During the Renaissance period, the papacy experienced renewed power and influence in both Italy and across Europe.
Inspired by imperial Rome, the Renaissance popes strove to make Rome the capital of Christendom through art, architecture and literature.
Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, they commissioned building and art projects and hired the best architects and artists, such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
As Renaissance Rome became the epicentre of art, science and politics, its religious role declined – sparking the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Here are the 18 popes of the Renaissance in order.
1. Pope Martin V (r. 1417–1431)
The ‘Great Schism of 1378’ left the Church in a crisis and divided for 40 years. The election of Martin V as the sole Pope in Rome effectively ended this turmoil and reestablished the papacy in Rome.
Martin V laid the foundation for Roman Renaissance by engaging some famous masters of the Tuscan school to restore dilapidated churches, palaces, bridges and other public structures.
Outside of Italy, he worked to mediate the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between France and England and to organise crusades against the Hussites.
2. Pope Eugene IV (r. 1431–1447)
Eugene IV’s tenure was marked by conflict – first with the Colonnas, relatives of his predecessor Martin V, and then with the Concillar movement.
He tried unsuccessfully to reunite the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and faced crushing defeat after preaching a crusade against the advance of the Turks.
He also allowed Prince Henry of Portugal to make slave raids on the northwestern coast of Africa.
3. Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447–1455)
Nicholas V was a key influential figure in the Renaissance, rebuilding churches, restoring aqueducts and public works.
He was also the patron of many scholars and artists – among them the great Florentine painter Fra Angelico (1387–1455). He ordered design plans for what would eventually be St Peter’s Basilica.
His reign saw the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks and the end of the Hundred Years War. By 1455 he had restored peace to the Papal States and to Italy.
4. Pope Callixtus III (r. 1455–1458)
A member of the powerful Borgia family, Callixtus III made a heroic yet unsuccessful crusade to recover Constantinople from the Turks.
5. Pope Pius II (r. 1458–1464)
A passionate humanist, Pius II was famed for his literary gifts. His I commentarii (‘Commentaries’) is the only revealed autobiography ever to have been written by a reigning pope.
His papacy was characterised by a failed attempt to mount a crusade against the Turks. He even urged the Sultan Mehmed II to reject Islam and accept Christianity.
6. Pope Paul II (r. 1464–1471)
The pontificate of Paul II was marked by pageantry, carnivals and colourful races.
He spent huge sums amassing a collection of art and antiquities, and built the magnificent Palazzo di Venezia in Rome.
7. Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471–1484)
Under Sixtus IV’s reign, Rome was transformed from a medieval to a fully Renaissance city.
He commissioned great artists including Sandro Botticelli and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and was responsible for the construction of the Sistine Chapel and the creation of the Vatican Archives.
Sixtus IV aided the Spanish Inquisition and was personally involved in the infamous Pazzi conspiracy.
8. Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484–1492)
Generally regarded as a man of low morals, Innocent VIII’s political manoeuvres were unscrupulous.
He deposed King Ferdinand of Naples in 1489, and depleted the papal treasury by waging wars with several Italian states.
9. Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503)
A member of the prominent Borgia family, Alexander VI was one of the most controversial Renaissance popes.
Corrupt, worldly and ambitious, he used his position to ensure that his children – who included Cesare, Gioffre and Lucrezia Borgia – would be well provided for.
During his reign, his surname Borgia becoming a byword for libertinism and nepotism.
10. Pope Pius III (r. 1503)
The nephew of Pope Pius II, Pius III had one of the shortest pontificates in papal history. He died less than a month after beginning his papacy, possibly of poison.
11. Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513)
One of the most powerful and influential popes of the Renaissance period, Julius II was the greatest papal patron of the arts.
He is best remembered for his friendship with Michelangelo and for his patronage of great artists including Raphael and Bramante.
He initiated the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, commissioned the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
12. Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521)
The second son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic, Leo X built up the Vatican Library, accelerated the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and poured lavish funds into the arts.
His efforts to renew Rome’s position as a cultural centre drained the papal treasury entirely.
He refused to accept the legitimacy of the Protestant Reformation and excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521. In doing so, he contributed to the dissolution of the Church.
13. Pope Adrian VI (r. 1522–1523)
A Dutchman, Adrian VI was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II, 455 years later.
He came to the papacy as the Church was experiencing a huge crisis, threatened by Lutheranism and the advance of the Ottoman Turks to the east.
14. Pope Clement VII (r. 1523–1534)
Clement VII’s reign was dominated by religious and political turmoil: the spread of the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII’s divorce and conflict between France and the Empire.
He is remembered as a weak, vacillating figure who switched allegiance between King Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V, several times.
15. Pope Paul III (r. 1534–1549)
Generally credited with beginning the Counter Reformation, Paul III introduced reforms that helped shaped Roman Catholicism for centuries after.
He was a significant patron of artists including Michelangelo, supporting his completion of ‘the Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel.
He also resumed the work on St. Peter’s Basilica, and promoted urban restoration in Rome.
16. Pope Julius III (r. 1550–1555)
The papacy of Julius III is generally remembered for its scandals – particularly his relationship with his adopted nephew, Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte.
The two openly shared a bed, with Del Monte becoming an infamous beneficiary of papal nepotism.
After Julius III’ death, Del Monte was later convicted for committing several crimes of murder and rape.
17. Pope Marcellus II (r. 1555)
Remembered as one of the great directors of the Vatican Library, Marcellus II died from exhaustion less than a month after being elected pope.
18. Pope Paul IV (r. 1555–1559)
Paul IV’s papacy was characterised by strong nationalism – his anti-Spanish outlook renewed the war between France and the Habsburgs.
He was fervently opposed to the presence of Jews in Rome and decreed the building of the city’s ghetto within which the Roman Jews were forced to live and work.