The Limits of Diplomatic Ritual: The Polish Embassy of Giovanni Francesco Commendone (1572-1573) and Criticism of Papal Legates in Early Modern Europe


This essay proposes that much of the anti-papal sentiment and accusations of papal tyranny that characterized the Reformation grew out of experiences with papal legates a latere, the diplomatic representatives of the Roman see abroad. Because papal “possession” of authority was achieved only indirectly, through representatives, most Europeans’ experiences with, and responses to, the papacy centered on the activities of papal diplomats. After examining the ritual, rhetorical, and juridical framework that surrounded the figure of the legate, this essay examines the uniformly negative reactions to the embassy of Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Commendone (1524-1584) during the Polish interregnum of 1572-1573. It argues that criticism of Commendone’s actions in the royal election reveals a larger disjuncture in early modern political theory. While secular rulers believed they should be able to rule their states autonomously, for respective reasons of state, the papacy and its representatives maintained that the pope had both the right and the duty to intervene in temporal affairs when necessary. Thus, criticism of papal legates suggests a broader critique of papal authority: namely, that the Roman pontiff should not be able to interfere in political affairs, even through representatives.


Early Modern Papacy; Papal Diplomacy; Legates; Antipapalism

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