Leo X 1475–1521 Pope

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Leo X

Pope Leo X played a strong role in efforts to protect the church and its lands. He worked to promote the spread of Catholicism and keep foreign invaders out of Italy. In addition, Leo was an important patron* of artists and humanists*. During his years as pope, Rome experienced a "golden age" of Renaissance culture.

Early Life. Leo was born in Florence as Giovanni Romolo Damaso de' Medici, son of the head of Florence's powerful Medici family. Destined for a career in the church, Giovanni had a well-rounded education that included studies in Latin and Italian literature as well as Greek and music. At only 14 years of age he became a deacon in the church, and within a month he had gained appointment to cardinal. Giovanni then traveled to Pisa, where he studied under some of the most famous legal minds of the time. He received a degree in church law from the University of Pisa in 1492.

Shortly after earning his degree, Giovanni went to Rome to join the College of Cardinals—a select body of bishops, priests, and deacons who advised the pope. After a period of travel, he settled in Rome. In 1506 he served as governor of Perugia, and five years later he became an official papal* representative to part of the Papal States* and to the papal army under Pope Julius II. When Julius died in 1513, Giovanni became pope, taking the name Leo X.

Leo As Pope. As ruler of the Papal States, Leo continued many of Julius's policies. He asserted greater control over his territory by reducing the influence of powerful families and by forcing lesser rulers to surrender to papal control. In foreign affairs, Leo presented himself as the promoter of peace among Christians. Behind the scenes, however, he worked to lessen foreign influence in Italy. He joined Spain and the Holy Roman Empire* to drive the French out of Italy in 1513. Two years later, however, the French returned. Leo accepted their presence until 1521, when he allied himself with the Habsburg dynasty in order to drive the French from Milan and restore papal authority in the cities of Parma and Piacenza.

Leo also sought to promote his own family's interests. He aimed to control Florence through his brother and nephew and arranged marriages for them with members of the French royal family. Even though their untimely deaths frustrated Leo's efforts, he kept control of Florence through his cousin, Giulio de'Medici. Leo's interference in the affairs of Siena provoked a conspiracy* to poison him, but the conspirators were discovered and executed or forced to pay enormous fines.

In 1517 Protestant reformer Martin Luther attacked the Catholic Church in his Ninety-Five Theses. Unable to silence Luther, Leo excommunicated* him. Shortly after, he named Henry viii of England "Defender of the Faith" for his stance against Luther. Leo made additional efforts to encourage the spread of Catholicism by allowing a native of Africa to become a bishop. He also promoted a number of his own relatives to important church positions as archbishops and cardinals. When Leo died, his cousin Giulio succeeded him as Pope Clement VII.

In addition to ruling the Papal States, Leo was one of the leading artistic and humanistic patrons of the Renaissance. He made the University of Rome an intellectual center by appointing famous professors and adding a Greek college and press. He also patronized great Italian artists. Michelangelo Buonarroti carved several tombs for members of Leo's family, and Raphael painted Leo's portrait and took charge of the construction of the church of St. Peter.

(See alsoPopes and Papacy. )

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* Papal States

lands in central Italy under the authority of the pope

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* conspiracy

plotting with others to commit a crime

* excommunicate

to exclude from the church and its rituals