The Council of Florence (originally the Council of Basel) was an ecumenical council of bishops and other clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. It began on July 25, 1431 in Basel and was moved to Ferrara in 1438 by order of Pope Eugene IV, a move which made it also known as the Council of Ferrara. The meeting was again moved to Florence in 1439 because of the danger of plague in Ferrara and because the city of Florence agreed, with a promise of future payment, to finance the council. The initial location in Basel reflected the desire of the parties seeking reform to be outside the territories held by the Pope, the Holy Roman-German Empire, or the kings of Aragon and France, whose influences on the council they sought to avoid. Ambrogio Traversari was at the Council of Basel as a legate of Pope Eugene.
Their council met at a time when conciliarism was strong and papal authority weak. Under pressure to promote ecclesiastical reforms, Pope Martin V sanctioned a decree from the Council of Constance (October 9, 1417) obliging the papacy to convene general councils periodically. When the period proposed by the decree expired, the Pope gave in and convened a council in Padavia. Because of an epidemic, the location was transferred almost immediately to Siena (see Council of Siena) and canceled – for reasons not yet perfectly known – as soon as it began to discuss the subject of reform (1424).
The next council was held at the end of the seven-year term, in 1431. Martin V obediently convened it on this date in the city of Basel and selected Cardinal Julian Cesarini to preside over it, a highly respected prelate. Martin himself, however, was to die before the work was opened.
The council in Basel opened with only a few bishops and abbots present, but it grew quickly and eventually had a majority of religious of minor orders over the bishops. The initial stance was antipapal, proclaiming the superiority of the council over the pope and prescribing a profession of faith of the high pontiff, an oath that was to be taken by all popes at their election. When the council was moved from Basel to Ferrara in 1438, some remained in Basel (such as Nicholas of Cusa), still claiming to be part of the “true council”. They elected Amadeus VIII of Savoy as the Antipope Felix V. Expelled from Basel in 1448, they moved to Lausanne, where Felix, the only claimant to the papal throne to have made the proposed profession of faith in Basel, resigned. The following year, they decreed the closure of what they still believed to be the Council of Basel.
The council meanwhile had successfully negotiated reunification with several Orthodox churches, reaching agreements on such matters as papal primacy, the inclusion of the Filioque clause in the creed, and purgatory, a recent novelty in the Latin theological lexicon. The most important item under discussion, predictably, was papal power, in the sense of direct and answerable power to none, over all national Orthodox churches in exchange for military assistance against the Ottoman Turks. The Greek party, under strong pressure from the Byzantine emperor, accepted, for purely political reasons, the demands of the papal group. Only Mark of Ephesus rejected the union among the Greek Orthodox. The Russians, having heard rumors of this political theology, furiously rejected the union and expelled any prelates who were sympathetic to the idea. Western aid to the Byzantine Empire never materialized and the fall of Constantinople occurred in 1453, so the union remained a mere promise. The council also declared that the group that was gathered in Basel were heretics and excommunicated them. Finally, in 1441, the superiority of the Pope over the councils was reaffirmed in the papal bull Etsi non dubitemus of April 20.
The democratic characteristic of the assembly in Basel was the result of both its composition and its organization. Doctors of theology, masters and representatives of religious chapters, monks, and clerics of lower orders consistently outnumbered the prelates in the council. Moreover, the influence of the higher clergy carried less weight because, instead of separating into “nations,” as at the Council of Constance, they divided themselves according to their tastes and aptitudes into four committees or deputationes. One was responsible for matters of faith (fidei), another on peace negotiations (pacis), a third on church reform (reformatorii), and the fourth with what they called “common concerns” (pro communibus). Each decision made by three of these committees – and in each, the lower clergy were in the majority – received formal ratification by the general congregation and, if necessary, led to the promulgation of the decrees in plenary session. For this reason, papal critics called this council “an assembly of copyists” or even “a collection of stables and kitchen helpers.”
Attempts to dissolve it
From Italy, France, and Germany, the religious arrived late in Basel. Cesarini had been devoting all his energies to the war against the Hussites, until the battle of Domažlice (called the “disaster of Taus”) forced him to hastily evacuate Bohemia. Pope Eugene IV, Martin”s successor, lost hope that the council could be useful given the progress of heresy, the reported problems in Germany, the war that had recently broken out between the Duke of Austria and the Duke of Burgundy, and finally the small number of religious who had responded to Martin V”s summons. This opinion, coupled with his desire to preside over the council in person, induced him to reconvene the priests from Germany, cancelling the council. He appointed Bologna as the new site for the council, to be held eighteen months hence, with the intention of having the council sessions coincide with some conferences with the Orthodox Church that were already scheduled to take place in the city, and already with the aim of fostering ecumenical union.
The suspension of the council provoked a strong reaction among the priests who were already meeting, and caused enormous dissatisfaction in the responsible papal legate, Cardinal Cesarini. They argued that the Hussites would think that the Church was afraid to confront them and that the laity would accuse the clergy of delaying reform, both charges having disastrous effects. The Pope explained his reasons and gave in on some points, but the priests gathered there did not change their minds. Considerable powers had been decreed for the councils of the Church by the Council of Constance which, involved in the problems of the schism of Avignon, had proclaimed the superiority of the councils over the Pope in some cases. On this basis, the priests in Basel insisted on their right to remain assembled and held sessions, interfered with the government of the Venaissino County (the papal county around Avignon), made treaties with the Hussites, and, as representatives of the universal Church, proposed laws regulating even the Supreme Pontiff himself.
Eugenius IV resolved to resist the council”s claims of supremacy, but he did not dare to directly repudiate the council”s doctrine, considered by many to be the real foundation of the popes” authority before the schism. He soon realized the impossibility of dealing with the Basel priests as an ordinary rebel and tried a middle way solution. However, as time passed, the priests gathered there became more and more firm, creating an insurmountable barrier between the parties.
Abandoned by a portion of his cardinals, condemned by most of the lay powers, without military power over his dominions because of the condottieri who openly invoked the authority of the council, the Pope made concession after concession and ended, on December 15, 1433, with a regrettable rendition of all the items under discussion in a papal bull, dictated by the priests in Basel, which effectively cancelled their previous dissolution bull – now regarded as null and void – and recognized that the meeting in Basel was legitimate. But Eugenius IV did not ratify all the decrees coming from the council, nor did he grant a definitive subsumption of the council”s supremacy. He refused to make any pronouncement on the matter, and his enforced silence concealed a secret desire to safeguard the principle of the Pope”s sovereignty.
The priests, suspicious, would only allow the Pope”s legates to preside over the proceedings on condition that they recognized the superiority of the Council. The legates did indeed submit to this humiliating (for them) formality, but in their own names, as would be discovered later, thus reserving the final decision to the Holy See. Moreover, the difficulties of all kinds that Eugenius had to deal with, such as the insurrection in Rome, which forced him to escape across the Tiber lying in the bottom of a boat, left him unable to resist the machinations of the council.
Encouraged by their successes, the assembled priests then tackled the subject of reform, the main item being the further reduction of papal power and resources at the Pope”s disposal. They made decisions on disciplinary measures regulating elections, on the celebration of religious services, on the periodic holding of diocesan and provincial synods, all matters that were commonplace in Catholic councils. They also issued decrees on some of the assumed rights by which the popes had extended their power and improved their finances at the expense of the local churches. Thus, the council abolished the “anados” (“First fruits”), greatly limited the abuse of “reservations” in the granting of benefices by the pope, and completely abolished the pope”s alleged right of gratiae expectativae. Other conciliar decrees severely limited the jurisdiction of the court of Rome and even dealt with the rules of conclaves and the constitution of the Sacred College. The priests also continued to devote themselves to the subjugation of the Hussites and also intervened, rivaling the Pope, in the negotiations between France and England that led to the Treaty of Arras, concluded by Charles VII of France with the Duke of Burgundy. Also, circumcision was considered to be a mortal sin. Finally, they investigated and judged several private cases – lawsuits between prelates, members of religious orders, and recipients of benefices – thus committing one of the most serious abuses in the eyes of the court of Rome.
The Eastern Strategy of Eugenius IV
Eugenius IV, much as he wished to remain on good terms with the priests of Basel, found himself unable to accept or observe all their decrees. The question of union with the Orthodox Church, especially, gave rise to many misunderstandings that soon led to a rupture. Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus, pressed hard by the Ottoman Turks, was eager to ally himself with the Catholics. He consented to appear, together with representatives of the Greek Church, somewhere in the West where the union could be concluded in the presence of the Pope and a Latin council. From this anxiety two parallel negotiations were born, one with the Pope and one with the priests gathered in Basel. The council wished to settle the site somewhere far from the Pope”s influence and insisted on the cities of Basle, Avignon or Savoy. On the other hand, the Greeks wanted a coastal city in Italy that would allow them easy sea access.
Council moved to Ferrara and the attempt at union with the Orthodox Church
As a result of the negotiations, John VIII Paleologus accepted the invitation of the Pope who, through a bull of September 18, 1437, again proclaimed the dissolution of the Council of Basel and summoned the church fathers to Ferrara.
The first public session in Ferrara began on January 10, 1438. Its first act was to declare the council of Basel transferred to Ferrara and to nullify all proceedings that continued to take place in the Swiss city. In a second public session (February 15, 1438), Pope Eugenius IV excommunicated all those still meeting in Basel.
In early April 1438, the Greek delegation arrived in Ferrara, with more than 700 people. On April 9, the first solemn session in Ferrara began with the emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and representatives of the other patriarchates (Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem) present and under the presidency of Pope Eugene IV. The first sessions lasted until July 17, with each of the items of the Great Schism of the East (1054) discussed at length. Resuming activities on October 8, the council focused exclusively on the inclusion of the Filioque clause in the Nicean creed. Although it was clear that the Orthodox would never accept the inclusion of the clause, the emperor continued to press for reconciliation.
Council moved to Florence again
With financial problems and under the pretext that the plague was spreading in the region, both Latins and Greeks agreed to move the council to Florence. Continuing its work there from January 1439, the council made several advances on an intermediate formula, “per Filium.” In the following months, an agreement was reached on the Western doctrine of purgatory and a return to the Papacy”s pre-schism prerogatives. On June 6, an agreement was signed by Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople and all the Eastern bishops except Mark of Ephesus, which maintained that Rome remained in heresy and schism. Apparently, the Great Schism was over with the declaration of the so-called Union of Florence. However, after the death of Joseph II just two days later, the Greeks insisted that ratification by the Orthodox Church would take place only by the agreement of an Eastern Synod. When they returned home, the Eastern bishops found that their agreement with the West was widely rejected by the population, the monks, and the civil authorities (that the notable exception of the emperors, who remained faithful to the agreement until the fall of Constantinople two decades later). The union signed in Florence was never accepted by the Orthodox Churches.
The council soon became even more international. The signing of this agreement by the union of the Latins and Greeks encouraged Pope Eugene IV to announce the good news to the Coptic Christians and invited them to send a delegation to Ferrara. He wrote a letter on July 7, 1439, and to deliver it, he sent Albert of Sarteano, an apostolic legate. On August 26, 1441, Sarteano returned with four Ethiopians from Emperor Zara Yaqob and Copts. According to an observer of the time “They were black and dry and of very strange posture (…) really, on seeing them, they seem to me very weak.”” At that time, Rome had legacies from various nations, from Armenia to Russia, Greece and various parts of North and East Africa.
“Deposition of Eugene IV” and the schism in Basel
During this time, the Council of Basel, though nullified at Ferrara and abandoned by Cesarini and most of its members, still persisted under the presidency of Cardinal Aleman. Affirming its ecumenical character on January 24, 1438, he suspended Eugenius IV. The council continued (despite the suspension of all its powers) and proclaimed that Eugenius IV had been deposed (June 25, 1439), giving rise to a new schism by electing, on November 4, Amadeus VIII of Savoy as Antipope Felix V.
Effects of the Schism
This schism lasted ten years, even though the antipope found few adherents outside his own hereditary states, that of Alfonso V of Aragon, the Swiss Confederation, and certain universities. Germany remained neutral. Charles VII of France limited himself to securing for his kingdom (through the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, which became law on July 13, 1438) the benefit of a large number of reforms enacted in Basel. England and Italy remained loyal to Eugenius IV. Finally, in 1447, Frederick III, emperor of the Holy Roman-German Empire, after negotiations with Eugenius, commanded the burgomaster of Basel to expel the council from the city.
Schismatics meet again in Lausanne
In June 1448, the core group of the council migrated to Lausanne, France. The antipope, at France”s insistence, eventually abdicated on April 7, 1449. Eugenius died on February 23, 1447, and the council in Lausanne, to keep up appearances, gave its support to his successor, Pope Nicholas V, who had already been ruling the church for two years. Their claim was that “reliable evidence” proved to them that this pontiff accepted the dogma of the superiority of the councils as defined at Constance and Basel.
The struggle for the union of East and West in Ferrara and Florence, while promising, never yielded results. While progress for union in the east continued to be made over the next decades, all hopes for a reconciliation were dashed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Already the seventeen-year dispute to defend conciliarism, in Basle and Lausanne, ended in defeat. The Papacy, so shaken in its foundations during the Schism of the East, came through these tribulations with a Pyrrhic victory. The era of great councils of the 15th century ended and the constitution of the Roman Catholic Church remained monarchical.
Finally, several of the questions and tensions raised about the reforms would, in the following century, bring about the Protestant Reformation.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Council were the lectures on classical Greek literature given in Florence by many of Constantinople”s delegates, including the renowned Neoplatonist Gemistus Pletho. They helped catalyze the revival of humanism.