Leo X (1475-1521), who was pope from 1513 to 1521, was a lavish patron of the arts and an international political manipulator. The Reformation began during his reign.
In the second half of the 15th century the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy. The glories of man had been rediscovered and were being reappreciated after the religious austerities of the Middle Ages. The classic art of ancient Greece had come back into style; the ornate Latin of early Rome was being mastered again. Life in this world had become more important, for those who could afford it, than life in the next. The princes of Italy's city-states fought and schemed to preserve their power and increase their wealth.
It was into this kind of world that Giovanni de' Medici, the future pope Leo X, was born on Dec. 11, 1475. His father, Lorenzo de' Medici or Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruled Florence. His uncle, Giuliano de' Medici, had been assassinated by agents of Pope Sixtus IV, who as ruler of Rome was a political rival. Young Giovanni and his older brother Pietro were carefully schooled by their father in the arts of government as well as the pleasures of wealth. One of his tutors was Pico della Mirandola, an outstanding humanist and persuasive teacher. Giovanni grew up as an intelligent young man, deeply interested in literature and art, passionately devoted to his family, and reasonably religious by the standards of his time. He formally entered the ranks of the Roman Catholic clergy when he was 7 and was made a cardinal by Pope Innocent VIII at 13. As a churchman, he was entitled to receive the revenues from a number of wealthy churches in Florence and Rome, adding to his family's influence and fortune.
In 1492, when he was 16, Giovanni took up residence in Rome as a full-fledged member of the College of Cardinals but returned to Florence when his father died later that same year. He helped his brother Pietro administer the affairs of their family and their city, until an uprising in 1494 forced the Medicis into exile. Because he had opposed the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, Giovanni was in disfavor and could not immediately go back to Rome. He used his time of exile to travel extensively throughout Europe.
At Pietro's death in 1503 Giovanni became head of the Medici family. He gladly took up the work offered him by Pope Julius II in 1512, to lead a papal army against his family's enemies in Florence. The expedition was a disaster. His army was defeated and Giovanni was taken prisoner. Agents of the Medicis soon secured his release, and when his family was reestablished in Florence, Giovanni returned in triumph as ruler of the city. He was elected pope in February 1513. Giovanni left Florence in charge of his younger brother, Giuliano, as he himself assumed control of the Church, the city of Rome, and the Papal States. He was ordained a priest on March 15, consecrated a bishop on March 17, and enthroned as Pope Leo X on March 19. At the age of 37 he had at his disposal all of the wealth and the power of the papacy.
Leo moved quickly to consolidate his political power. He joined with Emperor Maximilian I of Germany, King Ferdinand V of Spain, and King Henry VIII of England to drive the French out of northern Italy. When the French reinvaded, he agreed to return part of their former territory if they would give military support to the Medici family in Florence. Shortly afterward he signed an agreement with the French king, Francis I, allowing the king to control the selection of all the bishops in France, an agreement which was to last until the French Revolution.
In his own kingdom of Rome, Leo placed his relatives in positions of power. His cousin Giulio became the cardinal archbishop of Florence and an official in the Pope's court. He named his nephew Lorenzo to rule Florence in place of his brother Giuliano, whom he married to a daughter of the French house of Savoy. When he discovered a plot in his own palace to poison him, Leo had one cardinal executed and another put in prison. To neutralize the power of the remaining officials, he created 31 new cardinals, all members of his own family or people he could otherwise trust. One of his last political moves was to form another alliance with Emperor Charles V and King Henry VIII of England to drive the French out of northern Italy again.
Patron of the Arts
While negotiating with kings and emperors for the future of Europe, Leo found time for the pleasures he loved. Artists, writers, and musicians came to Rome from all over Italy at his request. He created special projects to take advantage of the outstanding talents of the artist Raphael. He set up a Greek printing press in Rome and encouraged the Jewish community in the city to begin their own printing operation. Church positions were found for writers, poets, and translators, some of the more favored of whom he made bishops. Leo himself was a master of classical Latin and delighted in giving impromptu speeches in the style of Cicero. He commissioned plays and had them performed before his court. As a connoisseur of the arts, he was unequaled in Europe. While he was pope, Rome became the cultural center of the West.
Leo particularly liked to hunt and did so in a grand style. The Pope and his entourage beginning a chase was as much a show for the Roman people as a sport for the papal court. He would frequently attend Mass before he set out and would sometimes offer the Mass himself. But religion, although valuable, never interfered with what he considered the important demands of his position. When the papal finances began to show the strain of Leo's extravagant expenses, he unhesitatingly made use of his religious powers for added income. He demanded a fee from all new bishops and cardinals and authorized the selling of indulgences throughout Germany to obtain money for a grand rebuilding of Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome's most important church.
The news in 1517 that a German monk had proclaimed 95 theses in opposition to many of the Church's practices, particularly the indulgence business, drew from Leo the remark that Martin Luther was "a drunken German who would soon be sober." But Luther had touched a popular nerve. People, whose deep spiritual need was not being satisfied by Leo's kind of Church, supported him in large numbers, as did many German princes who had long resented the flow of money to Rome.
After several years of unsuccessful negotiations, in 1520 Leo issued against Luther the decree Exsurge Domine, which began: "Arise, O Lord, and judge thine own cause. … A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard." Luther burned the document and was then formally excommunicated from the Church by the Pope. When, a year later, King Henry VIII of England wrote a treatise against Luther, Leo rewarded him with the title Defender of the Faith. However, Luther's Reformation gained irresistible momentum throughout northern Europe, while Pope Leo went back to his political intrigues in Italy.
The military expedition against the French that Leo had set in motion by his last treaty with the Emperor and the King of England ended in November 1521, when the Emperor's forces captured Milan from the French and turned over four northern Italian provinces to the Pope's soldiers. Leo hardly had time to enjoy his victory. He died suddenly in his palace during the night of Dec. 1, 1521, just a few days before his forty-sixth birthday. Many suspected he had been poisoned.
Throughout his Church career Leo had been concerned above all for the welfare of his own Medici family and then for the political power of the papacy. His sumptuous style of life reflected his upbringing in his father's Florentine court. Leo played international politics with a skill and daring that were outstanding for his age. He was a personification of the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance, a man who lived elegantly and fully, a man of taste and talent. Yet, Leo was not a religious leader and failed to meet the spiritual needs of his age. As pope, Leo X was a superb Italian prince.
Further Reading on Leo X
Thorough and historically valuable accounts of Leo's life are presented in several older studies: William Roscoe, The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth (4 vols., 1805-1806); Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, vols. 7 and 8 (1908); Herbert M. Vaughan, The Medici Popes (1908); and Joseph A. Gobineau, The Renaissance: Savonarola, Leo X (1913). Frederich Gontard, The Popes (1964), gives a lively and interesting description of Leo's character and the style of the papacy during his rule. Works on church history, such as Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, vol. 3 (1947), are helpful for placing Leo X in the context of the movements of his time.