Born at Grottamara, in Ancona. He was reared in extreme poverty; but the story of his having been a swineherd in his youth appears to be open to question. At an early age he entered a Franciscan monastery. He soon gave evidence of rare ability as a preacher and a dialectician. About 1552 he came under the notice of Cardinal Carpi, protector of his order, Ghislieri (later Pope Pius V.) and Caraffa (later Pope Paul IV.), and from that time his advancement was assured. He was sent to Venice as inquisitor general, but carried matters with a high hand, became embroiled in quarrels, and was forced to leave in 1560. After a brief term as procurator of his order, he was attached to the Spanish legation headed by Buoncampagno (later Pope Gregory XIII.) in 1565. The violent dislike he conceived for Buoncampagno exerted a marked influence upon his subsequent actions. He hurried back to Rome upon the accession of Pius V., who made him apostolic vicar of his order, and, later (1570), cardinal. During the pontificate of Gregory XIII. he lived in retirement, occupied with the care of his villa and with his studies, one of the fruits of which was an edition of the works of Ambrose; not neglecting, however, to follow the course of affairs, but carefully avoiding every occasion of offence. This discreetness contributed not a little to his election to the papacy onApril 24 1585; but the story of his having feigned decrepitude in the Conclave, in order to win votes, is a pure invention. One of the things that commended his candidacy to certain cardinals was his physical vigour, which seemed to promise a long pontificate.
The terrible condition in which Gregory XIII. had left the ecclesiastical states called for prompt and stern measures. Against the prevailing lawlessness Sixtus proceeded with an almost ferocious severity, which only extreme necessity could justify. Thousands of brigands were brought to justice: within a short time the country was again quiet and safe. Sixtus next set to work to repair the finances. By the sale of offices, the establishment of new “Monti” and by levying new taxes, he accumulated a vast surplus, which he stored up against certain specified emergencies, such as a crusade or the defence of the Holy See. Sixtus prided himself upon his hoard, but the method by which it had been amassed was financially unsound: some of the taxes proved ruinous, and the withdrawal of so much money from circulation could not fail to cause distress. Immense sums, however, were spent upon public works. Sixtus set no limit to his plans; and what he achieved in his short pontificate is almost incredible; the completion of the dome of St Peter's; the loggia of Sixtus in the Lateran; the chapel of the Praesepe in Sta Maria Maggiore; additions or repairs to the Quirinal, Lateran and Vatican palaces; the erection of four obelisks, including that in the piazza of St Peter's; the opening of six streets; the restoration of the aqueduct of Severus ("Acqua Felice"); besides numerous roads and bridges, an attempt to drain the Pontine marshes, and the encouragement of agriculture and manufacture.
But Sixtus had no appreciation of antiquity: the columns of Trajan and Antoninus were made to serve as pedestals for the statues of SS Peter and Paul; the Minerva of the Capitol was converted into “Christian Rome”; the Septizonium of Severus was demolished for its building materials.
The administrative system of the church owed much to Sixtus. He limited the College of Cardinals to seventy; and doubled the number of the congregations, and enlarged their functions, assigning to them the principal role in the transaction of business (1588). He regarded the Jesuits with disfavour and suspicion. He meditated radical changes in their constitution, but death prevented the execution of his purpose. In 1589 was begun a revision of the Vulgate, the so-called Editio Sixtina.
In his larger political relations Sixtus, strangely enough, showed himself visionary and vacillating. He entertained fantastic ambitions, such as the annihilation of the Turks, the conquest of Egypt, the transporting of the Holy Sepulchre to Italy, the accession of his nephew to the throne of France. The situation in which he found himself was embarrassing: he could not countenance the designs of heretical princes, and yet he distrusted Philip II of Spain. and viewed with apprehension any extension of his power. So, while he excommunicated Henry of Navarre, and contributed to the Catholic League and the Armada, he chafed under his forced alliance with Philip, and looked about for escape. The victories of Henry and the prospect of his conversion to Catholicism raised Sixtus’s hopes, and in corresponding degree determined Philip to tighten his grip upon his wavering ally. The pope’s negotiations with Henry’s representative evoked a bitter and menacing protest and a categorical demand for the performance of promises. Sixtus took refuge in evasion, and temporized until death relieved him of the necessity of coming to a decision (August 27, 1590).
Sixtus died execrated by his own subjects; but posterity has recognized in him one of the greatest popes. He was impulsive, obstinate, severe, autocratic; but his mind was open to large ideas, and he threw himself into his undertakings with an energy and determination that often compelled success. Few popes can boast of greater enterprise or larger achievements.
Pope Gregory XIII
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Pope Urban VII