Elected in 1523 at the end of the Italian Renaissance, Clement VII came to the papacy with a high reputation as a statesman, having served with distinction as chief advisor to both Pope Leo X (1513-1521) and Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523). Assuming leadership in a time of crisis, with the Church nearly bankrupt, Clement VII initially sought to unite Christendom, which was then fragmenting, by making peace among the many Christian leaders then at odds. He also aspired to liberate Italy, which had become a battleground for invading, foreign armies, thereby threatening the Church’s freedom.
The complex political situation of the 1520s thwarted Clement's intentions. Inheriting Martin Luther’s growing Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe; a vast power struggle in Italy between Europe’s two most powerful kings, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France, each of whom demanded that the Pope choose a side; and Turkish invasions of Eastern Europe led by Suleiman the Magnificent; Clement's problems were exacerbated by King Henry VIII of England’s contentious divorce, resulting in England breaking away from the Catholic Church; and in 1527, souring relations with Emperor Charles V leading to the violent Sack of Rome, during which the Pope was imprisoned. After escaping confinement in Castel Sant'Angelo, Clement — with few economic, military, or political options remaining — compromised the Church's and Italy's independence by allying with his former jailor, Emperor Charles V.
In contrast to his tortured Papacy, Clement VII was personally respectable and devout, possessing a “dignified propriety of character,” “great acquirements both theological and scientific,” as well as “extraordinary address and penetration — Clement VII, in serener times, might have administered the Papal power with high reputation and enviable prosperity. But with all of his profound insight into the political affairs of Europe, Clement does not seem to have comprehended the altered position of the Pope” in relation to Europe’s emerging nation-states and Protestantism.
A discerning patron, Clement VII personally commissioned Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel; Raphael’s masterpiece, The Transfiguration; as well as celebrated works by Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Parmigianino, among others. Artistic trends of the era are sometimes called the “Clementine style,” and notable for their virtuosity. In matters of science, Clement VII is best known for personally approving, in 1533, Nicholaus Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun — 99 years before Galileo Galilei’s heresy trial for similar ideas. Ecclesiastically, Clement VII is remembered for approving the Capuchin Franciscan Order, and securing the island of Malta for the Knights of Malta.
Giulio de' Medici's life began under tragic circumstances. On April 26, 1478 — exactly one month before his birth — his father, Giuliano de Medici (brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was murdered in the Florence Cathedral by enemies of his family. Born illegitimately on May 26, 1478, in Florence, the exact identity of his mother remains unknown — although a plurality of scholars contend that it was Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a university professor. Giulio spent the first seven years of life with his Godfather, the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder.