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From The Lives of the Popes from the Time of our Saviour Jesus Christ to the Accession of Gregory VII. Written Originally in Latin by B. Platina, Native of Cremona, and translated into English (from an anonymous translation, first printed in 1685 by Sir Paul Rycaut), Edited by William Benham, Volume I, London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh, [1888, undated in text]; pp. ix-xiv.

The Lives of the Popes,
B. Platina

Volume I.

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THE author of the following work was born in 1421 at a little village between Mantua and Cremona, called Piadena (Latin Platina). His family name was Sacchi, but he changed it to Platina, after his birthplace. There is a difference of opinion with regard to his Christian name; some writers saying that it was Baptista, others that it was Bartholomew. Vossius has dealt with the question at some length in his work “De Historicis Latinis,” and, on substantial reasons, has decided for Bartholomew. In his early youth he was trained as a soldier, and later studied science for some years. At last he went to Rome, recommended by Cardinal Vessarion to Pope Pius II., and through the influence of his patron he obtained successively several posts; in 1464, the important one of Abbreviator, the duties of which consisted of drawing up Papal bulls or briefs. When he had been installed but a few months, Pius II. died, and Paul II., his successor, changed all the officials. He had an idea, probably correct, that the Court of Abbreviators was the promoter of much corruption, so he determined to restrict the powers they possessed, and fixed their number at seventy, all of them being tried men, safe to carry out his commands. The indignation of those that he been deprived of their office was great, and they chose Platina, as being the most distinguished of their number, to plead their cause. He argued that the office was theirs for life, when once appointed, and that it was not in the power of the Pope to dismiss them at will, and he moreover threatened that if he would give them no redress, they would submit the question to the decision of the Rota. To x which Paul II. answered, “Do you talk of bringing us before judges, as if you did not know that the law is settled in our breast? If you talk in that way, all shall be dismissed. I care not; I am Pope, and can, at my good pleasure, rescind or confirm the acts of others.” Platina, not to be daunted, told the Pope by letter that he and his colleagues would apply to the Princes of Europe, against his treatment of them. The only answer vouchsafed to him was an announcement that the Pope had ordered his imprisonment, on a charge of treason. He was kept in chains for four months, at the end of which time he was released through the intercession of Cardinal Gonzaga. After their dissolution the Abbreviators used often to meet at the Roman Academy, for the airing of their grievances, and they thought to take vengeance on the Pope, by holding up the priesthood to ridicule. At first the Pope took no notice, but during the Carnival of 1468, rumours reached him that they were conspiring with the Emperor to create a new schism, and he caused Platina and several others to be seized. Pomponius Laetus, the founder of the Academy, and in reality a simple-minded scholar, was soon released, but Platina was kept in prison for more than a year. This mode of life did not suit one who had been accustomed to comparative ease and luxury, and very soon he was ready to submit unconditionally, so long as the Pope would give him his liberty. In the letters which he wrote at that time, such sentences as this occur, “I undertake, that if I hear anything, even from the birds as they fly past, which is directed against your name and safety, I will at once inform your Holiness, by letter or messenger. I entirely approve your proceedings for restraining and reproving the license of the scholars; it is the duty of the chief shepherd to preserve his flock from all danger and disease.” He wrote also to several of the cardinals, to urge them to use all the influence they possessed with the Pope, and promised that from that time forth, his pen should be entirely devoted to the promotion of the Church’s welfare. He was released, but Paul never called on xi him to fulfil his promise, and till the accession of Sixtus IV., Paul’s successor, he lived in obscurity. Sixtus IV. appointed him superintendent of the Vatican Library, and he died holding that office in 1481. At the time of his appointment the library contained about 2500 volumes. His salary was one hundred and twenty ducats a year, and the three sub-librarians each received twelve ducats. Their position appears to have been most humble, merely that of servants; among the records it is told how one of them, named Salvatus, was in such a state of destitution that he was presented with new clothes. At the same time they were all learned men, and have left several works of merit behind them. Most of the works were secured by chains, especially in the room used by the general public. There were two other rooms, one for the reception of private papers and archives, and one used by the Pope and cardinals. Bibliography was still in its infancy, and it is interesting to trace the gradual improvements made in the drawing up of the catalogue. From the first the names were arranged in alphabetical order, but the first letter of the Christian name was always given the precedence. Platina died of the plague. He is said to have written his own epitaph as follows: — “Quisquis es, si pius, Platinam et suos ne vexes; auguste jacent et soli volunt esse.” Of his writings, by far the most important is his “History of the Papacy,” which he wrote at the request of Sixtus, and published at Venice in 1479. He drew freely from the writings of his predecessors, and with them makes many statements which cannot be proved. As he draws near to his own time the historical value of his book becomes greater, the source of the last portion, from Eugene IV. to Paul II., being his own personal experience. In his biography of the latter he pays off many old scores of vengeance. Paul II., however, had been dead some years, and the only harm caused by his biased judgment was that subsequent generations have formed erroneous ideas of Paul’s real character. For the most part he criticises the state x of the Papacy as it was in his own time with great severity, yet he sometimes plays the part of a flatterer. He displays a genuine love of truth, though in the case of Paul II. he gives vent to personal hatred. His history of Mantua, beginning with the foundation of the town, and continued till the year 1464, is a book of great rarity. His other works treat chiefly of philosophy.

The translation here offered to the reader was first published in 1685 by Sir Paul Rycaut, who states that he does not know by whom the translation was made, but it was delivered to him by the bookseller. He was so convinced of its value and usefulness that he has not only published it, but has continued it up to his own time. The rest of Platina’s work, comprising the history of the Papacy during the period of its highest power and pretensions, will form a second volume of this present series.

Platina’s work is unquestionably very valuable. It will be seen that in his earliest lives he treads on uncertain ground, and a good many of his statements will not bear the light of close investigation. But it must be remembered that historical criticism was hardly born into the world when he wrote, and he depended, as did many chroniclers besides, on traditional stories rather than on documentary evidence. Whereas he gives us the dates of St Peter’s occupation of the see, and of the accession of his immediate successors, we know that later writers of his own communion dismiss such details into the limbo of guesses or confused tradition. But when we emerge into the light of authentic history, Platina shows every disposition to be candid and accurate, and as he passes on he is often remarkably vivid and interesting in his presentation of details.

In the following edition his text has been left unaltered with two exceptions. One passage only has been omitted, as containing matter coarser than meets our present ideas of good taste. It does not bear on the history at all. And manifest clerical errors and misprints have been corrected. In other xiii respects, where I am satisfied that Platina’s statements are incorrect, or where they are open to question, I have left them alone, and simply challenged them in foot-notes which are printed within square brackets; and I have endeavoured in the introduction to give a general idea of the period of which he treats. The dates adopted are taken from the Roman Catholic writer, Dr. Milner, as now accepted by the Roman Church.


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Previous Page: 161. Table of Contents 162. Biographical Preface. Next Page: General Introduction.

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