The 5 Most Interesting Popes in History

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

In the List of Popes, These Are the 5 Greatest

Since the declaration of Habemus Papam – we have a Pope – in 2013, the papacy has never been more popular in the modern era. On his election to the Holy See, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name ‘Francis’, after Saint Francis of Assisi, becoming the first ever Pope Francis. Known as a reformer and unafraid to take on the establishment, Pope Francis has made headlines for his controversial stances on gay and civil unions, climate change and economic inequality. Among the list of popes, is Pope Francis the best pope ever?

It’s probably too early to tell but after a recent visit to the Vatican on our Arte Vaticana walk, we left mesmerized about the staggering list of Popes that have occupied the Holy See. We counted 266 Popes, but which Pope has contributed the most to changing the history of the church of Rome and its art? As we were itching to learn more, we sat down with our very knowledgeable Rome guides and Vatican experts, and they shared with us their favorite Popes based on personalities, contributions and fondness for the arts.

For those of you looking for further Papal immersion, check out our online seminars, called Context Conversations. Our scholars and experts are known to dabble in the intriguing history and personalities of the popes in our online seminars and courses. We're most excited about our 2022 History of Popes course with Dr. Thomas Madden. 

Whittling the List of Popes down to 5

1: Pope Sixtus IV – Francesco della Rovere (1471-1484) – The Builder Pope

The first on our list is Pope Sixtus IV, who ascended to the papacy more than 500 years before Pope Francis, yet shared a similar fearlessness and determination. Sixtus IV developed his reputation by blocking the Ottoman Turks advance in Smyrna, daring to declare war on the powerful Este family in Ferrara, and plotting Lorenzo de’Medici’s assassination in the Pazzi Conspiracy — albeit unsuccessfully. Besides his high-aiming political scope, which led him to bestow privileges on his fifteen nephews – nipote – and is where we get the term nepotism, this pope also had monumental plans for Rome. Sixtus IV invested heavily in architectural and urban projects that renovated the city of Rome – renovatio urbis. We can still walk over the Ponte Sisto, the bridge named after him, which he built over the Tiber to facilitate pilgrims’ access to St. Peter’s for the Jubilee of 1475. Sixtus IV improved and paved the streets of Rome, repaired the Aqua Virgo, one of the ancient Roman aqueducts, and its fountain at the Trevi, rebuilt S. Maria del Popolo where many of the della Rovere – his family – are buried, created the first museum of antique sculptures, known today as the Capitoline Museum, which included the famous bronze she-wolf, but he is perhaps best known for building the Sistine Chapel. The original chapel had been called the Cappella Magna, the Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV.

To decorate the chapel Sixtus employed some of the greatest Renaissance painters, which included Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Roselli. Working as a team they painted frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ. These paintings were completed in 1482. A year later, Sixtus celebrated the first mass in the Sistine Chapel for the Feast of the Assumption, at which ceremony the chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

2: Pope Urban VIII – Maffeo Barberini (1623-1644) – The Bee Pope

Our Vatican expert Lauren Golden seems to have a soft spot for Pope Urban VIII, next up on the great list of popes. She tells us Urban VIII was a fervent patron of the arts during the Baroque period. All the works of art commissioned by Urban VIII were aimed at displaying not only the supremacy of the pope and the Catholic church but also his family, whose coat of arms – of three bees, can be spotted in many paintings, sculptures, and buildings in Rome. In the 19th century, one scholar started counting the Barberini bees in Rome and gave up when he hit 6,000. The enormous vault of the grand salon in the Palazzo Barberini – the Sistine Ceiling of the Baroque – has 3 bees as its centerpiece, glorifying the Barberini family and its pope Urban VIII.

Urban VIII, who as a cardinal had been in charge of Bernini’s education, when he became pope, basically employed Bernini to redecorate Rome. It is almost impossible to go anywhere in Rome today without coming across a Bernini work of art. Among the many Bernini works that we still admire today, include the Palazzo Barberini, the Fontana della Barcaccia in Piazza di Spagna, the Fontana del Tritone, and the magnificent bronze baldacchino, skyscraper tall, under the dome of Saint Peter’s basilica. For this monument the pope is infamously remembered for ordering the removal of the remaining bronze of the portico of the Pantheon, some of which was also used to make new canons for the Castel Sant’Angelo. Urban VIII’s unblessed recycling exercise earned caustic comments from the notorious antique talking statue, Pasqunio, who remarked, Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini’s did”).

3: Pope Sixtus V – Felice Peretti (1585-1590) – The Happy Pope

If you like exorcism and heads on stakes then Sixtus V stands out in the list of popes. Famous for rooting out corruption and lawlessness in Roman society by displaying criminals decapitated heads on stakes around the city he also performed exorcisms to get rid of pagan demons, after re-erecting four ancient Egyptian obelisks as signposts to pilgrims across Rome. The Vatican obelisk at Basilica of St. Peter, for example, has an inscription referring to exorcism on the east and west sides to keep evil away from the Vatican.

According to our Vatican expert, we owe Sixtus V for the reorganization of Rome’s urban plan, as this pope created new straight streets and laid the foundation for the topography of the city – as we know it today. Thanks to Sixtus we can walk from the Porta del Popolo, where he placed an obelisk in the piazza, along the Via Sistina and Via delle Quattro Fontane. Our vatican scholars also tell us the Dome of St. Peter’s was completed under his patronage and in much haste. Sixtus V was presented a ten-year completion plan by Giacomo della Porta, to which the pope responded that he wanted it completed in 24 months. Upon such strict instructions and thanks to a tirelessly-working team, the dome was complete in only 22 months.

In contrast to many other papal greats, Sixtus V had no appreciation for antiquities: for starters this pope endeavored to convert the Colosseum into a wool factory with homes for its workers, he demolished many Roman monuments to use them as raw materials for other construction projects, and turned the Column of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan’s column into pedestals for the statues of St. Peter and Paul.

Lauren also likes to remember Sixtus V for leaving us the Moses Fountain. Originally known as the Sweet/Happy fountain after Sixtus V’s name (Felice translates to “happy” in Italian), when the statue of Moses was unveiled and was completely out of proportion, it became known as the ‘unhappy’ fountain. Our guides like to call the statue the “Fat Moses”, exactly for that reason. The fountain was part of Sixtus V’s plan to bring a second aqueduct (Acqua Felice) to the city, in addition to the Acqua Vergine (location of the Trevi Fountain), with the purpose of bringing clean water into a less inhabited area and encouraging people to live there. The Palazzo Barberini and the Triton fountain were later made possible thanks to Sixtus V’s aqueduct. Viewing the fountain’s facade today is quite a challenge due to the traffic pattern, and our tip is to pay a visit to the fountain at night. 

4: Pope Innocent X – Giovanni Battista Pamphilj (1644-1655) – The Negative Pope

Innocent X makes our list of popes due to his epic negativity. His family, the Pamphilj, were bitter enemies of Urban VIII’s family, the Barberini. He was determined to reform the financial climate in Rome that was threatened by his predecessor, Urban VIII, who emptied the papal coffers for his own private interests and whims. Innocent X imposed several reforms to restore the state income, responding with “no way” to everything he disagreed with – thus earning the nickname of Monsignor “No way”.

However, Innocent X did continue rebuilding Rome to reaffirm the Pamphilij’s supremacy over the Barberini – yes, a building competition was all the rage between the two families – especially through commissioned works of art that had Borromini appointed as the papal artist who was engaged in the construction of several churches such as Sant’Agnese in Agone, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and the magnificent Oval Staircase in Palazzo Barberini. On the other hand, Bernini managed to “get a role on the stage” under Innocent X with his Fountain of the Four Rivers located in Piazza Navona. One of our guides really got excited explaining how the project of the fountain was originally given to Borromini but Bernini snatched the assignment, by cleverly giving Innocent X’s beloved (and greedy) sister-in-law Donna Olimpia, who’s nickname was La Papessa, a silver model of the fountain. On seeing Bernini’s model, Innocent X could not resist Donna Olimpia’s will such was the control she had over the pope. We also owe many legendary works to Innocent X’s vision: Palazzo Pamphilj, the Agonal Obelisk, the Neptune fountain, all works found in Piazza Navona, as well as the current Papal summer palace, Castel Gandolfo, and the reconstruction of St. John Lateran. 

5: Pope Paschal I – Pascale Massimi (817-824) – The Papal Poster-Boy with an Urban Plan in Mind

The last on our list of popes, Paschal I, is considered to be the best looking Pope in history according to our Vatican scholar. Paschal I, was fixated on undertaking an urban reconstruction of Rome to emphasize its importance as an ancient and contemporary (for his times!) seat of power. As a “Roman from Rome” (typical expression used in Rome to state the authenticity of someone’s local origins), it is no wonder that Pope Paschal I had his dear city at heart and aimed at glorifying it by enhancing its superiority over the Eastern Orthodox church. Paschal I gave shelter to Greek monks and artists fleeing from Constantinople during Iconoclasm, thus creating his own team of mosaic artists. These artists finely decorated church interiors, such as the golden Saint Zeno Chapel in the titular church of Santa Prassede, dedicated to his mother Theodora, whom he fondly loved as much as the Virgin Mary to the point of kick-starting the Marian Movement. Some might describe Paschal as a proper Mamma’s boy.

Our guide also mentioned Paschal I initiated the major translation of the bones from the Catacombs of San Callisto and found the body of Santa Cecilia. Apparently, Santa Cecilia came to Paschal in a dream while he was having a nap on the papal throne and told him where to find her tomb. If imagining this is not enough, she mentioned we can admire a 13th century painting of the Pope’s story portrayed in the beautiful church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Bonus Pope: Pope Julius II – Giuliano della Rovere (1503-1513) – The Fearsome Pope

If you flock to controversy, you will love Julius II. While Julius didn’t quite make the first cut in our list of popes to remember, we just couldn’t leave him out of the discussion. As our guides tell us, Julius benefited from a prestigious position as a cardinal, bestowed upon him by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV and later became Pope without having a theology background (a bit unusual for such a prestigious position even for the 14th century.) Following in the steps of his uncle, Julius was more concerned with political matters to which he tied a strong commitment to the arts. Julius sponsored some of the greatest artwork of the Italian Renaissance, recruiting renowned artists such as Perugino, Raphael – who decorated the Pope’s private rooms (eg. La stanza della Segnatura), Bramante – who the Pope entrusted to be chief architect to build the new St. Peter’s, and Michelangelo to sculpt his tomb. The Pope cancelled that project and forced Michelangelo, who considered himself to be a sculptor, to paint the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. One remarkable detail, our guides shared with us is that Michelangelo when painting the Last Judgement for the later Pope Paul III took revenge on the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who had criticized the nudity in the painting, portrayed Biagio as a naked Minos, judge of the underworld, with donkey ears telling the world Biagio was a fool. We definitely recommend our Vatican walk to immerse yourself in further political intrigue.

As we thank our expert guides for their insight, we realize our notebook is full of interesting information and we want to jump on the next available walking tour to learn more about the fascinating protagonists of Rome. For a full list of our Vatican tours please click here: Context Vatican Tours.

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