Well, not quite; 303 popes and anti-popes in 452 pages. One can derive a sort of papal history from this train of micro-biographies, but it isn’t serious analytical history. On the other hand, no serious analytical history of the institution could give one the sense of the papacy’s extraordinary instability, partly caused by the volatile politics of Italy for the last 1800 years (on one occasion three popes were simultaneously claiming the Holy See), partly by the lethal nature of the election (a surprising number of popes having died within weeks of their enthronement), and partly by the shocking quality of some of the candidates (one of the chapters being entitled, with praiseworthy restraint, Nicholas I and the Pornocracy).
John Julius Norwich has always been master of the detail which sticks. Here we have Nicholas V avoiding international politics because he said only books and buildings were worth spending money on. Then there is Paul II, ‘said to have thought himself outstandingly good-looking – a view difficult indeed to reconcile with the existing portraits’. And imagine the annoyance of Henry IV of France, who spent 300,000 scudi to get his candidate Leo XI elected, and lost his investment when Leo died a mere 26 days into his papacy.
Occasionally the details are surprising in other ways – who would have thought, for example, that King Canute could have left the remote and backward British Isles to cross Europe and attend the papal coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II? Evidently 11th century international communications were more efficient than I had realised.
Of course the remit of any pope was and is an impossible ask for one person, including global political influence, secular power (even in the reduced papal states of latter days) and vast spiritual and cultural responsibilities. Yet sometimes one is cheered by the incursion of a pope who is both a Good Thing and a Good Man: ‘Horace Walpole summed up Benedict [XIV] accurately enough: “A priest without insolence or interest, a prince without favourites, a pope without nephews”. His Roman flock adored him, and when he died on 3 May 1758 the whole city went into mourning.’