The year 2017 was declared ‘Martiniano Year’ in honour of the six hundred years anniversary of the election to the throne of St. Peter of Pope Martin V Colonna in 1417.
History of the Western world has been closely intertwined with that of the powerful Colonna family but deep down we know little about one of its most interesting figures: Oddone Colonna who became pope with the name of Pope Martin V.
We always imagine the Colonna as great leaders: those of ‘the slap of Anagni’ that in some ways marks the beginning of the schism of the church, or the one who beat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto and stopped the Islamisation of Europe. All brave soldiers whose heroic deeds you can admire but not necessarily their political actions.
Pope Martin V was different, possibly being one of the most interesting popes in political history. He got himself elected in Germany at the Council of Constance by dismissing all three existing ‘popes’ and ‘anti-popes’, claiming their power. He was responsible for the administrative setup of the Papal States as we know it and with it came the Renaissance in Rome.
But let’s put the this in order because the story of the three popes is intriguing and deserves to be told.
Martin became bishop and got to be part of the diplomatic group conducting the negotiations for ending the rift of Avignon but his views were so original that the Roman Pope Gregory XII excommunicated him.
At that point, the situation becomes so twisted that a third pope was elected in Pisa and Martin found himself somehow involved in the lives of the two Pisan popes who created this anomaly and in particular with Papa Giovanni XXIII (more than Pope he was an anti-pope and the true papa Giovanni XXIII’s is who we all know and love for his work ‘Pacem in Terris’).
The protagonist of reconciliation became King Sigismund (later Emperor) who convened a Council in Constance, in a ‘neutral location’, inviting the Roman Pope Gregory XII, the anti-pope of Avignon, Benedict XII, and the anti-pope of Pisa Giovanni XXIII.
Martin was an active protagonist of this Council of Constance and, while one of the anti-Popes left the Council, after about four years of negotiations all popes resigned and in just three days Pope Martin V Colonna was elected on St. Martin’s Day.
The skills of Martin V and his ability to weave international relations is evident when one considers that the Council of Constance had decided that voting would be held by nations and not by people, and thus outnumbering the Italians. Four years of negotiations and agreements and then to arrive at an election that happened in only 3 days!
The powerful Colonna family finally had a pope who found himself, however, ruling over peoples and countries exhausted by struggles and power plays. Families of cardinals accustomed to tricking each other and to taking sides with either one or the other power.
Martin V decided to move slowly from Constance to Rome to calm the ‘ruffled feathers’ and along the way stopped in major cities. For example, he spent a year and a half in Florence where he met the great masters who were marking the start of the Tuscan Renaissance and who would follow him to Rome to be ‘born again’ also in the capital.
Pope Martin V Colonna entered Rome on 30 September 1420 and had very clear ideas. He was the first Roman pope after 135 years and if he wanted to make the city shine he must rebuild the Papal States, starting from administrative bureaucracy, then up to art and architecture.
Martin succeeded in all this incredible work, but with a system which then initiated a negative effect and abuse of the system: nepotism. Martin V did not trust anyone and he surrounded himself only with his family members who he elected to key positions.
He freed Rome of the Neapolitan army of Queen Giovanna II but elected brothers as Duke of Amalfi, of Venosa, Prince of Salerno, and more.
As pope he also was able to use force against enemies such as commander Braccio da Montone, but he also held a Jubilee of 1423 to have the excuse to change Rome to be an artistic and a lively cultural center par excellence. He called the best artists of the time to return to the city to create and he began construction at the Lateran and the Vatican, to where he had moved the seat of the papacy.
Brunelleschi and Donatello came several times to Rome, they were inspired by the city architecture and sowed the seeds for a cultural and artistic renaissance that would bear fruit in the years and centuries.
The greatness of Rome, the Renaissance, then all the other styles that have followed are largely due to the work of this pope and his ability to have a vision that exceeded the momentary differences. He had a pragmatism in politics as in art that brings pope Martin V to be counted among the great figures of our history.