How a Forgotten 16th-Century Augustinian ‘Invented’ Papal History

The significant intellectual heritage of Onofrio Panvinio, a privileged testimony of the spiritual and political turmoil surrounding the Protestant Reformation, has been brought back to light in a recent book.

Tintoretto, “Onofrio Panvinio,” 1550-1555
Tintoretto, “Onofrio Panvinio,” 1550-1555 (photo: Public Domain)

In only 38 years of existence in the 16th century, Onofrio Panvinio left behind a significant trail thanks to his extraordinarily prolific work: Indeed, he was called in his time pater omnis historiae, the “father of all history,” by prominent scholar Joseph Scaliger.

Although he was quite rapidly forgotten after his death, his contemporary reputation is attested, among other things, by the presence of his portrait by Tintoretto at the Palazzo Colonna art gallery in Rome, and the exhibition of his bust in the public library of Verona, his hometown.

But it is only recently that this historical figure was rediscovered and brought back to light by German scholar Stefan Bauer in the book The Invention of Papal History: Onofrio Panvinio Between Renaissance and Catholic Reform (Oxford University Press).

 Born in 1530, Panvinio took the habit at the age of 11 and entered the Order of Augustinian Hermits. His great intellectual potential did not go unnoticed within his community and he was sent to the Order’s general study houses of Naples and Rome to complete his education. There, he discovered his deep passion for history, especially Roman antiquity.

In 1554, the young friar was given the very exceptional permission to live outside his convent, to fully dedicate himself to the study of history. 

His great talent earned him the favor and protection of high-ranking clergymen such as Cardinal Marcello Cervini, the future Pope Marcellus II, who encouraged him to enlarge his scope of study to ecclesiastic history, and later the powerful cardinal Alessandro Farnese who took him under his wing and made him his personal librarian. Panvinio was also commissioned by the greatest Italian aristocratic families such as the Frangipani family and the princely house of Massimo to write their histories.

In 1565, Pius IV gave him a position at the Vatican Library as a corrector and revisor of the library’s manuscripts.

Onofrio Panvinio died of fever in Palermo, Sicily, during a trip with Cardinal Farnese. He left behind a monumental work, whose scientific value remains unparalleled.


Unprecedented Work

A lecturer in Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, Bauer crossed paths with Panvinio while writing a book about Renaissance historian Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481), prefect of the Vatican Library in his time and who was in some ways Panvinio’s predecessor. Bauer realized that, although Panvinio’s posterity is significantly less important than Platina’s, the Augustinian friar nonetheless was a pioneer in many different respects.

The claim that Panvinio was the inventor of papal history, as the title of Bauer’s monograph suggests, was meant to be “provocative,” according to the author.

“Papal history was of course born much earlier, in texts such as Liber pontificalis in the Middle Age, but I think it is legitimate to speak of an ‘invention’ because Panvinio collected more material on papal history than any scholar up to his time,” Bauer told the Register.

In his view, Panvinio’s monumental work History of Papal Elections is probably the most significant of all as it illustrates better than any other work Panvinio’s thirst for knowledge and his “unparalleled appetite for collecting sources.”

“No writer had ever attempted to write a history of this kind, and no one has ever made any similarly ambitious attempt to the present day,” he added.

And Panvinio’s privileged position within the ecclesiastic and aristocratic world of the 16th century enabled him to feed his intellectual predispositions thanks to the access he could have to the most inaccessible sources. Cardinal Cervini, for instance, gave him full access to the documents of the Vatican Library, which was a significant and rare privilege for the time.

“For his works on ecclesiastical history, Panvinio traveled across Italy to churches and monasteries, into whose archives he dug deeply,” Bauer said, pointing out that the Augustinian friar collected all kinds of material, including archival documents and papal bulls, in addition to biographical accounts.

Furthermore, Church history is not the only field where he distinguished himself. His work on ancient Rome, his first love, earned him the name of “father of chronology” thanks to the transcription he made of fragments of Roman calendars (“Fasti Capitolini”) found in the Roman Forum, compiling them as a scholarly edition.

“Panvinio also had a pioneering interest in the use of illustrations and employed artists to produce imaginary representations of ancient scenes, such as Roman circus games and triumphs.”

However, it is in the field of medieval Church history that he better expressed the finesse of his historian’s mind, as his faith didn’t prevent him from passing his sources through the crucible of his critical spirit.

As Bauer highlighted, Panvinio provided an in-depth study of the various forms and modalities of papal elections over the centuries, showing that this aspect of the Church history had been subject to changes and that there had been quarrels and factions during the past elections — which was a widely unknown fact at that time. “Panvinio was not afraid, for example, to include sources showing that Pope Alexander VI had bought the votes of many cardinals during his election in 1492.”

“By including these historical reflections,” Bauer said, “Panvinio placed himself within the Catholic Reformation — a precarious and ever-shifting movement, which, in the second half of the 16th century, was more often than not reined in and suppressed by both the reigning pontiffs and the Roman Inquisition.”


Sensitive Historical Context

According to the German scholar, Panvinio was a genuine papalist — contrary to what some of his contemporary critics suggested — and had no sympathy for the Protestant Reformation introduced in 1517 by Martin Luther (who also was once an Augustinian monk), and which was rapidly spreading throughout Europe.

However, like a number of Renaissance humanists before him, including Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina, Panvinio was willing to criticize the moral decay that had slowly taken hold of many high authorities of the Church over the centuries, especially after the pontificate of Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) and the so-called Investiture Controversy which led to the appointment of Antipope Clement III.

Moreover, he also analyzed and reported accurately the inner oppositions and struggles that had existed within the Church since its origins, a discussion that was not viewed in a favorable light by the Church in the sensitive context of the Reformation, where history had become an arena for confrontation between Catholics and Protestants.

Far from wanting to weaken the Church, however, the Augustinian friar was convinced that “to be a good historian also meant not to suppress problematic evidence that might conflict with the official line of thought propagated by the leaders of [his] faith.”

However, the fact remains that “members of the hierarchy were concerned that open discussions about history could be used by Protestants as a reason to attack the Catholic Church and doubts about historical questions were perceived as threats to the unity of Catholic opinion” Bauer added, noting that many of Panvinio’s works (as well as Platina’s) were censored by the Church authorities after his death.

This explains, Bauer said, why Panvinio has been neglected by later scholarship, despite his pioneer dimension.

Five centuries later, the rediscovery of his great contribution to the Catholic intellectual heritage not only gives us an insight into the crisis facing the Church during the times that preceded and followed the Protestant Reformation, but it also shows how in such a context, a Catholic historian was able to create and develop a critical and research-based historical method.