Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bartolomeo Sacchi, called the Platina


Bartolomeo Sacchi is much more recognizable by his pseudonym, Platina. Platina is the Latin form of his birth place, Piedina. It is situated near Cremona in Northern Italy.

Platina was born into a poor family. He enlisted in the service of two condottieri: Francesco Sforza (1401–66), who in 1450 would obtain the dukedom of Milan, and Niccolò Piccinino (1386–1444).

Later, Platina sought and obtained the protection of the Gonzaga family, the princely house that ruled Mantua. This enabled him to study with the famed humanist and preceptor Omnibonus Leonicenus, called by his friends Ognibene da Lonigo. Later Platina became the tutor of the Gonzaga family.

From the Mantua of the Gonzagas, Platina made his way to the Florence of the Medicis.There he studied with Byzantine humanist John Argyropoulos (1415–87), who had arrived in Florence in 1456 after fleeing Constantinople (which fell to the Ottomans in 1453).

Highly cultured and restless, Platina left Florence for Rome in 1461, following his student Francesco Gonzaga, who had been made cardinal—at the tender age of eighteen—by the “humanist pope” Pius II, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. And in Rome he would remain, through good times and bad, until he died in 1481 from the plague and was buried in the glorious basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, with funeral rites attended by a congregation of Roman literati.

In Rome he was under the protection of cardinal Gonzaga. He also came under the patronage of Cardinal Bassarion.

In 1463, Pius II reorganized the College of Abbreviators (1463), and increased the number of members to seventy. These members were Breviators, a body of writers in the papal chancery, whose business was to sketch out and prepare in due form the pope's bulls, briefs and consistorial decrees before these are written out in extenso by the scriptores. Due to the influence of Cardinal Bessarion, Platina, in May 1464, was elected a member.

Pius II decreed that their office should be perpetual, that certain emoluments should be attached to it, and granted certain privileges to the possessors of the same. It was a very valuable post in the world of Roamn patronage.

The successor of Pius II, Pope Paul II, suppressed this college. The reaction to this was fierce. Foremost in the protests was Platina.

The dispossessed officials, on the plea that their appointment had been for life, besieged the Vatican 20 nights before getting a hearing. Then Platina, as their spokesman, threatened to appeal to the princes of Europe to have a general council called and see that justice was done. The pope’s curt answer was that he would rescind or ratify the acts of his predecessors as he pleased.

The unfortunate abbreviator, who was more of a scholar than a politician, was thrown into prison and held there during the four months of Winter without fire and bound in chains.

Unhappily for him, he was imprisoned a second time, accused of conspiracy and heretical doctrine.

In these charges the Roman Academy was also involved, an institution which cultivated Greek thought and was charged with having engaged in a propaganda of Paganism. There was some ground for the charge, for its leader, Pomponius Laeto, who combined the care of his vineyard with ramblings through the old Roman ruins and the perusal of the ancient classics, had spoken against the clergy. This antiquary was also thrown into prison.

A rumour had reached Paul that these men were conspiring to assassinate him. He summoned Platina to his bedchamber and questioned him in a hysterical fashion.

“He being negligently dressed and looking pale, urged me still, and sometimes threatened me with torments and sometimes with death unless I would confess” (Lives, 2: 286-87).

Platina says he answered him “fearlessly” because he was innocent.

After this personal interrogation, Paul had Platina – as the prime suspect-- and some twenty other men tortured.

Platina’s report of this experience pulls out all the stops, complete with the horrid papal favourite, Vianesius, seated on a tapestry chair, mixing his interrogations with a banal conversation with one Sanga, about a jewel a girl had given him. Platina relates how he and a number of others were put to the torture, while Vienesius, his Holiness’ vice-chancellor, looked on for several days as the ordeal was proceeding, "sitting like another Minos upon a tapestried seat as if he had been at a wedding, a man in holy orders whom the canons of the Church forbade to put torture upon laymen, lest death should follow, as it sometimes does."

Banality, an irritant added to pain, is a common torturer’s tool.

The story is ennobled, beyond its horror and grotesqueness, by Platina’s naming of the young man who died under the torture, and of his kind cell-mates, a father and son, who helped him with food and “physic” when his hands and forearms were disabled by the rack (Lives, 2: 288-89).

“The Academy” had excited the jealousy and suspicions of Paul, and gave rise to one of the most horrid persecutions and scenes of torture, even to death, in which these academicians were involved. This closed with a decree of Paul’s, that for the future no one should pronounce, either seriously or in jest, the very name of academy, under the penalty of heresy.

“You would have imagined says Platina,” that the castle of St. Angelo was turned into the bull of Phalaris, so loud the hollow vault resounded with the cries of those miserable young men, who were an honour to their age for genius and learning. The torturers, not satisfied, though weary, having racked twenty men in those two days, of whom some died, at length sent for me to take my turn.

The instruments of torture were ready; I was stripped, and the executioners put themselves to their work. Vianesius sat like another Minos on a seat of tapestry-work, gay as at a wedding; and while I hung on the rack in torment, he played with a jewel which Sanga had, asking him who was the mistress which had given him this love-token? Turning to me, he asked ‘why Pomponio in a letter should call me Holy Father? Did the conspirators agree to make you Pope?’ ‘Pomponio,’ I replied, ‘can best tell why he gave me this title, for I know not.’

At length, having pleased, but not satisfied himself with my tortures, he ordered me to be let down, that I might undergo tortures much greater in the evening.

I was carried, half dead, into my chamber; but not long after, the inquisitor having dined, and being fresh in drink, I was fetched again, and the archbishop of Spalatro was there. They inquired of my conversations with Malatesta. I said, it only concerned ancient and modern learning, the military, arts, and the characters of illustrious men, the ordinary subjects of conversation. I was bitterly threatened by Vianesius, unless I confessed the truth on the following day, and was carried back to my chamber, where I was seized with such extreme pain, that I had rather have died than endured the agony of my battered and dislocated limbs.

But now those who were accused of heresy were charged with plotting treason. Pomponius being examined why he changed the names of his friends, he answered boldly, that this was no concern of his judges or the pope; it was perhaps out of respect for antiquity, to stimulate to a virtuous emulation.

After we had now lain ten months in prison, Paul comes himself to the castle, where he charged us, among other things, that we had disputed concerning the immortality of the soul, and that we held the opinion of Plato; by disputing you call the being of a God in question. This, I said, might be objected to all divines and philosophers, who, to make the truth appear, frequently question the existence of souls and of God, and of all separate intelligences. St. Austin says, the opinion of Plato is like the faith of Christians. I followed none of the numerous heretical factions. Paul then accused us of being too great admirers of pagan antiquities; yet none were more fond of them than himself, for he collected all the statues and sarcophagi of the ancients to place in his palace, and even affected to imitate, on more than one occasion, the pomp and charm of their public ceremonies. While they were arguing, mention happened to he made of ‘the Academy,’ when the Cardinal of San Marco cried out that we were not ‘Academics,’ but a scandal to the name; and Paul now declared that he would not have that term evermore mentioned under pain of heresy. He left us in a passion, and kept us two months longer in prison to complete the year, as it seems he had sworn.”

On his release he received a promise from Paul of reappointment to office, but waited in vain.

At the suggestion of the cardinal to be Sixtus IV he wrote his Vitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XX (Venice, 1479).

The portrait of Pius II is friendly and affectionate. The portrait of Paul II is far from flattering.

In Paul II’s life, he is, effectively, the protagonist. In the life of Pius II, he is there by implication in its affectionate details, such as his account of the pope’s daily regimen and a Boswellian list of his witty sayings (Lives, 2: 269-271, 273).

Pius’s wit finds its way, dangerously, into the life of Paul II:

". .. Peter Barbo was naturally fair-spoken, and could feign good nature, when occasion served. But he was sometimes so mean-spirited, that when he could not obtain what he aimed at by praying, entreating, and requesting, he would join tears to his petitions to make them the sooner believed. And therefore Pope Pius used sometimes to call him the godly Mary, by way of joke " (Lives, 2: 276).

We can picture Platina laughing at this sobriquet, and repeating it to others in gregarious gaiety, oblivious of its lethality to his position when, after Pius’s death at Ancona, Barbo was unexpectedly chosen as his successor on the first ballot.

On the accession of Sixtus IV., he was put in charge of the Vatican library.

At the instance of Sixtus IV, he made a collection of the chief privileges of the Roman Church. Besides this, he wrote several others of smaller importance, notably: Historia inclita urbis Mantuæ et serenissimæ familiæ Gonzagæ.