Birth Name: Giulio de'Medici
Regnal Name: Clement VII
Regnal Life: 1523-1534
Giulio de'Medici was born into a context of tragedy. His father, Giuliano, was the brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and was murdered in the Duomo of Florence, just a month before Giulio was born, in the Pazzi Conspiracy, a conspiracy that had been caused, even if one assumes inadvertently, by Pope Sixtus IV. We do not know who his mother was; Giulio was illegitimate. He was raised first by Antonio Sangallo the Elder, a famous architect, and then later by his uncle. Very early on he showed a talent for music, but in his family he was destined for greater things. He was interested in the Church, but his bastardy limited the options, so Lorenzo had him trained as a soldier, and he was enrolled in the Hospitallers. However, when his cousin Giovanni became a cardinal, Giulio spent some of his time as his assistant, and was able because of that to study canon law in Padua. The Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494, and in the years after he and his cousin wandered around the continent, until they were eventually, with the help of Pope Julius II, able to return to Florence. Giulio's cousin Giuliano di Lorenzo de'Medici was the ruler of Florence, but in practice it was Giovanni who determined policy.
Giulio's own rise began when Giovanni was elected Pope Leo X. Leo named him archbishop of Florence, then shortly afterward granted a dispensation legitimizing him, and therefore eliminating the major obstacle to his advancement in the Church; almost immediately Leo gave him the red hat. All of this occurred in 1513, which is a meteoric rise. But Giulio was quite competent, and after he spent some time overseeing matters in Florence (a position which also put him in diplomatically important situations, which he handled well), Leo had him made Vice-Chancellor in 1517. After the Fifth Lateran Council, Cardinal de'Medici took the lead in implementing the reforms required by the council; he applied them very effectively, and priestly behavior in Florence markedly improved because of it. After Leo's death, and during the reign Adrian VI, Giulio de'Medici was not less important; he was one of the few cardinals associated with Leo whom Adrian seemed to trust. In 1522, an assassination attempt was made against the cardinal, partly at the instigation of Cardinal Soderini, who attempted to convince Adrian to act against the Medici; Adrian instead arrested Soderini.
When Adrian died in 1523, everyone went into the conclave with grave worries. All of the problems that had plagued the previous conclave were expected and, if anything, the divisions among the national blocs were even worse than they had been. While it was indeed a contentious conclave, the contentiousness actually worked in Cardinal de'Medici's favor this time; the different factions of cardinals opposed to him could not make themselves cohere as an alliance, and so remained divided. Cardinal Colonna, who had previously been a major Italian outside the pro-Medici camp, had had a falling out with the French cardinals, thus severely weakening the French opposition to the Medici faction. Colonna and his allies were enough to turn the tide; Giulio de'Medici was elected Pope, and took the name Clement VII.
It all began in a promising enough way. Clement was Italian, so had none of the bias against him that Adrian as a foreigner had had. In contrast to Adrian, he had extraordinarily good aesthetic and artistic taste and talent, and a long career of excellent patronage of the arts, perhaps even superior to Leo's, due to a greater sobriety and sense of practicality. (As cardinal he was, for instance, the one who commissioned Raphael's last work, The Transfiguration.) He was a Medici, and thus had powerful Italian connections. It also probably didn't hurt that, while he had had his uncle's excellent guidance in his education, he had also inherited his father's famous good looks. He had had a long career of very effective management and administration. He had a reputation as a levelheaded but effective reformer. And he had the respect of most of the cardinals, even those who were often opposed to him. While not quite as thoroughly devout as Adrian, he was nonetheless very conscientious in his liturgical and sacramental duties. He was in excellent health and was only forty-six years old. An undeniable man of talent and hard work, a true Renaissance man: Considering only himself, there is perhaps no pope in the Renaissance who came to the office with so many advantages.
No offices were sold. He was generous with the poor but frugal with himself, and while he lacked the genius of Alexander or Julius in financial affairs, he had a solid sense of money and used it to good effect. It soon became clear that his style of administration had one significant defect, which was that he was not very confident in his own decisions; he was often indecisive and when he made a decision, he often regretted it. This was not the flaw that caused his problems, although it likely exacerbated the one that did. That fatal flaw was that in his diplomatic work under Leo, Clement had grown very good at shifting ground and alliances to balance one power against another. But toward the end of Leo's reign and through Adrian's, the situation in Europe had grown vastly worse, and the diplomatic game he was best at playing had become the most dangerous kind of game to play.
Clement came to the papacy at a point in which the Papal States balanced in an essential but precarious way between the two major powers of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France. The French wanted Milan; they had been pushed out of Lombardy by the Holy Roman Empire in 1522. As the most stable and broadly influential Italian power, Papal State support was important for these Italian empire-games. Clement attempted to make clear that the position of the Papal States was that there should be general peace among Christian prince (to make possible the Renaissance reform-goal of a united Christian front against the Ottoman Turks), but neither side paid any attention to this. But it is also the case that the Papal States, like all of the Italian powers, wanted both major powers out of Italy if this could be managed, so, as soon as he became pope, Clement began negotiating with Venice and Milan to try to pull together an alliance that would shut France, at that time the more aggressive of the two, out of Italy in a way that did not depend on the Empire. In the meantime, he took a page out of the diplomatic book of Leo and, despite being technically by treaty an ally of the Empire, repeatedly tried to negotiate with France, to the great irritation of the Empire. It was at the point that the Emperor, Charles V, made a crucial mistake that would have ramifications for the papacy; he tried to bring the fight to the French, and invaded Provence. This invasion failed, and gave Francis I an opening into northern Italy, and at a most opportune time, since the Italian states, having just recently been hit by the plague, were not able to mount their best defense. France re-took Milan. The Empire would have been pushed entirely out of Italy if Francis had been more bold; instead, he let his army get bogged down in besieging Pavia. Things were balanced, and the Papal States could tip the scales against the French. But Clement continued to try to negotiate with the French, and, thinking that the French had a solid hold of northern Italy, at the end of 1524 he signed a secret treaty with France and Venice. The Emperor, of course, was furious, regarding it as a betrayal, even to such an extent as hinting at the possibility of throwing his support behind the Lutherans. In January of 1525, the Imperial troops managed to reach Pavia, which was still under siege by the French, and they devastated the French army. The conclusiveness of the victory gave the Empire an absolute advantage over the French. Charles was master of Europe. In fairness to Clement, all of Europe was stunned by the turn of events. Rome itself broke out into riots between the pro-Empire Colonna and the pro-French Orsini over the news, as the former tried to use the occasion to bring down their longtime rivals. But Clement had chosen the wrong side, at almost precisely the moment it had become the wrong side.
There was nothing to do. In April 1525, Clement signed a treaty with Charles in which the Papal States and Florence essentially became vassal states of the Empire, and not on particularly favorable terms for the Papal States. Further, it became clear that the Imperial representatives did not have much commitment to keeping some of the promises they made to get Clement's signature; they were so dilatory that he began to suspect that they had no intention of keeping the treaty at all. Nonetheless, things might not have become much worse, and might have become better, if it were not for one thing: France was the most coherent nation in Europe. Of all the powers, it was the most unified and least likely to crumble. Even though Charles had Francis prisoner, France was still organized enough to be a significant threat under its regent, Louisa of Savoy, who managed to sign a peace treaty with England, and who began negotiating in secret with Rome and Venice. In 1526, Francis managed to buy his freedom with the Treaty of Madrid, which gave the Empire very large concessions and renounced all claim to Italy. This sounds favorable to the Empire, but Charles V had made another mistake. Francis was now free, and by means of a treaty whose concessions to the Empire were so great that the Kingdom of France had no incentive at all to comply with it. And Francis was not the only one who saw it this way; the other powers, including the Papal States, regarded the treaty as mere extortion and therefore not binding, and none of them were happy with the idea of Europe under the hegemony of a single power. The League of Cognac formed in May; it included France, the States of the Church, Florence, Venice, and Milan. England only refused to sign because the others ignored Henry VIII's request to sign the treaty in England.
Things initially went well for the League, but the Empire returned answer with its full force. The Sforza were pushed from Milan. The Colonna family seized Rome on the Empire's behalf; they were not in a position to hold it, but Clement had to sign a treaty and pay them to leave, and by the time they had, their partisans had looted the Apostolic Palace and the churches of the city. This was not a minor thing; the papal treasury was not in good shape (it still had lingering debts from Leo's administration that Adrian had not been able to pay off completely, and the war was already not cheap). Things slipped further when the Duchy of Ferrara joined the Imperial cause.
As if all of this were not bad enough, in 1526, Ottoman forces under Suleiman the Magnificent also crushed the army of the Kingdom of Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs; the Papal States had been the only power in Europe even to send help to Hungary as it had faced the Ottomans. Peace among Christian princes so as to make possible defense against the Ottoman Empire, which had been one of the things that Clement had hoped would be a pillar of reform in his papacy, was entirely in shambles. But the worst had not happened yet. 1527 would be a very bad year.
Charles defeated the French armies in northern Italy, but overextended himself, and the most powerful army in Europe ran out of money to pay the soldiers. The soldiers mutinied, and more or less forced their commanders to march south to Rome, which they reached on May 6, 1527. The Romans, while knowing that the army was coming, had inadequate defenses, because the papal treasury was so depleted. Many of the College of Cardinals had been advocating that Clement raise the money in the one way left to him, selling offices and red hats; an Alexander VI or Julius II would have done it in a heartbeat, but Clement had refused and refused, until in desperation finally giving in, far too late actually to get the funds. The primary commander of the army, the Duke of Bourbon, was shot and killed in almost the first action, and there was no one left who could impose any moderation on the army. The Imperial army sacked the city. The Swiss Guard, in one of the most famous last stands of all time, fought a rearguard action and were slaughtered, first in the Teutonic Cemetery, and then in retreat on the steps of St. Peter's, to give the pope and the Curia time to withdraw across the Passetto di Borgo to Castel Sant'Angelo. The Roman militia was likewise slaughtered throughout the city. Churches, monasteries, libraries, palaces, and ordinary houses were looted and burned. The Vatican Library only survived because it was early on made an Imperial headquarters; the Sistine Chapel was made a horse-stall. Cardinals who had not managed to escape, even pro-Imperial cardinals, were dragged through the streets and humiliated until they could be ransomed. Cardinal Colonna followed a couple of days later, with a large crowd, intending to get vengeance for some of the treatment that his lands had suffered from the papal armies, but was so stunned by the devastation that he began taking in refugees instead. The plundering, the murder, and the rape did not stop; the corpses literally piled up in the street, and as they rotted, everyone, including the plundering army itself, began to fall sick. Thousands of bodies crowded the Tiber. And still the plundering went on; attempts to make a treaty in which the pope could surrender were blocked by German soldiers who insisted that they would not leave until they received their pay. Finally, due in part to Cardinal Colonna, a treaty was signed. Large parts of the Papal States were ceded to the Empire, and the pope would have to pay a very large sum, being allowed only to leave Castel Sant'Angelo and withdraw to Naples when he had paid the first large installment. As he had no easy way to make the payment, he stayed effectively a prisoner, and further negotiations stalled.
The Emperor Charles was somewhat baffled as to what to do in the aftermath of all this. His army in Italy was in shambles, and largely mutinous. France and England made common treaty against the Holy Roman Empire, with several Italian powers eventually defecting to them over it. Parts of the Empire, particularly Spain, were on the edge of rebellion as the news of the sack spread. Charles's own reputation as a defender of the Catholic faith was in ruins; he struggled to convince people that it had not happened on his orders. It was all Clement's fault, he insisted; given that he was obviously still holding the pope prisoner, his protestations did no good, as reaction slowly began to build against him. Somewhat desperately, he pushed through another treaty to try to salvage the situation. According to the terms of the treaty, the pope would be restored if he would promise the standard platform of Renaissance reform -- summon a general council, as a neutral power seek peace among the Christian princes, war against the Turks. That part was to try to make Charles look like a defender of the Church again. As surety, the Emperor would have hostages and hold several regions of the Papal States. That part was to try to make it look more like a victory for the Empire. A more reasonable payment schedule was laid down, but the pope was in no position to comply with this one, either, and it had to be modified again later. Finally, on December 6, 1527, the Imperial troops, having been paid, withdrew and Clement could leave Castel Sant'Angelo, although the city of Rome was still not safe from occasional plundering and was being ravaged by plague. He fled to Orvieto, destitute.
The Sack of Rome was perhaps the most shocking thing to happen in the papal tenure of Clement VII, but it was not the only terrible thing afoot by this time, for the world had become very big and busy. The Lutheran movement continued to spread in Germany. The followers of Zwingli continued to spread in Switzerland. The Church was obviously in the process of cracking in Sweden. The Church was, less obviously, beginning to crack in England. Suleiman the Magnificent had an open path to Vienna. And the pope had nothing but debts and ruins with which to face these problems.