By Costanza Beltrami

Pope Clement VII, a key player in the historical and artistic events of the High Renaissance, died on 25 September 1534 in Rome.

Clement VII was born Giulio de’ Medici in Florence on 26 May 1478. The Medici were exiled from Florence when Giulio was in his twenties, giving him the opportunity to travel widely. After the family’s return to power in 1512, Giulio was nominated archbishop of Florence, Cardinal, and Papal Vice-Chancellor by his Medici cousin Pope Leo X. Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinalsrepresents the two men together, at the center and on the right of the composition.

Together with Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael was commissioned to create paintings for Giulio’s archiepiscopal church, the cathedral of Narbonne. Raphael also designed Giulio’s villa in the vicinity of Rome. The project involved many prominent artists of the High Renaissance such as Giulio Romano, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, and Baccio Bandinelli. Unfinished, the villa was largely destroyed during the Sack of Rome of 1527.

Giulio was elected pope in 1523, succeeding Adrian VI, a Dutch pope harshly criticized by Vasari and his contemporaries for his disinterest in art. On the contrary, Clement VII would soon be involved with some of the most momentous Renaissance commissions: the Medici tombs sculpted by Michelangelo at San Lorenzo in Florence, the Laurentian Library in the same city, and the Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. However, not all of Clement’s commissions were as successful as these: the statue of Hercules and Cacus realized by Bandinelli for the Piazza della Signoria in Florence is probably the Renaissance’s most maligned artwork, mocked by contemporary and modern critics alike. Sculptor Benvenuto Cellini famously derided the Hercules as looking like a “big sack full of melons set upright against a wall.

The Sack of Rome of 6 May 1527 forced Clement to hide and flee. After his return to the city in 1528, the pope appointed Sebastiano del Piombo keeper of the papal seal (the Piombo), and Benvenuto Cellini master of the Papal mint. Cellini designed several medals and coinswith Clement’s direct involvement.

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals, ca. 1517, oil on panel, 154 x 119 cm. Florence: Uffizi Gallery.

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Raising of Lazarus, commissioned as altarpiece for the Cathedral of Narbonne, ca. 1517–19, oil on canvas (transferred from wood), 381 x 289.6 cm. London: The National Gallery.

Raphael, Transfiguration, commissioned as altarpiece for the Cathedral of Narbonne, ca. 1516–20, tempera on wood, 405 x 278 cm. Vatican City: Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Raphael’s loggia, ca. 1518–1525, Villa Madama, Roma.

Michelangelo, Dawn and Dusk (Tomb of Lorenzo II Medici), 1524-34, Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence.

Michelangelo, Reading room, 1525–1534, Laurentian Library, Florence.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1536–1541, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Baccio Badinelli, Hercules and Cacus, 1525, Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Clement VII, 1531, oil on slate, 105 x 87 cm. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Benvenuto Cellini, Medallion of Clement VII, 1534, gilt silver, 4 cm (diameter). Florence: Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Reference: Marlis von Hessert, et al. “Medici, de’: (8) Clement VII.” Grove art Online. Oxford art Online. Oxford University Press.

Further Reading: The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, edited by Kenneth Gouwens and Sheryl E. Reiss (2005).

Sheryl E. Reiss, director of the Italian Art Society, has written several articles on Clement VII’s patronage. You can read them here, or join the society to stay up-to-date with our members’ research.

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