THE Pope that gave his name to one of the most brilliant and immoral ages in the history of Rome owed his ecclesiastical career to the political strategy of his father. Lorenzo de’ Medici had been almost destroyed by Sixtus IV; he hoped that the power of his family, and the security of his progeny in Florence, would be helped by having a Medici sitting in the college of cardinals, in the inner circles of the Church. He destined his second son for the ecclesiastical state almost from Giovanni’s infancy. At seven (1482) the boy was given the tonsure; soon he was dowered with benefices in commendam: i.e., he was made absentee beneficiary of church properties, and received their surplus revenue. At the age of eight he was given the abbacy of Font Douce in France; at nine the rich abbey of Passignano, at eleven the historic abbey of Monte Cassino; before his election to the papacy Giovanni had collected sixteen such benefices.1 At eight he was appointed protonotary apostolic; at fourteen he was made a cardinal.*
The young prelate was provided with all the education available to a millionaire’s son. He grew up amid scholars, poets, statesmen, and philosophers; he was tutored by Marsilio Ficino; he learned Greek from Demetrius Chalcondyles, philosophy from Bernardo da Bibbiena, who became one of his cardinals. From the collections of art, and the conversations about art, in or around his father’s palace he imbibed that taste for the beautiful which was almost a religion to him in his mature years. From his father, perhaps, he learned the profuse and sometimes reckless generosity, and the gay, almost epicurean, manner of life, which were to distinguish his cardinalate and his pontificate, with far-reaching results to the Christian world. At thirteen he entered the university that his father had re-established at Pisa; there, for three years, he studied philosophy and theology, canon and civil law. When, at sixteen, he was allowed openly to join the college of cardinals in Rome, Lorenzo sent him off (March 12, 1492) with one of the most interesting letters in history:
You, and all of us who are interested in your welfare, ought to esteem ourselves highly favored by Providence, not only for the many honors and benefits bestowed on our house, but more particularly for having conferred upon us, in your person, the greatest dignity we have ever enjoyed. This favor, in itself so important, is rendered still more so by the circumstances with which it is accompanied, and especially by the consideration of your youth and of our situation in the world. The first thing that I would therefore suggest to you is, that you ought to be grateful to God, and continually to recollect that it is not through your merits, your prudence, or your solicitude, that this event has taken place, but through His favor, which you can only repay by a pious, chaste, and exemplary life; and that your obligations to the performance of these duties are so much the greater, as in your early years you have given some reasonable expectation that your riper age may produce such fruits…. Endeavor, therefore, to alleviate the burden of your early dignity by the regularity of your life, and by your perseverance in those studies which are suitable to your profession. It gave me great satisfaction to learn that in the course of the past year you had frequently, of your own accord, gone to communion and confession; nor do I conceive that there is any better way of obtaining the favor of heaven than by habituating yourself to a performance of these and similar duties….
I well know that as you are now to reside at Rome, that sink of all iniquity, the difficulty of conducting yourself by these admonitions will be increased. The influence of example is itself prevalent; but you will probably meet with those who will particularly endeavor to corrupt and incite you to vice; because, as you may yourself perceive, your early attainment to so great a dignity is not observed without envy, and those who could not prevent your receiving that honor will secretly endeavor to diminish it, by inducing you to forfeit the good estimation of the public; thereby precipitating you into that gulf into which they have themselves fallen; in which attempt the consideration of your youth will give them a confidence of success. To these difficulties you ought to oppose yourself with the greater firmness as there is at present less virtue amongst your brethren of the college. I acknowledge indeed that several of them are good and learned men, whose lives are exemplary, and whom I would recommend to you as patterns of your conduct. By emulating them you will be so much the more known and esteemed, in proportion as your age, and the peculiarity of your situation, will distinguish you from your colleagues. Avoid, however,… the imputation of hypocrisy; guard against all ostentation, either in your conduct or in your discourse; affect not austerity, nor even appear too serious. This advice you will, I hope, in time understand and practise better than I can express it.
Yet you are not unacquainted with the great importance of the character which you have to sustain, for you well know that all the Christian world would prosper if the cardinals were what they ought to be; because in such a case there would always be a good pope, upon which the tranquillity of Christendom so materially depends. Endeavor then to render yourself such that if all the rest resembled you we might expect this universal blessing. To give you particular directions as to your behavior and conversation would be a matter of no small difficulty. I shall therefore only recommend that in your intercourse with the cardinals and other men of rank your language be unassuming and respectful…. On this your first visit to Rome it will, however, be more advisable for you to listen to others than to speak much yourself….
On public occasions let your equipage and dress be rather below than above mediocrity. A handsome house and a well ordered family will be preferable to a great retinue and a splendid residence.… Silk and jewels are not suitable for persons in your station. Your taste will be better shown in the acquisition of a few elegant remains of antiquity, or in the collecting of handsome books, and by your attendants being learned and well bred rather than numerous. Invite others to your house oftener than you receive invitations. Practise neither too frequently. Let your own food be plain, and take sufficient exercise, for those who wear your habit are soon liable, without great caution, to contract infirmities…. Confide in others too little rather than too much. There is one rule which I would recommend to your attention in preference to all others: Rise early in the morning. This will not only contribute to your health, but will enable you to arrange and expedite the business of the day; and as there are various duties incident to your station, such as the performance of divine service, studying, giving audience, etc., you will find the observance of this admonition productive of the greatest utility…. You will probably be desired to intercede for the favors of the Pope on particular occasions. Be cautious, however, that you trouble him not too often; for his temper leads him to be most liberal to those who weary him least with their solicitations. This you must observe, lest you should give him offense, remembering also at times to converse with him on more agreeable topics; and if you should be obliged to request some kindness from him, let it be done with that modesty and humility which are so pleasing to his disposition. Farewell.2
Lorenzo died less than a month later, and Giovanni had hardly reached the “sink of iniquity” when he hurried back to Florence to support his elder brother Piero in a precarious inheritance of political authority. It was one of Giovanni’s rare misfortunes that he was again in Florence when Piero fell. To escape the indiscriminate wrath of the citizens against the Medici family he disguised himself as a Franciscan friar, made his way unrecognized through hostile crowds, and applied for admission to the monastery of San Marco, which his forebears had lavishly endowed, but which was at the time under the command of his father’s enemy, Savonarola. The friars refused him admission. He hid for a time in a suburb, and then made his way over the mountains to join his brothers in Bologna. Disliking Alexander VI, he avoided Rome; for six years he lived as a fugitive or an exile, but apparently never out of funds. With his cousin Giulio (later Clement VII) and some friends he visited Germany, Flanders, and France. Finally, reconciling himself to Alexander, he took up his residence in Rome (1500).
Everybody there liked him. He was modest, affable, and unostentatiously generous. He sent substantial gifts to his old teachers Politian and Chalcondyles. He collected books and works of art, and even his ample income hardly sufficed for his aid to poets, artists, musicians, and scholars. He enjoyed all the arts and graces of life; nevertheless Guicciardini, who lost no love on the popes, described him as “having the reputation of a chaste person, and of unblameable manners”;3 and Aldus Manutius complimented him on his “pious and irreproachable life.”4
His vicissitudes were resumed when Julius II appointed him papal legate to govern Bologna and the Romagna (1511). He accompanied the papal army to Ravenna; walked unarmed amid the battle, encouraging the soldiers; stayed too long on the field of defeat, administering the sacraments to the dying; and was captured by a Greek detachment in the service of the victorious French. Taken as a prisoner to Milan, he was pleased to note that even the French soldiers paid little attention to the schismatic cardinals and their peregrinating council, but came eagerly to him for his blessing, his absolution, perhaps his purse. He escaped from his lenient captors, joined the Spanish-papal forces that sacked Prato and took Florence, and shared with his brother Giuliano in the restoration of the Medici to power (1512). A few months later he was called to Rome to take part in selecting a successor to Julius.
He was still only thirty-seven, and could hardly have expected that he himself would be chosen pope. He entered the conclave in a litter, suffering from an anal fistula.5 After a week of debate, and apparently without simony, Giovanni de’ Medici was elected (March 11, 1513), and took the name of Leo X. He was not yet a priest, but this defect was remedied on March 15.
Everybody was surprised and delighted. After the dark intrigues of Alexander and Caesar Borgia, and the wars and turbulence and tantrums of Julius, it was a relief that a young man already distinguished for his easygoing good nature, his tact and courtesy, and his opulent patronage of letters and art, was now to lead the Church, presumably in the ways of peace. Alfonso of Ferrara, so relentlessly fought by Julius, had no fear in coming to Rome. Leo reinvested him with all his ducal dignities, and the grateful prince held the stirrup as Leo mounted a horse to ride in the coronation procession of March 17. These inauguration ceremonies were lavish beyond any precedent, costing 100,000 ducats.6 The banker Agostino Chigi provided a float on which a Latin inscription proclaimed hopefully: ‘Once Venus” (Alexander) “reigned, then Mars” (Julius), “now Pallas” (Wisdom) “rules.” A pithier epigram ran the rounds: “Mars was, Pallas is, I, Venus, will always be.”7 Poets, sculptors, painters, goldsmiths rejoiced; humanists promised themselves a revival of the Augustan Age. Never had a man mounted the pontifical chair under more favorable auspices of public approbation.
Leo himself, if we may believe the scribblers of the time, said pleasantly to his brother Giuliano: Godiamoci il papato, poichè Dio ci l’ha dato—”Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.”8 The remark, possibly apocryphal, indicated no irreverence, but a blithe spirit, ready to be generous as well as happy, and ingenuously unaware, amid its good fortune, that half of Christendom was swelling with revolt against the Church.