The human trajectory of Pope Marcellus II Cervini in a new and faithful biography
In the heart of the Catholic Reform
Short pontificates often prompt the words “Magis ostensus quam datus” (demonstrated rather than offered) of the inscription on the tomb in St Peter's of Leo XI Medici, Pope for not much more than two weeks in April 1605. Yet they should not be applied to the pontificate of Marcellus II Cevini, Roman Pontiff from 9 April to 1 May 1555, which was not much longer. For Cervini was not merely demonstrated to the Church in his pontificate of 20 odd days, too brief to be of significance. His human trajectory reconstructed in an ample biography – Marcello II Cervini (1501-1555). Riforma della Chiesa, Concilio, Inquisizione (Bologna, Il mulino, 2010, “Collana di studi della Fondazione Michele Pellegrino”, 496 pages) – by Chiara Quaranta, but appears to fit, as few others, into the heart of the Church's history in the early 16th century, in a close and direct confrontation with the great problems spreading through the Church and tormenting her. We can therefore say that had the Cardinals not elected in the spring Conclave of 1555 the Cardinal Priest of Santa Croce nothing, absolutely nothing, would have changed in the way he is viewed by posterity and by history.
It is not by chance that breaking with a firmly-rooted tradition, at the time of his election to the Throne of Peter Cervini wished to preserve his baptismal name (as had Hadrian VI, 30 years earlier): “to show the world”, Paolo Sarpi wrote, “that he had not become someone else because of the dignity he had received”. Vincenzo Buoncambi thus interpreted Cervini's decision in a letter to Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma: the new pontiff, “in order not to have to change from that purity of life and exemplary morals in which he has always lived, has wished to keep his own name”.
Emphasizing in this way a continuity of life, clear-cut conduct and morals which truly call to mind Manzoni's lines: “the stream that gushes from the rock, never growing stagnant or muddy in its long meanders through different soils, flows crystal clear and pours into the river”, with regard to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo.
With no desire to indulge, of course, in the eulogistic or hagiographical clichés that have surfaced since his first biography by Alessandro, a younger brother of Cervini, from which Quaranta resolutely steers clear. Nor is it possible to silence the voice of the events and circumstances that the very pages of the biography present to us.
Among the first acts of the new Pontiff are mentioned his refusal to receive the usual tributes from his closest relatives, his renunciation of the solemn celebrations for his consecration, his choice to refrain from giving important offices to his relatives (in stark contrast with his predecessor, Julius III Del Monte), his exhortation to a more intense religious life and his announcement of stringent curial reforms which were to involve central organisms of the Church's government, from the Apostolic Dataria to the Signatura, from the Penitentiary to the Roman Rota. The reforms announced sufficed to nourish the hopes of the good and the fears of the wicked of which Angelo Massarelli wrote.
Then, in the night between 30 April and 1 May, death suddenly struck: he was barely 54 years old and in all likelihood it was probably due to his strenuous efforts in the rites of Holy Week which had undermined his rather poor health.
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