Italians fatigued by politics may have switched on the television on Sunday night for a spot of escapism.
Showing in all its licentious glory was the first episode of historical drama The Borgias, in which Jeremy Irons stars as dastardly Pope Alexander VI and the Roman Catholic church is depicted as a hotbed of rivalry and intrigue.
If it had been up to Aiart, an association of Catholic TV viewers, however, the programme would not have been shown. "It would be fitting for the broadcast … to be postponed. This is in fact a delicate period for the church, for the papacy," said Luca Borgomeo, Aiart's chairman. "Believers are able to make the appropriate distinctions [between the show] and the current situation, but can non-believers … do the same?"
Borgomeo's question was puzzling in many respects, not least because, until then, not even the most critical of observers had thought to compare the admittedly troubled Vatican of today to its almost implausibly corrupt Renaissance equivalent.
But the sensitivity was telling. In the wake of Benedict XVI's abdication and in the runup to conclave, the church is indeed going through a delicate period with the spotlight turned on its own scandals and conspiracies. On Monday, as the previous pope settles into retirement 15 miles away, cardinals from all over the world will meet in Rome to begin the process of choosing his successor. Top of the list for many will be a leader who will clean up the mess left by Benedict's crisis-hit papacy.
Through a series of meetings known as general congregations – the first two of which will be held on Monday morning and Monday afternoon – the so-called "princes of the church" will begin discussions on church and conclave matters, meeting, mingling and sizing each other up. One of the first things they will need to agree on is when the 115 cardinal electors – all those under the age of 80 – will enter the Sistine chapel for the beginning of conclave. The Vatican is keen for a new pope to be in office by Palm Sunday on 24 March and Easter Sunday on 31 March, making a conclave a likelihood for next Monday. But this still needs to be made official.
And timing is far from the only thing they will be discussing. Observers say that this conclave will be open, with no obvious frontrunner and about a dozen or so names tipped by various sources as papabile (literally, pope-able). The fluidity of the situation means that this week of formal and not so formal gatherings will be a crucial stage of lobbying. While key issues for the church are discussed – such as the future of its relationship with Islam – cardinals will be keeping a sharp eye out for who says what. Remarks will be noted; positions detailed; candidate profiles built up and, quite possibly, chances destroyed.
At the moment the big names circulating include the Canadian Marc Ouellet, Italian Angelo Scola, Austrian Christoph Schoenborn and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri, who on Sunday told Reuters the church should open up more leadership positions to women. According to Italian daily La Stampa, a faction led by the powerful dean of the college of cardinals is mobilising behind the Brazilian Odilo Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo.
All the candidates will, however, be aware of the old adage that warns against putting too much faith in the pre-conclave whisperings. "He who goes into conclave a pope," it says, "comes out a cardinal."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Sergey Gabdurakhmanov