Pope Leo X (1475–1521) – a generous patron of art and an enthusiast of parties and feasts

Renaissance façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica

Renaissance façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica

This is one of the most bizarre popes, who have ruled in Rome. He came from a noteworthy Florentine Medici family, his father was the famous ruler of Florence and a patron of art – Lawrence the Great (Lorenzo Magnifico). Giovanni was a typical child of his epoch. A well-educated humanist, familiar with ancient literature, an enthusiast of the arts, he, as was often the case in those times, received the honor of cardinal at the age of fourteen. As the second son, he was destined for the clergy, although he was a person of little faith. Some historians even claim that he completely lacked it, which did not stop him from assuming St. Peter’s throne in 1513 and from ruling the Christian world for the next eight years.

Renaissance façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica
Interior of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica rebuilt by Leo X (before he became pope)
Chapel of Leo X in the Castle Sant’Angelo, refurnished
Via Ripetta (the former via Leonina)
Palazzo Madama, residence of Cardinal Giovanni de Medici before he became pope
Funerary monument of Pope Leo X in the presbytery of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Funerary monument of Pope Leo X in the presbytery of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Funerary monument of Pope Leo X in the presbytery of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, fragment
Statue of Pope Leo X, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Statue of Pope Leo X, Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

This is one of the most bizarre popes, who have ruled in Rome. He came from a noteworthy Florentine Medici family, his father was the famous ruler of Florence and a patron of art – Lawrence the Great (Lorenzo Magnifico). Giovanni was a typical child of his epoch. A well-educated humanist, familiar with ancient literature, an enthusiast of the arts, he, as was often the case in those times, received the honor of cardinal at the age of fourteen. As the second son, he was destined for the clergy, although he was a person of little faith. Some historians even claim that he completely lacked it, which did not stop him from assuming St. Peter’s throne in 1513 and from ruling the Christian world for the next eight years.

Reportedly his severe illness, which he partially simulated, to convince the cardinals gathered at the Conclave, tired after a long pontificate of the valiant Julius II and looking for a “transitional”, gentle candidate, bereft of warlike instincts, contributed to the election of the Medici to the papal throne. Support was definitely won over by his impeccable manners, erudition, as well as a cheerful and understanding way of being. It even did not matter that at the moment of his selection the cardinal was not ordained as a priest and did not propose bribes which were typical under such circumstances. The Venetian ambassador, who faithfully commented on the actions of the future pope, writing on Giovanni Medici, said that he is “a generous and very cheerful person who avoids all problematic situations  and above all desires peace”.

 

After being elected pope, the slightly less ill Giovanni, or more appropriately Pope Leo X, was to have commented on his choice to the post of Vicar of the Holy See with the words: „ Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”. How? As it was predicted the pope turned out to be a great patron of art and science – he continued the construction of the new Basilica of St. Peter (San Pietro in Vaticano), started by his predecessor, funded buildings, significantly increased the volumes of the Vatican Library, commissioned the completion of decorations and paintings, from significant artists, including Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti). He build new arteries – the most famous one was via Leonia, leading from Piazza del Popolo to the Vatican, created in connection with the Jubilee Year 1525, and was to a large extent financed by raising taxes for prostitutes, who worked in the Ripetta port found on the pilgrim route.

He was also a given hunter, despite the fact that illness of the anus and stomach ulcers made this particular form of entertainment rather difficult, as well as a lover of great feasts, parties and masquerades, which he made unbearable for others who participated in them due to his strong odor. In the feasts which he organized, always supplemented by concerts and performances of the choir, jesters and midgets always participated, making the guests laugh often with crude jokes. During one of such feasts, the Venetian ambassador counted 65 exquisite dishes. His love for food resulted in the pope’s obesity. It is almost difficult to imagine that this educated erudite enjoyed coarse farces and offensive comedies, while during times of the carnival he showed great interest in bull fights and with joy watched cardinals dancing on masquerade balls with the women of their choice. He himself, on the other hand, was not a man interested in philandering and excesses of ambiguous nature, but he tolerated them among his cardinals.

Despite the fact that in time the loans taken from every Roman bank and the ever-growing interest rates became drastically high, Leo X did not change his habits – he did not save on his pleasures, among which throwing gold into a crowd was also included. He did not neglect to support artists, writers and scientists who were in need. He was an especially generous person and gifting others, including those who were in greatest need gave him joy. When asked, he supported all charitable initiatives: funded shelters, orphanages and hospitals. Of course he also did not stray from nepotism, which was a tool to secure the interests of his own family, as well as simony, which, through the sale of the titles of cardinal, offices and posts helped him fill the ever empty papal treasury. And it must be admitted that this trade was greatly extended by him in comparison with his predecessors.

 

The case of Martin Luther, who publically criticized the sale of indulgences with the aim of financing the construction of the Vatican Basilica, did not faze him much and when Luther in 1517 hung his 95 theses on the door of a distant church in Wittenberg, the pope excommunicated him four years later and that was his sole reaction. He did not react to the voices of church dignitaries coming from the North, who desired gestures, which would pacify the violent centers of the awakening Reformation. If that was not enough, the pope was not even surprised by the actions of the archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht Hohenzollern, who in order to buy three bishoprics took a loan in the Fugger Bank, and was to pay it off with money acquired from indulgences. In this way these indulgences served as a securement for the loan. Nevertheless, Leo X wanted to be remembered by history as defender of the Church and the State of the Church, which can be attested to by the aforementioned frescos of Raphael in the Apostolic Palace, which he commissioned. In one of these he embodies the figure of the saint Pope Leo I, who according to a legend miraculously halted barbarian hordes of Huns at the gates of Rome (V century), in another he is presented as Pope Leo IV (IX century), who at the head of the papal army defeated the Saracens at Ostia. By giving the features of Leo X to both popes, famous for their resistance in the struggle with barbarians, he himself becomes identified with their work.


The pope died suddenly, probably due to malaria or jaundice, even without receiving the last sacraments, while his body swollen and covered with black spots, shown to the public, was not even decorated with candles due to the fact of the papal treasury being empty. Reportedly, researchers recently discovered proof that his death was caused by poison, which was supposedly given to him by his cup-bearer Malaspina. The pope was buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and his rather modest tombstone monument is found there.

He will be remembered as a hedonist and enthusiast of literature and art, a bad manager of the papal treasury, but most of all as the highest dignitary of the Church, who did not notice the danger of the awakening Reformation. In his behavior, characterized by a lack of restraint and appropriateness due to the Holy Father, he did not differ from his predecessors upon St. Peter’s throne, although perhaps he exceeded them in his secularism and a complete lack of religious zealotry.

 

< After the careless and lavish pontificate of Leo X, the cardinals decided on a frugal and ascetic Hadrian VI, who was so far-removed from the world, in which papal life took place, that after his quick death, they once again chose a Medici, the cousin of Leo X - Clement VII, but this time they did not sell their votes cheaply.

Prior to becoming pope, cardinal Medici resided in Palazzo Madama, of which the interior he decorated with ceiling friezes.

Buildings constructed at the initiative of Pope Leo X:

  • Further expansion of the Apostoli Palace
  • Continuation of the decoration of the Vatican stanzas by Raphael
  • Expansion of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
  • Construction of via Leonina (Ripetta)
  • Reconstruction of the Church of Santa Maria in Domnica, creation of its new portico façade
  • Reconstruction of the Church of San Marcello al Corso
  • Chapel in the Castle of the Holy Angel