The Renaissance saw the Catholic Church at the very zenith of its power and

wealth, yet it seemed anything but spiritual at the top. Financial corruption,

sexual license and the building of nepotistic dynasties: a triumphant papacy

presided over an increasingly beleaguered Church.

'Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten! - James 5:2

'Blessed are the meek' Our Lord had said - but there was no sign of them inheriting the Earth just yet, and certainly not that corner of the Earth that housed the Holy See in Rome. Ruthless ambition and greed were more the order of the day down here - vast wealth, megalomaniac vanity and an arrogant contempt for the plight of the poor and the preoccupations of the lowly. This period in the Church's history has left a legacy of magnificence, it

Giuliano de' Medici falls before the onslaught from the Pazzi. The outrage had been at least tacitly authorized by Pope Sixtus IV, it seemed. The Church's embracing of Renaissance realpolitik helped enhance its power and wealth immensely - but at enormous moral and spiritual cost.

can't be denied: clerical patronage underwrote much of that artistic and cultural achievement we now think of as the 'Renaissance'. But it also left a sense of ethical abandonment that Catholicism is still struggling to live down. What could so much wealth and pomp have to do with the spirit of the Gospels?

Murder in the Cathedral

Around 10,000 had gathered in the duomo for morning mass to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ Our Saviour from the dead. New life, human redemption and fresh spring after the lengthy winter of damnation - Easter was the highpoint of the Christian year. For a group of cruel conspirators, though, the day was marked out as one for murder: they had come to Florence's famous cathedral to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother Giuliano. The Medici family had dominated the affairs of the Italian city for half a century; now their rivals, the Pazzi clan, were calling time.



That the Catholic Church is utterly obsessed with sex has been an article of faith with modern critics, and it isn't difficult to see why this should be. On the one hand, there have been the all but impossibly exacting standards set for the sexual conduct of lay Catholics; on the other, there've been the clergy's many (and varied) fallings short. So, amid all the fuss there's been about everything from gay marriage to contraception, it has been easy to forget that the Church has any other interests. Likewise, it's been easy to assume that the Church's longstanding insistence on clerical celibacy has stemmed from a feeling that Christ's ministers had to be sexually pure.

Historically, as it happens, that doesn't seem to have been the case. Clerical celibacy may indeed often have been justified in terms of the special status attributed to chastity, but this doesn't seem to have been the basis for the ideal. Rather, the intention seems to have been that priests shouldn't have extra-

clerical emotional or (more important still) financial ties: they should be married to the Church, owing it not just their allegiance but any property they might have. They shouldn't be building dynastic families of their own or trying to leave accumulated wealth or possessions outside the Church.

In practice (at least in medieval practice) the absence of marital ties only opened the way to other, slightly wider, familial loyalties. The modern word 'nepotism' (from the Latin word nepos, meaning nephew) was first used to describe the policies of those popes who advanced their families by doing favours for the sons of their own brothers or sisters. Sixtus IV made no fewer than six of his nephews into cardinals. One - Giuliano della Rovere - was to become Pope Julius II. Not that his nieces were allowed to remain idle: they were strategically married into Italy's leading families. The network of Sixtus' connections stretched far and wide.

Heedless of hallowed ground and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar above them, a group of Pazzi thugs attacked the Medici benches, daggers drawn. As worshippers screamed and recoiled with fear, they surged forward, pushing past the Medici henchmen who came out to meet them, making determinedly for the two men they had come to kill. Giuliano fell beneath a rain of blows - stabbed 19 times in all, he was to bleed out in a matter of minutes on the cathedral floor. But his elder brother was only wounded in the shoulder. The fighting spilled out across the lobby, through the great doorway and into the streets outside: only now did the scale of the conspiracy become clear. In what amounted to a wholesale coup attempt, the Pazzi and their friends had tried to take charge of the Signoria - the seat of government - but they were beaten back by forces loyal to the Medici.

Sixtus IV cuts a striking - if worldly - figure as befits a ruler declaring war. His conflct with the Medici ushered in a time of turbulence in Italy and in the Church at large, its worldly wealth the object now of envy and faction-fighting.

Bundled quickly out of danger's way, Lorenzo lived to restore order and resume his authority as the leading powerbroker in Florence and in Italy.

Dirty Work

What has gone down in history as the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 had been to a large extent the brainchild of the Pope. The Pazzi had been pawns. A crime combining murderous attack with the most outrageous sort of sacrilege had been committed on behalf of Catholicism's leader. The Salviati family, Sixtus IV's bankers and an old family with important connections in several cities - including both Florence and Rome - had helped to organize an attack intended to increase the influence of Francesco Salviati, Archbishop of Pisa, by promoting Pope Sixtus' power at the expense of the Medicis.

We're a long way here from the spirit of loving thy neighbour, embracing poverty and turning the other cheek to oppression. Niccolo Machiavelli, a Medici protege and the notorious apologist for this sort of ruthless realpolitik, had yet to write his revolutionary

As famously portrayed by Raphael, Pope Julius II was a formidable - even threatening - figure, but the 'Warrior Pope' won his place by nepotism. Sixtus IV had been his uncle: while popes couldn't father children (officially, at least), even so they were able to establish dynasties.

treatise II Principe ('The Prince', 1532). But if his thinking had not been formulated, its spirit was already alive and nourishing in a Florence - and an Italy - in which power was always up for grabs. The winner might take all, but no one expected to be the winner by pulling his political punches, by flinching from violence or resisting corruption of any kind.

All in the Family

Sixtus' sister, Bianca della Revere, had married Paolo Riario, the powerful lord of Imola, north of Florence and near Bologna. Their son, Girolamo, grew up to be his uncle's favourite, and was appointed 'Captain General' - commander of the papal army. This should have been an oxymoronic position, it might be thought, but the Papal States were territories that had to be defended like any other. As a temporal ruler, the Pope also had to have a 'foreign policy'.This was placed under the supervision of another of Sixtus' nephews, Pietro della Revere. Girolamo's marriage into the family of the Dukes of Milan had meanwhile given him extensive lands in north and central Italy. This in turn had fostered the ambition of building even greater power in the country. The Medici family were the main obstacle in his way, hence his alliance with the Pazzi, their local rivals.

The failure of the Pazzi Conspiracy left both sides badly weakened. For Girolamo and Sixtus there was severe loss of face. For the Pazzi there was a decade of harassment, eased only by the comparative weakness of the Medici family given that Florence had been subjected to what amounted to a spiritual embargo by the Pope. On Sixtus' orders, the saying of the mass and the consecration of the Eucharist were outlawed in the city. A deeply vindictive action when it is considered that most of those in Florence had played no part in

recent events, yet they were being deprived of those sacraments they hoped would save their souls.




Bale insisted that Sixtus IV gave his cardinals 'the authorization to commit sodomy during periods of warm weather'. Bale, it has to be acknowledged, was a Protestant pamphleteer - hardly the most independent of sources on papal history. A certain scepticism is also needed when approaching the contemporary diary of Stefano Infessura, who repeatedly refers to Sixtus as a sodomite and says that he handed out Church offices in return for sexual favours. Sixtus' own nephew Pietro was a major beneficiary, he claims. Infessura was a republican and a political enemy of the Pope -but what are we to make of similar testimony by the Venetian ambassador of the time, and the Pope's own master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard?

John 'Bilious' Bale was known for his ill-temper, but he reserved his most bitter feeling for the Church of Rome. Disillusioned, he threw in his lot with Henry Vlll's Reformation, for which his writings became a powerful propaganda tool.



Before he became Pope Pius II in 1458 - before he'd even established himself as a priest, indeed - Eneas Silvius Piccolomini had a reputation as a writer. Not quite on a par with Virgil, the Roman poet to whose epic hero his first name made clear reference - and whose standard description Pius Aeneas ('pious' or 'dutiful' Aeneas) his papal name acknowledges.

He was a writer and scholar, although even if some of his wisdom seems strange in a man of God: his 'moral' treatise The Institution of the Nobleman recommends that its readers find an outlet for sexual frustration in extramarital affairs, for instance.

His subsequent novel, Historia de Duobus Amantibus ('A Tale of Two Lovers') concerned two characters who decided to do just that, one Euryalus and a married lover named Lucretia.

An 'epistolary' novel in the sense that its text takes the form of the two lovers' letters, it was frankly erotic in its subject matter - and a best-seller across fifteenth century Europe.


While not, presumably, stinting in his efforts on behalf of what Augustine had called the City of God, Pius II also built a city of his own. Pienza, as he called it, was in fact a wholesale redevelopment of the village of Corsignano, Tuscany, in which he himself had been born in 1405. He saw it as a summer retreat, but also as an expression of the highest principles of Renaissance planning and architecture. The streets and squares were laid out with wonderful regularity, the houses handsome and the palazzi splendid - it was pretty much a condition of getting a cardinalship from Pius that you agreed to build a palace in Pienza. There have been many much graver papal crimes, of course - indeed, Pius II did posterity an enormous favour in founding and constructing his model city. But it was an enormous work of vanity, nonetheless.

Not So Innocent

Not for Giovanni Battista Cibo, from 1484 Pope Innocent VIII, the cynical nepotism of his predecessors. Granted, he had secured his position through the good offices of Guiliano della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV's nephew (and future Pope Julius II). But Innocent was above such dealings. Why give lands, titles and properties to nephews, after all, when you've begotten two sons of your very own? Some sources suggest a great many more - as many as a hundred, it has been suggested, although Reformation satirists could be quite extravagant in their claims.

Innocent's approach to the question of clerical celibacy is summed up in an incident reported by Stefano Infessura. One of the Pope's most senior officials, says the diarist:

'Watchful of his flock as befits an honourable man, published an edict forbidding clergy as well as laics, whatever their position might be, from keeping

Indeed such lives did the clergy

lead that there was scarcely a single

priest who did not have

his mistress.

mistresses, whether openly or secretly... When the Pope heard this, he summoned his Vicar and ordered him immediately to cancel his command, saying that the practice was not in fact forbidden. Indeed, such lives did the clergy lead that there was scarcely a single priest who did not have his mistress. The number of prostitutes living in Rome at that time came to 6800 - not counting those who plied their trade under the

 Pope Pius II had in his youth been more raffish than reverent: an intellectual, a poet, a writer of erotic fiction. A true 'Renaissance Man', his interests were wide-ranging and extended from religion to town planning.

If Pius II had never achieved anything else, he would have been of interest as builder of Pienza, a real jewel of a Tuscan town. Carefully conceived and lovingly laid out, it fulfilled all the principles of Renaissance planning. 

guise of housekeepers or otherwise in secret.'

That said, the two sons of Innocent we know of for certain had both been born before Cibo had been in holy orders - a fairly trivial transgression, then, by the standards of the day. Far more serious was the extent to which II Papa ('the Pope') pulled all the strings he could to secure his sons' advancement in society, in politics and the Church.

The elder, Franceschetto, a spoilt child, grew up to be a wastrel and an arrogant bully. Late into the night, he would strut about the streets of Rome with his rowdy friends. 'He forced his way into the houses of the citizens for evil purposes', one contemporary reported. His gambling habit was legendary - but, unfortunately for his family, completely true: once he contrived to lose 14,000 ducats in a single night at cards. So broke was he that, taking advantage of his father's final illness, he tried to take the entire papal treasury for himself. On Innocent's death, finding himself with no protector to look out for him, Franceschetto had to flee from Rome. Even so, Franceschetto had - by Innocent's good offices - married well. He had indeed wedded into the Medici family. Putting the Pazzi Conspiracy behind them, Florence's first family had continued to accumulate power, becoming a major force in Italy as a whole.

Borgia Beginnings

Right now, though, another clan was coming to the fore in Church affairs: the Borgias were descendants of the Spanish House of Borja. The first of the notorious 'Borgia Popes', Callixtus III (in office 1455-58) had actually conducted himself fairly blamelessly. His consuming preoccupation, apart from prayer and worship, had been the attempt to organize a crusade to recover Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks. That this came to nothing was down to quixotic incompetence rather than to malice or corruption. Callixtus could have been a great deal worse, historians concur. He was, it's true, a tireless promoter of his nephews' interests - but nepotism was the norm now, as we have seen. Callixtus would have been all but forgotten had it not been for one nephew in particular: created a cardinal by his uncle, Rodrigo Borgia became Pope on the death of Innocent VIII in 1492. Taking the title Alexander VI, he was to reign as St Peter's heir for 11 years.

Mixed Signals on Slavery

The year of 1492 was Alexander VI's accession, but it is of course more famous for Columbus' discovery of the Americas. It was also the year in which the Muslim Moors were finally driven out of Spain. Between the culture of crusade that had prevailed in previous centuries, and the new sense of opportunity opening up with the Age of Discovery, there was much soul-searching about the rights and wrongs of owning slaves.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Christ himself has nothing to say on the subject in the Gospels - although the Old Testament takes slavery as a given. The Church's attitudes had changed, veering back and forth between unreflecting acceptance and bland discouragement, but there was no apparent feeling that the institution was ipso facto wrong. Rather, a consensus emerged that, while the enslavement of Christians was self-evidently an outrage and the enslavement of anyone less than ideal, in one case slavery could be justified. If it brought a benighted Pagan into contact with the one true faith, then a great right was bundled up in a small wrong.

The first forays by Portuguese navigators down the western side of Africa found whole nations of heathens excluded from God's grace (and conveniently only lightly-armed); soon seafarers were opening up new countries over the Atlantic. As the native population

A picture of piety, it would appear - but Innocent VIII was so far from living up to his name that, by some accounts, he had fathered a hundred children. The Renaissance papacy was more a worldly than a spiritual position, and successive popes conducted themselves just like temporal rulers.

We grant... full and unhindered

licence to attack, seek out, take

captive and make conquest of the

Saracens and Pagans ...

plummeted, felled by unfamiliar Old World infections or worked to death by their Christian conquerors, the solution became apparent: ship the first group to the Americas to replace the second.

The Church's role in what was to become the Atlantic slave trade was strictly secondary: no Pope or prelate told the traders that this was what they had to do. As the age's supposed moral arbiter, though, the Church was looked to for 'permission' - and this, there is no doubt, it freely gave. Tacitly, for the most part, but to some extent - just sufficiently - its approval was expressed, most notably in Pope Nicholas V's bull or pronouncement Dum Diversas. The meaning of the Latin title (basically, 'till things are different') suggests the interim nature of the statement - but it was to cover the lifetimes of many millions, to their tragic cost.

'We grant', it said, the Kings of Spain and Portugal - the two great Catholic powers driving the new colonialism, 'full and unhindered licence to attack, seek out, take captive and make conquest of the Saracens and Pagans, as well as any other infidels and foes of

Alexander VI has been widely regarded as the ultimate 'Renaissance Pope' - with all that implies in the way of rapacity and ruthlessness. Though actually the second of the 'Borgia Popes', he's the one who shaped the dynasty's reputation for libertinism and murder on an epic scale.

The King of the Congo receives Portuguese soldiers as three Christian missionaries stand beside the King in this illustration showing Portugal's sixteenth-century colonisation of the Congo. Christianity gained a quick hold in central Africa, with churches being built throughout the region.

Christ, wherever they may be found, along with their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties ... and to take them into perpetual slavery.'

Alexander the Terrible

The very idea of the 'Renaissance Pope' conjures up an impression of power, opulence and corruption gone entirely mad, an outrageous cocktail of magnificence and sleaze. And the ultimate Renaissance Pope - the one against all others were measured (and by whose reputation all have been to some extent smeared) was an effective - even conscientious - administrator of the Church, it seems. It was in everything else that Alexander fell short - in his sexual practices and his murderous politicking; and in what's generally considered to have been one of the most profoundly corrupt and cynical of papal reigns. After, all Rome was saying, 'buying' the conclave that elected him, setting

If Christ could forgive Mary Magdalen, Alexander VI could go one (or forty-nine) better, celebrating his daughter Lucrezia's marriage by entertaining fifty courtesans in the Vatican. Notorious in every way, Alexander wasn't so much a legend in his own lifetime as a one-man argument for Reformation.

Pope Alexander VI, his family and followers find financial redemption in Jesus' sacrifice: the Borgias saw Christ's Church as a treasure to be plundered. Alexander came to embody everything that was wrong with Catholicism. His papacy brought the Church into its greatest-ever disrepute.

up cooperative cardinals in sumptuous palaces at his own expense, he quickly made it clear that he saw the Church of Christ as a source of cash. Not just for himself but for his family. As his contemporary Gian Andrea Boccaccio put it in a letter to his friend, the Duke of Ferrara, 'ten papacies would not be enough to satisfy his kinsfolk'.

... these virtues were bound up with still greater faults: his manner

of living was dissolute and he

knew neither shame nor sincerity

neither faith nor religion.

Rodrigo had started as he'd meant to go on, the riotous dissoluteness of his life unaffected by his anointment as a cardinal at the age of 29. Pope Pius II had reason to feel embarrassment almost immediately, as he explained in a letter:

'Four days ago, a number of ladies of Siena who are completely given up to worldly frivolities were gathered in the gardens of Giovanni di Bichis. We have been told that you, without heed to the high office you are invested with, remained in their company from the seventeenth hour to the twenty-second ... From what we hear, the most licentious dances were performed; no amorous activities went unpractised; while you yourself conducted yourself in an entirely worldly and unclerical manner. Decorum prevents my stating all that is said to have taken place, since not only the acts but their very names are unworthy of one in your position.'

A Wolf in Shepherd's Clothing

If he had been solely a sexual predator, Rodrigo's reputation wouldn't now be anything like so bad, but his enemies feared him as a murderous Machiavel, a cunning schemer. The young Giovanni de' Medici knew well what to expect of his appointment, observing to another cardinal, 'Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious, perhaps, that this world has ever seen; and, if we do not flee, he will infallibly devour us.'

A (perhaps) more fair-minded judgement comes from the Florentine historian and statesman Guicciardini (1483-1540). 'Alexander', he writes, 'was very active, and possessed of remarkable penetration; his judgment was excellent, and he had a wonderful power of persuasion; in all serious business he displayed an incredible attention and ability.'

'But' - and there was bound to be a 'but', of course: 'these virtues were bound up with still greater faults: his manner of living was dissolute, and he knew neither shame nor sincerity, neither faith nor religion.'

A damning judgement on the head of any major creed, it might be thought, but Guicciardini isn't done, continuing: 'He, moreover, was possessed by an insatiable greed, an overwhelming ambition, a more than barbarous cruelty, and a burning passion for the advancement of his many children, who, in order to carry out his iniquitous decrees, did not scruple to employ the most heinous means.'

If Alexander had a redeeming feature, it was perhaps his outrageous freedom from hypocrisy: he flaunted his mistresses and openly doted on his children. Nine have been identified for certain, although there may well have been many more. The first of his publicly acknowledged mistresses, Giovanna ('Vannozza') dei Cattanei, bore him four children: Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre. Of these, the first became Duke of Gandia when he grew up; the second the Duke of Valentinois; and Lucrezia, at one time or another, the Duchess variously of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio.

Lucrezia Borgia, beautiful and dangerous, looks slyly sidelong from Bartolomeo Veneto's portrait. The daughter of a 'celibate' pope, Lucrezia would have been an ironic comment on the state of the Church even if she hadn't gone on to have incestuous relations with her brother and her (holy) father.

Lovely Lucrezia

Lucrezia was the most controversial woman of her age. Between three marriages and rumoured affairs (two of them incestuous, with her father and her brother, Cesare), she's been remembered as the ultimate Machiavellian she-devil. Bewitching with her beauty; seducing with her smile; pouring poison into her victims' drinks from a hollow ring...

Where history meets myth is hard to say so many centuries on. Another side to the femme fatale emerges in Florentine Ambassador Lorenzo Pucci's account of a visit to Lucrezia in her palazzo on Christmas Eve 1493. He found Alexander's latest mistress, Giulia Farnese - and their daughter, Laura - living with Lucrezia quite happily:

'I called at the house of Santa Maria in Portico to see Madonna Giulia. She had just finished washing her hair when I entered, and was sitting by the fire with Madonna Lucrezia, the daughter of our Master, and Madonna Adriana, who all received me with every appearance of pleasure. Madonna Giulia asked me to sit by her side ... Giulia also wanted me to see the child; she is now quite big, and it seems to me, resembles the Pope...'

The greetings over, the company all trooped through together to hear mass, after which the Ambassador made his farewells - leaving this little blended family behind, a picture of domestic bliss.



Vannozza dei Cattanei may have been the most enduring, but of all Alexander's mistresses it is Giulia della Farnese we feel we know the best. We can actually see her face in several major works of Renaissance art. 'Giulia la Bella' - Julia the Beautiful - her contemporaries called her, and it isn't difficult to understand why when we see her in Pinturicchio's depiction of the Madonna and Child, with Pope Alexander kneeling at her feet.

Or rather, of surviving copies, for the fresco was subsequently lost - perhaps destroyed, given the obvious indecorousness of an image of this kind. Was Alexander laughing at everyone? It's hard to get inside the head of a man who, on the one hand, seems to have treated his sacred position with such cavalier contempt, but to have been a reasonably serious official of the Church in other ways. Likewise, we can't help wondering whether there wasn't an element of satire in Giulia's depiction (completely nude), as the allegorical figure of Justice before the tomb of her brother Alessandro, who reigned as Pope Paul III from 1534 to 1549. She remained quite naked till the mid-nineteenth century, when a scandalized Pope Leo IX had a metal chemise made for her and painted it white to match the marble.

Best of Enemies

Pope Pius III, Alexander's successor, was the son of Pius II's sister. His sickness and death, after a reign of only 26 days, inevitably sparked suggestions of foul play - perhaps of poisoning. He was followed on to St Peter's throne by Pope Julius II - no one's nephew, for a change, but great-nephew of Sixtus IV. In keeping with the clerical mores of the age, he had an illegitimate daughter. Felice della Rovere was destined to become a major player in the politics of the time. There were also some who said his friendship with the handsome young Cardinal Francesco Alidosi was closer than perhaps it should have been. He certainly seems to have over-promoted his protege, placing him in charge of a papal army he wasn't remotely competent to command - and then to have been broken-hearted when he was murdered by the angry general who'd been forced to take the blame.

A rival of Alexander in 1492, Julius had been incensed by his election - so much so that he'd gone stomping off to France. There he'd stirred up King Charles VIII with stories of sharp practice by princes and cardinals - to such effect that the French King had launched an invasion of the Kingdom of Naples. Julius came along for the ride - and for Rome, of course - but to no avail: Alexander had outmanoeuvred him, making his own deal with King Charles' chief minister.

Ultimately - and anticlimactically - Julius won the papacy without really trying. Alexander died in 1503, by which time his son Cesare was sick himself. Any idea that he'd become the next Borgia Pope had to be dropped abruptly at this point, and so it was that Julius was duly crowned.

His reign continued quietly: indeed, Julius is now generally best remembered for being the man who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Was the great artist just the latest in a series of male favourites? Was there - at very least - an erotic undertone to their relationship? That has certainly been suggested, and it might help explain the tempestuousness of the Pope and painter's dealings down the years.

Charles VIII entering Florence in 1494, as imagined by artist Giuseppe Bezzuoli (1784-1855). Charles invaded Italy with 25,000 men in 1494. He marched across the peninsula, subduing Florence on the way, and reached Naples in February 1495.



Born of her father's long-term liaison with Lucrezia Normanni, an aristocratic Roman widow, Felice della Rovere was brought up within the institution of the Church. Marrying into the rich and powerful Orsini family, she became one of Italy's most influential women, a major force in the politics of the day. Less colourful than Lucrezia Borgia, she was arguably much more important, a major power behind the papal throne - not just her father's, but those of his successors Leo X and Clement VII. The feminine force who really drove this seemingly most patriarchal of institutions, Felice was the nearest there's ever been to a Pope Joan.

'Let Us Enjoy It'

The year of 1513 saw the final emergence of the Medici on to the wider Italian stage with the election of Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici as Pope Leo X. A crucial breakthrough for the family, and one that had been a long time coming. That said, there's a danger in seeing the Church politics of this time as too much in terms of dynastic struggle. Leo wasn't just his family's representative in Rome, he was his own man - and that

Pinturicchio's famous fresco, painted in the Duomo or cathedral of Siena in 1500-01 captures the pomp and splendour of the Renaissance papacy. Here Pius III is crowned, a powerful temporal as well as a spiritual leader, attended by his bishops, his Swiss Guard - and a cheering crowd.

man was, in his way, not unappealing. 'Since God has given us the papacy,' he said, 'let us enjoy it.'

And so he did, with a spendthrift determination that smacked of fanaticism, entertaining continuously on the most lavish scale. It wasn't just that he gave good parties (although his banquets were legendary, the sumptuous food and wine equalled by the spectacular shows of music and dancing), he also sponsored cultural events and popular parades. As well as a patron of the Arts (most famously Raphael), he also made lavish endowments to science and scholarship. An unabashed highbrow, Leo at the same time wasn't too uptight for lower entertainments: he loved broad clowning, and even had his own personal buffoon, Fra Mariano Fetti, employed at a stipend of 800 ducats a year. His vulgar taste for curiosities came together with his connoisseurship in strange examples of 'higher whimsy' - like the portrait of his pet elephant Hanno he commissioned from Raphael.

Pope Julius II kneels as, at the miraculous Mass of Bolsena (shown here by Raphael), the consecrated host begins to bleed. Just visible behind the last of the candle-bearers - dark-haired, in dark clothes and with her head just tilted - his daughter, Felice, directs operations from the rear.

Leo was also enthusiastic for architecture. He had old churches restored and new ones built. The construction of the New St Peter's, set in motion by Nicholas V, then continued in expanded form under Julius II, really began to gather pace under his papacy.

It would be quite wrong to assume that, despite these expensive tastes, Leo lived entirely for himself. His generosity was impressive - excessive, even. Hospitals, orphanages, convents, the poor: all were to receive substantial help. Christ himself couldn't have found him wanting as far as open-handedness was concerned. The big problem was going to be paying for it all.



There had been far worse Popes than Leo X, but few who'd been so frankly worldly. The Renaissance had swept away any sense of the Pontiff as primarily a spiritual leader. Popes were powerful potentates now - but, oddly, this had the effect of making them more vulnerable, exposed as they were to all the turbulence of Earthly politics and diplomacy. Their presence as 'players' in the international arena meant that they were no longer seen as untouchable by worldly rulers, as the second Medici Pope, Clement VII, was to find. The alliance he'd made with France's Francis I to gain leverage against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V irritated that impatient ruler beyond endurance. In 1527, accordingly, he invaded Italy and the papal army was badly defeated. In the event, though, both Pope and Emperor got more than they had bargained for in the battle's aftermath when mutinous Imperial forces ran amok. The Sack of Rome, although a clear defeat for the papacy, could hardly be described as a victory for the Emperor, who looked on in helpless horror as his soldiers raped and plundered in the city. Clement spent six months imprisoned inside his own summer residence, Castel Sant'Angelo, and had to pay his captors a substantial bribe for his release.

The Sack of Rome, 1527, was a devastating blow to the Eternal City, an embarrassment for Charles V, but an insurmountable humiliation for the Papacy. The Holy Father Clement VII, held prisoner in the Castel Sant'Angelo, had to pay a substantial ransom for his release.





Keith Hunt