Julius II, the warrior pope, was succeeded on the pontifical throne by Leo X. Born at Florence, Dec. II, 1475, he was a scion of the famous house of de’ Medici, his father being Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Leo, whose original name was Giovanni, his second son. He was one of the few popes, the splendor of the family to which he belonged corresponded somewhat with that of the pontifical dignity.
The house of the Medici was an Italian noble family. It had acquired renown in Italian history through the large number of statesmen to which it gave birth and its generous patronage of essentially pagan letters and art. Originally an obscure family, it rose to power by such means as the world is want to employ,—means that were persistently pursued from generation to generation. The origin of the family is unknown, as is the signification of the Medician arms—six red balls on a field of gold. The chronicles of Florence make mention of the name as early as the 12th century in connection with various public offices. Leo’s father was the second of the great men bestowed upon Italy by the house of the Medici. He was a man of extraordinary literary talent, having studied letters from his earliest years under the guidance of the leading literary of the day. But he was more than this; he was also a ruler. His grandfather, Cosimo, had established his power in Florence by violence. He was followed on his captured seat of authority by his son Piero. At the latter’s death five years later, Lorenzo, at the age of eighteen, seized the reins of the state with a firm grasp. He ruled as a tyrant; and to divert the minds of the people from the oppressions of his government, he incited them in his verses to festivities and lulled them to slumber by sensual enjoyments. His verses are often of a most revolting indecency, and these productions were sung by their author in the streets, in the midst of the people.
Such, then, was the abstraction of Leo; such was Lorenzo his father, surnamed Lorenzo the Magnificent. Every opportunity which family distinction, wealth, and learned tutors could give, Leo enjoyed. Already at the age of seven he was admitted to the clerical state. In this same year he received from the king of France the abbey of Fonte Dolce. It did not take long before he found himself in the possession of 27 appointments. At the age of fourteen he was made cardinal-deacon by the pope. On the occasion of his investment into the office, he received of his father a letter full of fatherly counsel. Lorenzo reminded his son that Rome was a sink of corruption, and admonished him to lead a virtuous life. And verily, voluptuary though he was, Leo seems not to have exposed himself to the charge of unchasteness. But it is not likely that this was a virtue; it may have been forced upon him by nature.
At the time of his elevation to the papal chair, Leo was 37 years old. The festivities of his coronation cost 150,000 ducats. A procession of 250 abbots, bishops, and archbishops participated. Before his coronation he was required to promise to issue no brief for collecting money for the repair of St. Peter. Had he kept this pledge, the reformation might have been postponed for some time.
Leo, too, was a pontiff only in name. The spiritual mission of his office was not in all his thoughts. He was not concerned about the interests of true religion. In a letter he wrote to his brother shortly after his election occurs this statement, “Let us enjoy the papacy, for God has given it to us.” These words from his pen well express his attitude. His love of pleasure was insatiable. He spent far too much time in hunting and fishing, though the chase was forbidden to the clergy by canonical law. He had a passion for the theatre, attending plays in the palaces of the cardinals and rich bankers. To modern performance of plays that he could enjoy young people in Florence a few decades ago were not admitted. These plays are that lascivious. Festivities of all sorts had the strongest attraction for Leo. He ordered his life as though the resources of the papal treasury were inexhaustible. Two years after he assumed the pontificate his annual income had risen to 600,000 ducets. And still he ran short, so that all sorts of means had to be adopted to increase the papal revenues. His court was the most luxurious in Europe. His love of art was the love of beauty divorced from spiritual grace; it was thus thoroughly pagan.
Yet withal he was notoriously pious. Three times a week he fasted. He ate no meat on Wednesday and Friday. He daily read his canonical prayers. And before every mass it was his custom to seek absolution from his confessor. Yet he turned the Vatican into a house of reveling and frivolity.
As was explained, the dream of Julius II, the warrior pope, had been an independent Italian kingdom and accordingly his one aim had been to expel all foreign domination from Italy. His success in this direction has been noticed. Leo’s policy was to preserve the conquests which he had inherited from Julius II. But if Julius had resorted to military exploits to gain his end, Leo’s weapons were diplomacy, duplicity and opportunism. To the practice of duplicity he stooped with his allies as well as with his enemies. Shortly after he ascended the pontifical throne the French made a determined effort to re-possess northern Italy whence they had been driven by Julius II. Leo made a treaty with Henry VIII of England, and the French were beaten by Henry and expelled from Italy by an army of Swiss.
The following will serve as an example of Leo’s duplicity. He reached an agreement with the emperor of Germany, Maximilian, and Ferdinand king of Spain, according to which his brother, Julian de’ Medici, should receive certain provinces in Italy. And he supported, did the pope, the armies of these allies with money. At the same time, faithless to the king of Spain, he was making arrangements with Venice to drive the Spaniards out of Italy.
Frances I, king of France, and the successor of Louis XII, was a young prince who lived only for military glory. His entire reign was dominated by the ambition of recovering in Italy the states from which the French had been driven out by Henry VIII of England and by the Swiss. With an army of 35,000 men, he marched into Italy and inflicted a disastrous defeat upon the Swiss mercenaries. Leo was now at the mercy of the king of France, and he was much perturbed. To one of his Venetian ambassadors he exclaimed, “We shall have to put ourselves into the hands of the king and cry for mercy.” The ambassador replied, “The victory will not inure to your hurt or damage of the apostolic see. The French king is a son of the church.” The pope saw the point. He immediately terminated his alliances with the German emperor and the Spaniards and went forth to welcome the victorious king of France. At Bologne they met. Frances uncovered his head, bowed three times to the ground, and kissed the pontiff’s foot; but his demands were as severe as his posture was humble. An agreement was struck, according to which Leo yielded up the two Italian states Parma and Piacenza—but recently acquired by Julius, and conquered anew for the pope by Henry VIII and the Swiss.
In 1519 the German emperor, Maximilian died. In the election of a successor, Leo’s diplomacy was again in evidence. The two aspirants to the emperial throne were Charles, king of Spain, and Francis. Though Leo wanted Francis and was secretly supporting him, he also entered into a secret agreement with Charles, so that both candidates believed that they had the pope on their side. Thus Leo had secured his position, no matter who might win in the election. When it became evident that Francis would lose, Leo openly sided with Charles, even rising to his support by a sum of 100,000 ducets. At the Reichtag of Worms, the Diet before which Luther appeared, Leo entered with Charles into an alliance against Francis. The newly chosen emperor agreed to drive the French out of Milan, Parma and Piacenza. In this he also was successful. But before the tidings of his achievement reached the pope, the latter died, Dec. 1, 1521.
The importance of the struggle that was begun by Luther’s nailing of his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Leo did not understand. To him the reports that reached Rome conveyed only the impression of a dispute between the two monastic orders of which Luther and Tetzel were respectively the representatives. He declared Luther a man of genius and refused to interfere. But when Luther became very bold, and anyone could see that the new movement menaced the Roman See, Leo fulminated his bull of excommunication against Luther in 1520.