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Five hundred years ago, on Friday 4 March 1513, the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church gathered in conclave. Among them was the Englishman Christopher Bainbridge, who snuck news of proceedings out by scratching messages into one of his silver plates and giving it to the English ambassador. Vatileaks are nothing new.

After five days of deliberations (and a cut in their daily food ration), the cardinals voted for Giovanni de’ Medici, who took the name Leo X. ‘The only possible verdict on the pontificate of Leo X is that it was unfortunate for the Church,’ observed the authors of the Catholic Encylopaedia of 1911. Leo prioritised his family interests and his own love of the arts – and could not head off the calls for reform that would soon divide western Christendom.

The first of the Medici popes was only thirty-seven, but he was not inexperienced. Leo’s election in 1513 was the culmination of long efforts by the Medici to expand their influence in Rome. Giovanni de’ Medici had been appointed cardinal in 1489 at the precocious age of thirteen, formally taking the habit in 1492. The advice given him by his father Lorenzo ‘The Magnificent’, de facto ruler of Florence, is instructive. ‘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.’ Maintaining such a virtuous lifestyle would, though, be difficult in Rome, ‘that sink of all iniquity’. Giovanni would ‘probably meet with those who will particularly endeavor to corrupt and incite you to vice’.

While today even accusations of a less than exemplary life are enough to force a cardinal’s resignation, in 1513 things were rather different. The rules on chastity were widely flouted, not least by popes themselves. Leo’s predecessor, Julius II, openly acknowledged an illegitimate daughter, Felice; Alexander VI had had no fewer than eight children. There are suggestions – mainly on the basis of a 1525 comment by Guicciardini and a later anonymous pamphlet – that Leo had male lovers. (He makes the Routledge Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History.) In the sixteenth century, however, the rules on celibacy were not so much about proper behaviour as about limiting nepotism. They represented an attempt (however inadequate) to prevent priests and popes passing on church property to their sons.

It was the measure of Leo’s papacy that he saw his enemies around him in Rome. He diluted the power of the College of Cardinals by making a staggering thirty-one new promotions in the single creation of 1517 (just twenty-five out of a possible thirty-one cardinals had participated in the 1513 conclave). But he is remembered mainly for what he did not do: grasp the political dimensions of Martin Luther’s challenge to church doctrine.

Leo’s historical reputation is, in part, a product of unlucky timing. The sale of ‘indulgences’ had accounted for a growing proportion of Church income for some decades. (The ‘indulgence’ system meant that in return for a donation to the Church, purchasers could redeem some sins and spend less time in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven.) It was not, particularly, Leo’s fault that the controversy blew up in his papacy.

Perhaps Leo should be remembered more for his magnificent patronage of Raphael, for his friendship with Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Courtier, for the work of the leading literary figures who made up his secretariat. This was a pope who reorganised the University of Rome; built up his own and the Vatican library; established a Greek college and publishing house; protected Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. He promoted research into Rome’s ancient origins, and charged Raphael with making an archaeological map of the city.

Twenty years earlier that might have been accounted a glittering, if rather worldly, papacy. But in the making of reputations, timing is everything. Leo will forever be the pope who failed the challenge of reform.

Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield. This week, Catherine will be tweeting ‘live’ updates of the 1513 conclave @cath_fletcher .

You can find other History Matters posts on papal history and the Pope’s resignation here.

Catherine Fletcher

The author Catherine Fletcher

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