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Bartolomeo Platina

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Originally named SACCHI, b. at Piadena, near Mantua, in 1421; d. at Rome, 1481. He first enlisted as a soldier, and was then appointed tutor to the sons of the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga. In 1457 he went to Florence, and studied under the Greek scholar Argyropulos. In 1402 he proceeded to Rome, probably in the suite of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga. After Pius II had reorganized the College of Abbreviators (1463), and increased the number to seventy, Platina in May, 1464, was elected a member. When Paul II abolished the ordinances of Pius, Platina with the other new members was deprived of his office. Angered thereat, he wrote a pamphlet insolently demanding from the pope the recall of his restrictions. When called upon to justify himself he answered with insolence and was imprisoned in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, being released after four months on condition that he remain at Rome. In February, 1468, with about twenty other Humanists, he was again imprisoned on suspicion of heresy and of conspiring against the life of the pope, but the latter charge was dropped for lack of evidence, while they were acquitted on the former. But not even Platina denies that the members of the Roman Academy, imbued with half-pagan and materialistic doctrines, were found guilty of immorality. The story about his constancy under trial and torture is unfounded.

After his release, 7 July, 1469, he expected to be again in the employ of Paul II, who, however, declined his services. Platina threatened vengeance and executed his threat, when at the suggestion of Sixtus IV he wrote his "Vitæ Pontificum Platinæ historici liber de vita Christi ac omnium pontificum qui hactenus ducenti fuere et XX" (Venice, 1479). In it he paints his enemy as cruel, and an archenemy of science. For centuries it influenced historical opinions until critical research proved otherwise. In other places party spirit is evident, especially when he treats of the condition of the Church. Notwithstanding, his "Lives of the Popes" is a work of no small merit, for it is the first systematic handbook of papal history. Platina felt the need of critical research, but shirked the examination of details. By the end of 1474 or the beginning of 1475 Platina offered his manuscript to Sixtus IV; it is still preserved in the Vatican Library. The pope's acceptance may cause surprise, but it is probable he was ignorant of its contents except in so far as it concerned his own pontificate up to November, 1474. After the death of Giandrea Bussi, Bishop of Aleria, the pope appointed Platina librarian with a yearly salary of 120 ducats and an official residence in the Vatican. He also instructed him to make a collection of the chief privileges of the Roman Church. This collection, whose value is acknowledged by all the annalists, is still preserved in the Vatican archives. In the preface Platina not only avoids any antagonism towards the Church but even refers with approbation to the punishing of heretics and schismatics by the popes, which is the best proof that Sixtus IV, by his marks of favour, had won Platina for the interests of the Church. Besides his principal work Platina wrote several others of smaller importance, notably: "Historia inclita urbis Mantuæ et serenissimæ familiæ Gonzagæ". The new Pinacotheca Vaticana contains the magnificent fresco by Melozzo da Forli. It represents Sixtus IV surrounded by his Court and appointing Platina prefect of the Vatican.

As a paragraph from Platina's "Vitæ Pontificum" first gave rise to the legend of the excommunication of Halley's comet by Callistus III, we here give the legend briefly, after recalling some historical facts. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), Nicolas V appealed in vain to the Christian princes for a crusade. Callistus III (1455-58), immediately after his succession, sent legates to the various Courts for the same purpose; and, meeting with no response, promulgated a Bull 29 June, 1456, prescribing the following: (1) all priests were to say during Mass the "oratio contra paganos"; (2) daily, between noon and vespers, at the ringing of a bell, everybody had to say three Our Fathers and Hail Marys; (3) processions were to be held by the clergy and the faithful on the first Sunday of each month, and the priests were to preach on Faith, patience, and penance; to expose the cruelty of the Turks, and urge all to pray for their deliverance. The first Sunday of July (4 July), the first processions were held in Rome. On the same day the Turks began to besiege Belgrade. On 14 July the Christians gained a small advantage, and on the twenty-first and twenty-second the Turks were put to flight.

In the same year Halley's comet appeared. In Italy it was first seen in June. Towards the end of the month it was still visible for three hours after sunset, causing great excitement everywhere by its extraordinary splendour. It naturally attracted the attention of astrologers as may appear from the long "judicium astrologicum" by Avogario, of Ferrara, dated 17 June, 1467; it was found again by Celoria among the manuscripts of Paolo Toscanelli, who had copied it himself. The comet was seen till 8 July. It is evident, from all the documents of that time, that it had disappeared from sight several days before the battle of Belgrade. These two simultaneous facts—the publication of the Bull and the appearance of the comet—were connected by Platina in the following manner: "Apparente deinde per aliquot dies cometa crinito et rubeo: cum mathematici ingentem pestem: charitatem annonæ: magnam aliquam cladem futuram dicerent: ad avertendam iram Dei Calistus aliquot dierum supplicationes decrevit: ut si quid hominibus immineret, totum id in Thurcos christiani nominis hostes converteret. Mandavit kprætera ut assiduo rogatu Deus flecteretur in meridie campanis signum dari fidelibus omnibus: ut orationibus eos juvarent: qui cxontra Thurcos continuo dimicabant" (A maned and fiery comet appearing for several days, while scientists were predicting a great plague, dearness of food, or some great disaster, Callistus decreed that supplicatory prayers be held for some days to avert the anger of God, so that, if any calamity threatened mankind, it might be entirely diverted against the Turks, the foes of the Christian name. He likewise ordered that the bells be rung at midday as a signal to all the faithful to move God with assiduous petitions and to assist with their prayers those engaged in constant warfare with the Turks).

Platina has, generally speaking, recorded the facts truly; but is wrong at one point, viz., where he says that the astrologers' predictions of great calamities induced the pope to prescribe public prayers. The Bull does not contain a word on the comet, as the present writer can testify from personal examination of the authenticated document.

A careful investigation of the authenticated "Regesta" of Callistus III (about one hundred folios), in the Vatican archives, shows that the comet is not mentioned in any other papal document. Nor do other writers of the time refer to any such prayers against the comet, though many speak both of the comet and of the prayers against the Turks. The silence of St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence (1446-59), is particularly significant. In his "Chronicorum libri tres" he enumerates accurately all the prayers prescribed by Callistus; he also mentions the comet of 1456 in a chapter entitled, "De cometis, unde causentur et quid significent"—but never refers to prayers and processions against the comet, although all papal decrees were sent to him. Aeneas Sylvius and St. John Capistrano, who preached the crusade in Hungary, considered the comet rather as a favourable omen in the war against the Turks.

Hence it is clear that Platina has looked wrongly upon the Bull as the outcome of fear of comets. The historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contented themselves with quoting Platina more or less accurately (Calvisius 1605, Spondanus 1641, Lubienietski 1666). Fabre (1726) in his continuation of the "Histoire Ecclésiastique" by Fleury gave a somewhat free paraphrase. Bruys (1733), an apostate (who afterwards entered the Church again), copies Fleury-Fabre adding "que le Pape profita en habile homme de la superstition et de la crédulité des peuples". It is only when we come to Laplace's "Exposition du Système du monde", that we find the expression that the pope ordered the comet and the Turks to be exorcized (conjuré), which expression we find again in Daru's poem "L'Astronomie". Arago (Des Comètes en général etc. Annuaire du Bureau des Longitudes 1832, 244) converts it into an excommunication. Arago's treatise was soon translated into all the European languages after which time the appearance of the comet (1456) is hardly ever mentioned, but this historical lie must be repeated in various shapes. Smyth (Cycle of celestial objects) speaks of a special protest and excommunication exorcizing the Devil, the Turks, and the comet. Grant (History of physical astronomy) refers to the publication of a Bull, in which Callistus anathematized both the Turks and the Comet. Babinet (Revue des deux mondes, 23 ann., vol. 4, 1853, 831) has the pope "lancer un timide anathème sur la comète et sur les ennemis de la Chrétienté", whilst in the battle of Belgrade "les Frères Mineurs aux premiers rangs, invoquaient l'exorcisme du pape contre la comète". In different ways the legend is repeated by Chambers, Flammarion, Draper, Jamin, Dickson White, and others. However, the truth is gaining ground and it is hoped the story of the excommunicated comet will soon be relegated to the realm of fables.


PASTOR, Geschichte d. Päpste, I, II, passim; MURATORI, Rev. italic. scriptores, XX (1731), 477, 611-14; BISSOLATI, Vite di due illustri cremonesi (Milan, 1856); DELSAULX, Calixte III et la comète de Halley; Collection de précis historiques (Brussels, 1859), 301-5; GERARD, Of a Bull and a comet in The Month (Feb., 1907); THIRION, La comète de Halley. Son histoire et la légende de son excommunication in Revue des quest. sc., 3rd series, XVI (Brussels), 670-95; STEIN, Calixte III et la comète de Halley in Specola astronomica Vaticana, II (1909); HAGEN, Die Fabel von d. Kometenbulle in Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, LXVIII (1910), 413.

About this page

APA citation. Stein, J. (1911). Bartolomeo Platina. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Stein, John. "Bartolomeo Platina." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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