Pope Leo X (December 11, 1475 – December 1, 1521), was born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici. He was Pope from March 9, 1513 to his death in 1521. The second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the Florentine Republic, he was somewhat secretly elevated to the Cardinalate at the age of 13, but was not permitted to wear the robes or participate in deliberations of the College of Cardinals until he was 16. Following the death of Pope Julius II, Giovanni was elected Pope after securing the backing of the younger members of the Sacred College. Leo is alleged to have said, “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”
Early on in his rule, he oversaw the closing sessions of the Fifth Council of the Lateran, but failed sufficiently to implement the reforms agreed upon. In 1517 he led a war that succeeded in securing his nephew as Duke of Urbino. This costly military action did little to help the coffers of the Vatican. He later only narrowly escaped a plot by several cardinals to poison him. The reason for the plot – money and power.
Still, Leo X had numerous virtues. He was a cheerful man and a patron of learning. In that regard, he deserves a prominent place among the Popes. He raised the Church to a leadership position rank in whatever activities extended the breadth of knowledge and helped to redefine a cultured life. He made Rome the center of European culture. While still a Cardinal, he had the Church of Santa Maria in Dominica restored to Raphael’s designs and as Pope, he had San Giovanni dei Fiorentini on the Via Giulia built. Leo X pressed forward with the work on St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican under Raphael and Agostino Chigi. Leo’s Constitution of 1513 reformed the Roman University, which had been neglected by Julius II. He restored all its faculties, gave larger salaries to the professors and summoned lecturers from all over Christendom to elevate the status of the university. On the other hand, his court was filled with attractive young men, which caused whispers about the Pope’s moral intentions.
Despite this, he is best remembered for granting indulgences for those who donated to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica. This practice was challenged by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Leo did not take the array of demands for Church reform seriously. In his dismissive attitude, he failed to grasp the undercurrent of dissent which quickly grew into the Protestant Reformation.
Leo’s lively interest in art and literature, his nepotism, political machinations and luxurious lifestyle precipitated a financial crisis during the third year of his reign. It was a situation that would haunt his papacy through his death, seven years later. In an effort to recover financially, he sold positions for new Cardinals, as well as membership in the “Knights of Peter.” He borrowed large sums from bankers and the nobility. Even with numerous sources of income from indulgences, jubilees and special fees, the money vanished as quickly as it was received. Then the Pope resorted to pawning palace furniture, jewels and even statues of the apostles. The Venetian Ambassador Gradenigo estimated that Leo owed 2,150 creditors at the time of his death, with a value of approximately 3,000,000 ducats. Several banking firms and many individual creditors were ruined with the death of Leo.
Through both direct action and inaction, Pope Leo X has left a notorious legacy of emptying the Papal bank, while ignoring the Protestant Reformation. Either case would have been enough to historically destroy his reputation and offset his good works. Taken together, one must wonder, what would have been the result in the theological world had the Cardinal’s attempt to poison Leo been successful?