Monday, July 9, 2012

Papal Profile: Pope Clement VII

Pope Clement VII must be one of the most maligned pontiffs the Catholic Church has had, and almost always unjustly so. His reputation suffers, not simply from his own actions, but from the time of his reign, at the end of the famous Italian Renaissance. The misdeeds (largely exaggerated) of some of the pontiffs of this era have caused many people to dismiss all of the “Renaissance Popes” as corrupt and worldly when, in fact, their ranks included men who were personally upright, modest and virtuous. Clement VII, however, was often criticized for his virtues rather than vices and suffered the misfortune of reigning at a time of great political danger for the Papacy under circumstances that few, if any, could have successfully mastered. However, he was diligent and did the best he could and while the threats he faced forced him to take actions which infuriated many world leaders, he also became an important and respected symbol and, for a time, a champion of Italian unity and freedom.

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.

The next conclave was a long and hard one with the mob becoming increasingly impatient for a new Bishop of Rome. Finally, an agreement was reached and on November 19, 1523 Giulio de’ Medici was elected, taking the name of Pope Clement VII. He enjoyed a high reputation as a diplomat and statesman and must have seemed like just the right man for the job. Yet, giving advice and being responsible for making decisions are very different things and the new Pope was confronted with a world of dangers and would be faced by problems on almost every side. Still, none doubted his personal faith. He cut back papal spectacles and worked hard to save money (which was essential as the Papacy he inherited was nearly bankrupt) but rather than praise his frugality and good sense, he was criticized for being stingy. Instead of court entertainers, he preferred long discussions with imminent scholars and would even have the latest intellectual works read to him as he took his meals. He was a patron of the arts and building, at least as much as his limited finances would allow, and he could discuss aqueducts with an engineer as well as doctrine with a theologian.

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.

The threat posed by the Emperor was real enough to Clement VII. Charles V was genuinely concerned about the new Protestant movement in Germany and also annoyed that the Pope would support the French against him. He made thinly veiled threats about calling a council, ostensibly to deal with the Lutheran problem, but which Clement and most others believed would result in Clement being deposed and replaced by a Pope who would be a loyal supporter of the Emperor. A council would be needed to deal with the Protestant question and reform in the Church was very much in need but by making such a council a threat to the Pope himself, Clement VII was determined to avoid a council at any cost. When King Francis I of France was released from captivity, Pope Clement VII quickly arranged another alliance with him against the Emperor. It was to be France, Milan, Venice and Papal Rome against the combined Spanish-German forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Even the “Warrior Pope” Julius II, who fought throughout his reign to drive the “barbarians” out of Italy, never attempted so ambitious a campaign and, unfortunately for the Church, Clement was no Julius II.

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.

Naturally, for the rest of his reign Clement VII had no choice but to be as agreeable as possible with Charles V. At times he tried to induce the Emperor to take a firm hand against the Protestants but all the Emperor had to do was mention calling a council and the Pope would retreat into silence. Clement VII wore a beard for the rest of his reign as a sign of his mourning for the horrific sack of Rome. Emperor Charles V was not nearly as harsh with the Pope as he might have been, he restored most of the Papal States to the Church and used his armies to put the Medici back in control of Florence but there was no doubt that a power-shift had occurred and while the troops who perpetrated the sack of Rome had acted on their own, the Emperor had sent them to Italy to make war and subjugate the Pope, no doubt about it. In a famous painting showing the Emperor flanked by his defeated enemies, included among them is a portrayal of Pope Clement VII. Needless to say, it was after this that the Pope formally found against King Henry VIII of England and excommunicated the monarch along with Father Thomas Cranmer. The Pope also officially crowned Charles V "Emperor of the Romans" in the last such ceremony ever held. Pope Clement VII died not long after on September 25, 1534.

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.


  1. I love the Renaissance Popes, especially starting with Leo X to Julius III. As Nietzsche wrote about these guys, life sat on the papal throne. It's been downhill ever since.

    1. I like a number of them and, overall, I think they've been treated very unfairly by history. They had many strengths as well as weaknesses and I can even find a few good things to say about Pope Alexander VI, the most notorious of them all. He was quite capable in many areas and while he wasn't perfect he wasn't anywhere near as bad as most people think.

  2. Many powerful points in this article.

    Pope Clement VII inherited a bankrupt papacy, Martin Luther, and at the same time numerous, powerful foreign armies invading Italy.

    A thoughtful man inclined toward art, science, and spirituality caught between unappeasable warlords during an era of churning chaos.

    Historians criticize Clement VII for indecisiveness, but short of him abandoning all of Christ's teachings, did he have any good options from which to choose..?


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