Anthony F. D’ELIA. A Sudden Terror: The Plot to Murder the Pope in Renaissance Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 237 pages. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-674-06181-1.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560

Anthony D’Elia, associate professor of History at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, has previously published a volume regarding Renaissance marriage in fifteenth-century Italy. In his latest offering, D’Elia provides a fascinating, and oftentimes lurid, narrative of the events surrounding a conspiracy to assassinate Pope Paul II, and the imprisonment and torture of twenty humanist intellectuals. D’Elia readily admits that the events may not be related: “The conspiracy itself remains shrouded in mystery. Historians have wondered whether it ever really existed and have offered various quite disparate explanations for the pope’s brutal reaction against the humanists” (p. 219).

D’Elia’s thesis, that humanists conspired to assassinate the pope because he did not subscribe to their return to ancient Greco-Roman ideals, concerns the weaving together of fragmented historical events to determine the reasons behind the potential plot in Rome during carnival of 1468. Although some of the events remain shrouded in mystery, D’Elia connects them all like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces are missing, but D’Elia describes the larger picture in a narrative that is both masterfully written, plausible, and highly entertaining. The author relates details that are at times humorous (i.e. Paul’s parrot collection), and often tragic (i.e. carnival races between marginalized citizens). D’Elia playfully describes one of Paul’s prized parrots, who “would admonish commoners: ‘Now, you are not telling the truth…Take him away, for he is not telling the truth’” (p. 3). He also tells of the inherent cruelty involved in the pope’s sponsored races, wherein Jews, prostitutes, the elderly, children, hunchbacks, dwarves, donkeys and camels would be forced to run to the point of exhaustion, amidst “the jeers of the crowd, the lashing and cudgeling, the pelting with rocks, drove the runners through the awful gauntlet, down the slippery, torchlit cobblestone streets. Many of these wretches stumbled and fell to the ground, bruised and filthy” (p. 4).

Chapters are dedicated to such topics as carnival and lent in the fifteenth-Century, the cost of splendor, past rebellions, and the emperor’s tomb. In Chapter Five, D’Elia details the possible link to the humanist plot and the Turkish ruler Mehmet II, leader of the Ottoman Empire which had conquered Constantinople in 1453. D’Elia also wonders whether Mehmet could have secretly been converted to Christianity. His mother may have been a Christian, and Mehmet had “made efforts to learn about Christian theology and culture. He delighted in his collection of plundered Christian relics, which he used for barter with the rulers of Europe” (p. 122). In Chapter Six, D’Elia paints a harrowing portrait of the suffering endured by the humanists during their year-long imprisonment at the Castel Sant’Angelo. He uses surviving poems and prison letters to describe the harsh conditions: “I am oppressed beneath a black, sunless mound in a disgusting cave. Mice and feral cats wage bizarre battles here; beetles and a company of centipedes flee the place; unknown monsters and wild beasts feed on my banquet scraps and drink my rancid wine” (p. 136).

Although the events of 1468 cannot be definitively proven to be part of a singular plot, this in no way diminishes the power behind D’Elia’s writing or premise. His latest work is highly recommended for students of both the Renaissance era, and papal history. This publication is also extremely well-sourced, a significant achievement considering the amount of material that has been lost to history, providing a generous bibliography for further study.

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