The Pope Who Wrote an Erotic Novel

Before his rapid rise to the top of the Catholic Church, Pius II had a secret passion for scandalous stories. And they may have been inspired by his own life.

The Pope Who Wrote an Erotic Novel

Aeneas Silvius Bartholomeus caught the attention of King Frederick III of Germany, the future Holy Roman Emperor, with his talent for words. King Frederick named Bartholomeus poet laureate in 1442 and commissioned him to write his own royal biography. The king may not have known that Bartholomeus had a far less regal side interest. According to Absolute Monarchs, by historian John Julius Norwich, over the next three years, while working in the royal chancery in Vienna, Bartholomeus wrote a large amount of “mildly pornographic poetry.” And then there was his magnum opus: The Tale of Two Lovers, or Historia de duobus amantibus, an erotic novel that he penned in 1444. This dalliance with erotic literature is even more surprising given that Bartholomeus later took on a much more high-profile position: In 1458, he become Pope Pius II.

The Tale of Two Lovers is set in Bartholomeus’s hometown of Siena, Italy, and it details a passionate affair between Lucretia, a married woman, and Euryalus, a man-in-waiting to the Duke of Austria. In the book’s preface, Bartholomeus admits that his novel may be “offensive and disgusting” to some readers, but he argues that people should read it because love “is a subject which delights young minds.”

A sex-scene illustration from the erotic novel “The Tale of Two Lovers,” by Aeneas Silvius Bartholomeus. (Courtesy Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1925, via The Met)

This tale of forbidden lust starts with the lovers exchanging romantic letters and escalates to sexual intercourse — which is vividly shown in the accompanying illustrations as well. After spending the night together, Euryalus cries as he looks at Lucretia’s “secret parts he had not seen before” and launches into vivid descriptions of her “lovely bosom, most glorious breasts” and “smooth limbs, sweet-scented body.”

Bartholomeus’ fondness for illicit affairs appears to have extended beyond his colorful prose. Before being appointed pope, he had several affairs and is believed to have sired at least two children out of wedlock. In a letter to his father, Silvius, a poor aristocrat and soldier, in 1443, Bartholomeus defended his promiscuity by arguing that he “[does] not see why sexual intercourse ought to be condemned so much — [it] is broadly compatible with nature.”

In the same letter, Bartholomeus revealed that he believed he had fathered a son with a woman named Elizabeth while he was living for a period in Strasbourg, France. Unlike his protagonists in The Tale of Two Lovers, however, the attraction between Bartholomeus and Elizabeth may not have been mutual. Bartholomeus wrote that Elizabeth had rejected his advances; then, the night before she was supposed to leave Strasbourg, he entered her room and “possessed the woman.”

While the historical record offers no insight into whether he continued to engage in illicit affairs and possible sexual assault, it’s fair to say he went through a significant personal transformation during this time. What prompted this remains a mystery, but he was ordained as a priest in 1446 and began an astronomical rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church. Just a year later, in 1447, Pope Nicholas V made him the Bishop of Trieste.

A page from “The Tale of Two Lovers.” (Courtesy Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1925, via The Met)

If Bartholomeus had affairs during this new chapter in his life, it was not public knowledge. Catholic priests, of course, were required to abstain from sex, as they had been for several centuries at this point.

Bartholomeus’s ascension came during a period marked by a tumultuous split in the Catholic Church. One faction believed that power should be shared between the pope and a council; the other group, which backed Pope Eugene IV, unsuccessfully attempted to dismantle the council. The council, in turn, challenged Eugene’s power by appointing Amadeus VIII as their own pope, also known as “the antipope.” Bartholomeus appears to have played both sides, working closely with the council before ultimately pledging his allegiance to Pope Eugene.

The antipope eventually resigned, after which Bartholomeus appears to have cemented his status within the church by criticizing the antipope and his followers. He alleged in a letter that priests appointed by the antipope “had concubines or committed adultery,” and that they “prepared themselves for the sacraments while unclean.” He also claimed that discoveries had been made that would greatly diminish the reputation of the antipope, including that he’d had a child before being appointed by the council.

Bartholomeus’s criticism of the antipope and his priests helped him gain further approval and admiration within the Catholic Church. It is unknown whether his fellow clergymen knew about his own history of sexual impropriety, or if they simply looked the other way.

For five more years, Bartholomeus served under Pope Nicholas V, until the latter’s passing, and afterward he remained in the church’s good graces. Under the succeeding Pope Callixtus III, Bartholomeus rose to the position of cardinal. In 1458, Callixtus III passed away, and the papal conclave, which consisted of 18 cardinals, convened for three days before appointing Bartholomeus as pope. He chose the name Pius II.

A portrait of Pope Pius II by the painter Pintoricchio, 1502-1507. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

During his reign, Pope Pius II began writing again, but not erotic poetry and novels. Instead, he wrote what would become The Commentaries of Pius II, an autobiography that he penned in the third person. Commentaries was not published until 1584, and it includes no mention of his scandalous poetry or The Tale of Two Lovers.

Notably, the book details his decision to launch a crusade against the Turks in 1459, a mission that would consume his final years. Norwich wrote in Absolute Monarchs that after an ailing Pius II arrived in Ancona, Italy, to lead crusaders against the Turks, he found only “twelve small galleys.” His plan to lead the crusaders was abandoned, and “two days later he was dead.” Pius II’s body was brought back to Rome and buried.

At first, it seemed that Pius II would be remembered for his crusade against the Turks and his love of the arts, but a few years after his death, his legacy took a turn when his novel, The Tale of Two Lovers, was published in Cologne, Germany. Per historian E. J. Morrall, in Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II): The Goodli History of the Ladye Lucres, the book “proved to be one of the most popular books of the early Renaissance.” Originally printed in Latin, as the popularity of The Tale of Two Lovers grew, it was quickly translated into other European languages, including Italian and English.

As with Pius II’s life, however, his novel did not have a happy ending. When Euryalus had to leave Siena to accompany the Emperor to Rome, the two lovers parted ways, and both became ill with heartbreak. Lucretia lay “upon her bed, till she should recover her strength.”

Euryalus’ fate was less melancholy. Perhaps not surprising given what we know about Pius II and his view of adulterous men, things turned out just fine for Euryalus: “[T]he Emperor wedded him to a maiden of ducal rank, most beautiful, and chaste, and virtuous.”