“The Tale of The Two Lovers” is an erotic novel, complete with salacious illustrations, about the steamy love between a married woman and her secret Italian lover. This sounds like typical trashy romance novel fare except for one important distinction. The lusty novel was penned in the medieval era…by a Pope!
“The Tale of Two Lovers” was a medieval bestseller!
A bestseller of its day, “The Tale of Two Lovers” was written in 1444 by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II. The novel is one of the earliest examples of the epistolary style, the meaning is a series of fictional letters meant be appear as though they were written by the main characters. The early printed editions of “The Tale of Two Lovers”, published by Ulrich Zell of Cologne around 1467, contained several erotic images throughout the tome. A great way to keep the readers’ attention…but not very pope-like.
Pope Pius II was an Unconventional Pope
Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini was the medieval version of a free-spirited hippie. He left his family farm when he turned 18 to attend a university then worked as a teacher in Florence for a time. He then served as a secretary to the Bishop of Fermo. Cardinal Albergati sent him on a clandestine mission to Scotland in 1435. We still don’t know the nature of this secret mission, but we do know that Piccolomini enjoyed his stay in Scotland. He fathered at least one child out of wedlock there!
Piccolomini, in fact, enjoyed a robust love life in his youth. He once wrote to a friend, “He who has never truly felt the flames of love is but a stone”. That all changed after he reached the age of 40 when he decided to become a celibate priest. After joining the priesthood, he wrote, “When you see a woman, think that you see the devil.” That’s quite a turnaround of opinion!
A work of Fiction….or was it?
“The Tale of Two Lovers”, set in Siena, Italy, follows the secret love affair between Lucretia, who is married to a jealous, older man, and Euryalus, a man in waiting of the Duke of Austria’s. The lovers first meet at a funeral…not your typical spot of love-at-first-sight…and exchange electrifying and titillating flirtatious glances over the body of the deceased. At first, Lucretia and Euryalus are unsure if their love is reciprocated by the other, but once they are, the full-on heated letter writing frenzy begins. At one point, Eurylaus defends his adulterous love affair with the married Lucretia by quoting Virgil: “Love conquers all; let us all yield to love.”
Although Piccolomini contended that “The Tale of Two Lovers” was purely a work of fiction, some scholars have claimed that inspiration for Lucretia and Eurylaus were actual people…a couple engaged in a secret affair. They were Kaspar Schlick, the chancellor of Sigismund and the beautiful daughter of Mariano Sozzini, who happened to be Piccolomini’s law professor at the University of Sienna. Was it possible that Piccolomini was privy to the adulterous affair and wrote about it…changing the names to protect the innocent?
The Path to the Papacy
Although Piccolomini’s youth was characterized by his free-spirited, carefree adventures, he became more responsible as he matured. He increasingly took on diplomatic roles. In 1450, he was sent to Portugal by Emperor Frederick III to help negotiate his marriage to the Portuguese princess, Eleonore. A few years later, he traveled to Rome with Frederick to witness the marriage of Frederick and Eleonore. Thankful for his service, Frederick recommended that Piccolomini is made a cardinal. Pope Calixtus III delayed Frederick’s suggestion, however, and appointed his own nephews ahead of Piccolomini.
When Calixtus III died in 1458, the Cardinals went into a papal conclave to select the next pope. Piccolomini served on the conclave and, when the name of a wealthy French cardinal was nominated, Piccolomini campaigned for his own name to be included, explaining that he has proven himself to be adaptable to any situation. In a unanimous vote, he was named Calixtus III’s successor. When Piccolomini was crowned pope on September 3, 1458, he took the name Pope Pius II.
The former globetrotting playboy, erotic author, and father to at least two children out of wedlock ascended to the highest religious position in the world. That’s quite an impressive career for the only pope to have authored an adulterous romance novel.