Ada Palmer regularly teaches an Italian Renaissance history course (HIST 22900). The highlight of this course is the simulation of a Renaissance papal election. Each student in the course plays a unique character: some cardinals vying for the papal throne, some secretaries and clerks working to facilitate the election, some crowned heads of Europe attempting to manipulate the election to place an ally on the throne. Students receive files detailing their goals and personalities, their allies and enemies, what kind of political and economic power they possess, and resources for trading, ranging from treasures, land, or titles to holy relics, armies, and the artists and scholars who work at their courts. Characters hail from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, the many city-states of Italy, England, Portugal, and Hungary. While powerful ambitious Cardinals vie for St. Peter’s throne, others try to use this moment to achieve other goals: gaining offices, arranging marriage alliances, evading debts, advancing families, protecting cities, crushing enemies, or conquering empires.

The new pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor.

 Professor Palmer, herself a novelist and experienced world-builder, explains in her blog, Ex Urbe, her process creating this one:

 “I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions. I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did. I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begins, then left it free to flow.”

Usually, in the aftermath of the new pope’s election, war breaks out as the great powers allied to the newly-elected pope take this moment to advance their political and military agendas, within Italy and across Europe. In the Renaissance realm, Rome can control marriage alliances and annulments, crown or excommunicate kings and emperors, distribute valuable benefices and titles, and lend the papal armies to military campaigns. The Cardinals and other allies who back the successful candidate shift the political balance to their benefit, and rise to wealth and power while their enemies fall and scramble for cover in a heated political landscape. Kings are crowned, monarchs unite, someone is invaded, but the patterns of alliances and thus the shape of the war vary every year based on the individual choices made by students. 

The newly-elected pope and his allies meet to plan their conquests.

After having “lived” through the period and made the hard choices that determined which cities thrived and which cities burned, the class then reads Machiavelli’s Prince together. For many this is not the first time they have encountered Machiavelli, but the text feels powerfully different when the historical examples he discusses are sitting in the room, and students themselves have faced and made the hard choices Machiavelli discusses, and felt the power of loyalty, hate, and fear. The subsequent discussions open up Machiavelli’s historical context and bring a new understanding, both of the Renaissance, and of how historical changes shape intellectual innovations.  Comparing the different outcomes of the simulation and reality, what comes out the same and what different, sheds light on historical contingency, and what factors individual actors do and don’t have control over as history’s great events unfold.

The crowned heads of Europe gather to give their nations’ oaths of obedience to the new pope, some more willingly than others.

One participant, Leana Aparicio, summarized her experiences: “I have for a long time loved the Renaissance period—the excitement, complexity, and almost incredible instability of its politics and history. However, when forced to experience [the period] myself, I began to lament; playing one of the few morally upstanding characters definitely reinforced this feeling. I also now have greater disillusionment with elections in general. While the structure of this one may be different from modern elections, it emulated the sentiments that nobody seems to really get what they want. I’m even more impressed than previously with successful Renaissance figures or states; with so many impediments, and when the whims or agendas of powerful individuals had so much effect, it is impressive that they accomplished anything significant or lasting.”

The course is offered most years, and a growing community of student alumni of the simulation gathers each year to help run the next election, excited to see what different path each class’s actions bring about for Renaissance Europe.


Petitioners and prisoners appeal to the pope in the aftermath of the wars, betrayals, and assassinations which followed this year’s election.