Well known for his histories of Norman Sicily, Venice, the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean, John Julius Norwich has now turned his attention to the oldest continuing institution in the world, tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter himself - traditionally (though by no means historically) the first pope - to the present Benedict XVI.
Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity.One, if the age-old legend is to be accepted, was a woman - and an Englishwoman at that - her sex being revealed only when she improvidently gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Pope Joan never existed (though the Church long believed that she did) but many genuine pontiffs were almost as colourful:Formosus, for example, whose murdered corpse was exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne and subjected to trial; or John XII, of whom Gibbon wrote 'his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter, lest they should be violated by his successor.'
After the schism and seventy years at Avignon came the majestic pontiffs of the Renaissance: Alexander VI Borgia with his nightmare son Cesare; the warrior Julius II, builder of the new St Peter's and patron of Michelangelo;and the two Medici popes, first the homosexual Leo X, who had to cope with Martin Luther and then his cousin Clement VII, who refused Henry VII his divorce.
Paul III and the Counter-Reformation, Pius VII and Napoleon, Pius IX and the Risorgimento, Pius XII and the Holocaust, John Paul I and suspicions of murder, and finally poor Benedict XVI, struggling to deal with appalling revelations of sexual misbehaviour within the Church - the pace never slackens.
John Julius Norwich, an agnostic with no religious axe to grind, has a thrilling and important tale to tell - and in this rich, authoritative book he does it full justice.show more