The conclave that met on October 1, 1523, fought for seven weeks over the selection of Adrian’s successor, and finally named a man who by universal opinion was the happiest possible choice. Giulio de’ Medici was the illegitimate son of that amiable Giuliano who had fallen a victim to the Pazzi conspiracy, and of a mistress, Fioretta, who soon disappeared from history. Lorenzo took the boy into his family and had him brought up with his sons. These included Leo, who, as pope, dispensed Giulio from the canonical impediment of bastardy, made him archbishop of Florence, then a cardinal, then the able administrator of Rome and the chief minister of his pontificate. Now forty-five, Clement was tall and handsome, rich and learned, well mannered and of moral life, an admirer and patron of literature, learning, music, and art. Rome greeted his elevation with joy as the return of Leo’s gulden age. Bembo prophesied that Clement VII would be the best and wisest ruler that the Church had ever known.23
He began most graciously. He distributed among the cardinals all the benefices that he had enjoyed, entailing a yearly revenue of 60,000 ducats. He won the hearts and dedications of scholars and scribes by drawing them into his service or supporting them with gifts. He dealt out justice justly, gave audience freely, bestowed charity with less than Leonine, but with wiser, generosity, and charmed all by his courtesy to every person and class. No pope ever began so well, or ended so miserably.
The task of steering a safe course between Francis and Charles in a war almost to the death, while the Turks were overrunning Hungary, and one third of Europe was in full revolt against the Church, proved too much for Clement’s abilities, as for Leo’s too. The magnificent portrait of Clement in his early pontificate, by Sebastiano del Piombo, is deceptive: he did not show in his actions the hard resolution that there seems limned in his face; and even in that picture a certain weak weariness shows in the tired eyelids drooping upon sullen eyes. Clement made irresolution a policy. He carried thought to excess, and mistook it as a substitute for action instead of its guide. He could find a hundred reasons for a decision, and a hundred against it; it was as if Buridan’s ass sat on the papal throne. Berni satirized him in bitter lines prophetic of posterity’s judgment:
A papacy composed of compliment,
Debate, consideration, complaisance,
Of furthermore, then, but, yes, well, perchance,
Haply, and such like terms inconsequent.…
Of feet of lead, of tame neutrality….
To speak plain truth, you shall live to see
Pope Adrian sainted through this papacy.24
He took as his chief counselors Gianmatteo Giberti who favored France, and Nikolaus von Schönberg who favored the Empire; he allowed his mind to be torn in two between them; and when he decided for France—only a few weeks before the French disaster at Pavia—he brought down upon his head and his city all the wiles and forces of Charles, and all the fury of a half-Protestant army unleashed upon Rome.
It was Clement’s excuse that he feared the power of an Emperor holding both Lombardy and Naples; and he hoped, by siding with Francis, to secure a French veto on Charles’s troublesome idea of a general council to adjudicate the affairs of the Church. When Francis came down over the Alps with a new army of 26,000 French, Italians, Swiss, and Germans, seized Milan, and besieged Pavia, Clement, while giving Charles assurances of loyalty and friendship, secretly signed an alliance with Francis (December 12, 1524), brought Florence and Venice into it, and reluctantly gave triumphant Francis permission to levy troops in the Papal States and to send an army through papal territory against Naples. Charles never forgave the deception. “I shall go into Italy,” he vowed, “and revenge myself on those who have injured me, especially on that poltroon the Pope. Some day, perhaps, Martin Luther will become a man of weight.”25 At that moment some men thought that Luther would be made pope; and several of the Emperor’s entourage advised him to contest the election of Clement on the ground of illegitimate birth.26
Charles sent a German army under Georg von Frundsberg and the Marquis of Pescara to attack the French outside Pavia. Poor tactics nullified the French artillery, while the hand firearms of the Spanish made a mockery of Swiss pikes; the French army was almost annihilated in one of the most decisive battles of history (February 24–5, 1525). Francis behaved gallantly: while his troops retreated he plunged forward into the enemy’s ranks, making royal slaughter; his horse was killed under him, but he kept on fighting; at last, thoroughly exhausted, he could resist no more, and was taken prisoner along with several of his captains. From a tent among the victors he wrote to his mother the message so often half-quoted: “All is lost save honor—and my skin, which is safe.” Charles, who was at this time in Spain, ordered him sent as a prisoner to a castle near Madrid.
Milan reverted to the Emperor. All Italy felt itself at his mercy, and one Italian state after another presented him with diverse bribes for permission to remain in existence. Clement, fearful of invasion by the imperial army, and of revolution against the Medici in Florence, abandoned his French alliance, and signed a treaty (April 1, 1525) with Charles de Lannoy, Viceroy of Naples for Charles, pledging Pope and Emperor to mutual aid; the Emperor would protect the Medici in Florence and accept Francesco Maria Sforza as imperial vicar in Milan; the Pope would pay Charles, for past affronts and future services, 100,000 ducats ($1,250,000?),27 which were badly needed for the imperial troops. Shortly afterward Clement connived at a plot by Girolamo Morone to free Milan from the Emperor. The Marquis of Pescara revealed it to Charles, and Morone was jailed.
Charles treated captive Francis with feline procrastination. After softening him with almost eleven months of courteous imprisonment, he agreed to free him on the impossible conditions that the King should surrender all French rights, actual or alleged, to Genoa, Milan, Naples, Flanders, Artois, Tournai, Burgundy, and Navarre; that Francis should supply Charles with ships and troops for an expedition against Rome or the Turks; that Francis should marry Charles’s sister Eleonora; and that the King should surrender his eldest sons—Francis, ten, and Henry, nine years old—to Charles as hostages for the fulfillment of these terms. By the treaty of Madrid (January 14, 1526) Francis agreed to all these conditions with solemn oaths and mental reservations. On March 17 he was allowed to return to France, leaving his sons in his place as prisoners. Arrived in France, he announced that he had no intention of honoring promises made under duress; Clement, with the support of canonical law, absolved him from his oaths; and on May 22 Francis, Clement, Venice, Florence, and Francesco Maria Sforza signed the League of Cognac, pledging them to restore Asti and Genoa to France, to give Milan to Sforza as a French fief, to return to each Italian state all its prewar possessions, to ransom French prisoners for 2,000,000 crowns, and to bestow Naples upon an Italian prince who would pay a yearly tribute of 75,000 ducats to the king of France. The Emperor was cordially invited to sign this agreement; if he refused, the new League proposed to war upon him until he and all his forces were driven from Italy.28
Charles denounced the League as violating Francis’ sacred oaths as well as the treaty that Clement had signed with Lannoy. Unable to go to Italy himself at this time, he commissioned Hugo de Moncada to win back Clement by diplomacy, and, that failing, to stir up against the Pope a revolution of the Colonna and the Roman populace. Moncada performed his mission nicely: he brought Clement into an amicable agreement with the Colonna, persuaded the Pope to disband the troops that were guarding him, and allowed the Colonna to continue organizing a conspiracy to capture Rome. While Christendom so exercised itself in treachery and war, the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent overwhelmed the Hungarians at Mohacs (August 29, 1526), and captured Budapest (September 10). Clement, alarmed less Europe should become not merely Protestant but Mohammedan, announced to the cardinals that he was thinking of going to Barcelona in person to plead with Charles to make peace with Francis and join forces against the Turks. Charles at that time was equipping a fleet whose purpose, it was said in Rome, was to invade Italy and depose the Pope.29
On September 20 the Colonna entered Rome with five thousand men, and, overriding feeble resistance, plundered the Vatican, St. Peter’s, and the neighboring Borgo Vecchio, while Clement fled to Castel Sant’ Angelo. The papal palace was completely stripped, including Raphael’s tapestries and the Pope’s tiara; sacred vessels, treasured relics, and costly papal vestments were stolen; an hilarious soldier went about in the white robe and red cap of the Pope, distributing papal benedictions with mock solemnity.30 On the following day Moncada restored to Clement the papal tiara, assured him that the Emperor had only the best intentions toward the papacy, and compelled the frightened Pope to sign an armistice with the Empire for four months, and to pardon the Colonna.
Moncada had hardly retired to Naples when Clement raised a new papal force of seven thousand troops. At the end of October he ordered it to march against the Colonna strongholds. At the same time he appealed to Francis I and Henry VIII for aid; Francis sent dilatory excuses; Henry, absorbed in the difficult task of begetting a son, sent nothing. Another papal army, in the north, was kept inactive by the apparently treacherous Fabianism of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who could not forget that Leo X had ousted him from his duchy, and was not especially grateful that Adrian and Clement had let him return and stay. A braver leader was with that army—young Giovanni de’ Medici, handsome son of Caterina Sforza, heir of her dauntless spirit, and called Giovanni delle Bande Nere because he and his troops had worn black bands of mourning when Leo died.31 Giovanni was all for action against Milan, but Francesco Maria overruled him.