Giovanni di Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Pope Leo X
Florence, 1475 - Rome, 1521
- Cardinal; Pope
Florence, Rome, Bologna, Urbino and elsewhere
- Biographical information:
The second son of Lorenzo il Magnifico and Clarice Orsini, Giovanni was born in Florence on 11 December 1475. He was the brother of Piero il Fatuo, or the Unlucky, and Giuliano Duke of Nemours. His training was marked by the cultural and philosophical milieu that gravitated around his father Lorenzo. He had outstanding tutors, including Poliziano, Michelozzi and Calcondila.
Il Magnifico set Giovanni on the path of an ecclesiastical career by directing him towards specific studies, with the intention of making him into a high-ranking cardinal who could represent the Medici family at the papal court. His hierarchical career was extremely rapid, thanks to his father’s influence, and while still a boy he became a cleric, protonotary, and Abbot of Montecassino and Moribondo. Finally, after much pressure, Lorenzo managed to convince Pope Innocent VIII to appoint Giovanni cardinal, despite the fact that he was only thirteen years old (9 March 1489), albeit on the condition that the youth would only begin to perform his ecclesiastical tasks three years later and after he had completed the studies inherent to his new role. The following year Giovanni graduated in canon law at the University of Pisa. On 10 March 1492, at the age of just 17, he donned the Cardinal’s purple at a private ceremony held in the Badia Fiesolana.
When in November 1494 the Medici were driven out and exiled from Florence, Giovanni took advantage of this to undertake various travels in Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands, up to 1497, designed both to enhance his education and to seal important bonds of friendship.
From 1503 on Giovanni went to live in Rome, under the aegis of Pope Julius II Della Rovere. He took up residence in Palazzo Madama, where he gathered around him ranks of artists and men of letters in a cultured and refined milieu pervaded by humanist and antiquarian interests. In 1507 he became one of the canons of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. From 1 October 1511 he was papal legate with the armies of Spain and of the Church allied against France. On 11 April 1512 at the Battle of Ravenna, when Gastone di Foix defeated the troops of the Holy League, Giovanni who was on the battlefield aiding the wounded was taken prisoner by the French. He saved himself by paying the ransom for his release.
As papal legate in the pontifical and Spanish army he exerted himself to create conditions favourable to the return of the Medici to Florence. In this regard the siege of Prato in August 1512 was decisive: in September Giuliano (on the 1st of the month) and Giovanni (on the 14th) returned to Florence and retook possession of Palazzo Medici and the other family residences. A few days later the return of the Medici was celebrated with a triumphal parade through the city led by Giovanni and his younger brother Giuliano, together with their cousin Giulio.
Having returned to Rome on the death of Pope Julius II, on 11 March 1513 Giovanni was elected Pope with the name of Leo X. Magnificent celebrations were planned which commenced on 13 September of the same year. In the meantime, just two months after his election, Leo appointed his cousin Giulio as Archbishop of Florence, providing him with a papal dispensation since he was illegitimate. Then, on 23 September 1513 he appointed about forty cardinals, chosen mostly from among relatives and friends: these included Giulio himself, Innocenzo Cybo, Lorenzo Pucci and Bernardo Dovizi known as Bibbiena.
On 30 November 1515, Leo X made his triumphal entry into Florence as Pope, and hence as guarantor of the re-established Medici power. Shortly afterwards he left for Bologna to meet Francis I of France, to negotiate an end to their conflict and the protection of Rome and of Florence. On the return journey the Medici pope made a long sojourn in his native city, from 22 December 1515 to 19 February 1516, residing in the popes’ apartment in the convent of Santa Maria Novella. During his stay he concerned himself with the promotion of various public works, and with relaunching work on the family sites, in particular the complex of San Lorenzo and the villa of Poggio a Caiano.
As the head of the Papal State, Leo X imposed a policy of equilibrium between the European powers, making a show of pacific intentions. In reality on more than one occasion he let himself be drawn into diplomatic intrigues and was frequently influenced by his primary objective which was to pursue the interests of his own family in Florence and Rome. In this sphere he achieved excellent results, entrusting the government of Florence first to his brother Giuliano and later to his nephew Lorenzo, both under the control of his cousin and trusted adviser Cardinal Giulio. Moreover, in 1516 Leo X’s papal army wrested the Duchy of Urbino from its legitimate owner, Francesco Maria Della Rovere, to assign it to his nephew Lorenzo, to whom he granted the related title.
Leo X was an attentive collector and patron of the arts, distinguished by his intellectual lucidity, his lofty culture and sophisticated tastes, deriving at least partially from the education imparted to him by the Magnifico. An impassioned collector of books and manuscripts, he was among the protectors of the Manuzio printworks. The Medici pope surrounded himself with artists, musicians and men of letters whom he summoned from various parts of Italy: these included, among others, Bembo, Sannazzaro, Sadoleto, Guicciardini, Bibbiena, Aretino, as well as Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Peruzzi and Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo. The Medici patronage, which involved magnificent decorative enterprises and vast architectural and town planning initiatives, had its major fulcrum of interest in Rome. Leo X’s lavish and ambitious commissions were one of the strong points of his policy, albeit to the detriment of the administration of the State, the coffers of which were soon emptied. The ensuing economic crisis was of such an entity that the hefty increases in taxation, and even the sale of offices and indulgences, were to no avail.
Leo was moreover pitiless towards those who threatened his power: he quenched with blood the plot woven by Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci (1517) and had Giampaolo Baglioni decapitated, after enticing him to Rome with the promise of a safe-conduct (1520).
He pursued an indecisive and wavering policy with the great European powers. In 1513 he made overtures to Louis XII of France, who denounced the schismatic council of Pisa. He did not however take up a position when Louis’s successor Francis I entered Italy with ambitions on Milan in 1515. Finally he attempted to negotiate with France again; he was obliged to hand over Parma and Piacenza, but succeeded in gaining the hand in marriage of Francis I’s relative, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, for his nephew Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino.
From a religious point of view, Leo X showed himself sensitive to the need for renewal within the Church which emerged during the fifth Lateran Council, held between 1512 and 1517. He favoured the religious orders of the minors and the preachers and approved the formation of the Oratory of Divine Love. In 1516 he beatified Filippo Benizzi. He condemned the cruelty of the conquering armies in the Spanish colonies, as well as denouncing divination and magic. However he failed to implement a coherent and profound action of reform.
Effectively he clashed fiercely with Martin Luther, to whom he addressed the bull of excommunication Exsurge Domine (1 June 1520), forcing the Augustinian monk to leave the Church of Rome. Among the principal accusations levelled by Luther against Leo X were the sale of indulgences and nepotism.
Leo X then saw in the Emperor Charles V a possible ally in the struggle against Lutheranism and at the same time an end to disputes with Francis I. In 1521 the army of the league formed between the Papal State, Charles V and England, commanded by Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Vitello Vitelli, defeated the forces of France, Venice and Ferrara. The armies of the league occupied Milan and Lombardy, abandoned by the French.
While the clamorous victory was still being celebrated, Leo X died of bronchopneumonia at the age of forty-six. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
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