Monday, July 9, 2012
Papal Profile: Pope Clement VII
He was born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici in Florence on May 26, 1478, the natural son of Giuliano de’ Medici and thus the nephew of the famous Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was always serious, studious, intelligent and loved learning and intellectual conversation. In his youth he was made a Knight of Rhodes but his real rise began after his cousin, Giovanni de’ Medici, was elected to the Throne of St Peter as Pope Leo X. He was a very close and trusted advisor to the Pope and became Archbishop of Florence, the Medici stronghold that was always first in their hearts. In 1513 he was created Giulio Cardinal de’ Medici and was widely praised for his good judgment and sound advice to Leo X. The Medici Pope was himself very popular with the Romans for his elaborate ceremonies, numerous celebrations and lavish style, all of which provided people with much gainful employment. When Leo X was succeeded by the Dutch Pope Hadrian VI things were different and much more strict and austere. Needless to say, Hadrian VI was a very pious man but very unpopular with the Romans who longed for another Medici on the papal throne.
Political concerns dominated the papacy of Clement VII, though that is certainly not what he wanted. An early example was the effort of King Henry VIII of England to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. Clement VII valued the King of England for his hitherto staunch support of the Church, his condemnation of Lutheranism and his cooperation with Rome on the world stage. The last thing the Pope wanted was to see England lost to the Church over a marriage. What Henry was seeking was also not entirely unprecedented. However, Queen Catherine was a spotless figure and she was also the aunt of the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who had supported the election of Clement VII (who had been pro-Spanish as a cardinal) and the Emperor was prepared to put all the pressure at his disposal on the Pope to find in favor of Catherine. The Pope put off a decision as long as possible but in the end, the combination of imperial pressure and the personal case of Catherine herself, meant that Henry VIII was denied his annulment and the offended King took his country out of the Catholic Church.
Everything in his reign was exacerbated by the conflict between King Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V, ruler of Spain, the Low Countries and Germany. Everyone expected Clement to support the Emperor but despite his own history, the Pope feared the imperial domination of Italy and made an alliance with France. Unfortunately for the Pope, King Francis I was defeated by the imperial forces at the battle of Pavia and taken prisoner which forced the Pope to hastily come to terms with Charles V. The Emperor was not a man to trifle with. When he first learned that Clement had allied with the French, he was so infuriated that he wondered for a moment if Luther might have been correct about the papacy after all. However, he was also a practical man and once France was defeated and northern Italy was under his direct control, he preferred to have the Pope on his side instead of making him a defeated, embittered enemy. Clement VII signed a treaty of alliance with the Emperor that was practically identical to the one he had negotiated with France. But the threat of imperial domination over Italy, and thus Rome and the Papal States as well, remained the paramount concern of Clement VII. An effort was made to get the imperial commander on side by offering him the Crown of Naples but the general reported this to the Emperor immediately and the result was that the Sforza family lost their duchy, Spanish troops occupied Milan and the region came even more tightly under imperial control. Pope Clement was desperate to undo this situation.
Still, this became a popular and patriotic cause throughout Italy as Clement VII had taken leadership of a movement to expel the foreign conquerors and, it seemed very possible, to unite the various states of the Italian peninsula under papal leadership so that their country would no longer be the battleground for German, Spanish and French armies. It was an early version of an ideal for an independent Italy consisting of the Italian states joining in common cause under the leadership of the Pope. Machiavelli suggested calling up a pan-Italian militia to replace the usual armies of foreign mercenaries to cement the people together in the coming struggle but Clement VII held back from such action, not wishing to provoke a fight with the Emperor if it could be avoided. Instead, he urged Machiavelli to look to improving the fortifications of his beloved Florence.
What was hoped to be a great papal-led war for the liberation of Italy quickly turned into a disaster. Under pressure from Venice, Clement VII appointed the Duke of Urbino commander of the papal armies, a man who held a grudge against the Medici family and did nothing while Milan was devastated, weakening the alliance. Then, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, a long-time rival of the Medici and a supporter of the Emperor, marched on Rome. Some urged Clement to flee but he was determined to ‘die on the throne’ if necessary and called upon the Romans to defend him. No one seemed to care but they were soon sorry because the Colonna family army pillaged and ransacked the Leonine City, finally forcing the Pope to agree to a cease-fire. So, for four months the Pope was obliged to take no action while the armies Emperor Charles V marched down the Italian peninsula from Germany, most of whom were Lutheran landsknechts, and an imperial fleet crowded with Spanish troops landed on the coast. Giovanni de’ Medici and his “Black Bands” offered determined resistance in the north but the vital promised help from France was not forthcoming. The Italian forces may have been able to stop the Germans on their own had not a lucky shot killed Giovanni. The Pope began to be abandoned by his allies who looked to their own interests rather than staying united together.
After some last minute attempts at negotiation, the situation fell apart and the imperial troops, who were enraged at their lack of payment, mutinied and on May 6, 1527 fell upon Rome in a savage attack. The hasty defenses fell quickly and the imperial forces stormed into the city while Pope Clement VII, who was nearly killed, was rushed over to Castel Sant’Angelo while his Swiss Guards fought to the death, buying time for his escape. The Pope and as many Roman citizens as possible took shelter on the fortress while outside the most horrific and savage devastation in history took place. The tales of murder, torture, rape and sacrilege are truly too awful to even repeat. The fact that the Christians had surpassed even the pagans of old in their cruelty toward the Eternal City was not lost on even those at the time. Such barbaric cruelty had not been seen since the sacking of Constantinople, another Christian-on-Christian atrocity. A veteran of the wars against the Muslims in the south, even with all the fervor of a crusader, noted that the Turks never behaved with such viciousness toward a conquered enemy. Tens of thousands were slaughtered and the acts of disgusting cruelty were truly unspeakable. Even the Emperor, who had condemned the Pope in the harshest language, was shocked.
Pope Clement VII is often listed amongst the “bad popes” of Catholic history and this is really quite unfair. He was a very upright man, devout and not at all licentious, lavish or cruel as so many of his fellow “Renaissance Popes” are often thought of as being. He was simply caught in a terrible position and where his actions were often accused of being deceptive and himself untrustworthy, in each case it was because the Pontiff was trying to spare his people the suffering of war and to ensure his own freedom, which was the freedom of the Church. Even in his final days there were signs that he was contemplating another alliance with France to free Rome and the Italian states from the imperial grip. He was a patron of Raphael and Michelangelo (one of the few things he spent money on) and while Rome suffered more terribly during his reign than in any other period, it was precisely to avoid such a catastrophe that he had done everything in his power to keep foreign armies out of Italy. He also saw the Medici restored in Florence, joined to the great powers through marriage alliances and, despite all the misfortunes of his reign, he would not be the last Medici to occupy the papal throne.