Historians often consider the years from 1484 to 1492 the darkest in the papal history of the Church. Pope Innocent VIII certainly affected the life of Ambrose Massari O.S.A. (Ambrogio Massari da Cori) in a way unique in the history of the office of Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine.
On a cold morning in February 1485, the members of the Curia Generalizia (international leadership) of the Order of Saint Augustine were in the residence of Convento Sant’Agostino, Rome. They had just completed morning prayer, when the doorbell rang. When the door was opened, a lay official of the Pope entered with some guards.
He asked to be taken immediately to the Prior General, Ambrose Massari O.S.A., and told him that he brought an order from the Pope. Ambrose was to be taken by the guards and immediately imprisoned in the Mausoleo di Adrian (the tomb that the Emperor Hadrian had built) in the fortress now called the Castel Sant' Angelo close to Vatican City. (The Castel Sant' Angelo is a national museum. It is famous as the location of the suicide scene in the opera Tosca by Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini – to use his full name!)
Massari was not to be the only person imprisoned in the Castel Sant' Angelo. It was used as a prison by the Roman Inquisition. Eight years later, between 1593 and 1600 it held Giordano Bruno, a former Dominican priest, philosopher and occultist. There Giordano Bruno was chained and tortured. In the only execution ever ordered by the Roman Inquisition, he was burned at the stake in the Campo de’Fiori on 19th February 1600 (see picture 4). This was during the papacy of Innocent VIII, the Pope who also had imprisoned Ambrose Massari O.S.A..
(For the pages on Augnet about another famous Augustinian prisoner in Augustinian history, Luis de Leon O.S.A. of Salamanca in Spain, click here.)
The accusation was that Ambrose Massari had spread calumny about the Pope. He was not permitted to gather any possessions. Another member of the Order quickly gave him a coat and hat. In prison he was placed in isolation. He asked himself what incident had caused this. What had he said? Later a member of the community of Sant’Agostino was allowed to visit him regularly and to bring him some personal possessions. In the month he was in prison, he was allowed no other visitors. Massari sought in vain to be told the details of the alleged accusation, and to determine how this unexpected circumstance had happened. Ambrose requested in vain to speak with the Pope, but was kept in isolation. He did not succeed in discovering what exactly had prompted his imprisonment. His regular Augustinian visitor found Ambrose Massari had become a fearful and broken man.
Only on the final day of his incarceration at Castel Sant' Angelo did one of the cardinals visit him. This was simply to tell him that he would be released from Castel Sant' Angelo on the condition that he would remain in the Convento Sant' Agostino under house arrest. He would be a prisoner in his own convento. Not only was he weak in health, but also he was mentally confused and socially discredited. Following instructions, he never left the convento. Broken in spirit, he died there three months later on 17th May 1485, a victim of the use of absolute authority in an unjust manner. He was buried in the crypt of the Church of Sant’Agostino. One theory as to the cause of Massari’s terrible plight was that he was the victim of another Augustinian whom he had offended. Maassari had first been elected as Prior General in 1476, and was then re-elected by order of Pope Sixtus IV in 1482. At that stage, he removed Gaspar of Orvieto O.S.A. from the position of Procurator of the Order so as to replace him with one of his own supporters.
Gaspar felt harshly treated and, after the worldly and corrupt Pope Innocent VIII assumed office in 1284, told the newly-elected Roman Pontiff that Massari had made defamatory statement against the new Pope, namely that “Innocent was created in darkness, lives in darkness, and will die in darkness.” If Massari did in fact make such an uttering in public earshot, he was at least a foolish person. Ambrose Massari O.S.A.(Ambrogio Massari da Cori) was held in great esteem in Rome in both literary circles and in the papal court. His writings demonstrated his thorough acquaintance with the teaching of philosophy and theology at the Studium Urbis (the study house of the city, the Lateran University).
In his sermons he was very accomplished in the humanism that was then affecting the cultural life of Italy, including a number of gifted members of the Order of Saint Augustine. His writings and his sermons contain references to the sacred and secular poetry, to sciences, and to Greek and Latin authors of the pre-Chistian era. Massari came on to the historical scene after numerous other Augustinians who were noted proponents of humanism. Prior to him, for example, there had been – mainly in Florence – the scholars and authors Denis of Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A. (died 1342), Bartholomew of Urbino O.S.A. (died 1350), Jean Coci O.S.A. (died 1364), Martino da Signa O.S.A. (died 1374?), Cardinal Bonaventure Baduario da Padova (Padua) O.S.A. (died 1385), Andrea Biglia O.S.A. (died 1435). In France there had been scholar and author Jacques Legrand O.S.A. (died 1415), and in England the authors John Capgrave O.S.A. (died 1464) and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. (died 1467). It has been stated by a recent medieval scholar that the Order of Augustine fostered some of the most mercurial and original minds of the later Quattrocento (fourteenth century) in Italy. This was achieved not only in the person of some of its members, but also in lay people whom the Order influenced, such as the humanist, Aurelio Brandolini, a layman of Florence (c. 1454-1497).
And as Prior General Massari was followed by the noted humanists Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. (1450 - 1498) and then in 1506 – 1517 by possibly the most influential humanist and Renaissance person that the Order of Saint Augustine ever produced, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. Massari was the author of a life of Augustine, and of panegyrics in his honour that he presented before the papal court. He lived in the era when the printing press was still in its infancy. Books in his handwriting have been located in libraries in France at Paris and in Italy at Parma. In the area of history – a word used in a very broad sense – Massari contributed with vigour and aggression to a bitter literary feud. The matter in question was a desire of both the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (a non-mendicant order officially established centuries before the Augustinian Grand Union) and the Order of Saint Augustine as to which group were the “true” and the “first” sons of Augustine of Hippo.
In 1479 Massari had printed in Rome his pamphlet, Libellus de apologia religionis fratrum heremitarum ordinis santi Augustini contra falso impugnantes (“A little book containing an apologia of the Order of Brothers Hermits of Saint Augustine against false assertions.") It was Defensorium ordinis fratrum heremitarum santi Augustini responsivium ad maledicta canonicorum assertorum regularium congregationnis Frisonariae (“A defence of the Order of Brothers Hermits of Saint Augustine against erroneous assertions of the Canons Regular of the community at Frisonari.") If evaluated today these pamphlets would be a cause of embarrassment. Of more importance is his Chronica ("Chronicles") in 1482. In his Chronica, he claimed as "miraculous" the appearance during 1467 in the Augustinian church at Genazanno (part of the Augustinian Roman Province) of the fresco of Mary as the Mother of Good Counsel. He lived in an age when the Order still hoped to be able to prove (incorrectly) legends such as the one that the Augustinian Order was actually founded by Augustine of Hippo.
He stated - and thus was historically incorrect - that the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256 was nothing more than the union of other Orders to an Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine. He was suggesting that had in some vague form an Augustinian Order had continued throughout the eight centuries since the time of Augustine of Hippo himself. There may have continuously been communities living the Rule of Augustine right from the time of Augustine of Hippo to the Middle Ages, but no longer does anyone hold any possibility that they were in any way loosely affiliated or linked into an Augustinian Order. The papal bull of 1243, Incibit nobis still exists in the Augustinian Curia in Rome, and it lends no support to the opinion of Massari. If Massari had wanted to disabuse himself of his erroneous stance, the documentation for doing so resided in the same convento in Rome as he did.
Additionally, Massari proposed that in the twelfth century William of Maleval had been a member of the Order. Maleval was located in the vicinity of Grosseto in Tuscany, northern Italy. William died on 10th February 1157. He neither founded an Order nor wrote a rule, but two of his followers formed the Order of Saint William shortly after his death. The Pope had ordered the Order of Saint William into the Augustinian Grand Union of 1256, but they successfully agitated to withdraw from it; the Pope consented, and gave them permission to retain their use of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Neither William nor the Williamites were Augustinian. It would today seem improbable – or even impossible – to establish historically that they even had involvement with any Augustinian tradition. As the title of his book indicated, Massari (Ambrogio Massari da Cori) was defending and strengthening perceptions and presumptions that seemed important to support, highly tenuous as they were. His intention was to score historical points - not to concede them!
During his era there was rivalry between the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine and the Augustinian Canons Regular (who began well over a century earlier than the former group). They were contesting which congregation was the more "authentic" inheritor of the community life that Augustine of Hippo had founded either at Hippo, in the desert outside of Hippo, or previously in Tuscany - ideas now debunked. Nobody could accuse Massari of being anything less than fully committed to what was generally desired and required of a Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine in the fifteenth century! This was even further demonstrated by the resolution of the General Chapter in Perugia in 1482 when it decreed that every graduate within the Order of Saint Augustine should be given a copy of the book by Massari, Defensorium Ordinis ("A Defence of the Order").
In the year 1470, soon after Ambrose Massari had been elected as Provincial of the Roman Province for a second term, a General Chapter of the Order took place in Bologna. At that meeting, Jacob de L’Aquila O.S.A. was elected as Prior General. Ambrose Massari was elected Procurator General. This meant that he became the chief financial officer of the Order internationally. On 28th March 1476, just before the next General Chapter was due, Jacob de L’Aquila died. Pope Sixtus IV appointed Ambrose Massari as Vicar General until the time of the General Chapter, which was due to occur in Rome a few weeks later on the feast of Pentecost. Being Vicar-General also meant that Ambrose would be president of the General Chapter.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: Pope Sixtus IV: Francesco della Rovere (Pope from 1471 to 1484). He was an uncle of Julius II. Picture 2: The Church of Saint Augustine in Rome. During the time of Sixtus IV, renovations and additions made it become one of the early Renaissance churches in Rome. Picture 3: Pope Julius II: Giuliano della Rovere (Pope from 1503 to 1513). He paid for major renovations to the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.
There was little doubt of the high regard with which Pope Sixtus IV held Messari. Had there been any doubt, it was now dispelled. Becoming Vicar General was a sign of papal favour, because it obviously suggested that the Pope favoured that person to be elected as Prior General. Until the regulations were changed, being president of the General Chapter further assisted that person in becoming Prior General. This was because the president had authority to substitute men of his own choice for any delegates who failed to arrive at the General Chapter from distant parts of the Order. At the General Chapter in 1476, therefore, it was no surprise that Ambrose Massari was elected as Prior General.
He occupied that office from 1476 until his death ten years later in 1485. Pope Sixtus IV died in 1484. (William d'Estouteville, who had been the Cardinal Protector of the Order, had already died a year earlier in 1483.) For Massari and the Augustinians, an era of papal patronage that had begun with Pope Julius II in 1503 and greatly boosted the architecture of the Augustinian churches of Sant’Agostino and Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome was now suddenly over.
Until this the end point in 1484, Massari had worked well with three successive Popes.This was particularly so with the third one, Sixtus IV, who had chosen Massari for his confessor and had paid for renovations at the Augustinian Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. What proved to be the final challenge in the life of Ambrose Massari was the election in 1484 of an unsuitable candidate who took the name of Pope Innocent VIII. Pope Innocent VIII was not aptly named - his papacy was one of the most worldly and corrupt on record. There were problems that the Pope did not appear to have either the ability or the competence to face. By the time Innocent VIII died on 25th July 1492, he was the father of numerous children. (There was a saying about it: Octo Nocens pueros genuit, totidemque puellas; Hunc merito poterit dicere Roma patrem – "Eight wicked boys born, and just as many girls, so this man could be entitled to be called Father of Rome"). This had led him to a nepotism that was as lavish as it was shameless; of twenty five persons he appointed to be cardinals, seven were related to him.
In Florence, the reformer in the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), Girolamo Savonarola chastised Innocent VIII for his worldly ambitions. It is said that, for these reasons, as he lay dying in 1492 (just months before Christopher Colombus discovered the New World) Innocent VIII implored the cardinals to choose as his successor a Pope who would be better than he was. By the time in 1485 when Pope Innocent VIII had been in office only for a year, there were many controversies. Ambrose Massari O.S.A. (Ambrogio Massari da Cori) had been a confidant of the previous Pope, Sixtus IV, and had been a leading light in his court. If Innocent VIII suspected and feared resistance to himself or even verbal criticism behind his back, Massari would have been a prime candidate for scrutiny. This is not because Massari was ever accused of such behaviour, but because of his closeness to the previous pope and his high visibility in his regime. If a paranoid pope wished to signal a warning to any suspected or potential enemies, Massari was in place to be an ideal vehicle for such victimisation. It was in this changed ecclesiastical climate generated by Innocent VIII that Massari was arbitrarily arrested on the suspicion of calumny (indeed, it possibly would have been detraction!) of the current Pope.
He was imprisoned without any charge ever being announced. In an era when the Inquisition was operative (even if in Rome it was more strictly confined to alleged heresy than was the case in Spain), the fact that no charge was announced caused others fearfully to stay well away from him. After his release from prison, his house arrest was more than being confined geographically. Through the fear generated in those who knew him, people deprived him of their contact by not visiting him. He was still effectively a prisoner, but now in his own convento.
Twenty-four years later in 1508, a subsequent Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. (1469-1532), reflected on the final years of the life of Ambrose Massari O.S.A. (Ambrogio Massari da Cori) It is unlikely that Giles of Viterbo met Massari, for the former friar only joined the Order of Saint Augustine in the year that Massari died. But Giles certainly knew other Augustinians who had personally known Massari. Giles suggested one source of enmity that may have precipitated a statement (or a completely false accusation about there being one) by Massari being relayed to Pope Innocent VIII. When Massari had become Prior General in 1476, he had used the talents of Gaspar d'Orvieto O.S.A. who possessed vast experience in the Roman Province of the Order of Saint Augustine. Massari used d'Orvieto as his delegated vicar on various assignments.
When during his term of office Massari needed to appoint a new Procurator General, d'Orvieto took exception when not given the position. Instead, Massari chose one of his literary associates who obviously had few qualifications for the position. It is known that d'Orvieto then developed great bitterness towards Massari. In 1508 Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. suggested that d'Orvieto had sought revenge by turning some local Augustinians against Massari. Directly or indirectly, d'Orvieto may have been the prompting for the accusation made to the Pope against Massari.
Popes of the Renaissance (1417 – 1585). A quick reference source. This is part of a larger site called Paradoxplace, which can be accessed by using the "home page" button at the bottom of the page. http://www.paradoxplace.com/Church_Stuff/Popes_Renaissance.htm AN4349