The pontificate of Leo X (1513-21) was a period of intense cultural activity and was exemplary of the heights of Renaissance extravagance. Born Giovanni de' Medici in December 1475, the future Leo X was the intelligent second son of the illustrious Lorenzo de' Medici of Florence. Tonsured at the age of seven, Giovanni was intended by his father to become the vehicle of Medicean and Florentine interests in the Sacred College. He was tutored by some of the leading scholars of the time—Politian and Marsilio Ficino among them—and later stud­ied canon law at Pisa before his formal elevation to the College of Cardinals in 1492. Following the exile of the Medici from Florence in 1494, the cardinal traveled throughout Europe, eventually returning to Rome six years later, where he took up a relatively pious, modest, but thoroughly urbane mode of life. He distinguished himself politically under Pope Julius II,* who appointed him papal legate for Bologna and Romagna in 1511. In 1512 he accompanied the papal army against the French at Ravenna and finally saw the restoration of the Medici to Florence that same year.
Leo's election to the papacy after Julius's death in 1513 was unexpected, but not unwelcome to those who looked forward to a more cultured pontificate. As a product of the intellectual and artistic ferment of his father's court, the new pope launched an extravagant program of patronage that attracted to Rome some of the brightest lights of the day. Both Michelangelo* and Raphael* were in his employ, although the latter soon became the artistic centerpiece of his court. Leo's fondness for belles lettres drew into his service such famous literati as Pietro Bembo* and Pietro Aretino,* as well as a galaxy of less noteworthy talents. The pope's devotion to scholarship and the culture of antiquity also helped finance the University of Rome, an academy of Greek studies, and many other erudite projects. In addition to these high-minded pursuits, Leo delighted in lavish amusements, theatrical and musical performances, buffoonery, and hunting. His generosity and enthusiasms, however, were too widespread to be sustained; within two years of his accession the papal finances were in a state of crisis.
The pope's genial personality was less apparent in his political affairs. His general strategy was to unify central Italy (preferably under Medicean control) against France and Spain. Although his initial efforts were moderately success­ful, the French victory at Marignano in 1515 obliged him to make significant territorial and investiture concessions to Francois I* in return for the revocation of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. Leo's allegiances continued to shift freely with the changing political landscape, however, earning him a not-undeserved reputation for duplicity and diplomatic opportunism. He also became mired in a costly and unpopular private war (1516-17) to install his nephew as the duke of Urbino. Burdened by debt and the cost of the reconstruction of St. Peter's, Leo frequently resorted to outright simony to raise funds. In 1516 his fiscal dealings with Albrecht of Brandenburg brought into light the worst abuses of the sale of indulgences and set in motion the first stages of Martin Luther's* revolt against Rome. Leo's own attempts at church reform through the Fifth Lateran Council had been minor and ineffectual, and he never truly appreciated the scope of disaffection caused by papal policy. He excommunicated Luther in 1521 and died, possibly of malarial fever, later that same year, leaving the Roman church financially unstable and irrevocably compromised by the growing momentum of the Reformation.
L. Pastor, The History of the Popes, vols. 7-8, 1908.
H. M. Vaughan, The Medici Popes, 1908.
Michael J. Medwick

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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