~ Legendary Rome ~

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Sixtus V

the tough pope





Among the many pontiffs who held in their hands the fate of Rome, Sixtus V (1585-90) is indeed one of the most special and controversial ones. During his pontificate, which lasted only five years, he altered the city's arrangement according to the Renaissance standards, changing its look more than any other ruler or administrator had ever dared to do before him, even during a much longer reign.
the coat of arms of Sixtus V hangs all over Rome
He had four of Rome's ancient Egyptian obelisks restored and set in their present location. He opened long and straight roads through the medieval slums that covered most of the city's decadent urban area. He restored bridges, built new fountains and sponsored many other works. And he is also remembered for the making of an important aqueduct, built by using material mostly taken from the remains of an ancient Roman one that dated back to the 2nd century BC (see Aqueducts, part IV).
Felice Peretti, pope Sixtus V
He also improved commerce, by issuing several laws; for instance, one of them established a new system of measures for the sale of wine, which in those days was one of Rome's most important businesses.
But what Sixtus V is remembered for most is his legendary sterness in administering justice.

He was born in Grottammare (near Ancona, central Italy) in 1520, as Felice Peretti, from a humble family. He then joined the clergy as a Franciscan friar. After becoming an expert in theological matters, he was appointed inquisitor in Verona, where he built his fame of implacable man of law.

During the second half of the 16th century, Rome's administration had fallen in pityful conditions. Corruption had spread, and the city was full of thieves. So when in 1585 Gregory XIII died, a strong man was immediately chosen to replace him, in the attempt of restoring order. And Sixtus V did so, with iron fist, an attitude that was worth him the nickname of "the tough pope" among the Roman people. In a footnote of one of his sonnets, called Pope Sixtus, poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli wrote: the name 'Pope Sixtus' alone always refers to Sixtus the Fifth.
Such a reputation made many legends about his feats flourish. This page describes some of them.

Sixtus V's aqueduct, named Acqua Felice after his first name


since the Middle Ages, the Colosseum's many
recesses acted as a refuge for bandits and outlaws
In those times the Colosseum was used as a den by many bandits who lived in Rome. The guards had always failed in getting rid of these pests, who kept raiding the city, night and day.
So one night Sixtus V disguised himself as a hermit and, carrying a large bottle of wine under his cloak, walked to the Colosseum. He found the bandits, and asked them to let him spend the night there. They were roasting meat on a camp fire; they told him to take care of that duty, in return for their hospitality. While turning the spit, the pope kept mumbling "this cannot last forever". Then, during the meal, he produced the flask of wine, offering each of them plenty to drink. But the wine had been drugged, so one after the other, all the bandits fell asleep. He swiftly left the Colosseum, and signalled to the guards, who were waiting outside. On the next day, the bandits were already hanging from a scaffold.
This story gave birth to an old local saying: this cannot last forever, as the guy who turned the spit said.

On another occasion, the pope had been told about the inn-keepers' discontent concerning the new wine measure system, recently introduced. Once again, in disguise, he entered a tavern, asking for a quarter litre jug. Instead of drinking it, unseen, he poured it into a flask he had carried with him. He asked for another, and then another, and kept doing so for several times. Every time, the inn-keeper had to go downstairs, to the cellar, and fill the small jug with this tiny amount of wine; after a few times he got fed up of this nuisance, and started swearing and cussing against the new system, and the pope who had established it.
The next morning, when the inn-keeper opened his shop, he found out that during the night a scaffold had been mounted nearby. Thinking that an execution would have attracted a crowd, thus would have brought many customers into his tavern, he began to arrange the tables, but the first two people to walk in were the executioner and his assistant. A few minutes later, the inn-keeper was dangling in the center of the square, as an admonishment to follow the new rules.


Porta del Popolo used to be a common site for executions
One day Sixtus V called for his executioner. He gave him orders to build a scaffoldin Piazza del Popolo, and on the next day, as soon as the nearby gate Porta del Popolo was open, to hang the very first person who entered the city. The executioner, yet in astonishment for the pope's wish, knowing his temper obviously obeyed his order.
On the following day, at dawn, the guards and the executioner stood in expectation, awaiting to know who the unlucky person to suffer this fate would be. Soon, a young man was seen coming towards the city; he had almost passed the gate, but just outside he stopped, and knealt down to buckle his shoes. Meanwhile, an old man came through, so the guards immediately stopped him, and announced that he would have been sentenced on the spot. The old man froze, completely stunned; then, unexpectedly, he raised his hands, crying: "Oh God almighty, how just you are!".
He then confessed that, many years before, he had killed all the members of his own family, and had committed other crimes, but had never been caught. So the executioner felt somewhat relieved in putting into practice the pope's order, straight away.
How Sixtus V had known, nobody knew, and several people believed that he had supernatural powers.

But the most famous legend concerning this pope actually concerns his sceptical attitude towards miracles.
One day, in Rome the news had spread that in an estate just outside the city, a wooden image of Christ had started oozing blood. Crowds began to flock to this spot, where the owner of the property was making a big business out of this. The news reached also the pope's ears, so he too went to take a look. Having been shown the prodigious image, Sixtus V asked for an axe, and uttering the words "as Christ, I worship you; as wood, I break you", he landed a violent blow on the image, cracking it into pieces. What was found inside was a sponge, soaked with animal blood, and a string that, when pulled, squeezed the sponge, thus causing the statue to bleed. The owner of the property was taken to Rome and put to death.
Also this story gave life to a local proverb: not even Christ was forgiven by pope Sixtus!


statue of Sixtus V over his tomb
in St. Mary the Major's basilica,
where he owned a lavish private chapel
known as the Sistine Chapel
PAPA SISTO

Fra ttutti quelli c'hanno avuto er posto
De vicarj de Dio, nun z'è mai visto
Un papa rugantino, un papa tosto,
Un papa matto, uguale a Ppapa Sisto.

E nun zolo è da dì che dassi er pisto
A chïunqu'omo che j'annava accosto,
Ma nun la perdonò neppur'a Cristo,
E nemmanco lo roppe d'anniscosto.

Aringrazziam'Iddio c'adesso er guasto
Nun po' ssuccede ppiù che vienghi un fusto
D'arimette la chiesa in quel'incrasto.

Perché nun ce po' esse tanto presto
Un antro papa che je piji er gusto
De mettese pe nnome Sisto Sesto.
POPE SIXTUS

Among all those who held the charge
Of God's vicar, a quarrelsome,
tough, crazy pope such as Pope Sixtus
Had never been seen before.

He did not only subdue
Whoever happened to be close to him,
But even refused to forgive Christ,
Nor did he break his statue stealthily.

Thank God, the calamity that a man may come
And bring back the Church in a similar state
Can no longer happen.

Because not too soon
Another pope may have the whim
Of naming himself Sixtus the Sixth.

  Giuseppe Gioachino Belli  April 9, 1834