The Election and Coronation of Pope Leo X

Leo X by Peter Paul Rubens
In 1513, Pope Julius II died. Julius is probably better known as Giuliano della Roverre, the arch nemesis of Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia – yet he really was a rather brilliant Pope and brought us such wonders as St Peter’s Basilica (which we see today) and the beautiful ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As well as this, he was known as The Warrior Pope, wrestling Rome from Borgia influence and bringing the Papal states back into the arms of the Church. During Julius’ reign, murders were less frequent and bodies were found less frequently on the streets than ever before; and he practically stamped out simony in the Roman Catholic church even going so far as to issue a papal bull on his deathbed which made it so any future simoniacal elections were completely invalid. And remembering what had happened in previous elections, he made arrangements so that all of the treasure that he had was locked in the Castel Sant’Angelo to prevent plundering, strict orders being given to make sure that it was only handed over to his successor. Following his death, on March 4th 1513 the Papal conclave began. 
Dejan Cukic as Giuliano della Roverre (Pope Julius II) in Borgia: Faith & Fear
This conclave was virtually unanimous in the fact that they wanted the complete opposite to the reign of Julius. In essence, they wanted things a bit more laid back than the way Julius had run things – he had been the complete opposite to his (almost) predecessor Alexander VI, strict and completely against most vices. Not only that, the college of Cardinals were fed up of the way Julius forced them to march across Italy and the way he bullied them. Life would be much simpler if they elected an easygoing Pope who cared little for such restrictions and a man who would die quickly enough to bring in another Pope. It took the conclave a week to agree on the best candidate – Cardinal Giovanni de Medici.

John Bradley as Giovanni de Medici (Leo X) in Borgia: Faith & Fear
Giovanni de Medici was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, born in 1475 and a contemporary of Cesare Borgia during their time at University. When he was elected as Pope in 1513 he was just just thirty seven years old; despite his wealth and being the son of the ruling family of Florence, his age meant that if he was elected then the older cardinals in the conclave would likely never get a change at becoming Supreme Pontiff. Giovanni’s young age wasn’t really all that much of a problem though as his health was exceptionally poor. To even be able to attend the conclave in 1513 he had to bring his physician in with him thanks to the open ulcer on his leg – and during the conclave the ulcer in question troubled the young man so much that the Cardinal’s realised that his health wouldn’t hold out for long anyway. And so, on March 11th Cardinal Giovanni de Medici became Pope Leo X.
And it seemed from the outset that the Conclave had made the right decision. The reign of Pope Leo would be a reign of pleasure although not the sort of pleasure that defined the reigns of previous Popes. There would be no orgies, no bullfights and he himself would not endorse murders. But rather it would be civilised, and he would enjoy the pleasures of art, scholasticism and the pleasures of the table. He would even get himself a pet elephant! In fact, when Leo was elected as Pope he wrote to his brother, “God has given us the Papacy – let us enjoy it!”
When young Giovanni was made a Cardinal in 1492, his father Lorenzo wrote him a letter detailing how he should behave – that he should avoid the corruption that the rest of the college took part in, and that because of his youth the others would use it to drag him down; that he should spend his money wisely on books, keeping a good array of distinguished servants and by eating at home rather than eating out; that he encircle himself with a select group of learned men and that he take plenty of exercise and look after his health. For the most part Giovanni did exactly as his father told him and even refused to give Rodrigo Borgia his vote in the conclave of 1492. And as Borgia ran his papacy, Giovanni de Medici sat back and absorbed what was going on. And what he learned in his early days as a Cardinal would come full circle to affect his own papacy.
By the time Leo was crowned as Pope, most of Old St Peter’s Basilica was in ruins. The previous Pope, Julius II, had begun the renovations of the old basilica and the beginnings of the basilica that we see today had only recently been started. The coronation therefore was held in a tent erected outside the basilica. And at the coronation in the tent, he was presented with the huge triple layered tiara and approached by the Master of Ceremonies who held a lit torch in front of him speaking the words, “And so passes the glory of the world”. A slave also stood behind the Pope during his triumphal parade repeating the phrase “Remember, thou art but a man” and the Master of Ceremonies then stood in front of the new Pope reminding Leo, “Thou shalt never see the years of Peter!” – a reminder of the first Pope’s long reign. Following the coronation in the tent Leo went in a grand procession to the Lateran palace, which was once an important part of the Roman Catholic church but has long since been taken over by the Vatican. At any rate it was an incredibly important part of the ceremony. And Leo’s procession to the Lateran was magnificent, far surpassing the splendour of previous reigns – Leo X was a Medici after all, and he knew how to throw a party. The route was lined with marble statues recently excavated, and triumphal arches were built for the occasion while the houses that lined the route of the procession hung laurels and banners coloured with the Medici red and gold from their windows. In the procession walked soldiers, and the families of each cardinal, the gonfalons (banner men) of each ancient region, the five gonfalons of the Holy See. They themselves were followed by white mules, the Roman barons, bankers, merchants and soldiers. After all of them was the new Pope, Leo X with a detachment of Swiss Guards walking just ahead of him. These soldiers were brought to Rome by Julius II and were incredibly tough and used to guard the Vatican. The Swiss Guard still Guard Vatican City today although their position is now entirely ceremonial, and the colourful uniforms that they wear have remained largely unchanged.
The Swiss Guard, on duty at the Vatican
Finally came Leo, the new Holy Father. He was a funny looking man with a very large head and a hugely obese body. His legs were apparently so spindly that instead of walking it was like he scuttled about (I always imagine this as something like a bug scuttling about), and his eyes were protubing in his red, chubby face. In the procession he rode upon a beautiful Arabian white stallion, while officials held a cloth of silk to offer the Pope some protection from the intense heat – despite this, accounts of the procession state that he was sweating massively beneath the weight of the Pontifical robes and jewels yet that he showed little sign of minding, riding well despite his ulcer. The ulcer that plagued him must have been very painful, yet according to witnesses he smiled and greeted the cheering crowds with brilliant majesty. And as he rode, his clamberlains carried two huge chests of coins which they would reach into and throw to the waiting crowds.
In total, the procession and first few days of celebration alone cost Leo X over 100,000 ducats. This huge amount amounted to well over a third of the amount that his predecessor had stashed away in the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was really a marker of just how much money Leo would waste away on frivolities over his reign as Supreme Pontiff – and he spent a hell of a lot!
Leo X’s reign would indeed prove to be a “Golden Age”, but not for the good he did. Rather it was called this later as a bit of a joke at the sheer amount of money he would spend. Indeed, Leo X’s reign is far from golden in the history of the Roman Catholic Church – and during his years as Pope, Leo would have to survive the birth of Protestantism, and Martin Luther would prove to be a thorn in his side.
Further Reading
This entry was posted in giovanni de medici, giuliano della roverre, pope julius ii, pope leo x, renaissance italy, sixteenth century, the medici, vatican. Bookmark the permalink.

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