Pope Clement VII (Latin: Clemens VII) (May 26, 1478 – September 25, 1534), born Giulio di Giuliano de Medici, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from November 19, 1523 until the date of his death. “The most unfortunate of popes,” Clement VII”s reign was marked by a rapid succession of political, military and religious struggles – many ongoing – that had far-reaching consequences for Christianity and world politics.
Elected in 1523, at the end of the Italian Renaissance, Clement VII came to the papacy with a great reputation as a statesman. He served with distinction as chief advisor to Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Hadrian VI (1522-1523), and further distinguished himself as “gran maestro” of Florence (1519-1523). Assuming leadership skills in times of crisis, with the Protestant Reformation expanding, the Church approaching bankruptcy, and large foreign armies invading Italy, Clement VII initially attempted to unite Christendom by making peace among the many Christian leaders then at odds. Later, he tried to free Italy from foreign occupation, believing that this threatened the freedom of the Church.
The complex political situation of the 1520s frustrated Clement VII”s efforts. These were heady times of daunting challenges, including: Martin Luther”s Protestant Reformation in northern Europe; a vast power struggle in Italy between Europe”s two most powerful kings, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France, each of whom demanded that the Pope choose sides; and Turkish invasions of Eastern Europe led by Solomon the Magnificent. Clement”s problems were exacerbated by the contentious divorce from King Henry VIII of England, which would result in the break between England and the Catholic Church, and the deterioration in 1527 of relations with Emperor Charles V, which would lead to the violent Sack of Rome, during which the pope was imprisoned. After escaping confinement at Castel Sant”Angelo, the pope – with few financial, military, or political options remaining – compromised the independence of the Church and Italy by allying himself with his former jailer, Emperor Charles V.
In contrast to his tortured papacy, Clement VII was personally respectable and devout, possessing a “personality worthy of character,” “great theological and scientific achievements,” as well as “extraordinary leadership and judgment-Clement VII, in times of serenity, could have administered papal power with a high reputation and enviable prosperity. But for all his deep understanding of the political affairs of Europe, Clement seems not to have understood the pope”s altered position “toward the emerging nation-states and Protestantism of Europe.
In science, Clement VII is best known for personally approving, in 1533, Nicolaus Copernicus” theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, heliocentrism – 99 years before the prosecution for heresy against Galileo Galilei for similar ideas. Ecclesiastically, Clement VII is remembered for issuing orders protecting Jews from the Inquisition, approving the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor, and protecting the island of Malta for the Knights of Malta.
Giulio de ”Medici”s life began under tragic circumstances. On April 26, 1478 – exactly one month before his birth – his father, Giuliano de Medici (brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was murdered in Florence Cathedral by enemies of his family. He was born illegitimately on May 26, 1478, in Florence; the exact identity of his mother remains unknown, although several scholars claim she was Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a university professor. Giulio spent the first seven years of his life with his godfather, the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder.
After that, Lorenzo the Magnificent raised him as one of his own children, alongside his sons Giovanni (the future Pope Leo X), Piero and Giuliano. Educated at the Palazzo Medici in Florence by humanists like Angelo Poliziano, and alongside prodigies like Michelangelo, Giulio became a gifted musician. In personality, he was considered shy, and in physical appearance, handsome.
Giulio”s natural inclination was toward the clergy, but his illegitimacy prevented him from holding high positions in the Church. So Lorenzo the Magnificent helped him to pursue a career as a soldier. He was enrolled in the Knights of Rhodes , but also became Grand Prior of Capua. In 1492, when Lorenzo the Magnificent died and Giovanni de Medici assumed his duties as cardinal, Giulio became more involved in Church affairs. He studied Canon Law at the University of Pisa and accompanied Giovanni to the Conclave of 1492, where Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope Alexander VI.
Following the misfortunes of Lorenzo the Magnificent”s firstborn son Piero the Unfortunate, the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494. For the next six years, Cardinal Giovanni and Giulio wandered around Europe together – twice being arrested (first in Ulm, Germany and later in Rouen, France). Each time Piero the Unfortunate rescued them. In 1500, both returned to Italy and concentrated their efforts on reestablishing their family in Florence. Only in 1512, with the assistance of Pope Julius II and the Spanish troops of Ferdinand of Aragon , did the Medici regain control of the city.
Paternity of Alessandro de Medici
In 1510, while the Medici were living near Rome, a black maidservant in their house – identified in documents as Simonetta da Collevecchio – became pregnant, giving birth to a son, Alessandro de Medici. Nicknamed “il Moro” (“the Moor”) because of his dark complexion, Alessandro was officially recognized as the illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de Medici; however, at the time and to this day, several scholars claim that Alessandro was actually the illegitimate son of Giulio de Medici. The truth of his lineage remains unknown and debated.
Regardless of his paternity, throughout Alessandro”s brief life, Giulio – as Pope Clement VII – showed him great favoritism, elevating Alessandro over Hippolytus de” Medici to become the first hereditary monarch of Florence, despite the latter”s comparable qualifications. Thus, Alessandro de ”Medici became the first black head of state in the modern Western world.
Under Pope Leo X
Giulio de” Medici appeared on the world stage in March 1513, at the age of 35, when his cousin Giovanni de” Medici was elected Pope, taking the name Leo X. Pope Leo X reigned until the date of his death, December 1, 1521.
“Learned, intelligent, respectable, and diligent,” Giulio de ”Medici”s reputation and responsibilities grew at a rapid pace, unusual even for the Renaissance. Three months after the election of Leo X, he was appointed archbishop of Florence. Later that fall, all barriers to reaching the highest offices of the Church were removed by a papal dispensation that declared his birth legitimate. He claimed that his parents had been promised by sponsalia de presenti (i.e., “married according to the word of the gifts.”) Whether this was true or not, it allowed Leo X to create him a cardinal during the first papal consistory on September 23, 1513. On September 29, he was appointed cardinal-deacon of Santa Maria in Dominica – a position that had been vacated by the pope.
The cardinal”s reputation during the reign of Leo X is recorded by the contemporary Marco Minio, Venetian ambassador to the Papal Court, who wrote in a letter to the Venetian Senate in 1519: “Cardinal de ”Medici, Cardinal-nephew of the pope , who is not legitimate, has great power with the pope; he is a man of great competence and great authority; he resides with the pope and does nothing of importance without first consulting him. But he is returning to Florence to govern the city.”
While Cardinal de ”Medici was not officially appointed vice-chancellor of the Church (second in command) until March 9, 1517, in practice Leo X ruled in partnership with his cousin from the beginning. Initially, the cardinal”s duties focused primarily on administering the affairs of the Church in Florence and conducting international relations. His diplomatic role began in January 1514, when King Henry VIII of England appointed him cardinal protector of England. The following year, King Francis I of France appointed him to become archbishop of Narbonne and in 1516 appointed him cardinal protector of France. In a scenario typical of the cardinal”s independent leadership – the respective kings of England and France, recognizing a conflict of interest in Medici protecting both countries simultaneously, pressured him to renounce his other guardianship; however, to their dismay, he refused.
Medici”s loyalty not to ally with foreign alliances became apparent in 1521, when a personal rivalry between King Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V escalated into war in northern Italy. Francis hoped that Medici, his cardinal protector, would support France; however, Medici perceived the French king as a threat to the Church”s independence – particularly the latter”s control of Lombardy and his use of the Concordat of Bologna to control the Church in France. Thus, in 1521, Medici negotiated an alliance against France with the Emperor Charles V – thus gaining an ally to combat Lutheranism, then growing in the Emperor”s German territories. That fall, he helped lead an imperial-papal army victorious over the French in Milan and Lombardy. Although Medici”s strategy of shifting alliances to free the Church (and later Italy) from foreign domination proved disastrous during his reign as Pope Clement VII, during the reign of Leo X, he skillfully maintained a balance of power between competing international factions seeking to influence the church.
Cardinal de Medici”s other efforts on behalf of Pope Leo X were equally successful, so that “he was credited with being the prime mover of papal policy throughout Leo”s pontificate.” Interested in Church reform, Medici organized and presided over the Florentine Synod of 1517, where he became the first member of the Church to implement the reforms recommended by the Fifth Lateran Council. They included banning priests from bearing arms, frequenting taverns, and dancing provocatively – while asking them to attend weekly confession. Similarly, Medici artistic patronage was admired, (for example, his commissioning Raphael”s Transfiguration and Michelangelo”s Medici Chapel, among other works discussed elsewhere), particularly over what the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini later described as “excellent taste.”
Gran Maestro of Florence
Giulio de Medici ruled Florence between 1519 and 1523, following the death of its civic ruler (and his uncle), Lorenzo II de Medici, in 1519. U.S. President John Adams later characterized Giulio”s administration of Florence as “very successful and frugal.” Adams narrates the cardinal as having “reduced the business of magistrates, elections, customs of office, and the manner of spending public money, in such a way as to produce a great and universal joy among the citizens.”
On the death of Pope Leo X in 1521, Adams writes that there was a “ready inclination in all the leading citizens and a universal desire among the people to keep the state in the hands of the cardinal de ”Medici ; and all this happiness arose from his good government, which since the death of Duke Lorenzo had been universally agreeable. The rule of Florence de Medici lasted until 1523, when Pope Clement VII was elected.
1522 Murder Plot
According to Adams, in 1522, rumors began to surface that Cardinal de ”Medici – with no legitimate successors in Florence – planned to abdicate rule of the city and “leave the government freely in the people.” When it became clear that these rumors were false, a faction composed mainly of elite Florentines planned to assassinate him and then set up their own government under Medici”s “great adversary,” Cardinal Francesco Soderini. Soderini encouraged the plot, urging Pope Hadrian VI and Francis I of France to attack Medici and invade the latter”s allies in Sicily; However, this did not happen. Instead of breaking with Medici, Pope Hadrian VI arrested Cardinal Soderini. Subsequently, the main conspirators were “declared rebels” and some were “arrested and beheaded; with this the Cardinal was again secured”.
On the death of Pope Leo X in 1521, Cardinal Medici was considered especially papabile in the protracted conclave. Although unable to win the papacy for himself or his ally Alessandro Farnese (both favored candidates of Emperor Charles V (1519 to 1556)), he participated in determining the unexpected election of Pope Adrian VI (1522 to 1523), with whom he also exerted formidable influence. After Adrian VI”s death on September 14, 1523, Medici overcame the opposition of the French king and finally succeeded in being elected Pope Clement VII at the next conclave (November 19, 1523).
Pope Leo brought to the papal throne a great reputation for political ability and possessed indeed all the achievements of a shrewd diplomat. However, he was considered by his contemporaries to be worldly and indifferent to the perceived dangers of the Protestant Reformation.
In his accession, Clement VII sent the Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schönberg, to the kings of France , Spain and England in order to end the war in Italy. An initial report by Protonotary Marino Ascanio Caracciolo to the Emperor records, “As the Turks threaten to conquer Christian states, it seems to him that it is his first duty as Pope to promote the general peace of all Christian princes, and he implores him (the Emperor), as firstborn of the Church, to assist him in this pious work.” But the pope”s attempt failed.
Continental Politics and Medici
The conquest of Milan by Francis I of France in 1524, during his Italian Campaign of 1524-1525, led the pope to leave the German-Spanish side and ally with other Italian princes, including the Republic of Venice and France in January 1525. This treaty granted the final acquisition of Parma and Piacenza for the Papal States, Medici rule over Florence, and free passage for French troops into Naples. This policy in itself was sound and patriotic, but Clement VII”s zeal soon cooled; through his lack of foresight and unseasoned economy, he opened himself up to an attack from the turbulent Roman barons, who forced him to invoke the mediation of the Emperor Charles V. A month later, Francis I was crushed and imprisoned at the Battle of Pavia, and Clement VII deepened his old commitments to Charles V by signing an alliance with the vice – king of Naples.
But deeply concerned about imperial arrogance, he would return to France when Francis I was released after the Treaty of Madrid (1526): the pope entered the League of Cognac along with France, Venice, and Francesco II Sforza of Milan. Clement VII issued an invective against Charles V, who in response defined him as a “wolf” rather than a “shepherd,” threatening the convening of a council on the Lutheran question.
Like his cousin Pope Leo X, Clement was considered too generous to his Medici relatives, draining the Vatican”s treasures. This included giving him positions up to the title of Cardinal, land, titles, and money. These actions led to reform measures after Clement”s death to help prevent this excessive nepotism.
In his bull “Intra Arcana”, Clement VII granted permissions and privileges to Charles V and the Spanish Empire, which included power of patronage over its colonies in the Americas.
Looting of Rome
The pope”s vacillating policy also caused the rise of the imperial party within the Curia: the soldiers of Cardinal Pompeo Colonna sacked Vatican Hill and gained control of all Rome in his name. The humiliated pope therefore promised to bring the Papal States over to the imperial side again. But soon after, Colonna left the siege and went to Naples, without keeping his promises and dismissing the cardinal from his charge. From this point on, Clement VII could do nothing but follow the fate of the French party to the end.
He also soon found himself alone in Italy, for Alfonso I d”Este, Duke of Ferrara, had supplied artillery to the imperial army, causing the League army to keep a distance behind the horde of Landsknechts led by Charles III of Bourbon and Georg von Frundsberg, allowing them to reach Rome without causing damage.
Charles of Bourbon died while climbing a ladder during the short siege and his starving troops, unpaid and left unguided, felt free to devastate Rome beginning May 6, 1527. The many incidents of murder, rape and vandalism that followed ended the splendors of Renaissance Rome forever. Clement VII, who had shown no more resolution in his armed forces than in his political conduct, was forced shortly thereafter (June 6) to surrender near the Castel Sant”Angelo, where he had taken refuge. He agreed to pay a ransom of 400,000 ducati in exchange for his life; conditions included the cession of Parma, Piacenza, Civitavecchia, and Modena to the Holy Roman Empire (only the latter could be de facto occupied.) At the same time, Venice took advantage of his situation to capture Cervia and Ravenna while Sigismondo Malatesta returned to Rimini.
Clement was imprisoned in Castel Sant”Angelo for six months. After buying off some imperial officials, he escaped disguised as a peddler and took refuge in Orvieto and then in Viterbo. He returned to a depopulated and devastated Rome only in October 1528.
Meanwhile in Florence, the Medici”s republican enemies were taking advantage of the chaos to again expel the pope”s family from the city.
In June 1529, the warring parties signed the Peace of Barcelona. The Papal States recovered some cities and Charles V agreed to restore the Medici to power in Florence. In 1530, after an eleven-month siege, the city of Tuscany capitulated and Clement VII installed his illegitimate nephew Alessandro as duke. Thereafter, the pope followed a policy of subservience to the emperor, striving on the one hand to induce him to act harshly against the Lutherans in Germany, and on the other hand to avoid his demands for a general council.
During his half-year imprisonment in 1527, Clement VII sported a full beard as a sign of mourning for the sacking of Rome. This was in contradiction to Catholic canon law, which required priests to be clean-shaven; however, it had the precedent of the beard that Pope Julius II had worn for nine months in 1511-12 as a similar sign of mourning for the loss of the papal city of Bologna.
Unlike Julius II, Clement VII kept his beard until his death in 1534. His beard example was followed by his successor, Pope Paul III, and by twenty-four popes who followed him, until Pope Innocent XII, who died in 1700. Clement VII was thus the unintended creator of a fashion that lasted more than a century.
Reform in England
In the late 1520s, King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Charles” aunt, Catherine of Aragon. The couple”s children died in infancy, threatening the future of the House of Tudor, although Henry had a daughter, Mary Tudor. Henry claimed that this lack of an heir was because his marriage was “ruined in the sight of God.” Catherine was the widow of her brother , but the marriage had no children; therefore, the marriage was not against the Old Testament law, which forbids such unions only if the brother has children. Furthermore, a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been given to allow marriage. Henry now argued that this was wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527, Henry asked Pope Clement to annul the marriage, but the pope, possibly acting under pressure from Catherine”s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose effective prisoner he was, refused. According to Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death, and therefore the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a previously dispensed impediment. Many people close to Henry wished to simply ignore the pope; but in October 1530, a meeting of clergymen and lawyers advised that the English Parliament could not empower the Archbishop of Canterbury against the pope”s ban. In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher was the pope”s champion.
Henry subsequently underwent a marriage ceremony to Anne Boleyn in late 1532 or early 1533. The marriage was facilitated by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, a faithful friend of the Pope, after which Henry persuaded Clement to appoint Thomas Cranmer, a friend of the Boleyn family, as his successor. The pope granted the papal bulls necessary for Cranmer”s promotion to Canterbury, and he also required Cranmer to take the customary oath of loyalty to the pope before his consecration. The laws made under Henry already stated that bishops would be consecrated even without papal approval. Cranmer was consecrated, declaring beforehand that he did not agree with the oath he would take. Cranmer was prepared to grant Catherine an annulment of the marriage, as Henry demanded. The pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating Henry and Cranmer from the Catholic Church.
Consequently, in England in the same year, the Act of Conditional Restraint of Annates transferred taxes on ecclesiastical income from the pope to the Crown . Peter Pence”s Act prohibited the annual payment by landlords of a penny to the pope. This act also reiterated that England “had no superior to God, but only his grace” and that Henry”s “imperial crown” had been diminished by the pope”s “unreasonable and charitable usurpations and exactions.” Finally, in 1534, Henry led the English Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy which established the independent Church of England. and breaking with the Catholic Church.
A discerning patron, Clement VII personally commissioned Michelangelo”s Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel and Raphael”s masterpiece, The Transfiguration, as well as celebrated works by Benvenuto Cellini, Nicolae Machiavelli, and Parmigianino, among others. The artistic trends of the time are sometimes called “Clementine style” and notable for their virtuosity. Clement VII is also remembered for having been Benvenuto Cellini”s patron.
In 1533, Johann Widmanstetter (also called John Widmanstad), Pope Clement VII”s secretary, explained the Copernican system to the pope and two cardinals. The pope was so pleased that he gave Widmanstetter a valuable gift.
Clement VII created 32 cardinals in 13 consistories during his pontificate.
Toward the end of his life, Clement VII once again gave indications of an inclination toward a French alliance. His plans to ally the House of Medici with the French royal family bore fruit in the betrothal of the pope”s niece, Catherine de Medici, to Henry, son of King Francis I. Before leaving, the pope issued a bull on September 3, 1533, giving instructions on what should be done in the event of his death outside Rome. In September 1533, the pope left for France to solemnize the marriage. The wedding took place in Marseilles on October 28, 1533. On November 7 in Marseilles, Pope Clement created four new cardinals, all French. He also held private meetings with Francis I and Charles V, although separately.
Sickness and death
He returned to Rome on December 10, 1533, complaining of stomach problems and running a fever. This was not a new illness. The pope was so ill in early August of that year that Cardinal Agostino Trivulzio wrote to King Francis that the pope”s doctors began to fear that the pope was in danger of dying. On September 23, 1533, Clement wrote a long farewell letter to Charles V. He also ordered, a few days before his death, Michelangelo”s painting of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He died on September 25, 1534, having lived 56 years and four months and reigned for 10 years, 10 months and 7 days.
They say he died from eating poisonous mushrooms, but the symptoms and duration of his illness do not fit this hypothesis. Nor do they explain the effects on his illness of two sea voyages within two months. In the words of his biographer Emmanuel Rodocanachi, “according to the custom of those times, people attributed his death to poison. His body was buried in St. Peter”s Basilica and then transferred to a permanent tomb in the Choir of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Historians often consider Pope Clement VII incompetent and unsuccessful in his role – some say disastrous. While he was seen as adept and even statesmanlike in protecting the interests of the Medici family, he was seen as indecisive, easily distracted, and unable to effectively manage the difficult political, religious, and financial problems facing the papacy. As a result, Clement is not as well remembered for all that he accomplished, as he was easily overshadowed by the major historical events that occurred during his reign, including the Looting of Rome and the uncontrollable moment of the Reformation. The people of Rome at the time hated Pope Clement VII and rejoiced in his death because they never forgave him for the destruction of 1527 during the sack of Rome.