Was Paganism alive and well in Europe at the time of the Renaissance? To help answer this question, let us now turn to Ludwig von Pastor (1854-1928), the great German-Catholic historian, and his monumental The history of the popes, from the close of the Middle Ages. Drawn from the secret archives of the Vatican and other original sources, the sixteen volumes of which were published in the years 1886-1930 (the final volume being published posthumously).
The following comes from Volume IV of that work (here is the link to it at Project Gutenberg), in which Pastor describes the religious landscape in the year 1464, when Paul II was installed as Pope (emphases have been added):
Ludwig von Pastor then moves on to recount how, with the accession of Pope Paul II, this furtive cat and mouse game between the Heathen Literati and the Church authorities began to more clearly reveal its darker, deadlier side. Toward the end of his reign (in May 1464), the previous Pope (Pius II) had appointed a number of Literati to the College of the Abbreviators of the Chancery. When Paul II became Pope just a few months later (August, 1464), he sacked these Heathenish scholars, many of whom, after the custom of the time, had actually purchased their positions.The great intellectual movement of the Renaissance was at the time of Paul II still expanding and developing. Through each one of its phases the two currents of heathen and Christian tendency are always clearly discernible, but the attentive observer cannot fail to recognize a considerable difference between its conditions under Nicholas V and under Paul II.[Pastor, History of the Popes, Vol. IV, pp. 36-37 (Chapter II)]
In the time of Nicholas V the genuine and noble Renaissance, which had grown up on Christian principles, and, while embracing classical studies with enthusiasm, had made them subordinate and subservient to Christian aims and ideas, still thoroughly held its own against the other tendency. Subsequently, a change took place and the school which inclined to substitute the heathen ideal of beauty for the central sun of Christianity, became predominant. In the second generation of Humanists that one-sided devotion to classical antiquity, which led to a completely heathen view of life, gained considerably in extent and importance.
Opposition on the part of the highest ecclesiastical authority was inevitable. Even before the accession of Paul II the Church and the heathen Renaissance would already have come into collision, had it not been so extremely difficult to lay hold of this tendency by any external measures. A formal heresy might be condemned, but it was much harder to discern the many byways into which this new, and, in itself, lawful and salutary form of culture had strayed, and any interference with its course would almost necessarily have destroyed not only that which was evil, but also much that was excellent. Moreover, the partisans of the heathen Renaissance carefully avoided any appearance of conflict between their learning and theology, and altogether contrived to assume such an innocent air of dilettantism that it would have seemed ridiculous to attempt to deal seriously with them.
If, however, a case arose which did not admit of being excused as mere harmless classicism, the Humanists at once made the strongest professions of submission to the dogmas of the Church, and either altered or abandoned the theories which had been called in question. Thus, by their very frivolity and utter want of principles, the Literati were able to avoid any serious conflict with authority.
For the next 20 days, the aggrieved Humanists staged a kind of protest outside the Papal Palace, demanding an audience with His Excellency. Finally one of their number, known by his pen name of "Platina" (full name: Bartolomeo Sacchi da Piadena) wrote a pamphlet calling on "the Kings and Princes" to assemble a Council before which the Pope would be "constrained" to appear. After hand delivering this work to one of the Pope's closest counsellors, Platina was arrested and tortured for a period of four months, at the end of which "he could hardly stand." The Pope had for a time considered beheading him, but in the end "excused Platina as a madman."
Though released, Platina was required to remain in Rome, and the charges against him remained on the books, so that he remained subject to arrest and torture (and execution) at any time, at the Holy Father's whim. During this time, semi-secret gatherings of members of "the other tendency" began to take place in Rome:
Pastor goes on to describe the Heathenism of Pomponius in unambiguous terms. "He despised the Christian religion and passionately inveighed against its adherents." And so forth. Pastor then returns to describing the gathering storm of open spiritual warfare, the eye of which was the Roman Academy:The meeting of these malcontents, and of the heathen-minded Humanists, took place in the house of a scholar well-known throughout Rome for his intellectual gifts and for his eccentricity. Julius Pomponius Laetus was an illegitimate scion of the princely house of Sanseverino, had come to Rome at an early age from his home in Calabria, and had become [Lorenzo] Valla's disciple, and afterward succeeded him as Professor in the University. "Of all the worshippers of antiquity, whose exclusive ideal was ancient Rome and the oldest words of the Latin toungue," he was the most extreme. [Pastor is here quoting from Georg Voigt's Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums. For more specifics, and for other quotes, see the original at Project Gutenberg.] No scholar, perhaps, ever lived so completely in the heathenism of the past; "the present was to him a mere phantom; the world of antiquity was the reality in which he lived and moved and had his being."[pp. 41-42]
What will happen next, Dear Reader? Who will prevail? The Church? The "Heathen and Republican secret society"? And, very importantly, what real evidence do we have to support this rather neat and tidy, almost Manichaean, narrative laid before us by Pastor? All this and more will be revealed soon . . . .His house on the Quirinal was filled with fragments of ancient architecture and sculpture, inscriptions and coins. Here, in an atmosphere charged with the spirit of heathen Rome, he assembled his disciples and friends. Disputations were held on ancient authors, and philosophical questions, discourses and poems were read, Comedies of Plautus and Terrence were sometimes performed, and an infatuated admiration for the old Republic was cherished. Such was the origin of a "literary sodality," called the Roman Academy, whose object was the cultivation of pure Latinity, and of the ancient national life of Rome. "Pomponius, the founder of the Society, went so far as to refuse to learn Greek, lest he should injure the perfection of his Latin pronunciation."[pp. 43-46]
Around Pomponius, the representative of pagan Humanism, soon gathered a number of young freethinkers, semi-heathen in their views and morals, who sought to make up for their lost faith by a hollow worship of antiquity.
The members of the Academy looked upon themselves as a Confraternity; they laid aside their ordinary names, and adopted ancient ones instead. The original name of Pomponius, who was venerated by all as their leader and teacher, is not even known. Bartolomeo Platina and Filipo Buonaccorsi, who was called Callimachus, are the most noted of the other members. We also hear of Marcantonio Coccio of the Sabine country, called Sabelicus; Marcus Romanus, or Asclepiades; Marinus Venetus, or Glaucus; a certain Petrus or Petrejus; Marsus Cemetrius, Augustinus Campanus, &c.
It may be admitted that this use of heathen names was a mere fancy, for which a parallel may be found in the increasing preference for such names, and even those which were of ill repute, in baptism. But other practices of the Academicians cannot be thus explained. That fantastic "enthusiasm of the adherents of the old Calabrian heathen" found vent in religious practices which seemed like a parody of Christian worship. The initiated constituted their learned Society into "a formal Antiquarian College of Priests of the ancient rite, presided over by a pontifex maximus, in the person of Pomponius Laetus." The sentiments and the conduct of these "pantheistic votaries of Antiquity" were certainly more heathen than Christian. Raphael Volaterranus, in his Roman Commentaries, dedicated to Julius II, plainly declared that the meetings of these men, their antique festivities in honour of the birthday of the City of Rome and of Romulus were "the first step towards doing away with the Faith."
There was certainly grounds for the charges brought against the Academicians of contempt for the Christian religion, its servants and its precepts, of the worship of heathen divinities and the practice of the most repulsive vices of ancient times. Pomponius Laetus was the disciple of Valla, and was certainly an adherent and disseminator of the destructive doctrines of his master. A heathen idea of the State, hostility to the clergy, and the dream of substituting for the existing government of Rome a Republic of the ancient type, prevailed in this circle, together with Epicurean and materialistic views of life. "Experience had already sufficiently shewn that the enthusiastic veneration of the old Roman commonwealth was not unlikely to have practical consequences."
This heathen and republican secret society seemed all the more dangerous in the increasingly excited state of the Roman populace. Many of the youth of the city were ready for any sort of mischief, and numerous exiles lurked on the Neapolitan frontiers. In June of 1465, when Paul II went to war with Count Everso of Anguillara, there was a decided movement in favour of the tyrant. A year later, many adherents of the Fraticelli were discovered; their trial revealed the opposition of their rites and doctrines to those of the Church. Further inquiry shewed that the partisans of this sect were at work no only in the March of Ancona, but also in the Roman Campagna and in Rome itself. There is no proof of any connection between these heretics and the Roman Academy. It is, however, certain that various fanatical demagogues, and some of the angry Abbreviators, held intimate relations with the Academicians, and that in their assemblies strong language against the Pope was freely indulged in. Thus "all the hostile elements of Heathenism, Republicanism and Heresy seemed to have their centre in the Academy."
In the meantime you can amuse yourselves with these:
Ficinus. Paganus? More on the religious identity of Marsilio Ficino
On How To Look For Medieval Pagans (Assuming You Actually Want To Find Them)
Michael Psellos: An 11th Century Pagan?
Seek, and ye shall find
Which Plato and Which Platonism?
"Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Deux
"Gotta Serve Somebody" Part Un
Contra Atheos, Part Deux