Papal trivial pursuit

John Julius Norwich, The Popes: a history Chatto and Windus $A60

John Julius Norwich is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean. He has also written on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and has presented some 30 historical documentaries on BBC Television.

However, his lack of a specialist background in religion means that, while the history in this book is told well, and clearly, there is little space given to the papacy's religious concerns.

Reviewer Michael Walsh - Vatican commentator and author of numerous books including The Cardinals - describes Norwich is an excellent storyteller with an unusual - for an historian of the papacy - grasp of the Byzantine dimension.

Norwich's least favourite pontiffs are lumped together in a chapter entitled "Monsters". Walsh suggests "Monsters" seems a trifle strong, given the general mores of the era.

"I have harboured a soft spot for Pope Julius, who seems to have been a devoted father to Felice della Rovere, despite his alleged homosexuality... The author has a curious penchant for nosing out homosexuality among the successors of St Peter."

According to Walsh, the story Norwich tells comes across as somewhat one-dimensional. Of late, papal history has taken on an important artistic aspect, or rather, perhaps, art historians have interested themselves in papal history.

"I do not wish to carp. While this is a big book on an complex topic, it is a manageable one, displaying urbane literary skill... In a Catholic version of the Trivial Pursuit game, The Journey of the Popes would prove an indispensable aid."

FULL REVIEW: The Popes: a history (The Tablet)

LINKS:

Christopher Howse discusses the papacy with John Julius Norwich (The Telegraph)

The Books Interview: John Julius Norwich (New Statesman)

John Julius Norwich (Wikipedia)

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