Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Red Hats in the News

One of the new cardinals - Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York
Photo by Lawrence OP

Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI presided over hours of ceremonies in the Vatican during which 22 new cardinals were given their birettas and formally made princes of the church. The widespread media coverage of this event, in the Boston Globe, Associated Press, BBC etc.,  focused on a number of connected questions. There were sotto voce observations about the advanced age and apparent ill health of the reigning pontiff, and also rumours of nefarious politicking and jockeying for position within the Vatican as people sense a pontificate might be drawing to an end. The BBC quoted one Vatican official as declaring that ‘Wolves were on the prowl in the frescoed palace of the popes’. There has been much analysis of the identity of the new cardinals, and what it reveals about a) how these new additions might affect the choice of the next pope at a future electoral conclave and b) the Roman Catholic church’s geo-political centres of gravity – 12 of the new cardinals are Europeans, one is from New York.

This week, as I’ve been lecturing and giving tutorials on the Counter Reformation, I’ve been reminded of cardinal-creation events in the early modern period. For a start, in those days, cardinals were given much grander hats – more sombrero than nightcap. It’s also been striking how media coverage of Benedict XVI’s new cardinals, in its tone and concerns, is remarkably reminiscent of the news reports which would leak out of Renaissance Rome. When a pope, such as Leo X (d.1521), was taken seriously ill, rumours would quickly reach royal courts in Budapest or Vilnius. When Renaissance popes created new cardinals, diarists, diplomats, chroniclers and commentators would pore over the lists, trying to decode their inner meanings as if they were astrological charts. In 1493, when the churchman I’ve studied most closely, Fryderyk Jagiellon (d.1503), was named cardinal at the tender age of 25, there was massive speculation as to the motives of the Borgia pope, the notorious Alexander VI – what did it portend, that he had created cardinals from England, Poland, Spain and Venice? The speed at which rumours and speculation about cardinals and future popes leak out of the Vatican (never slow, even in the fifteenth century), has of course been much accelerated by the internet. But it’s interesting that, five hundred years after the Reformation, the questions, commentary and interest show no signs of abating, as if the creations of new cardinals were somehow hardwired into European/western political news reporting.

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