At the death of Sixtus IV, the conclave of cardinals that met to elect his successor numbered thirty-two surviving cardinals, a greater number than at any time since the close of the twelfth century, excepting perhaps for the multiplied rival cardinalatial colleges of the Great Schism (1378–1417).
The immediate context of the election was the nearly unprecedented packing of the College of Cardinals by Sixtus IV, not only in terms of overall size, but also in terms of cardinal-nephews and crown cardinals. As a result, nearly all of the non-Venetian cardinals supported the continuation of Sixtus IV's policies of isolation towards the Republic of Venice, specifically the Peace of Bagnolo. However, the two factions of cardinals differed over whether the church ought to prioritize the continuation of the Italian League or should prioritize papal power (especially vis-a-vis Naples) over the preservation of the peace. Cardinal Borja lead the first faction and Cardinal della Rovere the second; these factions were roughly aligned with the Orsini and Colonna families, respectively.
The conclave was carried out by the largest non-schismatic College since the eleventh century. Because of an intense dispute between the Colonna and Orsini, the city of Rome was marked more far more civil unrest during the sede vacante than was to be expected historically; as a result, Cardinal Barbo bribed Girolamo Riario 8000 ducats to withdrawal from the city for the duration of the conclave.