Pope Clement VII, 1478-1534 (pope 1523-34)

Pope Clement VII (1478-1534, Pope 1523-1534) was Pope during most of the First and Second Hapsburg-Valois Wars in Italy, and was seen as a weak, vacillating Pope whose actions or inactions led to the sack for Rome of 1527 and the English split with Rome of 1534.

Clement was born as Giulio de Medici, the illegitimate son of Giuliano de Medici. His father was murdered that year (Pazzi Conspiracy), and Giulio was raised by his uncle Lorenzo de Medici. He had a humanist education, and in many ways was a capable man - he had a reputation as a good administrator, a patron of the arts and charity and a musician, but he would later be seen as an indecisive weak pope, both in his actions within Italy and his response to the Reformation.

In 1494 the Medici, who had effectively been ruling Florence, were deposed by Charles VIII of France, and they didn’t return to power until 1512. In the same year Giulio was present on the losing side at the battle of Ravenna (11 April 1512).

After 1512 Giulio's rise was rapid, helped by his cousin Giovanni's election as Pope Leo X in 1513. Giulio became archbishop of Florence (taking control of the government of the city in 1519), was made a cardinal, and became Pope Leo's vice-chancellor, with special responsibility for politics. This came during a gap in a long series of wars between the French and Hapsburgs in Italy, but the fighting broke out again in 1521 with the start of the First Hapsburg-Valois War (1521-25).

Giulio was elected pope in 1523, succeeding Adrian VI. He inherited a wide range of problems - the Catholic world was threatened by the Ottomans in Hungary and at sea and by the Reformation in Germany and the Netherlands. In England Henry VIII would soon demand a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, the aunt of the Emperor Charles V.

At the start of the First Hapsburg-Valois War (1521-25), Clement supported Charles V, but in 1525 Imperial forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the French at the battle of Pavia (24 February 1525). Francis I was captured and taken to Madrid, and the balance of power in Italy swung very firmly towards the Imperial side. In response Clement changed sides, and in 1526 helped create the League of Cognac, an anti-Imperial force that included Francis I. His efforts were helped  by the Florentine diplomat Francesco Guicciardino.  

Clement's change of sides was disastrous for him. In 1527 an Imperial army advanced on Rome (Second Hapsburg-Valois War, 1526-30). After its commander, the Constable of Bourbon, was killed, the unpaid army went on the rampage, sacking Rome. Clement was forced to take refuse in the Castel Sant' Angelo. This apparent success actually caused great problems for Charles V, who saw himself as one half of a joint universal monarchy, alongside the Pope.

Clements' new reliance on Charles played a part in the English break with Rome. In 1528 Clement attempted to solve the problem by sending Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio and Cardinal Wolsey to try the case in England, but in 1529 Catherine refused to accept their jurisdiction and demanded that the case be judged in Rome. The Pope's position was weakened when the French were defeated, leaving him dependent on Charles V, and in July 1529 he agreed to her request. In March 1530 he forbade Henry from marrying until he issued his judgement. In 1533 Clement finally declared Henry and Catherine's marriage to be valid. By now Wolsey had fallen, and the anti-ecclesiastical party was in power in England. The Act of Supremacy of November 1534 saw Henry VIII declare himself head of the Church in England.

In the meantime Clement had been released by Charles's forces and in 1530 he crowned Charles Emperor at Bologna (the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope). Their reconciliation doomed the brief restoration of the Republic of Florence, where the Medici had been overthrown in 1527. Clement wanted to see his family restored, and came to an agreement with Charles V. As a result Spanish troops besieged Florence, and the city was forced to surrender in 1530. The Medici were restored, and this time instead of working through the republican institutions decided to become official head of state as the dukes of Tuscany. Alessandro de Medici (1511-37), the first of the new line of dukes, was said to have been Clement's illegitimate son, and was a harsh ruler who was assassinated in 1537.

Clement took very little action against the Lutheran reformation. He did make some attempts to deal with the problem after 1530, but by that point it was too late and he was far too unpopular in Germany to be taken seriously.

Clement VII was a major patron of the arts. He commissioned Raphael's 'Transfiguration', a massive altarpiece at Narbonne (where he was bishop), and Michelangelo's moment to the Medici family in the Sacristy at S. Lorenzo, Florence (only the sculptures from two of the original four tombs were completed despite ten years of work from 1524-34). He employed the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, who made a number of works for him (sadly only two medals survive), and recorded his rule as Pope in one of the great Renaissance biographies. He was also a minor supporter of Machiavelli, who presented him with eight volumes of his history of Florence in 1525. He supported the painter Sebastiano del Piombo, who painted a portrait of the Pope in 1526, appointing him keeper of the papal seal (this gave him his nickname of Piombo, from Piombino, or 'lead seal').  

On the negative side he suppressed the Roman Academy in the aftermath of the sack of Rome.

Clement did play a part in selecting his own successor, picking Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. Paul was a reforming pope, and so Clement VII can be seen as the last of the corrupt Renaissance popes, more interested in promoting their family, patronising art and Italian politics than in religion or reform. Paul III summoned the Council of Trent and began the counter-reformation, the great Catholic fight-back that helped halt the rapid expansion of Protestantism.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 October 2014), Pope Clement VII, 1478-1534 (pope 1523-34) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_pope_clement_VII.html

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