Paul III

October 12, 1534 - November 10, 1549




Birth and Family

Pope Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese in 1468 to a noble family in Canino, near Viterbo.


His grandfather Ranuccio had been a successful condottiere and the Commander-in-chief of the papal forces under Pope Eugene IV.  He also served as a senator in the government of Rome.



Alessandro's education began in Rome where he was tutored by Pomponio Leto (1428-98), a humanist whose devotion to antiquity resulted in his imprisonment during the pontificate of Paul II, who condemned classical culture as "pagan."


Alessandro then went to Florence to live in the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Palazzo Medici and study under the humanists who tutored the Medici children.  It was then that he became friends with Giovanni de' Medici, who would later become Pope Leo X.


He attended the University in Pisa.





Nickname of the "Petticoat Cardinal"

Soon after he entered the Church, Alessandro was made cardinal-deacon by Pope Alexander VI, whose favorite mistress was Giulia Farnese, his sister. She was called "la Bella" on account of her great beauty.  Alessandro's nickname of "petticoat cardinal" was a slighting reference to his promotion because of his sister's merits.


Advancement as a Cardinal

As a cardinal, Alessandro acquired many bishoprics and other benefices.  His talent in administration put him at the forefront of the pontificates of Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, and Clement VII.  The palace he began in Rome while still a cardinal, one of the largest domestic palaces in the city, attests to his wealth.


Mistress and Family

Like many members of the clergy in the Renaissance, Alessandro Farnese had a mistress and illegitimate children.  He had at least four children with his long-time mistress, a Roman noblewoman named Vannozza Cattanei.  He had three of his children legitimized by Popes Julius II and Leo X.


Alessandro's main failing as a pope was his fundamental dedication to the interests of members of his own family, especially his eldest son, Pier Luigi.


His other children were Paolo, Ranuccio, and Costanza.


Reforming Diocese and Lifestyle

After becoming the Bishop of Parma in 1509, Alessandro began to take his clerical duties much more seriously.


He instituted the reforms recommended by the Fifth Lateran Council, which he attended in 1512 on behalf of Julius II.  He later came to be identified with the reform party of the Curia (papal administration).


In 1513, he gave up his relationship with his mistress.


Election as Pope

Alessandro, who had been a strong contender for the office of pope in previous elections, was unanimously elected in 1534 after two days of voting.  Because he was 67 years old and in poor health, his pontificate was expected to be brief.  It turned out to be the longest one of the sixteenth century, however.


Alessandro took the name of Paul because the pope at the time of his birth was Paul II.  He would have preferred the name "Honorius," but the other cardinals objected.





Overall Approach

Through his personal experience with both Church reform and politics, Paul III had a good idea of how to combat the Reformation and reform the Roman Catholic Church.  Paul III is generally credited with beginning the Counter Reformation.


Because he had witnessed the opposition and lack of cooperation that Hadrian VI's efforts at reform generated a decade earlier, Pope Paul III realized that he must not rush the process, but instead, use diplomacy and patience.


Preliminary Report of Reforms Needed

Paul III set up a council to study problems in the church. Their report, Consilium de emendenda ecclesia, formed the basis for the work of the upcoming Council of Trent.


This report also came into the hands of the Protestant opposition, who used its forthright criticisms of the Church to bolster their own attacks.


Appointing Well-Qualified Cardinals

Paul III realized that part of the corruption in the Church was due to the appointment of men who were unqualified and indifferent to the best interests of the Church.  He tried to improve the situation by nominating a series of men of outstanding character and ability to the office of cardinal.  Chief among them were Giovanni Carafa, later Pope Paul IV, and Marcello Cervini, later Pope Marcellus II.  Other outstanding appointees were Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole.


More controversial were the cardinal-level appointments of his grandsons Alessandro Farnese, who was only fourteen years old, and Guido Ascanio Sforza, who was just sixteen.


Encouraging Reform-Oriented Orders

Paul III encouraged both the initiation of reforms within existing orders and the foundation of new orders dedicated to reform.


The most important of the new orders was the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuit order.  It was founded in 1534 by the Spanish priest Ignatius Loyola.


In 1540, Paul approved the Jesuit order in Italy, where it became a powerful tool in the Counter-Reformation.  The Jesuits were dedicated to aggressively spreading Catholicism through education.  The pope's grandson Alessandro was later the principal patron of Il Gesù, the Order's home church in Rome.





Establishing the Inquisition in Italy

Paul III tried to combat the schism within the Church through a more aggressive approach to rooting out heretics.  To this end, in 1542 he established the "Congregation of the Inquisition," the highest authority in heresy cases in Italy.


Although the activities of this papal tribunal were restrained under Paul's administration, it later lapsed into the horrors associated with the Spanish Inquisition, which had been approved by Sixtus IV.


Establishing Censorship and the Index

Because many of the ideas underlying the Reformation had been spread through Europe by printed pamphlets, Pope Paul sought to stop the spread of heresy by preventing the publication of such works.  To this end, in 1543 he established the Index, a list of banned books and publications.


Excommunication of Henry VIII

In 1534, as a response to the Church's refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives, Henry VIII declared himself head of an autonomous national church, the Church of England. Pope Clement VII took the first steps toward excommunicating the English king in 1533, but the process was slow and not completed before the pope's death in 1534.  In 1538 Paul III renewed the excommunication and put England under interdict, meaning that English Catholics could not partake of the sacraments.





Proposal of Council in Mantua

The pope wanted to call a pan-European council to meet in Mantua in 1537.  He sent ambassadors from Venice and Vienna to travel in Europe and promote the idea among church leaders and princes.


Opposition by Parties At War

Because the emperor and the French were again at war, they wished to defer the matter.  A group of bishops did meet in Vicenza in 1538, but the small size of the gathering and the lack of the major foreign powers led the pope to put the idea of a general council off again.


Attempt to Reconcile Religious Differences

Part of the emperor's reluctance to support such a council was his belief that the two sides, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans, could find a common solution.  He spent a considerable amount of time forming councils and instituting a compromise position in Germany that neither party found acceptable.


The pope found the emperor's attempts to define church doctrine to be ill-informed and meddlesome.


Treaty of Crespi

Although in 1542 Paul III called for a council to be held in Trent, the opening of such a council was postponed until after the protracted conflict between Charles V and Francis I was settled with the Treaty of Crespi in 1544.


Selection of Trent

The pope accepted the emperor's suggestion of meeting in Trent, which was in Germany at that time, although he would have preferred meeting in a city in his own sphere of influence.





Opening and Agenda

The Council of Trent opened in December, 1545.


The emperor wanted to limit the agenda to reform, but the pope insisted that the council should first define an official position on dogma.


Defining Dogma

The council took up the issues of church dogma that had been challenged by the northern reformers.  Among other things, they defined an official position with regard to scriptural interpretation, original sin, justification (being "saved"), and the Sacraments.


Victory over Schmalkaldic League

In 1546 war erupted between the emperor and the Schmalkaldic League, a coalition of German Protestant rulers and noblemen whose rebellion was also a move toward independence from the Holy Roman Empire.  The pope supported the emperor with additional troops and funds.


The emperor had hoped his victory over the League would give him the leverage to force them to attend the Council of Trent.


Moving the Council to Bologna

After the plague broke out in Trent in 1548, the Italian delegates, who wished to be in a more hospitable environment, proposed that the conference be moved to Bologna.  The pope approved the move, and the Italians transferred to the papal city, but the emperor instructed the northern delegates not to go.  The emperor was disappointed at losing the opportunity to expand attendance to include the Protestants, who might have attended in Trent but would not go to Italy.


Dissolution of the Council

With discussions at an impasse, Pope Paul suspended the first session of the council in 1548 and dissolved it in 1549.


His death that year prevented his reconvening the council.


Significance of the Council

The meetings of the council between 1545 and 1548 represented an important step in the Church's internal refashioning, showing that the administration was open to the use of the council as a vehicle for reform and redefinition of the Church's position on the dogma under discussion.  The council continued to meet until 1563, spanning four more pontificates.





Creation of Duchy for Son

In 1545, the Pope removed Parma and Piacenza from the Papal States and created a duchy for his eldest son, Pier Luigi, who was also his favorite.


Murder of Pier Luigi

In 1547, Pier Luigi was murdered in a plot involving Ferrante Gonzaga, who was the Governor of Milan, and the emperor, who considered Pier Luigi an enemy on account of the latter's pro-French policies.


The pope never forgave the emperor for his involvement.


Dispute with Ottavio over Duchy's Return

According to standard rules of succession, Parma and Piacenza should have passed to Pier Luigi's son Ottavio.  However, Ottavio was married to Charles V's illegitimate daughter Margaret of Austria, and Paul III was concerned that if Ottavio succeeded the duchy, it would eventually fall into the emperor's hands.  The pope instead argued that the property should return to papal control.


Ottavio refused to give up Parma and sided with the emperor, who wanted him to inherit the duchy.


Death of the Pope

The pope felt betrayed by Ottavio's refusal, and on finding that his favorite grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, was also a party to Ottavio's decision, he was devastated.  The pope died soon afterward of a fever, but he forgave Ottavio and ceded Parma to him before he died.


Parma remained under Farnese control for nearly two centuries.





Making Commissions and Using Assistants

Pope Paul III resumed construction on several major projects at the Vatican and initiated several new ones, accomplishing much during his fifteen-year pontificate.


The pope generally had assistants handle the details of his commissions.  Often his grandson Alessandro performed this function, much as Giulio de' Medici had done during the pontificate of his cousin Leo X.


St. Peter's.  The pope resumed construction of St. Peter's under the direction of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who had been in charge since the death of Raphael in 1520.  After Antonio's death in 1546, the pope persuaded Michelangelo, who was 71 years old, to take charge of the building works.  Michelangelo abandoned Antonio's axial plan and model and returned to a simpler variation of Bramante's apse-ended Greek-cross plan.  Because there was conflict between Michelangelo and the Vatican construction committee, Pope Paul III found it necessary to insist that they give the architect a free hand.  Initially, Michelangelo refused payment for his work at St. Peter's.  In the end, he did receive the modest sum of 50 ducats per month.  However, this salary was paid from papal coffers rather than from the Vatican building fund, as was customary, thus freeing Michelangelo from oversight by the Fabbrica.  


Belvedere Court. Paul's pontificate witnessed the completion of the loggias framing the Belvedere Court by Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.  The courtyard, a thousand-foot-long, three-level court designed by Bramante for Julius II, connected the Vatican Palace with the Villa Belvedere, which had been built by Pope Innocent VIII.


Last Judgment, 1534-41. Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel.  His predecessor, Pope Clement VII, originally commissioned the project, but he died before it could be begun.  It is unclear which of them changed the subject from the Resurrection to the Last Judgment.  Completed in 1541, this work demonstrates a significant evolution in Michelangelo's style since he painted the chapel's ceiling a quarter of a century earlier.  


Pauline Chapel, 1542-50. Pope Paul commissioned the construction and decoration of a small private chapel near the Sistine Chapel.  For this project, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger designed a rectangular room, which was decorated by stucco coffering by Perino del Vaga and frescoes by Federico Zuccaro.  Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the side walls with scenes illustrating the conversion of the pope's namesake, the apostle Paul, and the martyrdom of his earliest predecessor as pope, the disciple Peter.  


Sala Regia, 1538-1449. The pope commissioned the restructuring and redecoration of the Sala Regia, a formal reception hall that is adjacent to the Sistine Chapel.  Construction took place between 1538 and around 1540.  Perino del Vaga executed the gilded coffering of the barrel-vaulted ceiling.  The walls were painted after Paul's pontificate, and it is not known what he had planned.  


Apartments in Castel Sant'Angelo. Paul III commissioned the decoration of a suite of apartments in the Castel Sant'Angelo.  Perino del Vaga painted the walls with fictive architecture and decorated the ceilings with gilded stucco coffering. 





City Planning

In preparation for a visit by the emperor in 1536, Pope Paul began to repair much of the damage done during the Sack of Rome, repairing fortresses and walls around the city.  Like Julius II, Paul III envisioned restoring Rome to its former splendor and focused a considerable amount of attention on enlarging and beautifying several important public spaces.


Beginning Piazza del Campidoglio, 1538. Paul initiated the project to build the Piazza del Campidoglio in 1538 when he asked Michelangelo to move the ancient statue of Marcus Aurelius to stand in front of the Palazzo Senatorio on a new base of his design.  It is unclear how much of the piazza and the façades of the buildings facing it Michelangelo designed at this time.  The new staircase added to the Palazzo Senatorio was begun in 1544 and finished in 1552.  


Improving the Corso and Via del Condotti. Pope Paul III continued to improve the Corso, which runs southward into the city from the Porta del Popolo.  He also widened and straightened the Via del Condotti, which intersects the Corso.


Enlarging Piazza San Marco. Paul III enlarged the Piazza San Marco, which was located beside the Palazzo Venezia.  


Enlarging Piazza Farnese. The pope enlarged the piazza in front of the family palace he was building beside the Tiber in Rome, expressing his family's power in an unprecedented way within the urban fabric of a city.




Palazzo Farnese, 1517-89. Pope Paul continued construction of the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome, which Antonio da Sangallo designed and worked on for over thirty years.  After Antonio's death, the pope appointed Michelangelo to continue in his place.  Michelangelo changed the design of the cornice, using a far larger one whose scale reflected the palace's immense size.  In the same vein, he enlarged the window over the entrance, making it more emphatic and ornate.  In the courtyard, Michelangelo modified Antonio's three stories of superimposed loggias by closing the upper stories and inserting windows.  


Art Commissions


Cellini coins and medals. The pope commissioned Benevenuto Cellini  and Alessandro Cesati to execute coins and medals.  


Portraits by Titian. While Titian was staying in Rome in 1543 as pope Paul's guest, the pope and his family commissioned him to paint several portraits of the family including a portrait of Paul III that takes up the pose of Raphael's Pope Julius II. The Venetian artist also began a dynastic portrait, Pope Paul III and His Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio, which was left unfinished. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese is also the subject of a separate portrait.


















Renaissance Popes 13 of 20





Titian's Portrait of Pope Paul III