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Leo X - A True de' Medici

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Portrait of Leo XIf ever a man was produced by the Italian Renaissance it was Giovanni de' Medici. He was born at Florence in 1475, the son of the magnificent Lorenzo. Marsilio Ficino and Politian saw to his humanist education. Destined for the Church, he was tonsured at the age of seven or eight and soon became abbot of several monasteries. A cardinal at thirteen, he was pope at thirty-eight. Yet Giovanni had his troubles too.

His family was expelled from Florence in 1494. Appointed legate in Romagna by Julius II, Giovanni was taken prisoner by the French in the War of the Holy League. But then fortune's wheel spun. The Medici recovered control of Florence in 1512, and the very next year Giovanni entered the conclave a dark horse to emerge as Pope Leo X. Leo faced the crushing responsibility of spiritual leadership with a light heart. He loved shows and games, and many a play and ballet was performed for the Pope's amusement. A keen sportsman, Leo spent much time hunting. He was careless of the morals of the humanists he patronized as long as their Latin was Ciceronian. Yet Leo had no scandal in his own life, before or after becoming pope. He was charitable, said his prayers regularly, and even fasted three times a week.

His open-handed extravagance made Rome a happy hunting grounds for humanists, but it so seriously embarrassed the papal treasury that Leo was forced to stoop to unworthy devices to secure necessary funds. In politics Leo played a shifty game without much ability and usually reaped only embarrassment. He completed the Fifth Lateran Council called by Julius. But, though excellent reform decrees had been passed, little enough came of them. Leo's most famous achievement was the Concordat of Bologna, an agreement with Francis I of France signed in 1516 which put an end to the semischismatical policy intermittently followed by the French since the Council of Basel. This agreement, which allowed the king to name bishops and abbots, gave him so great a stake in French church wealth that greed would not tempt the French monarchs, as it did others, to leave the Church so that they could confiscate its wealth. These advantages, however, were dearly bought, for the concordat left an open avenue to corruption in the French church. Leo X had been elected by the younger cardinals, and these made so many demands on him that he could not satisfy all. One of the disgruntled dignitaries, Cardinal Petrucci, plotted to poison the Pope. Leo discovered the plot, had Petrucci executed, and then at one sitting created thirty-one new cardinals, a wise step which ensured a loyal college. Leo had appointed Raphael to proceed with the building of St. Peter's, but lack of funds forced the great artist to chafe in idleness.

The Pope granted an indulgence to all who under the usual conditions contributed to the building of the basilica. Tetzel, preaching this indulgence in Germany, stirred a stormy Augustinian to challenge him and indulgences on October 31, 1517. From 1517 to 1521 Martin Luther drifted into open rebellion against the Catholic religion. Leo was quite patient with him, but at last in 1520 he condemned Luther's errors by the bull "Exsurge Domine." Condemnations were not enough. By December 1, 1521, when Leo X died, Germany was aflame. It was the time's misfortune that when the Church needed a Hildebrand on the papal throne all it got was a Medici. .


Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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