Pope Clement VII
|Bishop of Rome|
Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531.
|Papacy began||19 November 1523|
|Papacy ended||25 September 1534|
|Ordination||19 December 1517|
21 December 1517|
by Leo X
23 September 1513|
by Leo X
|Birth name||Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici|
26 May 1478|
Florence, Republic of Florence
25 September 1534 (aged 56)|
Rome, Papal States
|Buried||Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome|
Giuliano de' Medici|
|Motto||Candor illæsus (innocence inviolate)|
|Coat of arms||
|Other popes named Clement|
Pope Clement VII (Italian: Papa Clemente VII; Latin: Clemens VII) (26 May 1478 – 25 September 1534), born Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 19 November 1523 to his death on 25 September 1534. “The most unfortunate of the Popes,” Clement VII’s reign was marked by a rapid succession of political, military, and religious struggles — many long in the making — which 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 high reputation as a statesman, having served with distinction as chief advisor to both Pope Leo X (1513-1521) and Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523). Assuming leadership in a time of crisis, with the Church nearly bankrupt, Clement VII initially sought to unite Christendom, which was then fragmenting, by making peace among the many Christian leaders then at odds. He also aspired to liberate Italy, which had become a battleground for invading, foreign armies, thereby threatening the Church’s freedom.
The complex political situation of the 1520s thwarted Clement's intentions. Inheriting Martin Luther’s growing 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 a side; and Turkish invasions of Eastern Europe led by Suleiman the Magnificent; Clement's problems were exacerbated by King Henry VIII of England’s contentious divorce, resulting in England breaking away from the Catholic Church; and in 1527, souring relations with Emperor Charles V leading to the violent Sack of Rome, during which the Pope was imprisoned. After escaping confinement in Castel Sant'Angelo, Clement — with few economic, military, or political options remaining — compromised the Church's and Italy's independence by allying with his former jailor, Emperor Charles V.
In contrast to his tortured Papacy, Clement VII was personally respectable and devout, possessing a “dignified propriety of character,” “great acquirements both theological and scientific,” as well as “extraordinary address and penetration — Clement VII, in serener times, might have administered the Papal power with high reputation and enviable prosperity. But with all of his profound insight into the political affairs of Europe, Clement does not seem to have comprehended the altered position of the Pope” in relation to Europe’s emerging nation-states and Protestantism.
A discerning patron, Clement VII personally commissioned Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel; Raphael’s masterpiece, The Transfiguration; as well as celebrated works by Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Parmigianino, among others. Artistic trends of the era are sometimes called the “Clementine style,” and notable for their virtuosity. In matters of science, Clement VII is best known for personally approving, in 1533, Nicholaus Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun — 99 years before Galileo Galilei’s heresy trial for similar ideas. Ecclesiastically, Clement VII is remembered for approving the Capuchin Franciscan Order, and securing 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 the Florence Cathedral by enemies of his family. Born illegitimately on May 26, 1478, in Florence, the exact identity of his mother remains unknown — although a plurality of scholars contend that it was Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a university professor. Giulio spent the first seven years of life with his Godfather, the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder.
Thereafter, Lorenzo the Magnificent raised him as one of his own sons, alongside his children Giovanni and Giuliano, the former of whom became Pope Leo X. Educated at the Palazzo Medici in Florence by humanists like Angelo Poliziano, and alongside prodigies like Michelangelo, Giulio became an accomplished musician. In personality he was reputed to be shy, and in physical appearance, handsome.
Since Giulio's illegitimacy barred him from pursuing high-ranking positions in the Church — his natural inclination was for the clergy — Lorenzo the Magnificent helped him carve out a career in the military. 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 a 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 fortunes of Lorenzo the Magnificent's firstborn son, Piero the Unfortunate, in 1494, the Medici were expelled from Florence. Over the next six years, Cardinal Giovanni and Giulio wandered throughout Europe together — twice getting themselves arrested (first in Ulm, Germany, and later in Rouen, France). Each time Piero the Unfortunate bailed them out. In 1500, both returned to Italy and concentrated their efforts on re-establishing 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 retake control of the city.
Paternity of Alessandro de' Medici
In 1510, while the Medici were living near Rome, a black servant in their household — identified in documents as Simonetta da Collevecchio — became pregnant, ultimately giving birth to a son, Alessandro de Medici. Nicknamed “il Moro” (“the Moor”) due to his dark complexion, Alessandro was officially recognized as the illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de Medici; however, at the time and to this day, various scholars contend that Alessandro was, in truth, 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 Ippolito de Medici to become Florence's first hereditary monarch, 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
“Learned, clever, respectable, and industrious,” Giulio de’ Medici’s reputation and responsibilities grew at a rapid pace, unusual even for the Renaissance. Within three months of Leo X’s election, he was named Archbishop of Florence. Later that autumn, all barriers to his attaining the Church’s highest offices were removed by a papal dispensation declaring his birth legitimate. It stated that his parents had been betrothed per sponsalia de presenti, (i.e. "wed according to the word of those present.”) Whether or not this was true, it allowed Leo X to create him cardinal during the first papal consistory on 23 September 1513. On 29 September, he was appointed Cardinal Deacon of Santa Maria in Dominica — a position that had been vacated by the Pope.
While Cardinal de' Medici wasn’t officially appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Church (second-in-command) until 9 March 1517, in practice Leo X governed in partnership with his cousin from the beginning. Initially, the cardinal's duties centered primarily on administering Church affairs 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 nominated him to become Archbishop of Narbonne, and in 1516 named him cardinal protector of France. In a scenario typical of the cardinal's independent-minded statesmanship — the respective kings of England and France, recognizing a conflict of interest in Medici protecting both countries simultaneously, brought pressure to bear on him to resign his other protectorship; however, to their dismay, he refused.
That Medici’s loyalties didn’t lie with foreign kings, nations, or alliances became particularly apparent in 1521, when a personal rivalry between King Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V boiled over into war in northern Italy. Francis I expected Medici, his cardinal protector, to support France; however, Medici perceived the French King as threatening the Church’s independence, particularly Francis I's control of Lombardy and use of the Concordat of Bologna to stack Church positions with clergy more loyal to himself than the Pope. Thus in 1521 Medici negotiated an alliance against France with Emperor Charles V — thereby also gaining an ally to combat Lutheranism, then growing in Germany. That autumn, he helped lead a victorious Imperial-Papal army over the French in Milan and Lombardy. While Medici’s strategy of shifting alliances to liberate the Church (and later Italy) from foreign domination proved disastrous during his reign as Pope Clement VII, during the reign of Leo X it skillfully maintained a balance of power among the competing international factions then seeking to influence the Church.
Cardinal de' Medici’s other endeavors on behalf of Pope Leo X were similarly successful, such that “he had the credit of being the prime mover of papal policy throughout the whole of Leo’s pontificate.” Sincerely 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. These included prohibiting priests from carrying arms, frequenting taverns, and dancing provocatively — while urging them to attend weekly confession. Similarly, Medici’s artistic patronage was admired, (e.g. his commissioning Raphael’s Transfiguration and Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, among other works discussed elsewhere,) particularly for what goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini later described as “excellent taste.” In matters of civic government, following the death of Lorenzo II de Medici in 1519, Giulio de’ Medici governed Florence (1519-1522) in an administration U.S. President John Adams later characterized as "very successful and frugal." Adams chronicles the cardinal as having "reduced the business of the magistrates, elections, customs of office, and the mode of expenditure of public money, in such a manner that it produced a great and universal joy among the citizens." The cardinal's overall reputation during the reign of Leo X is recorded by contemporary Marco Minio, the Venetian ambassador to the Papal Court, who wrote in a letter to the Venetian Senate in 1519: "Cardinal de' Medici, the Pope’s cardinal nephew, 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.”
At Leo X's death in 1521, Cardinal Medici was considered especially papabile in the protracted conclave. Although unable to gain the Papacy for himself or his ally Alessandro Farnese (both preferred candidates of Emperor Charles V (1519–56)), he took a leading part in determining the unexpected election of the short-lived Pope Adrian VI (1522–23), with whom he also wielded formidable influence. Following Adrian VI's death on 14 September 1523, Medici overcame the opposition of the French king and finally succeeded in being elected Pope Clement VII in the next conclave (19 November 1523).
Pope Leo brought to the papal throne a high reputation for political ability and possessed in fact all the accomplishments of a wily diplomat. However, he was considered by his contemporaries as worldly and indifferent to the perceived dangers of the Protestant Reformation.
At his accession, Clement VII sent the Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schönberg, to the Kings of France, Spain, and England, in order to bring the Italian War to an end. An early report from the 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 bring about a general peace of all Christian princes, and he begs him (the Emperor), as the firstborn son of the Church, to aid him in this pious work." But the pope's attempt failed.
Continental and Medici politics
Francis I of France's conquest of Milan in 1524, during his Italian campaign of 1524–1525, prompted the Pope to quit the Imperial–Spanish side and to ally himself with other Italian princes, including the Republic of Venice, and France in January 1525. This treaty granted the definitive acquisition of Parma and Piacenza for the Papal States, the rule of Medici over Florence and the free passage of the French troops to Naples. This policy in itself was sound and patriotic, but Clement VII's zeal soon cooled; by his want of foresight and unseasonable economy, he laid himself open to an attack from the turbulent Roman barons, which obliged him to invoke the mediation of the emperor, Charles V. One month later, Francis I was crushed and imprisoned in the Battle of Pavia, and Clement VII went deeper in his former engagements with Charles V, signing an alliance with the viceroy of Naples.
But deeply concerned about Imperial arrogance, he was to pick up with France again when Francis I was freed after the Treaty of Madrid (1526): the Pope entered into the League of Cognac together with France, Venice, and Francesco II Sforza of Milan. Clement VII issued an invective against Charles V, who in reply defined him a "wolf" instead of a "shepherd", menacing the summoning of a council about the Lutheran question.
Like his cousin Pope Leo X, Clement was considered too generous to his Medici relatives, draining the Vatican treasuries. This included the assignment of positions all the way up to Cardinal, lands, titles, and money. These actions prompted reform measures after Clement's death to help prevent such excessive nepotism.
Sack of Rome
The Pope's wavering politics also caused the rise of the Imperial party inside the Curia: Cardinal Pompeo Colonna's soldiers pillaged Vatican Hill and gained control of the whole of Rome in his name. The humiliated Pope promised therefore to bring the Papal States to the Imperial side again. But soon after, Colonna left the siege and went to Naples, not 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.
Soon he found himself alone in Italy too, as Alfonso 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, Duke of Bourbon and Georg von Frundsberg, allowing them to reach Rome without harm.
Charles of Bourbon died while mounting a ladder during the short siege and his starving troops, unpaid and left without a guide, felt free to ravage Rome from 6 May 1527. The many incidents of murder, rape, and vandalism that followed ended the splendours of Renaissance Rome forever. Clement VII, who had displayed no more resolution in his military than in his political conduct, was shortly afterwards (6 June) obliged to surrender himself together with 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 last could be occupied in fact.) At the same time, Venice took advantage of his situation to capture Cervia and Ravenna while Sigismondo Malatesta returned in Rimini.
Clement was kept as a prisoner in Castel Sant'Angelo for six months. After having bought off some Imperial officers, he escaped disguised as a peddler and took shelter in Orvieto and then in Viterbo. He came back to a depopulated and devastated Rome only in October 1528.
Meanwhile, in Florence, Republican enemies of the Medici took advantage of the chaos to again expel the Pope's family from the city.
In June of the next year the warring parties signed the Peace of Barcelona. The Papal States regained some cities, and Charles V agreed to restore the Medici to power in Florence. In 1530, after an eleven-month siege, the Tuscan city capitulated, and Clement VII installed his illegitimate nephew Alessandro as duke. Subsequently, the Pope followed a policy of subservience to the emperor, endeavouring on the one hand to induce him to act with severity against the Lutherans in Germany and on the other to avoid his demands for a general council.
By the late 1520s, King Henry VIII wanted to have his marriage to Charles's aunt Catherine of Aragon annulled. The couple's sons died in infancy, threatening the future of the Tudor dynasty, although Henry did have a daughter, Mary Tudor. Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was "blighted in the eyes of God". Catherine had been his brother's widow, but the marriage had been childless, thus the marriage was not against Old Testament law, which forbids only such unions if the brother had children. Moreover, a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been given to allow the wedding. Henry now argued that this had been 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 thus the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. Many people close to Henry wished simply to ignore the Pope; but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that the English Parliament could not empower the Archbishop of Canterbury to act against the Pope's prohibition. In Parliament, Bishop John Fisher was the Pope's champion.
Henry subsequently underwent a marriage ceremony with Anne Boleyn, in either late 1532 or early 1533. The marriage was made easier by the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, a stalwart 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 demanded that Cranmer take the customary oath of allegiance to the pope before his consecration. Laws made under Henry already declared that bishops would be consecrated even without papal approval. Cranmer was consecrated, while declaring beforehand that he did not agree with the oath he would take. Cranmer was prepared to grant the annulment of the marriage to Catherine as Henry required. The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry and Cranmer from the Catholic Church.
Consequently, in England, in the same year, the Act of First Fruits and Tenths transferred the taxes on ecclesiastical income from the Pope to the English Crown. The Peter's Pence Act outlawed the annual payment by landowners of one penny to the Pope. This act also reiterated that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope. Ultimately Henry led the English Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy (1534) that established the independent Church of England and breaking from the Catholic Church.
During his half-year imprisonment in 1527, Clement VII grew a full beard as a sign of mourning for the sack 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 which 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, however, Clement VII kept his beard until his death in 1534. His example in wearing a beard was followed by his successor, Paul III, and indeed by twenty-four popes who followed him, down to Innocent XII, who died in 1700. Clement VII was thus the unintentional originator of a fashion that lasted well over a century.
Death and character
In 1533, Johann Widmanstetter (alternately called John Widmanstad), a secretary of Pope Clement VII, explained the Copernican system to the Pope and two cardinals. The Pope was so pleased that he gave Widmanstetter a valuable gift.
Towards the end of his life, Clement VII once more gave indications of a leaning towards 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 Henri, the son of King Francis I. Before setting out, the Pope issued a Bull on 3 September, giving instructions as to what was to be done in the event that he died outside Rome. In September 1533 the Pope set out for France to solemnize the marriage. The marriage took place in Marseille on 28 October. On 7 November, in Marseille, Pope Clement created four new cardinals, all four of them French. He held private meetings with both Francis I and Charles V, though separately. He returned to Rome on 10 December, complaining of stomach problems, and showing a fever. This was not a new illness. The Pope had been so ill at the beginning of August that Cardinal Agostino Trivulzio wrote to King Francis that the Pope's doctors had begun to fear that the Pope was in danger of dying. On 23 September, Clement wrote a long letter of farewell to Charles V. He died on 25 September 1534, having lived 56 years and four months, and having reigned for 10 years, 10 months, and 7 days.
It has been said that he died from eating poisonous mushrooms, but the symptoms and length of illness do not fit this hypothesis. Nor do they account for the effects on his illness of two sea voyages within two months. In the words of his biographer Emmanuel Rodocanachi, "In accordance with the custom of those times, people attributed his death to poison." His body was interred S. Peter's Basilica, and later transferred to a permanent tomb in the Choir of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
As for the arts, Clement VII is remembered for having been the patron of Benvenuto Cellini. He also ordered, just a few days before his death, Michelangelo's painting of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
- Republic of Florence
- Sack of Rome (1527)
- Italian Wars
- Medici family
- List of popes from the Medici family
- Cardinals created by Clement VII
|Catholic Church titles|
Cosimo de' Pazzi
| Archbishop of Florence
Cardinal Nicolò Ridolfi
Cardinal Guillaume Briçonnet
| Archbishop of Narbonne
Cardinal Jean de Lorraine
Giovanni Battista Orsini
| Apostolic Administrator of Bitonto
8 February – November 1517
Cardinal Achille Grassi
| Bishop of Bologna
8 January – 3 March 1518
Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggi
Cardinal Niccolò Fieschi
| Apostolic Administrator of Embrun
5–30 July 1518
François de Tournon
| Apostolic Administrator of Ascoli Piceno
30 July – 3 September 1518
Cardinal Ippolito d'Este
| Bishop of Eger
Silvestro de' Gigli
| Apostolic Administrator of Worcester
Cardinal Girolamo Ghinucci
19 November 1523 – 25 September 1534
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- on 2 December 1523: Gulik-Eubel, p. 136.
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- Gouwens, Kenneth; Sheryl E. Reiss (2005). The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture. Aldershot UK; Burlington VT USA: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-0680-2.
- Wallace, William E. (2005). Clement VII and Michelangelo: An Anatomy of Patronage. Aldershot UK: Ashgate.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Clemens VII.|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:|
Thurston, Herbert (1908). "Pope Clement VII". Catholic Encyclopedia. 4. Phillips, Walter Alison (1911). "Clement/Clement VII (Pope)". Encyclopædia Britannica. 6 (11th ed.). pp. 485–486.
- Catholic Hierarchy, Popes Clement VII
- Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Medici
- His son Alessandro de Medici
- Paradoxplace Medici Popes' Page
- Adriano Prosperi, "Clemente VII," Enciclopedia dei Papi (2000) [in Italian]