The Medici were the greatest patrons of the arts and the godfathers of Florence. Their patronage had helped to bring about a great revival of culture in Italy, called the Renaissance. Perhaps there’s no greater sign of just how powerful the Medici were than the life of Giovanni da Medici. In the middle of great turmoil in Florence after the departure of Savonarola and the exile of the family, Giovanni, who was prepared from childhood to take a place in the Catholic church, was elected Pope. He changed his name to Pope Leo X, and made fateful decisions that had huge consequences for the church and the entire western world. The Medici had basically bribed other cardinals to vote Giovanni to the Papacy, and Leo swiftly placed family members in high places to benefit the family, including his brother who became a cardinal.
Pope Leo and his higher ups promptly partied as if there was no cost involved. He is often quoted for saying to his brother Guiliano, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He had elaborate feasts every night, and hosted large celebrations in Rome, including a parade where he rode on the back of a white elephant. Being a Medici, he was fascinated with the ideas of humanism so popular in Renaissance Florence, and he brought this perspective to the Vatican. He had few limits when it came to dishing out money, and soon enough, he had more or less bankrupted the church. To compensate, he authorized the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper, priced affordably to anyone who wanted one, that granted forgiveness of sins and entrance to Heaven. They could also be bought on behalf of dead family members, to assure their escape from punishment.
For Martin Luther, a German monk, that was the final straw.He was furious and posted his 95 theses, disagreements with the church, on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was the start of the protestant reformation, and touched off a firestorm of controversy. Luther contended that grace came through God alone and not through the Pope. Similar reformers had been burned at the stake for questioning the church in the past, but Luther persisted, gaining momentum and starting a movement that swept over Europe. It’s an extremely complex history whose consequences are still felt and argued over today. Leo’s response was to fight back with all the threats he could as Pope, but the damage was done. He died rather suddenly in 1521 of illness. His successor Pope Adrian VI, did his best to respond to the protestant reformation, but also died, after less than 2 years as pope.
Leo’s cousin, Guilio de Medici, was destined to become another Medici pope. He chose the name Clement VII, and inherited a nearly impossible situation. His papacy was defined by monumental struggle that was tearing the church and Europe apart. Eventually, fanatical enemy troops, fueled by religious hatred of the church, arrived in Rome. Clement fled to the Castel St. Angelo, where he held out for 6 months. Eventually, he bribed his way out and fled. Called the sack of Rome, it was a truly terrible event. The enemy armies pillaged the city, killed and raped, and Rome would never be the same. The resistance spread to other cities too, including Florence, where Michelangelo had to go into hiding. After some time, Clement returned to Rome and the long process of rebuilding began. The sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance and the a turning point for the popes. Their place as supreme power and authority has never been the same. One of his last acts was to commission Michelangelo, then in his 50s, to return to the Sistine Chapel and paint a massive scene on the front wall of “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of the most amazing works of art in the world, and I’ll talk about it extensively in a few other posts.
It was the greed and corruption of the Medici popes that finally crossed the line and broke the church. Still, Leo X, Clement VII and many other corrupt popes throughout the ages are an indicator of just how strong and engrained the Christian religion is. That it would survive to its present state, in spite of so many disastrous detours and power hungry people with other motives, is truly a miracle. As for art and culture, a movement called the counter reformation or catholic revival came in the years after Clement, and altered the attitudes of the church and created what we have today.