Military history

5. The Protestant Break: Leo X, 1513–21

“God has given us the Papacy—let us enjoy it,” wrote the former Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, now Pope Leo X, to his brother Giuliano. There is some question whether the remark is authentic but none that it is perfectly characteristic. Leo’s principle was to enjoy life. If Julius was a warrior, the new Pope was a hedonist, the only similarity between them being that their primary interests were equally secular. All the care of Lorenzo the Magnificent for the education and advancement of the cleverest of his sons had produced a cultivated bon vivant devoted to fostering art and culture and the gratification of his tastes, with as little concern for cost as if the source of funds were some self-filling magic cornucopia. One of the great spenders of his time, undoubtedly the most profligate who ever sat on the papal throne, Leo was much admired for his largesse by his Renaissance constituents, who dubbed his reign the Golden Age. It was golden for the coins that rained into their pockets from commissions, continuous festivities and entertainment, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s and city improvement. Since the money to pay for these came from no magic source but from ever-more extortionate and unscrupulous levies by papal agents, the effect, added to other embittering discontents, was to bring Leo’s reign to culmination as the last of united Christianity under the Roman See.

The luster of a Medici on the papal throne bringing with him the glow of money, power and patronage of the great Florentine house, augured, as it seemed, a happy pontificate, promising peace and benevolence in contrast to the blood and rigors of Julius. Consciously planned to reinforce that impression, Leo’s procession to the Lateran following his coronation was the supreme Renaissance festival. It represented what the Holy See signified to the occupant of its last undivided hour—a pedestal for the display of the world’s beauties and delights, and a triumph of splendor in honor of a Medici Pope.

A thousand artists decorated the route with arches, altars, statuary, wreaths of flowers and replicas of the Medici “pawnshop balls” sprouting wine. Every group in the procession—prelates, lay nobles, ambassadors, cardinals and retinues, foreign dignitaries—was richly and resplendently costumed as never before, the clerical as magnificent as the lay. A brilliant symphony of banners displaying ecclesiastical and princely heraldry waved over them. In red silk and ermine, two by two, 112 equerries escorted the sweating but happy Leo on his white horse. His mitres and tiaras and orbs required four bearers to carry them in full view. Cavalry and foot soldiers enlarged the parade. Medici munificence was exhibited by papal chamberlains throwing gold coins among the spectators. A banquet at the Lateran and a return procession illuminated by torchlight and fireworks terminated the occasion. The celebration cost 100,000 ducats, one-seventh of the reserve Julius had left in the treasury.

From then on extravagance only increased. The Pope’s plans for St. Peter’s, exuberantly designed by Raphael as successor to Bramante, were estimated to cost over a million ducats. For the celebration of a French royal marriage arranged for his brother Giuliano, the Pope spent 150,000 ducats, fifty percent more than the papal household’s annual expenses and three times what these had been under Julius. Tapestries of gold and silk for the upper halls of the Vatican, woven to order in Brussels from cartoons by Raphael, cost half as much as his brother’s wedding. To keep up with his expenditures, his chancery created over 2000 saleable offices during his Papacy, including an order of 400 papal Knights of St. Peter, who paid 1000 ducats each for the title and privileges plus an annual interest of ten percent on the purchase price. The total realized from all the offices sold has been estimated at 3 million ducats, six times the Papacy’s annual revenue—and still proved insufficient.

To glorify his family and native city by a monument in recognition of himself and the “divine craftsman” who was his fellow Florentine, Leo initiated what was to be an unsurpassed work of art of his time, Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, where three generations of Medici were already buried. Having heard that the most beautiful marble was to be had from the Pietrasanta range 120 miles away in Tuscany, which Michelangelo said would be too costly to bring out, Leo would consent to nothing less. He had a road built through untrodden country for the marble alone and succeeded in bringing out enough for five incomparable columns. At this stage, he ran out of funds, besides finding Michelangelo “impossible to deal with.” He preferred the genial courtliness of Raphael and the easy-beauties of his art. Work on the Chapel stopped, to be resumed and completed in the Papacy of Leo’s cousin Giulio, the future Clement VII.

For the University of Rome, Leo recruited more than a hundred scholars and professors for courses in law, letters, philosophy, mediciné, astrology, botany, Greek and Hebrew, but owing to corrupt appointments and dwindling funds, the program, like many of his projects, faded rapidly from brilliant beginnings. An avid collector of books and manuscripts, whose contents he would often quote from memory, he founded a press for the printing of Greek classics to indulge his enthusiasm. He dispensed privileges and purses like confetti, showered endless favors on Raphael, employed brigades of assistant artists to execute his designs for ornaments, scenes and figures, decorative floors and carved embellishments for the Papal Palace. He would have made Raphael a Cardinal if the artist had not forestalled him by dying at 37, allegedly of amorous excess, before he could wear the red robes.

Conspicuous and useless expenditure by potentates for the sake of effect was a habitual gesture of the age. At a never-forgotten banquet given by the plutocrat Agostino Chigi, the gold dishes, after serving tongues of parrots and fish brought from Byzantium, were thrown out the window into the Tiber—a little short of the ultimate gesture, in that a net was laid below the surface for retrieval. In Florence, money was perfumed. The apogee of display was the Field of the Cloth of Gold prepared for the meeting of Francis I and Henry VIII in 1520. It left France with a deficit of four million livres, which took nearly a decade to liquidate. As a Medici born to conspicuous expenditure, Leo, had he been a layman, could not have been faulted for reflecting his times, even to the point of neurotic excess. But it was pure folly not to perceive any contradiction of his role in a display of ultra materialism, or ever seriously to consider that because of his position as head of the Church the effect on the public mind might be negative. Easygoing, indolent, intelligent, seemingly sociable and friendly, Leo was careless in office but conscientious in religious ritual, keeping fasts and celebrating Mass daily, and on one occasion, on report of a Turkish victory, walking barefoot through the city at the head of a procession bearing relics to pray for deliverance from the peril of Islam. Danger reminded him of God. Otherwise, the atmosphere of his court was relaxed. Cardinals and members of the Curia who made up the audience for the Sacred Orators chatted during the sermons, which in Leo’s time were reduced to half an hour and then to fifteen minutes.

The Pope enjoyed contests of impromptu versifying, gambling at cards, prolonged banquets with music and especially every form of theatricals. He loved laughter and amusement, wrote a contemporary biographer, Paolo Giovio, “either from a natural liking for this kind of pastime or because he believed that by avoiding vexation and care, he might thereby lengthen his days.” His health was a major concern because, although only 37 when elected, he suffered from an unpleasant anal ulcer which gave him great trouble in processions, although it aided his election because he allowed his doctors to spread word that he would not live long—always a persuasive factor to fellow cardinals. Physically he hardly resembled the Renaissance ideal of noble manhood that Michelangelo embodied in the figure of his brother for the Medici Chapel, even though that too bore small resemblance to the original. (“A thousand years from now,” said the artist, “who will care whether these were the real features?”) Leo was short, fat and flabby, with a head too heavy and legs too puny for his body. Soft white hands were his pride; he took great care of them and adorned them with sparkling rings.

He loved hunting accompanied by retinues of a hundred or more, hawking at Viterbo, stag-hunting at Corneto, fishing in the Lake of Bolsena. In winter, the Papal Court enjoyed musical programs, poetry readings, ballets and plays, including the risqué comedies of Ariosto, Machiavelli, and La Calandria by Leo’s former tutor, Bernardo da Bibbiena, who accompanied the Pope to Rome and was made a Cardinal. When Giuliano de’ Medici came to Rome with his wife, Cardinal Bibbiena wrote to him, “God be praised, for here we lack nothing but a court with ladies.” A clever, cultivated Tuscan and skilled diplomatist of great wit, high spirits and earthy tastes, Bibbiena was the Pope’s close companion and adviser.

Leo’s taste for the classical and the theatrical filled Rome with endless spectacles in a strange mixture of paganism and Christianity: pageants of ancient mythology, carnival masquerades, dramas of Roman history, spectacles of the Passion played in the Colosseum, classical orations and splendid Church feasts. None was more memorable than the famous procession of the white elephant bearing gifts to the Pope from the King of Portugal to celebrate a victory over the Moors. The elephant, led by a Moor with another riding on his neck, carried under a jeweled howdah a chest decorated with silver towers and battlements and containing rich vestments, gold chalices and books in fine bindings for Leo’s delight. At the bridge of Sant’ Angelo, the elephant, on command, bowed three times to the Pope and sprinkled the assembled spectators with water to their screams of glee.

On occasion, paganism invaded the Vatican. In the course of one of the Sacred Orations, the speaker invoked the “immortals” of the Greek pantheon, causing both laughter and some anger in the audience, but the Pope listened complacently and tolerated the blunder “in keeping with his nature.” He liked the sermons to be above all learned, reflecting classical style and content.

In political affairs Leo’s lax attitude accomplished no triumphs and undid some of Julius’. His principle was to avoid trouble as far as he could and accept the inevitable when he had to. His method followed Medici statecraft, which allowed, not to say prescribed, arrangements with both sides. “Having made a treaty with one party,” Leo used to say, “there is no reason why one should not treat with the other.” While acknowledging French claim to Milan, he secretly dealt with Venice to defeat the French re-occupation. When allied to Spain, he likewise colluded with Venice to drive the Spaniards out of Italy. Dissimulation became his habit, more pronounced the deeper his Papacy advanced into trouble. Evasive and smiling, he eluded inquiries and never explained what his policy was, if indeed he had one.

In 1515 the French returned under Francis I at the head of an imposing army with 3000 noble cavalry, skilled artillery and infantry of German mercenaries to launch themselves upon the reconquest of Milan. After judicious consideration, the Pope joined the none too energetic members of the Holy League in resistance, relying on the Swiss for combative force. Unhappily, at the hard-fought battle of Marignano outside Milan, the French were victorious. Though the combat was touch-and-go for two days, papal forces camped at Piacenza less than fifty miles away took no part.

Once more in control of the great northern duchy, the French sealed it by a treaty of “eternal peace” with the Swiss. They were now in too strong a position for the Pope to contend with them, so he reasonably changed sides and, meeting with Francis at Bologna, reached an accommodation which was largely a cession. He yielded Parma and Piacenza, long contested by Milan and the Papacy, and settled the old struggle over Gallican rights concerning Church appointments and revenues. One provision, designed to improve the quality of appointees, required bishops to be over the age of 27 and trained in theology or law, but these qualifications could conveniently be suspended if the nominees were blood relatives of the King or noblemen. Undertaken in such a spirit, these reforms, like those of the Lateran Council, accomplished small improvement.

On the whole, the Concordat of Bologna, even though the French Church found some of its provisions objectionable, marked a further surrender by the Papacy of ecclesiastical power, just as the French reconquest of Milan marked the final crippling, for this period, of Italian independence. Though obvious to bitter critics like Machiavelli and Guicciardini, that result, if he noticed it, did not greatly trouble Leo. Fuori i barbari! was not his battle cry. He preferred harmony. Never able to refuse, he promised at Francis’ request to give him the Laocoon, planning to palm off a copy, which he subsequently ordered from the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (and which is now in the Uffizi). He obtained a French princess for his brother and another for his nephew Lorenzo, and remained happy enough with the French until power shifted with the accession of Charles V as Emperor in 1519, uniting the Spanish and Hapsburg thrones. Finding it expedient to change sides again, Leo allied himself with the new Emperor. The wars continued, largely as conflicts of the great powers fighting out their rivalry on Italy’s soil while the Italian states in their inveterate separation shuffled futilely among them.

The peculiar family passion of the popes which seemed to make family fortunes more important to them than the Holy See was fully shared by Leo, to his undoing. Having no children of his own, he focused his efforts on his closest relatives, beginning with his first cousin Giulio de’ Medici, bastard son of the Giuliano killed in the cathedral by the Pazzi. Leo disposed of the birth barrier by an affidavit stating that Giulio’s parents had been legally if secretly married, and, thus legitimized, Giulio became a Cardinal and his cousin’s chief minister, eventually to occupy his seat as Clement VII. Altogether Leo distributed among his family five cardinalships, to two first cousins and three nephews, each a son of one of his three sisters. This was merely routine. The trouble came when, on the death of his brother, Leo determined to make their common nephew Lorenzo, son of their deceased elder brother Piero, the carrier of Medici fortunes. To obtain the duchy of Urbino for Lorenzo became Leo’s obsession.

Seizing the domain by force of arms from the existing Duke, whom he excommunicated, the Pope endowed the title and territory upon Lorenzo, requiring the College of Cardinals to confirm the deed. The incumbent Duke, a della Rovere nephew of Julius’ who shared his late uncle’s vigor, fought back. When his envoy came to Rome, bearing the Duke’s challenge to Lorenzo, he was seized despite a safe-conduct and tortured for information. To prosecute his war on Urbino, the Pope imposed taxes throughout the Papal States on the ground that the Duke was a rebel. This shameless campaign turned opinion against him, but, like Julius or any other autocrat, Leo ignored the effect of his actions on the public. With relentlessness he showed in little else, he pursued the war for two years. At the end of that time, Lorenzo and his French wife were both dead, leaving only an infant daughter whose unexpected destiny as Catherine de’ Medici was to marry the son of Francis I and to become Queen—and ruler—of France. This whirl of fortune’s wheel, however, came too late for Leo; nor did it prevent the decline of the Medici. Into the empty war on Urbino Leo had poured a total of 800,000 ducats, a plunge into indebtedness that meant the financial wreck of the Papacy. It led the wrecker not to retrenchment, but, through more tortuous devices, to the greatest scandal of the age.

The Petrucci conspiracy was an obscure and vicious affair that has baffled everyone from that day to this. Leo professed to discover through betrayal by a servant a conspiracy of several cardinals to assassinate him. Led by the young Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci of Siena, who nursed a personal grievance, the plot depended on poison to be injected by a suborned doctor in the course of lancing a boil on the Pope’s buttock. Arrests were made, informers tortured, suspect cardinals grilled. Lured to Rome on a safe-conduct, Petrucci and others of the accused were imprisoned, the violation being condoned by Leo on the ground that no poisoner could be considered a safe risk. Hearings produced awful revelations; confessions were induced; whispered reports of the proceedings bewildered and terrified Rome. Forced to plead guilty, Cardinal Petrucci was executed by strangling with an appropriate red silk noose at the hand of a Moor because protocol did not permit a Christian to put to death a Prince of the Church. Faced with this example, the other accused cardinals accepted pardons at a cost of enormous fines, up to 150,000 ducats from the richest, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, yet another of the nipoti of Sixtus IV, in this case a great-nephew.

So farfetched was the plot that the inference could not be avoided that the Pope, perhaps seizing upon some informer’s tattle, had promoted the whole affair for the sake of the fines. Recent investigations in Vatican archives suggest that the plot may in fact have been real, but what counts is the impression made at the time. Coming on top of public indignation at Leo’s war on Urbino, the Petrucci conspiracy further discredited the Papacy, besides alarming and antagonizing the cardinals. Whether to nullify their hostility or to fend off bankruptcy, or both, Leo in an act of astonishing boldness created 31 new cardinals in a single day, collecting from the recruits over 300,000 ducats. The wholesale creation is said to have been conceived by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici as a paving stone on his own path to the Papacy. Demoralization by now was such that no movement of rebellion in the College followed.

The amiable Leo, foundering in his own transactions, turned less amiable, or perhaps had never been so benign as popularly supposed. The Petrucci affair was not the only unpleasantness. To incorporate Perugia into the Papal States, its dynastic ruler, Gianpaolo Baglioni, had to be eliminated. A “monster of iniquity,” Baglioni deserved no mercy, but the Pope once again resorted to treachery. He invited Baglioni to Rome on a safe-conduct, seized and imprisoned him on arrival and after the usual torture had him beheaded.

Why anyone trusted the safe-conducts of the time is the least of the questions. The greater question is what kind of apostleship of Christianity did the Supreme Pontiff and his four predecessors see themselves as filling? Elevated to the chair of Saint Peter, Holy Fathers to the faithful, they had a duty to their constituency to which they seem rarely to have given a thought. What of the believers who looked up to them, who wished to revere holiness and trust in the Pope as supreme priest? A sense of “the perpetual majesty of the pontificate,” in Guicciardini’s phrase, seems to have meant only its tangible attributes to these popes. They made no pretense of holiness or any gestures of religious vocation, while those in their charge had never clamored for it more loudly.

Unconcerned, Leo ignored the indignation his methods caused and made no attempt to curtail his extravagance. He never tried economizing; nor did he reduce his household or gave up gambling. In 1519 in the midst of bankruptcy he staged a bullfight—Alexander’s legacy to the Holy See—on Carnival Sunday with resplendent costumes donated to all the toreadors and their attendants by a Pope already irredeemably in debt.

The year of the Petrucci scandal was 1517, a year destined to turn over a page in history. Since the beginning of the century, dissatisfaction with the Church had grown and widened, expressing itself clerically in synods and sermons, popularly in tracts and satires, letters, poems, songs and the apocalyptic prophecies of preachers. To everyone but the government of the Church, it was plain that an outbreak of dissent was approaching. In 1513, an Italian preaching friar felt it close at hand, predicting the downfall of Rome and of all priests and friars in a holocaust that would leave no unworthy clergy alive and no Mass said for three years. The respectable middle class was made indignant by the reckless extravagance and debts of the Papacy, and every class and group in every nation resented the insatiable papal taxation.

Sermons at the reopening of the Lateran Council under Leo made the discontent explicit. The warning of Giovanni Cortese, legal adviser to the Curia, who had advised Leo on his election that the task of reform was dangerously overdue, was repeated. Many years later, Cortese as a Cardinal was to prepare the agenda for the Council of Trent, which tried to repair the damage. In a notable address at the closing of the Lateran in March 1517, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, ruler of a small duchy and nephew of a more famous uncle, concluded a summary of all the needed reforms with a succinct statement of the choice between the secular and religious: “If we are to win back the enemy and the apostate to our faith, it is more important to restore fallen morality to its ancient rule of virtue than that we should sweep with our fleet the Euxine Sea.” If its proper task were neglected, the speaker finished, heavy would be the judgment that would fall upon the Church. Representing the devout Christian layman, Pico’s speech indicated the spread of discontent.

Alienated by the worldly values of the Papacy, humanists and intellectuals turned back, as did Jacques Lefèvre of France, to the Scriptures to find the meaning of their faith, or like Erasmus to satire, which, while it may have been motivated by genuine religious distress, helped to lower respect for the Church. “As to these Supreme Pontiffs who take the place of Christ,” he wrote in the Colloquies, “were wisdom to descend upon them, how it would inconvenience them! … It would lose them all that wealth and honor, all those possessions, triumphal progresses, offices, dispensations, tributes and indulgences.…” It would require prayers, vigils, studies, sermons “and a thousand troublesome tasks of that sort.” Copyists, notaries, advocates, secretaries, muleteers, grooms, bankers, pimps—“I was about to add something more tender, though rougher, I am afraid, on the ears”—would be out of work.

The popes’ wars also earned Erasmus’ scorn, directed as they were against so-called enemies of the Church. “As if the Church had any enemies more pestilential than impious pontiffs who by their silence allow Christ to be forgotten, enchain Him by mercenary rules … and crucify Him afresh by their scandalous life!” In a private letter he put the matter briefly. “The monarchy of the Pope at Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom.”

Writing in the same years, 1510–20, Machiavelli found proof of decadence in the fact “that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they.” Whoever examined the gap between the principles upon which the Christian religion was founded and their present application by the Church “will judge that her ruin and chastisement are near at hand.” Machiavelli’s anger was at the harm done to Italy. “The evil example of the court of Rome has destroyed all piety and religion in Italy,” resulting in “infinite mischief and disorders” which “keep our country divided.” This is “the cause of our ruin.” Whenever fearing loss of temporal power, the Church, never strong enough to be supreme, calls in some foreign aid, and “this barbarous domination stinks in the nostrils of everyone.”

The indictment was summarized in one sentence by Guicciardini: “Reverence for the Papacy has been utterly lost in the hearts of men.”

The abuse that precipitated the ultimate break was the commercialization of indulgences, and the place where the break came, as everyone knows, was at Wittenberg in northeastern Germany. Anti-Roman sentiment was strongest, and protest most vocal, in the German principalities owing to the absence of a national centralized power able to resist papal taxation as in France. Also, Rome’s exactions were heavier because of ancient connections with the Empire and the great estates held there by the Church. Besides feeling themselves directly robbed by papal agents, the populace felt their faith insulted by the ring of coin in everything to do with the Church, by the wickedness of Rome and its popes and their refusal to reform. A revolt against the Holy See could be expected, warned Girolamo Alessandro, Papal Nuncio to the Empire and a future Bishop and Cardinal. Thousands in Germany, he wrote to the Pope in 1516, were only waiting for the moment to speak their minds openly. Immersed in money and marble monuments, Leo was not listening. Within a year, the awaited moment came through the instrumentality of his agent for the sale of papal indulgences in Germany, Johann Tetzel.

Indulgences were not new, nor were they invented by Leo. Originally granted as a release from all or part of the good works required of a sinner to satisfy a penance imposed by his priest, indulgence gradually came to be considered a release from the guilt of the sin itself. This was a usage severely condemned by purists and protesters. More objectionable was the commercial sale of a spiritual grace. The grace once granted in return for pious donations for church repairs, hospitals, ransom of captives of the Turks and other good works had grown into a vast traffic of which a half or third of the receipts customarily went to Rome and the rest to the local domain, with various percentages to the agents and pardoners who held the concessions. The Church had become a machine for making money, declared John Colet in 1513, with the fee considered as the effective factor rather than repentance and good works. Employing charlatans, misleading the credulous, this traffic became one of the persistent evils of organized religion.

When pardoners allowed the belief—though never explicitly stated by the popes—that indulgences could take care of future sins not yet committed, the Church had reached the point of virtually encouraging sin, as its critics did not fail to point out. To enlarge the market, Sixtus IV ruled in 1476 that indulgences applied to souls in Purgatory, causing the common people to believe that they must pay for the relief of departed relatives. The more prayers and masses and indulgences bought for the deceased, the shorter their terms in Purgatory, and since this arrangement favored the rich, it was naturally resented by the poor and made them readier when the moment came to reject all official sacraments.

Julius had already issued a distribution of indulgences to help pay for the new St. Peter’s. Leo in his first year of office authorized another issue for the same purpose and again in 1515 for special sale in Germany, to offset the costs of his war on Urbino. Offering “complete absolution and remission of all sins,” this one was to be sold over an unusual eight-year term. The financial arrangements, of Byzantine complexity, were designed to enable a young noble, Albrecht of Brandenburg, brother of the Elector of Brandenburg, to pay for three benefices to which the Pope had appointed him. At age 24 he had received the archbishoprics of Mainz and Magdeburg and the bishopric of Halberstadt for a total price variously stated to be 24,000 or 30,000 ducats. Representing simony, plural benefices and an unqualified nominee, this transaction was arranged while the Lateran Council was engaged in outlawing the same practices. Unable to raise the money, Albrecht had borrowed from the Fuggers, whom he was now to reimburse through the proceeds from the indulgences.

Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was a promoter who might have made Barnum blush. Upon arrival in a town, he would be greeted by a prearranged procession of clergy and commoners coming out to meet him with flags and lighted candles while church bells rang joyful tunes. Traveling with a brass-bound chest and a bag of printed receipts, and preceded by an assistant friar bearing the Bull of Indulgence on a velvet cushion, he would set up shop in the nave of the principal church in front of a huge cross raised for the occasion and draped with the papal banner. At his side an agent of the Fuggers kept careful count of the money that purchasers dropped into a bowl placed on top of the chest, as each received a printed indulgence from the bag.

“I have here,” Tetzel would call out, “the passports … to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise.” For a mortal sin, seven years of penance were due. “Who then would hesitate for a quarter-florin to secure one of these letters of remission?” Warming up, he would say that if a Christian had slept with his mother and put money in the Pope’s bowl, “the Holy Father had the power in Heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and if he forgave it, God must do so also.” In behalf of the deceased, he said that “as soon as the coin rang in the bowl, the soul for whom it was paid would fly out of Purgatory straight to Heaven.”

The ring of these coins was the summons to Luther. Tetzel’s crass equation of the mercenary and the spiritual was the ultimate expression of the message emanating from the Papacy over the past fifty years. It was not the cause but the signal for the Protestant secession, whose doctrinal, personal, political, religious and economic causes were old and various and long-developing.

In response to Tetzel’s campaign, Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, assailing the abuse of indulgence as sacrilegious, although without yet suggesting a break with Rome. In the same year the Fifth Lateran held its final session—the last chance for reform. Luther’s challenge provoked a counter-attack by Tetzel affirming the efficacy of indulgences followed by a reply by Luther in a vernacular tract, Indulgence and Grace. His fellow Augustinians took up the debate, opponents entered the dispute and within two months a German Archbishop in Rome called for heresy proceedings. Summoned to Rome in 1518, Luther petitioned for hearings in his native land, to which the Papal Legate in Germany and the lay authorities agreed in order not to exacerbate feelings during the imminent meeting of the German Diet which was supposed to vote taxes. The death of the Emperor Maximilian shortly afterward, requiring election of a successor by the Diet, was a further reason to avoid trouble.

Enclosed, like his predecessors, in the Italian drama, the Pope was unaware of the issues and incapable of understanding the protest that had been developing for the century and a half since Wycliffe had repudiated priesthood as necessary to salvation, as well as the sacraments and the Papacy itself. Leo hardly noticed the fracas in Germany except as a heresy to be suppressed like any other. His response was a Bull in November 1518 providing excommunication for all who failed to preach and believe that the Pope has the right to grant indulgences. It proved as effective as Canute’s admonition to the waves. Leo, however, was soon to be more distressed by the shock of Raphael’s death than by the challenge of Luther.

Once the protest became overt, revolt against Rome followed in a rush. When the Diet of Augsburg in 1518 was asked to vote a special tax for crusade against the Turks, it replied that the real enemy of Christendom was “the hell-hound in Rome.” At his hearings in Leipzig in 1519, Luther now repudiated the authority of both the Papacy and a General Council, and subsequently published in 1520 his definitive statement of the Protestant position, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Claiming that baptism consecrated every man a priest with direct access to salvation, it denounced popes and hierarchy for all their sins and unrighteousness and called for national churches independent of Rome. Taken up by other Church rebels and reformers, his doctrine swept in a torrent of illustrated sheets and pamphlets and tracts to eager readers in towns and cities from Bremen to Nuremberg. In the Swiss city of Zurich, a fellow protester, Ulrich Zwingli, already preaching the same theses as Luther, extended the protest which was soon to fall into doctrinal disputes that were to fragment the movement forever after.

Informed by papal envoys of the spreading dissent, the Papacy saw itself dealing with “a wild boar which has invaded the Lord’s vineyard,” so described in a new Bull, Exsurge Domine, in 1520. Upon examination, the Bull condemned 41 of Luther’s theses as heretical or dangerous and ordered him to recant. When he refused, he was excommunicated and his punishment as a declared heretic was asked from the civil arm. The new Emperor, Charles V, young but sage and not anxious to draw popular anger upon himself, handed the hot coal to the Diet at Worms, where Luther in 1521 again refused to recant. As a devout Catholic, Charles V was forced to denounce him, perhaps less from orthodoxy than in return for a political pact with the Pope to join in ejecting the French from Milan. The Edict of Worms obediently put Luther and his followers under the ban of the Empire, promptly rendered null by his friends, who removed him to safety.

The Imperial forces triumphed over the French at Milan in 1521, enabling their papal allies to regain the northern jewels of the patrimony, Parma and Piacenza. Characteristically celebrating the victory by one of his favorite all-night banquets in December, Leo caught a chill, developed a fever and died. In seven years he had spent, as estimated by his financial controller, Cardinal Armellini, five million ducats, and left debts of more than 800,000. Between his death and burial, the customary plunder on the death of a pontiff was so thorough that the only candles that could be found to light his coffin were half-used ones from the recent funeral of a Cardinal. His hectic extravagance, lacking even Julius’ justification of political purpose, was the compulsive spending of a spoiled son of wealth and the acquisitiveness of a collector and connoisseur. Unlike Chigi’s gold plate, it had no waiting net in the river. It nourished immortal works of art, but however much these have graced the world, the proper business of the Church was something else.

Leo left the Papacy and the Church in the “lowest possible repute,” wrote the contemporary historian Francesco Vettori, “because of the continued advance of the Lutheran sect.” A lampoon suggested that if the Pope had lived longer, he would have sold Rome too, and then Christ, and then himself. People in the street hissed the cardinals going to the conclave to choose his successor.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!