Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born to an aristocratic, if impoverished, Italian family, the oldest of eighteen children. While studying canon law in Siena and Florence, he simultaneously steeped himself in humanist culture, combining brilliant scholarship and loose living.
From 1431 – 1435, from the age of twenty-seven, Aeneas served as secretary to a cardinal at the Council of Basel which lasted from 1431 – 1449. This assignment lead to service for various other princes of the church. He traveled extensively on diplomatic missions and was known to be a brilliant orator and writer. He aligned himself with the anti-pope, Felix, and defended the authority of the council of Basel rather than the supreme authority of the pope, Eugene IV. The question of authority was an ongoing argument throughout both the Council of Constance and the Council of Basel.
Aeneas was known for his literary gifts and wrote a novel based on the exploits of a close friend’s amorous adventures. He also wrote an erotic comedy.
By 1495, when he was forty years old, he had been reconciled with the pope, Eugene IV, abandoned his dissolute life that had included fathering several children, and after a serious illness, was ordained a priest. He soon retracted his conciliar position on the question of authority and came to believe in the absolute authority of the pontiff over a shared authority with the Council.
At fifty-three years of age, Piccolomini was elected pope taking the name of Pius II. He urged the church to “reject Aeneas and his former, dissolute life and accept Pius.”
While continuing voluminous writing, Pius’ papacy was characterized by his attempt and failure to mount a crusade against the Turks even going so far as to urge the Sultan, Mehmet II, to reject Islam and accept Christianity. A telling example of his motive was his creation of a medallion that showed him in full papal regalia, commanding his ship, lording it over the waves.
This significant gesture made it clear his dream was to convert, not to conquer.
The man whose secular life was so characterized by loose living chose an austere, morally exemplary life as a pontiff. He was known to be moderate, affable, indulgent and well loved. He loved nature and preferred to hold audiences under the trees or in some natural setting.
He founded several universities and continued to write prolifically. Though nepotism played a part in his papacy, at least the recipients were worthy of their offices.
A great disappointment of his papacy due to the energy he tied up in the crusade, was his inability to carry out much needed reform of the curia on which he had been working since his election.
His vision of a united, Christian Europe was an admirable one.
In the Collection one of the oldest signed items is this letter written in 1457 when the future Pope Pius II was a cardinal in Siena.