Giovanni de’ Medici – Leo X

‘God has given us the Papacy. Let us enjoy it!’

Leo as depicted by Raphael. His cousin and future Pope Giulio de’ Medici (Clement VII) grasps Leo’s seat. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Yorck Project]

Looking at the life of Leo X is a headscratcher. Not for what he said, or what he did, but because of, well, his physical condition. Christopher Hibbert offers an indicative portrait: Leo is arriving at St. Peter’s to be crowned, the pinnacle of his private and public life:

As he rode in the procession sitting side-saddle on a white Arab horse, it was noticed how his face, almost purple with the heat, ran with sweat despite the canopy of embroidered silk which was held over his head by eight Romans of distinguished birth. It was noticed, too, how corpulent he was, how vast his paunch, how fleshy his short neck, how fat the rolls beneath his chin, how bulging his weak eyes. Those whose duties brought them close to him were also distastefully aware of the smell that now and again was emitted from the huge bottom on the saddle. [1]

That stench was emanating from Leo’s anal fistula. Not surprising, the massive bulk, perhaps, for a man of his tastes and background – but during the conclave to elect him as head of the Church, Leo was so incapacitated he couldn’t get out of bed (he was 37). A stomach ulcer also gave him great trouble. This is the Pope, mind you: spare a thought for the hygienic and medicinal tribulations of the common people. One ends up murmuring in agreement with Kingsley Amis’ Jim Dixon – a brief look at pre-modern history leaves one relieved to be suffering today.

Leo X was elected Pope in 1513, and would reign for just short of a decade. His journey to the Papal throne had been set by his family, the most distinguished in Florence, the Medici. It was because of this name that Leo, born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, was able to become a cardinal at the age of just 13 (though he only officially joined the cardinalate at 16). Giovanni was the beneficiary of a near-unrivalled upbringing in the Renaissance world. Here he was, not only the scion of one of Europe’s richest and most powerful families, but born into a city that set the high-water mark for visual culture in the fifteenth century; the individuals that financed and carried out this artistic flourishing in which Florence attained prominence were either in the family, friends of the family, or in the case of the young Michelangelo, living amongst the family, at the Medici Palace.

The Medici derived from the Mugello region, just north of Florence. Giovanni’s great-, great-grandfather, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (prepare yourself for a cascade of identical names) laid the foundations for the family’s wealth when he established the Medici Bank in 1397, the Medici having initially made its money through one of Florence’s many important guilds, the Arte della Lana, which was concerned with the wool trade. There were 12 such guilds and they were the lifeblood of the city, through which trade was conducted and the city’s government elected. Naturally, no skilled workers – the majority of Florentines – could join a guild but, impressively, those of noble birth were also disqualified from membership. The ostracism of these two significant social groups from Florence’s political sphere gives some indication of the power and financial muscle of the mercantile class which controlled the city’s republican government.

Woodcut of late fifteenth-century Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, Bas VH]

Giovanni di Bicci was a member of another guild besides the Arte della Lana: the Arte del Cambio, the bankers and money-lenders collective. But it was his son, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), who consolidated the family’s wealthy into real political power, expanding the bank as he did so. Medici power was further emboldened when Cosimo was successful in having as one of the Medici Bank’s clients the Pope. It’s important to remember that Cosimo was not in any official sense the ‘ruler’ of Florence, but instead a primus inter pares ­– first among equals. Enea Piccolomini, later Paul II, described Cosimo’s pervasive influence:   

‘Political questions are settled at his house…The man he chooses holds office…He it is who decides peace and war and controls the laws…He is King in everything but name’[2]

Ruling without being the ruler was fraught with difficulty. Cosimo’s father had nurtured in his son the principle of maintaining a low profile and staying out, as far as possible, of politics, at least publicly. In Florence, however, this was more difficult than elsewhere because it was hard not to make money without becoming embroiled in politics. Two dangers were always present for the rich Florentine: the enmity of the people, and the envy of rival families. The pride that Florentines had in their autonomous political system meant that they were inordinately suspicious of those looking to obtain power for themselves. Fully absorbing the example his father had set, Cosimo was notoriously reluctant to be seen as the head of the Florentine state, and content, if not eager, to operate behind closed doors, away from the envious eyes of other powerful families. He was a quiet figure who rarely gave his opinion in public, and he was wise not to do so: Medici rivals the Albizzi saw to it that Cosimo was arrested and then exiled in 1433, returning a year later after prominent Florentines had left the city to join Cosimo in Venice. 

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (1475/1476). Cosimo is kneeling at the Virgin’s feet; his grandson Lorenzo (Leo’s father) puffs out his chest on the left; Botticelli is looking directly at the viewer on the extreme right. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Yorck Project]

Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici – il Magnifico – was born in 1449. Well-liked, Lorenzo had presided over Florence as head of state in all but name with great charm and charisma, helping maintain peace among the indefatigable fighting between the city states of Italy: Milan, Venice, Bologna, Genoa, the Kingdom of Sicily and the Papal States. This, in addition to making sure the Holy Roman Empire was kept at arm’s length, along with the French, and that the people of Florence remained sympathetic to the Medici clan. Lorenzo’s success as a diplomat meant a relative peace was maintained, creating a stability in which the art of the Renaissance could reach its zenith. As a teenager, Lorenzo had hobnobbed with some of Europe’s leading artists and intellectuals. When Michelangelo was a young man he lived with Lorenzo in the Medici palace; his father Cosimo had been close to Donatello, securing work for him and commissioning pieces for his own collection, including the artist’s David. Lorenzo picked up where his father left off. The poet and scholar Poliziano was a good friend, and Lorenzo helped Botticelli and Ghirlandaio receive commissions. Lorenzo wrote poetry in his native Tuscan tongue and was an avid collector of forgotten classical texts, chiefly from what was the Byzantine and Greek-speaking world of the East.   

Lorenzo’s supremacy over Florence did not go uncontested. In 1478, Lorenzo and Pope Sixtus IV had nearly gone to war over the town of Città di Castello, whose ruler the Pope had intended remove from power. Lorenzo’s refusal to loan Sixtus the funds to finance the purchase of Imola in Bologna had already established friction between the pair. A rival banking faction in Florence, the Pazzi, took advantage of the situation and gave Sixtus the money, and in recompense received the Papal account. With Lorenzo at odds with the Pope, the Pazzi felt it opportune to fatally undermine Medici power. A plot was hatched to murder Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, a risky act that would have to go flawlessly and would require prior backing if it were to succeed. The conspirators sniffed around for support with little success, before one conspirator, Gian Battista da Montesecco, though initially reluctant, decided he would back the coup d’etat with the proviso of the Pope’s blessing that the Medici brothers be murdered.

He could only inform the pair to go ahead with their plan to remove the Medici from power, ‘provided their be no killing’.

Girolamo Riario, the Pope’s nephew and the new Lord of Imola, and Archbishop of Pisa Francesco Salviati met Sixtus to tease out the desired go-ahead. Sixtus, though desperate to see the Medici overthrown, could not openly sanction murder, and was coy when the pair explained that the brothers may come to harm if Sixtus was to have his wish. He could only inform the pair to go ahead with their plan to remove the Medici from power, ‘provided their be no killing’.[3] This was an impossibility, and the Pope knew it. The conspirators now had the unofficial Papal blessing that they desired, and, after a number of false starts, settled on 26 April, Easter Sunday, when Lorenzo and his brother were to attend Mass in the Duomo.[4] Two priests were found willing to perform the task, after hesitation was shown by some conspirators of committing murder in a holy place. The signal to strike would be at the ringing of the sacristy bell. On the appointed morning in the packed Cathedral, each actor was on their mark: Lorenzo, with Poliziano as company, on one side of the High Altar, and Giuliano at the northern side of the choir.

At the ringing of the bell, one of the priests grabbed Lorenzo’s shoulder and thrust his dagger at his neck, but Lorenzo loosened himself from his grasp and drew his sword. The attackers backed off, and Lorenzo ran for the sacristy. His brother Giuliano had not been so fortunate: the 25-year-old was already dead, his head almost split completely in two from an assassin’s fatal blow. With Lorenzo still alive the plot was quickly unravelling. The city was alerted through the tolling of bell at Palazzo della Signoria and the city rushed out onto the streets; there were some cries of support for the Pazzi but overwhelmingly the Florentines were chanting the Medici slogan ‘Palle!’, ‘Palle!’ (‘balls’, as represented on the Medici coat of arms). Salviati and other conspirators who were in the Palazzo attempting to take it by force were beaten back, immediately had a rope tied around their necks and were tossed from the palace windows. Lorenzo tried to calm the maddening lust for revenge to little avail, and dozens of the other protagonists in the plot suffered similar fates.

The Pazzi Conspiracy achieved the opposite of its desired effect, helping consolidate Medici power in Florence. An outraged Sixtus placed the whole city of Florence under interdict and war duly followed. For two years Florence held on, but knowing that this could not last, Lorenzo took the bold step of traveling to Naples and in attempt to achieve peace with King Ferrante, a Papal ally. After ten weeks, Ferrante offered Lorenzo a peace treaty.

Pazzi conspirator Bernardo Baroncelli, hanging at the Bargello, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Baroncelli had fled to Constantinople, but had been returned to Florence, still dressed in Eastern attire, by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, Mattes]

Giovanni de’ Medici was an infant at the death of his uncle Giuliano. Before he was even born, Giovanni’s parents Lorenzo and Clarice Orisini, envisaged a career in the Church for Giovanni. Encouraged in part by a dream that Clarice had when pregnant of giving birth to a lion in a cathedral, but more likely eyeing the power and prestige of making their boy an ecclesiast, Lorenzo pushed the Church into making Giovanni a cardinal at the earliest opportunity. Innocent VIII granted Lorenzo’s request after persistent appeals in 1489; three years later, Giovanni was ordained in Fiesole, just weeks before his father Lorenzo’s death. This was not a happy time for the Medici. Lorenzo’s death gave succour to those who clamoured for change in the city. In 1494, Florence came fully under the influence of the zealot preacher Savonarola, and the Medici were expelled. After travelling to Germany, the Netherlands and France, Giovanni returned to Rome in 1500 and settled into a comfortable life; Julius II had other plans, however, making Giovanni Papal legate in his war against the French in Bologna. Giovanni was captured and taken prisoner by the retreating French forces which, though victorious, had suffered calamitous losses. Eventually he escaped, and set about returning Florence to Medici rule which finally occurred in 1512.

Shortly after returning to Florence, Giovanni received the news that Pope Julius II was nearing his final days. Giovanni had to be carried to Rome owing to his ill health for the conclave, and, despite no obvious advantage over the other candidates, was chosen as Pope thanks in part to the idea that he was the relatively innocuous option – not in Leo’s papacy, the other Cardinals considered, would the Pontiff lead troops into battle, as Julius had so outrageously done. He was rich, well-liked and known to be an amiable fellow, despite being dogged by ill-health. Besides, perhaps his sickness would result in a short Papacy. On 11 March 1521, he himself counted the Cardinals’ votes as he picked them from an urn, announcing himself the winner.

Florence was delighted that one of its own was to occupy the Vatican for the first time. Rome, too, was not disappointed: the Pope’s mother, Clarice Orsini, was a Roman. This was a time for celebration, and it was to his Giuliano, his brother, that Leo was supposed to have uttered not long after becoming Pope: ‘God has given us the Papacy. Let us enjoy it!’. Leo, certainly, did his very best to live up to this exclamation. He possessed an unnatural talent for spending money, whether he had it or not, mainly on gargantuan banquets of the utmost extravagance. Not that such events were classy affairs: jesters and clowns were a ubiquitous presence, and the Pope enjoyed having idiots perform squalid feats, such as eating forty eggs in one sitting, or consuming ravens intact. Such boring and base behaviour was not confined to the banqueting hall, with practical jokes, a favourite mirth-maker of Leo’s, also conducted on a much larger scale, such as when the poor sod Baraballo, a priest who churned out uninspiring verse, was duped into believing himself a poet of unsurpassed genius. Flunkeys and attendants could barely stifle their guffaws as the priest, thinking he was to be crowned with a laurel wreath on Capitoline, left the Vatican sumptuously attired seated on the Pope’s white elephant Hanno; the poor creature became terrified by the crowds on Ponte Sant’Angelo and tossed Baraballo onto the banks of the Tiber.   

Hanno, Leo’s white elephant, a gift from the King of Portugal Manuel I. Leo’s verse epitaph is beneath the sketch. [Source: Wikimedia Commons,
Francisco d’Ollanda]

Not all of Leo’s money was spent so frivolously, nor were his pursuits always so coarse. His formative years in the intellectually vigorous atmosphere of the Medici Palace under the tutelage of Poliziano had not been completely wasted. The Cretan scholar Markos Musuros, who taught Erasmus at the University of Padua, was invited to Rome by Leo to teach Greek and the Medici library was brought to the city (though later returned to Florence). Leo also poured money into Rome’s university; he was eager, as Popes before and after him were, to secure the services of Michelangelo, his childhood friend, but it was the younger, more amenable Raphael to whom Leo gave special attention. Clearly Leo could mix the base with the elevated, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Hunting was another of Leo’s most prized pastimes, with whole swathes of the countryside marked so that a plethora of beasts could be captured and killed. It is not, then, just the state that Leo was in physically that (at least for me) remains a puzzle: Leo wrote an epitaph for Hanno the elephant in verse upon its death.  

Leo himself died on 1 December 1521, to the surprise of his doctors, who had assumed he merely had a cold. He was succeeded by Adrian VI, the only Dutch Pope, and the last non-Italian Pope until the twentieth century. Adrian lasted nearly two years as Pontiff; his successor was another Medici: Leo’s cousin, Giulio de’ Medici – Clement VII.  


[1] Hibbert 1974: 218

[2] Hibbert 1974: 63

[3] Hibbert 1974: 133

[4] The great dome of which was designed by Brunelleschi after studying the Pantheon; Brunelleschi also built the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Medici family church.


Hibbert, C. 1974. The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici. London.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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