Clement VII

November 18, 1523 - September 25, 1534




Birth and Parentage

Pope Clement VII was born Giulio de' Medici in Florence on May 26, 1478.  His father, Giuliano de' Medici, was a grandson of Cosimo de' Medici, and his mother was Giuliano's mistress.  Two months before his birth, Giuliano was murdered in a plot known as the Pazzi Conspiracy.



Giulio was educated by the many humanists employed by his uncle, Lorenzo the Magnificent.


After the Medici were ousted from power in Florence in the wake of the French invasion of 1494, Giulio traveled in Europe.


Career Under Cousin Leo X

Soon after the election of his cousin Giovanni as Pope Leo X, Giulio was declared legitimate, which made him eligible to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, technically a Sacrament.  He was subsequently made Archbishop of Florence, and soon afterward, he was created a cardinal.


Giulio assisted his cousin in both political policy and artistic commissions.  From 1517 Giulio served as Vice-Chancellor in the Church.


After the death of Lorenzo the Younger in 1519, Giulio governed Florence.


Career Under Hadrian VI

Although Pope Hadrian VI was mistrustful of all the Italian cardinals, he listened to Giulio more than to the others.


When an invasion from France was imminent, Giulio negotiated the terms by which Pope Hadrian joined the emperor's alliance.





Opposing Factions

In 1523, the Italian cardinals were split into two factions:  those who were allied with the French cardinals and those who were allied with the cardinals representing the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the French king and Holy Roman emperor were at war with one another over their claims in Italy.


Imperial faction. The emperor honored his promise to support Giulio in this election in exchange for Giulio's having supported Hadrian in the preceding election.


French faction. Although the French faction opposing Giulio was larger, their members were not united on a single candidate.  Instead they were split in support of various other cardinals, the strongest of which was Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, whose candidacy was challenged by Cardinals Carvajal, Monti, and Fieschi.  Many Italian cardinals joined the French cardinals because they wanted to prevent the election of Cardinal Medici.


Influence of Current War

Another factor that favored the election of the emperor's choice was a decisive victory of the emperor's forces over the French just before the final vote.





Switching Sides

Pope Clement VII's poor political judgment and indecisiveness are most evident in his dealings with Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Francis I, the King of France, who were at war with each other over control of northern Italy.  Instead of consistently allying himself with the emperor, who had supported his election and was the more powerful of the two leaders, Clement VII made alliances with France twice in the first three years of his pontificate.


Many of Pope Clement's decisions were motivated by his desire to keep the Medici family in power in Florence.


1524:  Treaty with France and Venice

After his election in late 1523, Pope Clement did not renew the treaty that he had earlier negotiated between Pope Hadrian VI and the emperor, and after the French recaptured Milan in late 1524, Clement signed a treaty with them.


1525:  Battle of Pavia

The Imperial forces triumphed decisively over the French in the battle of Pavia and captured King Francis.  Seeing the French weakened, Clement again asked for the emperor's protection.


1526:  Treaty of Madrid

While he was a prisoner in Spain, Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid as a condition of his release, which took place in February of 1526.  The treaty provided that France renounce claims in Italy, cede Burgundy to the emperor, and remain neutral in European conflicts.  After his liberation Francis promptly broke the treaty, having apparently signed it in bad faith.


1526:  League of Cognac

The pope joined the League of Cognac, an alliance against Charles V that was formed by France, Milan, Florence, and Venice.  His participation in the League constituted an act of hostility against Charles V .





Imperial Occupation of Lombardy

In the spring of 1526, the emperor sent a large army to take control of Milan and the Lombard region.  This army, which included a large force of German mercenaries, was under the command of Charles of Bourbon, who had commanded the French army a few years earlier.


Clement's Hostility Toward Charles V

Despite Clement's involvement in the League of Cognac, the emperor tried to reach an accord with the pope in the summer of 1526.  In the fall, the pope rebuffed him with a defense of his own behavior and an attack on the emperor's.


Colonna's Raid on Vatican

Part of the pope's attention in the period leading up to the imperial attack on Rome was focused on his old enemy Cardinal Colonna.  In the fall of 1526, Colonna, encouraged by the emperor, led a raid on the Vatican.  His forces looted its treasure while the pope took refuge in the Castel Sant' Angelo.


Looting to Pay Troops

Charles of Bourbon repeatedly asked the emperor for funds to pay the troops, but ended by paying them himself until his family wealth had run out.


By February of 1527, the troops were close to rebellion, and Charles of Bourbon was forced to begin looting in lieu of wages.  After raiding many cities in northern Italy, they headed for Rome in April.  By this time, the troops were out of control, and Charles allowed the looting to prevent them from disbanding.





Inadequate of Defenses

Until the attack became imminent, the pope thought the 100,000 ducats he had paid to the imperialists following the battle of Pavia would prevent the catastrophe.


A force of 4000 men, which included 2000 Swiss Guards, was led by Renzo da Ceri.  Most of the Swiss Guards died while holding off the invaders while Clement escaped through the passetto di Borgo, a passage built by Pope Alexander VI between the Vatican and the Castel Sant' Angelo.


The Italians, who were badly outnumbered, were unable to hold back the attack by imperial forces, which took place on May 6, 1527.


Death of Imperial Commander

Charles of Bourbon was killed by a crossbow shot during the initial attack on the city walls. Benvenuto Cellini, who participated in Rome's defenses, claimed to have fired the shot that killed him.  Because Cellini's autobiography contained many boasts and lies, his word on this point is questionable.


Attacks Against Romans

Without the restraint that their commander might have imposed, the troops went on a spree of rape, murder, theft, and destruction that lasted for days.  Important individuals like cardinals and businessmen were held for ransom.  The architect Peruzzi was held until his ransom was paid by his native city of Siena.


It is estimated that around 45,000 people fled as refuges or were killed by attackers or post-war diseases.


Imperial troops did not fully depart Rome until February of the following year, 1528.


Destruction of Property

Many of the troops were Lutherans, who were happy at having an opportunity to desecrate Catholic churches.  The Sistine Chapel itself escaped harm because the Commander's body was laid in state there, but the tapestries designed by Raphael were removed and dispersed, appearing in the following years in Venice and Naples.


Imperial Responsibility for the Attack

Alter receiving word of the attack on Rome, the emperor sent a message of apology to the pope.  Charles blamed the attack on out-of-control troops who had acted on their own.


Although Charles did not directly order the attack on Rome, he was responsible for having placed a large, unpaid army in Italy.


Charles benefited considerably from the Sack of Rome, which established his control over much of Italy.  Furthermore, he exacted an indemnity (fine) of 400,000 ducats from the pope.


Charles' Punishing of Clement VII

Charles V took advantage of the pope's weakened position following the Sack and punished him for violating past alliances between them.  Clement agreed to Charles' terms long before he was allowed to escape from the Castel Sant'Angelo in December of 1527.





Captivity in the Castel Sant'Angelo

The pope was held in the Castel Sant'Angelo as a prisoner for seven months.


Overthrow of the Medici from Florence

Seeing that the pope was helpless to interfere in their affairs, the Florentine people again overthrew and exiled the Medici family from their city.  Clement appears to have been more upset about his family's loss of power in Florence than he was about the destruction of Rome and the papacy's loss of control over many cities in the Papal States.


Agreement with Charles V

The terms of the pope's release included the payment of a huge penalty, a pledge of neutrality in further European conflicts, and his agreement to imperial occupation of a number of cities in the Papal States.


Lengthy Absence from Rome

After the pope's departure from the Castel Sant'Angelo, he went to Orvieto.  He also spent some time in Viterbo before returning to Rome a year and a half later.  In Rome, he was despised for having allowed the Sack.





Truce in 1529

In 1529, the emperor and Charles V worked out a truce and signed the "Peace of Barcelona" and the "Treaty of Cambrai."  These agreements essentially revived the terms of the "Treaty of Madrid" except that Francis was allowed to keep Burgundy.


The primary beneficiary was the emperor, who got to keep his holdings in Italy, which now included Florence.


One of the provisions included the restoration to power in Florence of the Medici, who would ultimately serve the emperor.


Coronation of Charles V at Bologna

The accord between Pope Clement and the emperor was formalized when Pope Clement crowned Charles V.  The coronation took place in Bologna on February 24, 1530 in San Petronio.


Empowering Medici in Florence

In 1529, the emperor sent troops to take control of Florence, but the city held out for almost a year.  During this time, Michelangelo, a staunch proponent of Florentine independence, participated in designing and building fortifications.


The pope's illegitimate son, Alessandro de' Medici, who was born to a mulatto servant of the Medici household, was installed as the Duke of Florence.


The bond between the pope and the emperor was sealed in 1535 by the marriage of the pope's illegitimate son Alessandro and the emperor's illegitimate daughter Margaret of Austria, who was only thirteen.


Marital Alliance with France

Ever mistrustful of the emperor, Clement VII again hedged his bets by allying himself with Francis I through the marriage of his grandniece Catherine de' Medici to the king's second son, Henri.  In 1533, the pope traveled to Marseilles for the wedding and a chance to meet with Francis.





Distraction by Politics

Clement VII's immersion in the world of territorial politics distracted him from dealing with the biggest problem facing the Church:  the Reformation.


Failure to Enlist Emperor's Aid

In allying himself with the emperor's enemy Francis I, the pope forfeited his best chance to control the spread of Lutheranism, as the emperor controlled much of the area where it was spreading.  Without Charles V's cooperation, the pope had no means of taking action where the problem was occurring.


Reversal of Edict of Worms

In 1526, a Diet (German legislature) at Speyer in Germany reversed their earlier finding that Martin Luther's views were heretical.


Failure to Call Ecumenical Council

The pope resisted the emperor's suggestion to call an ecumenical (Church-wide) council.  The last Ecumenical Council had been closed by Leo X without implementing the reforms it recommended, which occasioned Luther's posting of the 95 Theses in 1517.


Failure to Encourage Reform Orders

Clement VII did not encourage existing reform-oriented orders or groups that might have wished to organize similar-minded new orders.


Loss of England over Henry's Divorce

In 1527 King Henry VIII of England petitioned Pope Clement for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Because she had previously been married to his deceased elder brother, Arthur, Henry claimed that his marriage was incestuous.


Although at first he was sympathetic to Henry's request, the pope hesitated to make a decision for several years.  Ultimately, he denied Henry's request and excommunicated him in 1533.  In the meantime, Henry established the Church of England with himself as its head.


The pope would have obliged Henry were it not for pressure put on him by Charles V, who was Catherine of Aragon's nephew.





Misjudgments, Delays, and Vacillation

As a leader, Clement VII lacked the judgment to properly assess the situation around him and the decisiveness necessary to take action in a timely manner.


Clement also vacillated about his decisions and commitments.  In international politics, he repeatedly broke agreements and switched sides.


Failure to Stop Spread of Reformation

Clement VII failed to understand the threat posed by the reformation movement and take effective action to combat it.  (See preceding section.)


Failure to Prevent Attack on Rome

Although the final impetus for the Sack of Rome arose from the troops’ desire to loot to make up for not being paid, it is inconceivable that this situation would have arisen if the pope had not allied himself with the emperor's enemies.


Failure to Stop Turkish Advances in Europe

Although the Turks had advanced into Europe under Suleiman the Magnificent (1497-1566), Pope Clement was unable to divert his own attention or that of other important political leaders from the power struggles taking place in Italy during his pontificate.  By 1526 the Turks were in Hungary, and in 1529, they took Vienna.


Failure to Represent His Office

Many of Clement's poor decisions suggest that he was more motivated by his desire to keep Florence under Medici control and repress his enemies than by an interest in doing what was best for the Church or Rome.  For example, when Clement was imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo after the Sack of Rome, he refused to approve a proposal by the imperial forces to put his enemy Cardinal Colonna in charge of the city even though this would have benefited the people of Rome by establishing order sooner.


Furthermore, had Clement not blocked Francesco Maria della Rovere's rightful claim to the dukeship of Urbino because he wanted the title and land for members of the Medici family, the Sack of Rome might have been prevented.  As the commander of a substantial army, della Rovere could have engaged the imperial troops before they got to Rome, but because his interests were opposed by Clement, he did not attempt to block the invading army's descent through Italy.



During Clement VII's pontificate, new bishoprics were established in Mexico and South America.


Death in 1534

Pope Clement VII died in September, 1534.  A fever was probably the cause, but there were also reports that he was poisoned by mushrooms.





Reasons for Limited Funding

The scale and number of projects undertaken by Clement VII were limited by a shortage of funds, which was due to a reduction of revenue at a time of increasing debt.


Reduced revenue from Europe. Revenues from Europe increasingly shrank as ties were broken with the Roman Catholic Church in more and more places.  


Debts from Leo X's administration. Leo X's administration left massive debts. 


Repairs to Rome after Sack. Money was needed to repair damage caused during the attack on Rome. 


Indemnity to emperor. 400,000 ducats was needed to pay the emperor an indemnity (financial penalty) as part of the post-Sack settlement.  To raise money, Clement sold church property, took out loans, and sacrificed precious objects, including melting down papal tiaras.  In the end, however, it was not enough and Clement paid only 145,000 ducats of the agreed upon 400,000. 


Continuing Leo X's Vatican Commissions

Because he had been involved with most of Leo X's major commissions, Clement was already working on a number of unfinished projects, including some begun under Julius II.  Most of the progress made under Clement was achieved before the Sack of Rome in 1527.


Stanza d'Costantino, Vatican Palace. Clement completed the Stanza d'Costantino, the final room of the four-room suite begun by Raphael under Julius II and continued by Leo X.  Raphael died in 1520, and the frescoes in this room are largely the work of his principal assistant, Giulio Romano.  


St. Peter's, Vatican. Until the Sack of Rome, Clement continued the construction of St. Peter's, which was then under the direction of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.  The post-Sack state of construction was recorded by drawings made in the 1530s by Martin Heemskerck.


Three new streets, Rome. Pope Clement continued building the three new streets begun during Leo X's pontificate.  The streets lead southward from the piazza adjacent to Rome’s northern gate, the Porta del Popolo.


Continuing Medici Family Commissions


Villa Madama, Rome. As we know from his correspondence with his representative at the site, Clement was heavily involved with the details of the Villa Madama, a huge Roman-style villa, which he commissioned Raphael to design on behalf of his cousin Giovanni, Leo X.  Clement specified that Giulio Romano execute the painted decoration and that Giovanni da Udine execute the stucco work.  Unfortunately, part of what had been built by 1527 was damaged and looted when Rome was sacked.  Clement was able to see smoke from its fire from the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he had taken refuge.


Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence, begun 1520.  Clement continued to fund Michelangelo's work in Florence on the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo, which he had commissioned for Leo X while still a cardinal.  This chapel was to accommodate the tombs of two recently deceased members of the Medici family, Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo the Younger, Duke of Urbino (1516-19).  


Writing a History of Florence. In 1520, while he was a cardinal and the governor of Florence, Clement VII commissioned the politician and historian Niccolo Machiavelli to write a history of Florence.  Although it was completed by the time Machiavelli died in 1525, it was not published until 1532.  


New Commissions


Laurentian Library, San Lorenzo, Florence, 1523-59. Although Clement may have conceived of the addition of a Library to San Lorenzo before being elected pope, he did not commission its construction until after his election in 1523.  Michelangelo, who was already working at San Lorenzo on the Medici Chapel, was commissioned to design the project.  The library was to accommodate Lorenzo de' Medici's collection of manuscripts, which the family turned over to San Lorenzo.  A ground-story vestibule contained a staircase leading up to the second-story reading room.  Pope Clement chose such details as the use of lighting through high windows instead of a skylight, which he thought would be difficult to clean.  He also decided that the staircase should occupy the center of the room instead of spreading out against the wall.  


Last Judgment, 1534-41. In the last year of his pontificate, Clement commissioned Michelangelo to paint a scene on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, but it is unclear whether the subject of the Last Judgment was chosen by him or his successor, Pope Paul III, who re-commissioned the work. 













Renaissance Popes 12 of 20