Pope Sixtus V

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Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V.jpg
Papacy began 24 April 1585
Papacy ended 27 August 1590
Predecessor Gregory XIII
Successor Urban VII
Ordination 1547
Consecration 12 January 1567
by Antonio Lauro
Created Cardinal 17 May 1570
by Pius V
Personal details
Birth name Felice Piergentile to Grottammare, then Felice Peretti
Born (1520-12-13)13 December 1520
Grottammare, Papal States
Died 27 August 1590(1590-08-27) (aged 69)
Rome, Papal States
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Coat of arms {{{coat_of_arms_alt}}}
Other popes named Sixtus

Pope Sixtus V or Xystus V (13 December 1521 – 27 August 1590), born Felice Peretti di Montalto, was Pope from 24 April 1585 to his death in 1590. As a youth, he joined the Franciscan order, where he displayed talents as a scholar and preacher, and enjoyed the patronage of Pius V, who made him a cardinal. As Pope, he energetically rooted out corruption and lawlessness across Rome, and launched a far-sighted rebuilding programme that continues to provoke controversy, as it involved the destruction of antiquities. The cost of these works was met by heavy taxation that caused much suffering. His foreign policy was regarded as over-ambitious, and he excommunicated both Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France. He is recognized as a significant figure of the Counter-Reformation.


Early life

Felice Peretti was born on 13 December 1521 at Grottammare, in the Papal States,[1][2] to Pier Gentile (also known as Peretto Peretti), and Marianna da Frontillo.[3] His family was poor.[3] Felice later adopted Peretti as his family name in 1551, and was known as "Cardinal Montalto".[3] He himself claimed that he was "nato di casa illustre" — born of an illustrious (i.e., "shining") house.[citation needed]

According to Isidoro Gatti, the Peretti family came from Piceno, today's Marche, in Italy.[4] According to another source, his father came from Montalto, a nearby village. At an early age he entered a Franciscan friary at Montalto. He soon gave evidence of rare ability as a preacher and a dialectician. A legend has it that while a friar he was approached by the aging Nostradamus, who knelt, kissed the friar's robe and then exclaimed he was kissing the robe of the future pope.[citation needed]

About 1552 he was noticed by Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, Protector of the Franciscan order, Cardinal Ghislieri (later Pope Pius V) and Cardinal Caraffa (later Pope Paul IV), and from that time his advancement was assured. He was sent to Venice as inquisitor general, but was so severe and conducted matters in such a high-handed manner that he became embroiled in quarrels. The government asked for his recall in 1560.

Papal styles of
Pope Sixtus V
C o a Sisto V.svg
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style None

After a brief term as procurator of his order, he was attached to the Spanish legation headed by Ugo Cardinal Boncampagni (later Pope Gregory XIII) in 1565, which was sent to investigate a charge of heresy levelled against Bartolomé Carranza, Archbishop of Toledo. The violent dislike he conceived for Boncampagni exerted a marked influence upon his subsequent actions. He hurried back to Rome upon the accession of Pius V, who made him apostolic vicar of his order, and, later (1570), cardinal.

During the pontificate of his political enemy Gregory XIII (1572–85), Cardinal Montalto, as he was generally called, lived in enforced retirement, occupied with the care of his property, the Villa Montalto, erected by Domenico Fontana close to his beloved church on the Esquiline Hill, overlooking the Baths of Diocletian. The first phase (1576–80) was enlarged after Peretti became pope and was able to clear buildings to open four new streets in 1585–6. The villa contained two residences, the Palazzo Sistino or "di Termini" ("of the Baths") and the casino, called the Palazzetto Montalto e Felice.

Displaced Romans were furious, and resentment of this act was still felt centuries later, when the decision was taken to build the central pontifical railroad station (begun in 1869) in the area of the Villa, marking the beginning of its destruction.

Cardinal Montalto's other concern was with his studies, one of the fruits of which was an edition of the works of Ambrose. As pope he personally supervised the printing of an improved edition of Jerome's Vulgate – said to be "as splendid a translation of the Bible into Latin as the King James version is into English."[5]


Election as pope

Though not neglecting to follow the course of affairs, Felice carefully avoided every occasion of offence. This discretion contributed not a little to his election to the papacy on 24 April 1585, with the title of Sixtus V. The story of his having feigned decrepitude in the conclave, in order to win votes, is pure invention. One of the things that commended his candidacy to certain cardinals may have been his physical vigour, which seemed to promise a long pontificate.

A statue of Sixtus V in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

The terrible condition in which Pope Gregory XIII had left the ecclesiastical states called for prompt and stern measures. Sixtus proceeded with an almost ferocious severity against the prevailing lawlessness. Thousands of brigands were brought to justice: within a short time the country was again quiet and safe. It was claimed that there were more heads on spikes across the Ponte Sant'Angelo than melons for sale in the marketplace. And religious were executed if they broke their vows of chastity.[6] Next Sixtus set to work to repair the finances. By the sale of offices, the establishment of new "Monti" and by levying new taxes, he accumulated a vast surplus, which he stored up against certain specified emergencies, such as a crusade or the defence of the Holy See. Sixtus prided himself upon his hoard, but the method by which it had been amassed was financially unsound: some of the taxes proved ruinous, and the withdrawal of so much money from circulation could not fail to cause distress.

Immense sums were spent upon public works, in carrying through the comprehensive planning that had come to fruition during his retirement, bringing water to the waterless hills in the Acqua Felice, feeding twenty-seven new fountains; laying out new arteries in Rome, which connected the great basilicas, even setting his engineer-architect Domenico Fontana to replan the Colosseum as a silk-spinning factory housing its workers.

The Pope set no limit to his plans, and achieved much in his short pontificate, always carried through at top speed: the completion of the dome of St. Peter's; the loggia of Sixtus in the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano; the chapel of the Praesepe in Santa Maria Maggiore; additions or repairs to the Quirinal, Lateran and Vatican palaces; the erection of four obelisks, including that in Saint Peter's Square; the opening of six streets; the restoration of the aqueduct of Septimius Severus ("Acqua Felice"); the integration of the Leonine City in Rome as XIV rione (Borgo).[7] Besides numerous roads and bridges, he sweetened the city air by financing the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes. Good progress was made with more than 9,500 acres (38 km2) reclaimed and opened to agriculture and manufacture; the project was abandoned upon his death.

Sixtus had no appreciation of antiquities, which were employed as raw material to serve his urbanistic and Christianising programs: Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius (at the time misidentified as the Column of Antoninus Pius) were made to serve as pedestals for the statues of SS Peter and Paul; the Minerva of the Capitol was converted into an emblem of Christian Rome; the Septizodium of Septimius Severus was demolished for its building materials.

Church administration

The subsequent administrative system of the Catholic Church owed much to Sixtus. He limited the College of Cardinals to seventy. He doubled the number of the congregations and enlarged their functions, assigning to them the principal role in the transaction of business (1588). He regarded the Jesuits with disfavour and suspicion. He meditated radical changes to their constitution, but death prevented the execution of his purpose. In 1589 was begun a revision of the Vulgate, the so-called Editio Sixtina.

Foreign relations

Pope Sixtus V

In his larger political relations, Sixtus entertained fantastic ambitions, such as the annihilation of the Turks, the conquest of Egypt, the transport of the Holy Sepulchre to Italy, and the accession of his nephew to the throne of France. The situation in which he found himself was embarrassing: he could not countenance the designs of those he considered as heretical princes, and yet he mistrusted Philip II of Spain and viewed with apprehension any extension of his power.

Sixtus agreed to renew the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and to grant a large subsidy to the Armada of Philip II, but, knowing the slowness of Spain, would give nothing until the expedition actually landed in England. This way, he saved a fortune that would otherwise have been lost in the failed campaign. Sixtus had Cardinal Allen draw up the An Admonition to the Nobility and Laity of England, a proclamation to be published in England if the invasion had been successful. The extant document comprised all that could be said against Elizabeth I, and the indictment is therefore fuller and more forcible than any other put forward by the religious exiles, who were generally very reticent in their complaints. Allen carefully consigned his publication to the fire, and we only know of it through one of Elizabeth's spies, who had stolen a copy.[8]

Sixtus excommunicated Henry of Navarre (future Henry IV of France), and contributed to the Catholic League, but he chafed under his forced alliance with Philip II of Spain, and looked for escape. The victories of Henry and the prospect of his conversion to Catholicism raised Sixtus V's hopes, and in corresponding degree determined Philip II to tighten his grip upon his wavering ally. The Pope's negotiations with Henry's representative evoked a bitter and menacing protest and a categorical demand for the performance of promises. Sixtus took refuge in evasion, and temporised until his death on 27 August 1590.

Vittoria Accoramboni affair

In 1581 Francesco Peretti, the nephew of the then Cardinal Montalto, had married Vittoria Accoramboni, a woman famous for her great beauty and accomplishments who had many admirers. The future pope's nephew was, however, soon assassinated, and his widow married the powerful Paolo Giordano I Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, who was widely considered to have been involved in the killing of her first husband.

On becoming pope, Sixtus V immediately vowed vengeance on both the Duke of Bracciano and Vittoria Accoramboni. Warned in time, they fled - first to Venice and then to Salò in Venetian territory. Here the Duke of Bracciano died in November 1585, bequeathing all his personal property to his widow. A month later Vittoria Accoramboni, who went to live in Padua, was assassinated by a band of bravos hired by Lodovico Orsini, a relation of her late husband.

Contraception, abortion, adultery

Sixtus extended the penalty of excommunication relating to the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on contraception and abortion. While the Church taught that abortion and contraception were gravely sinful actions ("mortal sins"), it did not apply to all mortal sins the additional penalty of excommunication[citation needed]. Although homicide had always required this penalty, contraception had not. Patristic and Medieval theologians and physicians had long speculated and debated over the exact moment the fertilised egg became a human being. While there was broad agreement among them that life was present at conception and that it could only become a human being, the thinking was that this did not necessarily mean God had infused the rational, immortal soul into the body at conception. Following Aristotle, many in the West had theorized that the matter had to be prepared to a certain point before this could happen and, prior to then, there was only a vegetative or sensitive soul, but not a human soul. This meant that killing an organism before the human soul is infused would still be a grave sin of abortion (or at least contraception), but that it was not properly a homicide and, thus, did not require excommunication[citation needed].

Some theologians argued that only after proof of the "quickening" (when the mother can feel the fetus's movement in her womb, usually about 20 weeks into gestation) that there was incontrovertible evidence that ensoulment had already occurred. Until Sixtus V, canon lawyers had applied the code from Gratian whereby excommunications were only given to abortions after the quickening. In 1588, however, the pope issued a papal bull, Effraenatam ("Without Restraint"), which declared that the canonical penalty of excommunication would be levied for any form of contraception and for abortions at any stage in fetal development.[9] The reasoning on the latter would be that the soul of the unborn child would be denied Heaven.[10]

Sixtus also attempted in 1586 to introduce into the secular law in Rome the Old Testament penalty for adultery, that is death. The measure ultimately failed.[11]

Death and legacy

Sixtus V died on 27 August 1590. He was the last Pope to date to use the name Sixtus.

As Sixtus V lay on his death bed, he was loathed by his political subjects, but history has recognized him as a significant figure in the Counter Reformation. On the negative side, he could be impulsive, obstinate, severe, and autocratic. On the positive side, he was open to large ideas and threw himself into his undertakings with great energy and determination. This often led to success. His pontificate saw great enterprises and great achievements. He slept little and worked hard. Having inherited a bankrupt treasury, he administered his funds with competence and care, and left five million crowns in the coffers of the Holy See at his death.[12]

The changes wrought by Sixtus on the street plan of Rome were documented in a film, Rome: Impact of an Idea, featuring Edmund N. Bacon and based on sections of his book Design of Cities.

See also


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Pope Sixtus V" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.


  1. Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Pope, (HarperCollins, 2000), 292.
  2. Name and date information sourced from Library of Congress Authorities data, via corresponding WorldCat Identities linked authority file (LAF) . Retrieved on 20 August 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church - Biographical Dictionary - Consistory of 17 May 1570".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Isidoro Gatti, Sisto V Papa piceno. Le testimonianze e i documenti autentici, Ripatransone, Maroni, 1990 and Isidoro Gatti - Raffaele Tassotti, Ancora su Sisto V papa piceno. Commento ad un recente opuscolo, 1999
  5. Durant, Will, The Story of Civilation: Vol. VII, Chapter ix, p. 241
  6. Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A history of the popes, Yale, 2006, p219
  7. Della trasportatione dell'obelisco Vaticano et delle fabriche di Nostro Signore Papa Sisto V, fatte dal caualier Domenico Fontana architetto di Sua Santita, In Roma, 1590
  8. Catholic encyclopedia, "Spanish Armada".
  9. [1] Archived 18 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  10. " "Effraenatam in English".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Diarmuid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 London 2008
  12. Ibid. #3, p. 241

External links

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Gregory XIII
24 April 1585 – 27 August 1590
Succeeded by
Urban VII