03/13/2013 02:35 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Curiosity About Papal Elections, 500 Years Earlier

With the Catholic Church's cardinals now in conclave in the Sistine Chapel, where they are busily electing the next pope behind one very big closed door, I am reminded once again -- just as I was during Joseph Ratzinger's accession as Benedict XVI seven years ago -- of Thomas Hoby, a young, bright Tudor Englishman who enjoyed a Grand Tour of Italy at the end of the 1540s, before such a trip of cultural refinement was commonly called the Grand Tour.

Thomas Hoby comes to mind because of our own global fascination, yes, in 2013, with the many-centuries-old procedures of a papal election. We find some of the unchanged customs charming, such as the "chimney-watch" or the burning of ballots. "Why don't they just bring in a paper shredder to the chapel?" asked a friend jokingly. "It would be more environmentally sensible." One blog this week has focused on the pope's traditional red shoes, explaining how they symbolize martyrs' blood but also how they have much more ancient origins, present among Etruscan aristocrats who could afford to dye their clothing a crimson red.

Papal-election interest usually has a harder edge to it, also, since the election of a new pope also invites soul-searching or outright criticism about the relevance of the office today, for the world or even for the church over which the one chosen will serve as supreme pontiff. Indeed, today's world and the church's problems would be a challenge for even the cardinal with the greatest charisma or the most gifted leadership. Of course there is no guarantee that this particular cardinal, whoever he is, will be the one lifted to the papal seat. This element of fortune is another reason we find these elections exciting.

Thomas Hoby also found papal elections exciting, even if the institution of the papacy itself filled him with ambivalence. I first encountered Hoby during my dissertation research on Tudor travelers' and writers' engagements with Renaissance Rome. In a safely single sentence, I was interested in how tensions between humanism's educational curricula, which valorized Rome's classical culture, and growing Reformation beliefs, which attacked the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, were reconciled (or not) in English Renaissance texts. Was Rome the exemplary classical city of Caesar and Cicero, or the whorish Babylonical city of the Catholic Church and Renaissance papacy? The answer? Yes.

Thomas Hoby was a good Protestant or "evangelical" (as the reformers called themselves) early in England's history as a Reformation nation. He was also highly sophisticated, elegant in his Italianate Renaissance tastes, and determined to make his professional mark at court counseling the English monarch. Hoby attended St. John's College in Cambridge, whose tutors and students liked to think of as an "Athens" of England. His older brother was already the English ambassador to the imperial court, and later Hoby himself would reside in Paris as ambassador to France -- briefly, alas, since he died young.

Fortunately, he managed to complete before his death the first English translation of Baldesarre Castiglione's "The Book of the Courtier," an influential dialogue on Renaissance court behavior and discretion, as well as on philosophy, politics, beauty and love. His English version was first published in 1561, and features a prefatory letter by an old teacher of Hoby's praising the "roundness of your sayings, and the well-speakings of the same." He may have begun that translation during his travels in Italy. He also was attempting to become, as one of Shakespeare's characters describes it in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "tried and tutored in the world." We know this from the many readable entries in his diary, wonderfully entitled "A Book of the Travels and Life of Me, Thomas Hoby." This little book still exists and can be consulted in the British Library's manuscript room. Today's equivalent to Hoby's adventure would be students' "skip year" or junior year abroad. Hoby's tour was like a Eurorail pass -- but with horses.

Hoby was thrilled upon learning that the pope, then Paul III, had just died. He was in Siena at the time, in November of 1549, and he had noticed that more cardinals than usual were passing through the city. "Being so nigh," he writes in his diary, he immediately set out for Rome with some fellow English road-trippers. He gave two reasons: to behold the "obsequies" (or funeral observances) for the deceased pope and the "fashion how they elect an other."

Previously Hoby had improved his Italian in Padua and attended a feast and masque in Venice. Rome was attractive enough, even with the very real threat of the Inquisition, because of its classical ruins, which sparked in the travelers' imaginations their past Latin readings as schoolboys. With a papal election at hand, though, visiting Rome would also provide a rare occasion to witness statecraft. Hoby indeed saw displays of pomp and ceremony, such as when the cardinals marched solemnly in procession to the Vatican. These young men, despite being Protestant and English, did not want to miss it. They were not unlike much of the world today, post-millennial and increasingly secular, and thus indifferent or even dismissive as to whom the cardinals finally choose. And yet none can look away.

Hoby arrived in Rome on Nov. 22 and promptly attended requiem masses at St. Peter's. He did so daily, his diary says. A curious routine for a Protestant. After the mass on Nov. 29, the cardinals proceeded to the conclave. That session, with 54 cardinals, was the most considerable to date, and it turned out to be, as one papal historian has it, "the longest in the memory of man." This fact may have made the election historic, but the delay seriously bummed out the young, impatient visitor Hoby.

He describes how wooden partitions were used in the Vaticans' six main halls to create cells for the individual cardinals. He is even fascinated with the sparse, modest furniture included in these "little cabins." Hoby probably received much of his information from an imperial ambassador named Mendoza, who, the diary tells us, was laboring to have an English cardinal, Reginald Pole, elected pope. Pole led by a wide margin after the first scrutinium, or vote, and he would come very close to being elected. On Dec. 5, he was short a single vote. However, the more conservative faction of cardinals accused him of holding some "Lutheran" views, and his influence soon waned. Mendoza, along with a marquis, entertained Hoby in Rome. He was a young man who had connections.

Hoby was learning the game of politics, if not at first-hand, well, then at a close second-hand. He shrewdly recognized that the cardinals "would not so soon agree afterward" because of strongly divided allegiances to either France or the Holy Roman empire. Still waiting and with time to kill, Hoby and buddies "thoroughly searched out" Rome's ruins. Shortly after the new year, though, and with the conclave entering a fifth week, the visitors grew bored: "We thought it but loss of time to make any further abode here." On Jan. 10 they gave up waiting, and left for Naples.

Julius III eventually was elected the next pope on Feb. 7. Hoby does not mention it in his diary till an entry at the end of April. He returned to Rome then, this time to see the church's 1550 Jubilee ceremonies. The new pope may have been an afterthought to Hoby by that point already, and Julius III would not live long, and by most accounts was a fairly worldly pope anyway. More considerable leaders and shapers were ahead. Yet there Hoby was again, back in Rome, criticizing the "fond foolishness" of the Catholic church, even as he watched its rituals with great interest.

And so it goes today. We don't care at all, except that we're intensely interested with who is elected, and we're avid to see the different election rituals as soon as they occur. Maybe the secrecy of the conclave feels so refreshing because it signifies a rare occasion of historical importance that we cannot live-Tweet. Nor can we seek out instant digital updates about the last minute's activities. The conclave, then, is an anti-Super Bowl, a different kind of Election Night. You'll know whenever you know, the cardinals tell us. Having to accept that only enflames our curiosity, as it did for Hoby as he breathlessly filled his diary entries with the latest news.

It may be too that we, as Hoby may have, find our own conflicting attitudes curious. Hoby certainly had no interest in the new pope as a spiritual leader. Protestants of the day rather thought of the pope as a dark magician or even the Antichrist. No, for him, the pope was a worldly monarch like Europe's other kings and queens. Even so, the pope's real power was diminishing in the Renaissance. There was still a papal army and territories, but it was overshadowed by the mighty forces of Spain and France. Hoby witnessed more of what Roy Strong calls the "liturgy of State" than state power itself.

And this may be so today. This week Garry Wills, commenting on the conclave, said that the pope still insists on being a monarch at a time when "monarchs are no longer believable." The pope would do better, he argues, to reflect the broader, real-world faith of the laity, and not the the loftiest atop the Church's hierarchy. Finally, though, Wills sounds fairly assured that, for better or worse, the Church will carry on, since it had a history of electing questionable types: "Happily, we can expect the new pope to be a man ordinary and ignorable, like Saint Peter," he remarked. Just remember, if you don't like the fellow whom the cardinals elect, then there are always other elections to look forward to. It seems a safe bet that our fascination with the practices and outcome of that future election will be just keen then as it is now.