The future Medici Pope: a Florentine bastard
The life and the character of Pope Clement VII from the Medici family are too often overlooked: it was an adventurous, challenging, and somehow romantic existence. He was born as a bastard and orphan of one of the most powerful men in the city when printing was spreading in Europe. He grew up fostered by one of the most famous artists of the time, the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, in the early Renaissance and in the very heart of it: Florence. At seven, he rejoined the father family, the lords of the city: the Medici. Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most famous patrons of art of all ages, was his uncle and gave him the best education possible as to his son, Giovanni. Michelangelo was under the same roof for three years, eating and discussing together with the most influential humanist philosopher of that time, Marsilio Ficino.
His name was Giulio and when he was sixteen years old, Christopher Columbus arrived in America. After two years from his uncle’s death, the family Medici was exiled from their home city by republicans. As high Renaissance bloomed in Rome, he was playing a key role in the intrigues of the eternal city and of the Italian peninsula meeting disguised important characters. In 1512, thanks to his skills and his cousin Giovanni’s strategy, they were back in Florence. One year later, Giovanni was elected Pope with the name of Leo X and Giulio’s origins were cleaned to make him start the church career. The prince by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Macchiavelli started to circulate. It is a political treatise written as an unprincipled instruction guide to be princes and royals; the cultural influence of the book will grow without break in those times when the Pope tried to affirm himself as the natural successor of the emperors in the Christian world.
Medici’s blood and honor
In the meanwhile, his cousin, Lorenzo II, recognized who might have been Giulio’s illegitimate son, known as Alexander the moor. The legend that Giulio’s momentary lover could have been a servant from Africa was born. His life as cardinal might today be considered unusual but those were times of swords, tournaments, and arts. He led many armed conflicts, including a campaign in 1515 alongside the inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci. He was nominated Vice-chancellor of the Church and in the same year, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg starting the Reformation. His diplomatic strategy got the Edict of Worms signed to condemn anyone protestant, first by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and then by the German states.
Some probably still maligned on Giulio’s birth but the motto he chose was there to remind everybody of his integrity: “Candor illæsus” which means whiteness undamaged. It was pictured to recall many of the Medici mottoes, but at the same time was more refined in its scientific connections and universal. Sun rays, concentrated thanks to a round crystal, hit a tree that burns while the white ribbon, wrapped around it, on which the Latin words of the motto were written, is untouched. It was invented by Domenico Buoninsegni, the man who managed Giulio’s finances and probably Leo’s. We have a dense correspondence between this man and Michelangelo for the new Medici commissions: San Lorenzo facade, their Chapel, and the Laurentian Library. The crystal was probably recalling also the legendary burning glass of Archimedes on which Leonardo Da Vinci, hosted in the Villa del Belvedere in the Vatican quarters, was supposed to work during that time.
Giulio de’ Medici between the Pope and the emperor
But the situation got more complicated by Charles V’s ambitions: he tried to revitalize the medieval concept of universal monarchy pretending to expand the Holy Roman Empire. Regardless of the earthly role that the last Popes were able to build themselves as the successors of Roman emperors, he entered in a natural conflict in Italian ground with Leo X and with the Vice-Chancellor taking care of papal politics. From that time sources, we get a portrait of Giulio as a man of dignity, intelligence, and self-control; for sure he took the Church seriously and did his best to reform it. After the death of Raphael, Antonio da San Gallo the younger, nephew of his godfather, was appointed master builder, together with Sienese architect Baldassarre Peruzzi, of the San Peter factory, of which remain various drawings and a majestic wooden model, preserved in the Vatican. The so-called “Tuscanization” of Rome was completed. Then Leo X died suddenly of pneumonia at the age of 46.
Giulio took the chance to win the favor of Charles V and after more than one month of Conclave got elected an absent: the Dutch Adriaan Florensz Boeyens that had been the emperor’s tutor as a child and even ruled Spain in his absence. He took the name of Adrian VI and his papacy was characterized by austerity since the papal finances had serious problems. It seems that he didn’t have a special love for arts and the sources reported a particular dislike for the fabulous statue of Laocoon, still today one of the highlights of the Vatican collections.
In the meanwhile, the ambitions of Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire grew around the Mediterranean and he took Rodi Island. Many intellectuals, that believed in a peaceful reformation of the Church from the inside like Desiderius Erasmus from Rotterdam, hoped the Pope was the men of the providence. When Adrian VI allied with the emperor against the French King, it seemed to everybody that the papal military and political strategy didn’t change much from the previous one. On the German front, it became clearer that the states would rather tolerate protestants. In 1522, there was a conspiracy against Giulio. The main actor was from the historical enemy family in Florence, Cardinal Francesco Soderini. But the Pope imprisoned him as a rebel and the Medici power on Florence was secured. Then Adrian VI died.
Clement VII Medici: a great art patron
Winning the French opposition, Giulio was elected as Clemens VII, a name to recall one of the first Popes, that met personally San Peter and San Paul, the two Apostles, and patrons of Rome, and that was persecuted and killed by the emperors of the time. The first action was a message to invite all Christian princes of Europe to make a durable peace to resist united to the Turks invasions. One week after, the usually pessimistic Michelangelo wrote: “You will have heard that Medici is made pope, which I think will rejoice everyone. I expect, for this reason, that as far as art is concerned many things will be accomplished here”. For sure, Clement VII was with him generous and friendly, if we take into consideration that the suggested salary by Michelangelo, to realize the library and sacristy in Florence, was 15 ducats a month and the Pope made it 50 and also that he was told “to spare no expense” and “that he should do everything his own way”. The very Pope himself wrote him these words: “You know that the popes don’t live long; and we will not be able, more than we do, to wish to see, or at least to understand, to have finished the chapel with the tombs of ours and also the library”. Clemens VII was involved in all decisions revealing himself as an interested, well-informed and active patron. We know from a representative in Rome of Michelangelo that he would take great pleasure reading the artist’s letters more than once and even reading them aloud to his court.
His cousin, as Pope, commissioned Raphael’s new Frescoes for the papal apartments. When the last and larger room was designed the master died and two of his team, Giulio Romano and Francesco Penni supposed to finish his work. During the reign of Hadrian VI, the works were interrupted, but Clement took care of it and the Hall of Constantine, already planned and designed by Raphael, was finished in summer 1525. The imposing symbolism behind each detail and the numerous portraits of Clement make those frescoes unique. Besides, he loved music and having himself a wonderful voice, he took care of having one of the best choirs of Europe, composed by 24 members, seeking singers even in France and Flanders. We have documents supporting the selection of musicians but none for the repertoire and composition of the choir during the celebration. Even darker mystery surrounds the music played in his own chamber music ensemble, the so-called Musica Segreta. A name that emerged is Francesco Canova da Milano, the first Italian musician, lutenist, and composer, to have international fame and whose manuscripts, it seems, have been circulating in Tuscany and in the Medici’s hands long before their publications. This name is especially charming if put aside the name of Michelangelo, with who he shared the nickname of Divine since both had unprecedented freedom in their work thanks to the papal support and taste for innovation. Both artists left behind a lasting influence. Francesco took inspiration from the very evolved polyphonic music: choir and counterpoint and revolutionized instrumental music introducing fantasies that matched the form of madrigals.
In the literary field, the most important support was given by Clement to the most famous poet of the time reflecting on the written use of the Italian language. In a scattered peninsula between kingdoms, Signorias, and republics, the debate about a literary common language was high. Pietro Bembo, already at the peak of his fame, wrote a treaty about it and the necessity to take two Tuscan literates as Petrarch and Boccaccio as examples. He completed the work between 1519 and 1524 and brought a manuscript example to Rome as a gift to Clement VII, to whom was dedicated. This work could be seen as a first attempt to write a history of Italian literature: in any case, it was a milestone for the development of an Italian common written language.
Despite it, we have in particular two influential sources of those time reporting the Pope as thrifty and unstable. Besides having both personal interests with the Pope, as intellectuals and advisors, they wrote afterward, giving a precise interpretation to the tragic events that led to the Sack of Rome. Besides politics, he was blamed to be interested more in minor arts and artisans. For sure Clement commissioned the legendary adventurous goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini that made for him some unforgettable medals, under them a beautiful one depicting him and the metaphor of Peace, besides hiring him as a flute player and minter. He sponsored also the pioneering work of Valerio Belli who experimented with engraved rock crystal, a luxury form of art evoking ancient engraved gems. This work was designed on the drawings of others and this point led Belli to be considered as a simple imitator, while his art was relegated to the craft sector. Instead, the rock crystal carving was a refined and difficult operation performed on an extremely precious material, hard and fragile at the same time, which was worked on the reverse, digging the surface with small drills. We also know of Clement’s refined passion for glasses and today in different European museums we can find numerous Venetian enameled glasses with Medici coat of Arms. Antonio da San Gallo, the younger was commissioned the construction of S. Maria di Loreto at the Trajan Forum, the Palace of the Banco di S. Spirito that had to be the mint, the beautiful double elliptical ramp that characterizes the Well of S. Patrizio in Orvieto. He became famous also as an engineer and many of his restorations are still reinforcing buildings to these days, like the Raphael Loggias.
Italian Renaissance quarrels
The year 1524 was a Jubilee, a holy year that Clement solemnly celebrated without a great turnout of pilgrims because of the wars, the danger of a Turkish invasion, and pestilence. He took then openly the French side. After the Pavia battle, where the French king, Francis I was imprisoned, the Pope signed a pact with Charles V, the Habsburg emperor, securing on one side Milan to the family Sforza, on the other Florence to the Medici. Probably, for this reason, Clement VII refused the request of Henry VIII of England to cancel the childless marriage with Catherine of Aragon, niece of Charles. This event led in three years to the birth of the Anglican Church. But the worst events were still to come. As the French King was released, the league of Cognac was created binding France, the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of England, the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Florence, and the Pope against the emperor’s interests in Italy. The imperial troops were constituted mainly by 14.000 German Landsknechte, led by Georg Frundsberg, and 6.000 Spanish Tercios, led by Charles of Bourbon. The firsts were Germanic mercenaries that served mainly as pikemen. Those forces left without wages started to move from Milan southwards to plunder. Then, most of the papal troupes were sent to Florence but the imperial army avoid the city arriving instead in Rome where the 5.000 soldiers couldn’t do much to protect the city.
The invasion began on May 6 and was followed by months of looting and anarchy that caused over 30.000 deaths among civilians. In defense of the person of Pope Clement VII, who took refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, 147 Swiss guards died out of 189 total men. The event, which took on a mythical dimension in the wake of the Reformation, was interpreted as a confessional conflict between Protestants and Catholics. The Sack of Rome was the unsuccessful conclusion of the so-called “Italian freedom” policy and the withdrawal of the papacy on purely religious questions. Clement was forced to sell cardinal titles to finance the sums requested to get the troupes retired. In contrast with his predecessors, he had never done it before. The situation got worst putting the imprisoned Pope’s authority into question. Nevertheless, he was able to escape, disguised in a night of December, and find refuge in the city of Orvieto where he regain authority and could dictate also his conditions for peace to the emperor. The Medici power in Florence was overthrown from the first days of the Sack and Clement since then wore a beard and it was recorded as always melancholic. While he was bargaining a dignified peace with all the different powers playing a role inside and outside the Church territories, he felt hill. Everybody started to get prepared for a conclave for a new election including the Pope himself, leaving Florence possessions to Alexander, the moor, probably his son, and ordering cardinal his nephew Ippolito.
International Medici renaissance
He recovered and unexpectedly signed on May 29th, 1529 peace: the emperor guaranteed his help to get the Medici back to Florence and for the restitution of Ravenna, Cervia, Modena, Reggio, and Rubiera. The pope guaranteed his particular support and aid for the battle against the heretics in German states and the Turks. On February 22th, 1530 Charles V was crowned in the Palazzo Pubblico of Bologna by Clement VII with the iron crown of the kings of Italy and on the 24th, in S. Petronio Church, with the imperial one. Alexander de’ Medici was engaged with the natural daughter of Charles V, Margaret of Austria, later called La Madama in Italy which she would have reached at the age of 11. Florence resisted imperial troops until a sudden turnaround of the commander, probably caused secretly by papal pressures or promises, forced the city to surrender. In 1532, the Republic of Florence came officially to an end and Alexander de’ Medici was named Duck.
Clement nominated papal secretary Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter, a German humanist, theologian, and orientalist who gave some lectures on Nicolaus Copernicus‘ heliocentric thesis to the clementine court leaving him and the cardinals enthusiastic. It’s of the same year the commission to Michelangelo of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel where Christ had to appear as Apollo, the God of sun, beauty, and arts. He shows himself as a creator that comes back powerful and full of muscles and energy, behind him the sun, and all the rest of the creation goes round around him controlled by his powerful gesture. This fresco had to cover Perugino‘s one depicting in front of the Madonna, on his knees, the Pope Sixtus IV, the one who was involved in Clements’ father’s death. In the same year, he commissioned Antonio Da Sangallo the younger, his godfather’s nephew and now famous architect himself, two tombs for him and his cousin, Pope Leo X, to be placed inside the large choir of the Gothic church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, probably considered as their youth church as they arrived together in the eternal city. Sebastiano Del Piombo, Venetian painter and friend of Michelangelo became the papal court portraitist and was made of the most famous one of the Pope, but surprisingly enough also inside the Hall of Constantine in the papal Apartments the Pope was portrayed with a bear as if the fresco has been updated after the Sack. The actual restoration will reveal the mystery behind it.
The Pope Clement VII: dynasty crimes and sins
It was also the year where the international diplomacy intrigues got complicated again, between the emperor, that wanted a council to keep together protestant and catholic princes and reform the church, wished to protect his niece Catherine from being repudiated by King Henry VIII, and France and England on the other side. In the frame of alliances, the marriage of Caterina de’ Medici and Henry of Valois, the second son of the French king, Francis I, was set. Clement received a wonderful tapestry woven with silk, wool, silver, and gold on that occasion, depicting the Last Supper of Leonardo Da Vinci, who probably prepared the design. It is possible still today to admire this wonderful work in the Vatican Picture Gallery. On the other hand, the Pope donated the French King a work by Valerio Belli: a chest, shaped like a classic sarcophagus, made of filigree and polychrome enamels depicting rosette motifs on the base and frieze of a series of Doric columns in gilded silver; these frame eight mirrors where the rock crystal tiles, silver-plated, depicts the episodes from the of Christ. The case came back as part of the dowry of Christine of Lorraine as she married the Granduke of Tuscany in 1589 and it can be admired in the Uffizi Gallery. In 1533, Henry VIII also married Anna Bolena and got excommunicated.
Coming back from his niece’s marriage Giulio felt hill again and obscure legends darken his illness. He aged rapidly losing slowly even sight. Some told it was poisoned by a cap mushroom, a recent theory by a history-popularizer spoke of arsenic melted inside procession candles. Ascanio Condivi, a friend and biographer of Michelangelo related that before Clement died, on September 25th, 1534, he was able to see a complete model for the Last Judgment to be painted in the Sistine Chapel, now lost.
- Pope Clement VII – Giulio Zanobi di Giuliano de’ Medici - February 22, 2022