This is the second part of this essay, and deals with the disaster that befell Rome and the Pope
After the death of Julius II, the next pope was Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the great Florentine family, who now became Pope Leo X at only 37 years old. He had always been destined for the church, and was given the livings of various rich churches and monasteries from age of eight, and became a cardinal at just sixteen. He was undoubtedly a clever man, and it was hoped he would bring in more peaceful times after turbulence of Alexander VI and Julius II. Also it was probably suspected that he wouldn’t be there for long: the Medici tended to be short-lived, and indeed it proved so in his case, because he died aged only 46.
During Leo’s pontificate, the papacy rose to unprecedented heights of luxurious living. His main aims seemed to be to live a life of pleasure and to boost the careers of his relatives. “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”, he said. It was a time of unparalleled splendour in papal Rome. The are reports of banquets lasting four hours, of 65 courses featuring rare and costly food, such as peacock’s tongues, served to the accompaniment of music from the finest orchestras. A banker named Chigi once invited the Pope to his home, and when congratulated on his sumptuous dining-hall, replied, “Your Holiness, this is merely my stable!” The same man impressed his guests by throwing all the silverware out of the window into the river Tiber after each course - though it was said he had prudently hidden nets there to catch them!
Pope Leo did not get on with Michelangelo, but patronised Raphael, who now finished his frescoes in the Vatican apartments. The building of St. Peter’s continued.
There were problems to be dealt with. In 1517, the Pope was threatened with a plot to poison him, headed by two cardinals; but it was discovered in time. The conspirators were arrested and tortured in the dungeons of the Castel san Angelo: the two cardinals, who had powerful friends, were released after paying vast fines, but the lesser plotters were gruesomely executed and their bodies hanged on the San Angelo bridge.
Internationally, the Pope faced a new and ambitious king of France. Francis I was born in 1494, and in 1515 succeeded his second cousin, Louis XII, whose daughter Claude he married. He was the first great Renaissance king of France; a patron to Leonardo and Titian; a collector paintings, including the “Virgin of the rocks“, now in the Louvre; and a great builder, whose memorials include the palace of Fontainebleau and the Loire chateaux of Blois and Amboise.
Francis was hailed as a second Charlemagne, and was keen to renew French claims in Italy, especially Milan. But by now the Spaniards were strongly entrenched there; in full control of Naples and Sicily. The position was made more complicated by the dynastic marriages of the Habsburg family. The heir, Charles, was born in what is now Belgium in 1500, his father dying when he was six years old. Through his mother, Joanna “the Mad” he inherited the throne of Spain, through his paternal grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian, who died when Charles was nineteen, he was Archduke of Austria, and through his grandmother was Duke of Burgundy, which included the Netherlands. Charles became ruler of the Netherlands at fifteen, King of Spain (including much of southern Italy and the newly-discovered American lands) at sixteen, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes in 1520, aged nineteen. Not surprisingly, it was all to prove too much for one man. Charles was immediately sucked into war with the French, who had regained control of Milan. Pope Leo allied with Charles against the French.
As it happened, something that was to prove an even more serious problem for both the Empire and the Papacy was taking form back in Germany. The lavish expenditure of the church, and particularly the vast cost of the building of St. Peter’s, caused the Pope to fall back on the expedient of raising funds by licensing the sale of Indulgencies: documents promising release of souls from Purgatory in return for cash payment. This caused great theological distress to an Augustinian friar and university lecturer in Saxony, who was already undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. His name was Martin Luther. In 1517 he felt moved to make public protest; nailing his “95 Theses” against Indulgencies to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and going on t defend his point of view against papal delegates. The Emperor Charles ignored it at first, as a mere quarrel amongst monks, but the matter soon escalated, and in 1521 Luther summoned to a meeting of the Imperial Parliament, the memorably-named Diet of Worms, where he was ordered to recant his opinions, but refused to do so. Luther was outlawed, but since he had been promised a safe-conduct by the Emperor, was permitted to leave. Luther was taken by sympathetic nobles and hidden in the castle of Wartburg, where he translated the Bible into German and formulated the original Protestant theology.
By this time, Pope Leo no longer in position to care, because in 1521 he died, aged only 46. There now followed a hiatus in the Renaissance papacy. The young Emperor, justifiably unhappy at the lax state of the church, decided the right man to clean things up was his old tutor from Belgium, whom he now forced the cardinals to install as Pope Adrian VI. The high dignitaries looked on with horror as this austere old man slashed papal expenditure and spent only one ducat a day on food. His attempts to reform the papacy met with no success at all, since he died after less than two years in office, to sighs of relief from the College of cardinals. His demise was apparently caused by kidney failure, but poison was naturally suspected. (he was, incidentally, the last non-Italian Pope until John Paul II in our own time)
There was a return to normality with the election of Clement VII, at the age of just 45. He was formerly known as Cardinal Giulio de‘ Medici; though his precise Medici parentage is uncertain. What follows is a great moral tragedy of classical proportions: in the words of a contemporary, “How a great and respected cardinal became a small and contemptible Pope”, and brought appalling suffering upon thousands of his innocent subjects in the process. Not only did Clement make no progress in checking the growth of Protestantism, but he proved hopelessly at sea in politics.
There was war in northern Italy between King Francis and the Emperor Charles, and the Pope seemed unable to make up mind about what to do. He appeared to support first one side, then the other, and as a result became universally mistrusted. In 1525 the Emperor’s forces completely defeated the French at battle of Pavia, and King Francis himself was taken prisoner. Still Clement persisted in what seemed like double-dealing, thought it was probably only a fatal indecision. In spring 1527 a huge, ill-disciplined and virtually starving Imperial army of Germans, Spaniards and assorted mercenaries approached Rome. Charles was not with his army, because there were other problems confronting his vast empire. On May 6th, the attack on the virtually defenceless city of Rome began, with Pope Clement still paralysed with indecision. Just to create further confusion, the commanders of the Imperial army were killed early on, leaving their troops without any direction or restraint. Next day, the attackers burst in. Pope Clement barely had time to flee to the Castel Sant’ Angelo and pull up the drawbridge, leaving his city to face the most savage assault since the days of the Normans. Uncounted thousands were killed out of hand, or tortured to make them reveal their hidden treasure. Nuns were raped and churches pillaged. An unknown German soldier scratched the name of Martin Luther on one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican. Sant’ Angelo held out, with Benvenuto Cellini directing the defence (or so he tells us). Only when sheer shortage of food forced most of the soldiers to leave Rome was Clement able to escape in disguise and flee to Orvieto. Meanwhile Florence had once again risen in revolt and driven out the recently-restored Medici.
Clement survived, but for the remainder of his pontificate was little more than a prisoner of the Emperor. This proved to have the most crucial consequences for English history, because it was precisely at this time that Henry VIII requested the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. There had been doubts about the validity of this marriage 20 years earlier, when Henry had sought the then Pope’s permission to marry the widow of his dead brother; a union apparently forbidden in the Scriptures. Julius II had duly given the marriage his blessing, but Catherine’s failure to produce a son had led Henry to suspect this had been wrong. He therefore asked, not for a divorce, but an annulment: a Papal ruling that the marriage had never been valid in the first place, and that technically Henry and Catherine had been living in sin for two decades, and their daughter Mary was illegitimate. The tangle of dynastic marriages meant that Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt! There was no way that Charles would tolerate such an insult to his family. The unfortunate Pope could do nothing to help Henry, who had to seek other paths out of his difficulties. So a train of events was set leading to the Church of England breaking away for the Church of Rome.
Charles promised Pope Clement to restore to Medici to Florence, and sent a Spanish army of 40,000 to achieve this. Thanks to new fortifications designed by Michelangelo, the city withstood a siege of ten months before being driven by starvation to surrender in autumn 1530. Leading anti-Medicians were executed, tortured or exiled: the nineteen-year-old Alessandro de’ Medici was installed in power, and married to the Emperor’s even younger illegitimate daughter Margaret. In October 1533, the Pope himself conducted the marriage of the fourteen-year-old Catherine de’ Medici to Henry, second son of King Francis of France, but soon to be the heir.
In autumn 1534, Pope Clement died. Rome rejoiced. As the corpse lay in state, someone transfixed it with a sword. His official Latin superscription, “Clemens Pontifex Maximus” was altered to “Inclemens Pontifex Minimus”; rightly so, since he had been a complete failure.It was in the dark spirit of the times that Michelangelo returned to Rome to paint his terrifying Last Judgement in the Sinstine Chapel, with Christ hurling sinners down to hell. It was a fitting image of the disaster that befallen not just Rome, but much of Europe.
King Francis I died in 1547, by which time France was already being torn apart by religious divisions. His son now became king as Henry II, so Catherine de’ Medici was unexpectedly Queen of France. Later as a widow she continued to dominate the government of her three sons until her own death in 1589. Charles V ruled his vast empire till he abdicated in 1558. His own failure was due to having to take on too much: he won a dominant position in Italy, but could barely contain the spread of Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands. He was also threatened from the east, because in 1526 the Turks, under the great Sultan Sulemain the Magnificent, advanced through the Balkans and annihilated the armies of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs. Soon Budapest fell and Turkish forces were swarming up to the gates of Vienna itself. This collapse left Charles’s brother Ferdinand as heir to what little remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, and also the Kingdom of Bohemia, through his wife. At his abdication Charles therefore divided his possessions, leaving the central European lands to Ferdinand, who was duly elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes, and Spain, plus the Netherlands, the Italian territories and the new American conquests, to his son Philip.
We can see the death of Clement as marking the end of the Renaissance papacy. The popes whose careers we have followed were great men in many ways; they were diplomats, administrators; soldiers, even; they were great builders and had impeccable artistic taste. But it cannot be said that any one of them was particularly pious. The Italy they tried to dominate acquired a European-wide reputation as a hotbed of treachery and murder. We can see in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries how it was assumed that this was the way people behaved in Italy. Soon the popes were obliged to be less blatantly pleasure-seeking and more serious-minded about religion: the popes of the Counter-Reformation. Everything would be different. Nevertheless, the terrible period we have covered, of little more than a single generation, witnessed the entire working career of Raphael and almost all the major work of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as many others of almost equal talent. Why this should be is one of the great debating-points of history.
A note on St. Peter’s.
The original basilica of St. Peter’s was built under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and after a thousand years it is unsurprising that it was found to be in a dangerous state. A complete demolition and rebuilding was first contemplated by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, making the significant comment, “If the authority of the Holy See were visibly displayed in majestic buildings, all the world would revere it”. But it was only half a century later that Julius II decided to take such an irrevocable step of building an entirely new cathedral. The project was given to the great architect Bramante, who conceived the daring plan of “putting the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Maxentius”. Julius himself laid the foundation stone on April 28th 1506. Such an enormous work took many decades to complete. It is quite wrong to assume that when the plundering Imperial forces stormed into Rome in 1527 they would see anything like the present building. In fact, St. Peter’s would have been a vast building site: even the drum to support the dome was nowhere near completion. After Bramante’s death in 1514, he was succeeded as chief architect by Raphael, by Sangallo and by Michelangelo, who climbed the scaffolding for the last time just three days before his death in 1564. All of them made significant changes to the original plan. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, but even after this changes continued to be made. The great Square of St. Peter with its colonnades was the work of Bernini in the 1660s. Only the would the cathedral be recognisable to modern eyes.
St. Peter’s is only the most spectacular part of the rebuilding of Rome that began in the 15th century, to produce the splendid city centre that we see now. This had one very unfortunate consequence. A visitor to the city today may wonder why so little remains of the huge palaces, temples and baths which would have dominated the city in the days of the Roman Empire. The answer is that they were cannibalised to provide convenient building stone for the new cathedrals and churches. The marble facings were even burnt to make lime for mortar! Although Bramante incorporated some old features into the new St. Peter’s, particularly tombs and monuments, it was said of him that “he destroyed more than he built”. The Coliseum survived only because the pope decided to preserve it as a memorial to the Christian martyrs who suffered there - though in fact most of the martyrdoms took place in the Circus Maximus, of which hardly any stonework survives. So a tourist who wonders what became of the imperial palaces on the Palatine hill could well find the answer in St. Peter’s!