Pope Clement VII (1478–1534) – a powerless politician and a firm protector of artists

Portrait of Pope Clement VII, Sebastiano del Piombo, pic. Wikipedia

Portrait of Pope Clement VII, Sebastiano del Piombo, pic. Wikipedia

He came from a famous Florentine Medici family and as was the case with all the Medicis he received a thorough education in humanities. He was the out of wedlock child of the tragically killed Giuliano de Medici – the brother of Lawrence the Great and the great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty and its financial power – Cosimo de Medici. Since children born out of wedlock were not able to become cardinals, Giulio’s cousin, Pope Leo X (also a Medici), with the use of a special document and altered records in the parish books, proved that his uncle had married in secret, which opened the doors to a church career for the young de Medici, who became a cardinal, a trusted advisor of the pope and Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, responsible for among others papal policy towards Martin Luther.

Portrait of Pope Clement VII, Sebastiano del Piombo, pic. Wikipedia
Portrait of Pope Clement VII, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1536, pic. Wikipedia
The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti)
Tombstone of Pope Clement VII in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
The Transfiguration, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), Musei Vaticani Pinacoteca Vaticana
Frieze in room of Clement VII in Castle Sant’Angelo
Frieze in room of Clement VII, Castle Sant’Angelo
Clement VII – tombstone of the pope in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Clement VII – tombstone of the pope in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

He came from a famous Florentine Medici family and as was the case with all the Medicis he received a thorough education in humanities. He was the out of wedlock child of the tragically killed Giuliano de Medici – the brother of Lawrence the Great and the great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty and its financial power – Cosimo de Medici. Since children born out of wedlock were not able to become cardinals, Giulio’s cousin, Pope Leo X (also a Medici), with the use of a special document and altered records in the parish books, proved that his uncle had married in secret, which opened the doors to a church career for the young de Medici, who became a cardinal, a trusted advisor of the pope and Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, responsible for among others papal policy towards Martin Luther.

 

Giulio Zanobi de Medici was elected pope in 1523, after sixty days of conclave, marked with mysterious alliances, promises, fractional struggles and compromises. After assuming the throne he did an almost inadmissible thing: in a festive procession to the Lateran he visited the palace of the Colonna family, where he was welcomed by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna. The newly elected bishop of Rome, owed him a lot, which he soon showed by nominating the cardinal’s family members to papal offices. From documents concerning the election of Clement VII it turns out that, that all cardinals received the proper financial gratification (1000 ducats each), but the Colonnas who tipped the scales during that conclave, received a lot more. The reason was, that they initially opposed his election and convincing them required particular arguments. The compromise, which was reached had great significance – it was an act of reconciliation between the pope, and a pro-imperial family, which was against him for centuries. The final act of this peace agreement was a grand banquet, which was organized in the Colonna palace (Palazzo Colonna) to honor the alliance between the emperor and the pope in 1524. This however, did not stop the representatives of the family to, two years later, come out against the bishop of Rome.

Pope Clement VII did not lead a lavish lifestyle, it was a virtuous one, he did not like, as his cousin Pope Leo X, feasts and celebrations. He was also a deeply religious man and sensitive to art, who willingly supported artists. At the same time he exhibited indecisiveness and unsteadiness in his decisions connected with politics, in which he had to take part for eleven years of his reign in Rome. Faced with the game between three very strong personalities of the then political arena – Emperor Charles V, the French King Francis I and the English ruler Henry VIII, the pope was a player lacking in self-confidence. Procrastination and constantly changing political alliances led to a tragic in results and barbaric act of Sacco di Roma (1527) – a invasion of Rome by the loot-hungry army of Emperor Charles V. During it, the Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican (San Pietro in Vaticano) and other churches were plundered, the inhabitants of the Eternal City were murdered, raped and robbed. The destruction of the city and the pope’s imprisonment in the Castle of the Holy Angel, followed by his expulsion from the city, was a slap in the face for both Clement and the papacy, a humiliation which had never occurred before. The pope’s authority as the head of the Church waned and it happened at the time when the threat of Reformation was visible in the north. Clement was not able to react properly, which as a consequence led to the separation of the Church  of England, Scandinavia and part of Switzerland, but most of all many German lands.

 

As a protector of art we can thank Clement for the last great painting work of Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti) – completed for the prestigious Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgement. Although the fresco was commissioned by Pope Paul III, it was constantly criticized for its indecency and subsequent phases of its completion were looked upon with disfavor. According to chroniclers, Clement, despite criticism, believed, that for an artist “such diversity and grandeur will provide a field where he can fully exhibit his talent”. And this had to be enough for all opponents of the divine Michelangelo, and there were many of them, even among artists (Pietro Aretino). Clement also supported another completely different artistic personality – Benvenuto Cellini – an outstanding goldsmith and sculptor, but a miserable and sinful man, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, whom he housed in his own apartments. He came to know and understand the revolutionary theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, which implied a new world order. Not only, did the pope accept this heliocentric theory, but he also did not see it as a the basis of shaking the foundations of faith. He also protected and valued Niccolò Machiavelli.

In September 1534, after several months of illness, Clement VII died. His body which was shown to the public, was desecrated numerous times (just as his tomb), by Romans rejoicing over his death. Why? Most likely because they could not come to terms with the fact that he allowed the brutal slaughter of 1527 and contributed to the fall of the pope’s authority. Others criticized his powerlessness in the face of Reformation, still others the financial ruin of the papal treasury. The inscription on his tomb in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was changed from: Clemens (the gracious) Pontifex Maximus” to “Clemens [the merciless] Pontifex Maximus.”

 

The only achievement on the international area, which the pope could boast of, is securing his family’s position through the marriage of Catherine de Medici with the son of the King of France, Henry II.

Works created in Rome, under the auspices of Clement VII:

  • Villa Madama, a suburban residence built according to the designs of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and Antonio da Sangallo (the Younger)
  • The Apostolic Palace, finishing of the Vatican Stanzas by Raphael
  • Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca Vaticanathe painting Transfiguration by Raphael, initially found in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio
  • The main altar of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of The Last Judgement - Michelangelo
  • Furnishing of two chambers and a bathroom in the Castle of the Holy Angel – decorations according to the design of Giulio Romano