Pope Clement VII was the head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 19 November 1523 to 25 September 1534. Having previously served as the Archbishop of Florence, he took charge of the papacy during a very delicate situation, right after the end of the Italian Renaissance. The subsequent years brought huge challenges for Pope Clement VII with the political and religious hurdles growing bigger with time. Many believed Clement VII was the fittest person to take charge of the papacy during one of the toughest times in world politics and religious faith. He had held multiple important posts like those of Cardinal-Deacon of Santa Maria in Dominica, Cardinal-Priest of San Clement, and Cardinal-Priest of San Lorenzo in Damaso, before becoming the Archbishop of Florence. With a reputation of serving his previous posts with dignity and distinction, Clement VII faced many challenges like the ‘Protestant Reformation’, foreign invasion, bankruptcy as well as getting caught between two powerful kings, Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. During the unfortunate events of ‘Sack of Rome’ in 1527, he was captured and imprisoned by Charles V. Upon his escape from confinement, Clement VII was forced to compromise the church’s independence. Pope Clement VII was known for his approval of science and for protecting the Jews from the Portuguese Inquisition. He is also remembered for securing the southern European island of Malta for the Knights of Malta.
Childhood & Early Life
On May 26, 1478, Pope Clement VII was born as Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, in Florence, Republic of Florence. He was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de Medici, the co-ruler of Florence, and the nephew of the great statesman Lorenzo de' Medici (popularly known as Lorenzo the Magnificent).
Clement VII grew up under the supervision of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, the Italian Renaissance architect who was also his Godfather. After spending seven years with him, Clement VII returned home and was put under his uncle’s guidance.
He grew up along with his cousins Piero, Giuliano, and Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici who later became Pope Leo X.
Despite desiring to, Clement VII couldn’t pursue the top positions in the church due to his illegitimate birth and was forced to join the military. He later became the Grand Prior of Capua but after the death of his uncle, Lorenzo the Magnificent, he joined the church.
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Under Pope Leo X
Clement VII’s cousin Giovanni de' Medici was elected as Pope Leo X in 1513. Clement VII became the Archbishop of Florence the same year, and a papal dispensation cleared all the constraints due to his birth illegitimacy. This cleared the way for Pope Leo X to make Clement VII the leading Bishop, ‘the Cardinal’, in September 1513, and later the Cardinal-Deacon of Santa Maria in Dominica.
King Henry VIII of England appointed him the cardinal protector of England in January 1514, and Clement VII’s diplomatic journey began. Within a year, he was appointed the Archbishop of Narbonne and eventually the cardinal protector of France by King Francis I of France.
Gran Maestro of Florence
King Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V engaged in a war which began the difficult times for Clement VII. King Francis I, who had appointed him as the cardinal protector of France, expected him to side with France. However, the king’s reputation of controlling the churches in France displeased Clement VII. He finally made an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V against France.
After his cousin Lorenzo II de Medici died in 1519, Clement VII took charge of Florence. He successfully managed to control the civic bodies and the economy, restoring the city of Florence.
Campaigning for Pope Adrian VI & Becoming Pope
In 1521, Pope Leo X died and Clement was considered to be the prime candidate to become the next pope. However, he decided to support Pope Adrian VI in the election. Clement played an influential role in the papacy of Adrian VI.
Pope Adrian VI’s reign was short-lived as he passed away on September 14, 1523, within a year of him becoming the pope. Clement VII was favored as a candidate by Emperor Charles V. This helped him overcome the opposition from France and finally become the pope on November 19, 1523.
His very first attempt to unite France, Spain, England, and Italy in a bid to end the war in Italy failed. He tried to unite the Christian countries against the threats of the Turks but his delegation, led by the Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schönberg, couldn’t convince the emperors.
In the Battle of Pavia, Pope Clement VII lent his support to Emperor Charles V. King Francis I of France lost the battle and was imprisoned. In 1526, a year after the war, King Francis I was released after the Treaty of Madrid was signed.
When Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, died during a siege in the ongoing Sack of Rome, his troops went on a rampage in Rome. Rapes, loot, vandalism and murders marked the end of the ‘Renaissance Rome’. Pope Clement had to take refuge at the Castel Sant'Angelo and agreed to pay a sum of 400,000 ducati for his life.
When King Henry VIII of England wanted to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, the aunt of Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII couldn’t approve of it as he was a captive of the latter.
Death & Legacy
Towards the end of 1533, after returning to Rome from meeting with Francis I and Charles V, Pope Clement VII complained of severe stomach problems. He also suffered from occasional fevers. The doctors feared the worst, and on September 25, 1534, he died.
Pope Clement VII was known for his enthusiasm towards arts as well as science. He approved Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that stated “the Earth revolves around the Sun,” a year before he died.
He also commissioned many popular artworks for various churches. Some of these are Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgment’ and ‘The Transfiguration’ by the legendary artist Raphael.