign slogan, “Honesty in the Church.” But honesty was not neigh, for he was alas, prone to bribery, nepotism, and murder, and his reign was this pockmarked with many scandals.

Not the least of these incidents was the series of attempts that he and Cardinal Bobbo made to poison each other. The latter sent Pope Sporus a jar of tainted quinces, which were (fortunately) devoured by one of the Pope’s greedy nephews. Sporus responded with a lute filled with tarantulas, which was accompanied by a gaily mocking note in classical Greek hexameters. The cardinal shot back with a music box which, when opened, played early Renaissance music as it fired a small vial of bat saliva at the unlucky recipient. Sporus, however, ended the tomfoolery in a rather crude manner, when he invited Cardinal Bobbo to a card party and threw him down a well.

It must not be forgotten, however, that Pope Sporus VI was a patron of the arts. Up until 1921, one could see near Rome traces of the Villa Pasta, which Sporus built from the ruins of  twenty-five old Roam temples in the vicinity.

Furthermore, he was the patron of Sandro di Garagiola, who did the famous, if fanciful, frescoes entitles “Pope Sporus Debating with Aristotle,” “Pope Sporus Duelling with the Spirits of Nestorius and John Hus,’ and “Pope Sporus Being Begged by the Curia Not to Abdicate and Go Live on Patmos as a Hermit.”

But not even art could preserve Pope Sporus from the recurrent attacks of mal de siècle that sent him, in the twilight of his reign, more and more frequently to Capri. Though he was unsuccessful in establishing that island as the summer residence of the popes, he became a legend there. The islanders still talk of the way he would wander about in brightly flowered robes, leather sandals, and a straw tiara he had had made for him. (Some virulently anti-Catholic historians insist that Pope Sporus wore smoked spectacles with tis costume. This is nonsense.) At last, in October of 1565, this unhappy man was called before that cloudy Bar of Justice on which no early gavel can ring. He was blown off Tiberius’ Leap during a high wind and was drowned.

(Cheer up, it’s been worse.)

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