2 min

History’s naughtiest popes

The only man in the Western world who can wear a tiara

The new In Hindsight, which will appear monthly but in an expanded form, will devote itself to retracing our history through biographical sketches and recounting of events, both real and fictional. You may expect to encounter, if not Oscar Wilde or Gertrude Stein, then at least the Duke of Cambacérès, flaming boy-lover and second Consul of the Napoleonic Empire, or the redoubtable Dame Ethel Smythe, composer and suffragette.

In addition to legitimate historical sources, In Hindsight will have cheerful recourse to la petite histoire — gossip made respectable by virtue of its sheer age — in order to unearth carefully buried nuggets of historical fact, rumour and innuendo.

Let’s begin with the only man in the Western world who can wear a tiara without committing a style solecism: the Pope.

Happy the prelate with a liking for baubles who finds himself elevated to that supreme spiritual rank, for the papal tiara is a triple crown, no less. Until the papacy became deeply respectable — at about the same time as the British Royal family and with equally deadly results for those who like their betters to be bad — popes were pious or profane, reformist or debauched, generous or rapacious, but never, ever dull. The purportedly homosexual ones are some of the most interesting of the lot. Here are a few as listed in Leigh W Rutledge’s amusing 1996 New Book of Gay Lists:

Benedict IX: “Benedict turned the Lateran Palace into the site of lavish homosexual orgies… his riotous conduct was so appalling that he was deposed. He was reinstated and deposed several times over the next five years.”

Paul II: “He wore a papal tiara that, according to one source, ‘outweighed a palace in its worth.’ Known to his cardinals as Our Lady of Pity for his tendency to cry at the slightest provocation, he allegedly died of a heart attack while being sodomized by one of his favourite boys.”

Sixtus IV: “He took one of his beautiful young nephews, Pietro Riario, as his lover… . Sixtus made him a millionaire by plundering the papal treasury. Another young nephew, Girolamo, was also alleged to have been Sixtus’ lover…. [Sixtus] is perhaps best remembered for consenting to the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition.”

Leo X: “His expenses for both cultural and military endeavours, along with his taste for increasingly ornate papal gowns, drove the papal treasury into bankruptcy”

Julius III: “He appointed… handsome teenage boys as cardinals and allegedly… brought them together for orgies…. Della Casa’s famous poem ‘In Praise Of Sodomy’ was dedicated to him.”

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia has this to say about Julius III:

“Shortly after his accession he bestowed the purple on his unworthy favourite Innocenzo del Monte, a youth of 17 whom he had picked up on the streets of Parma some years previously, and who had been adopted by the Pope’s brother, Balduino. This act gave rise to some very disagreeable rumours concerning the Pope’s relation to Innocenzo.”

Since those early (10th-17th centuries) happy days, popes have become more circumspect. Yet the pronounced homosocial culture of the Roman Catholic Church has dogged successive pontiffs at every turn.

In 1978, when the chronically ailing Paul VI finally breathed his last in the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo in the Alban hills, voices from within the Curia itself whispered that papal aides had to rush back to the Vatican to seize and destroy the late Pontiff’s collection of juvenile male pornography.

Incidentally, Paul VI’s most famous quote is: “Through Vatican II, we had meant to open a window to let in some fresh air, but a gale blew in and now Satan is in the sanctuary.” And even the late Pope John Paul II did not entirely escape rumours that as the young Karol Jozef Wojtya, university student and founder of an underground theatre company in Krakow, he had had affairs with fellow actors.