Pope Clement VII (Italian: Papa Clemente VII; Latin: Clemens VII; not to be confused with Antipope Clement VIII), born Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 19 November 1523 to his death on 25 September 1534. “The most unfortunate of the Popes,” Clement VII’s reign was marked by a rapid succession of political, military, and religious crises - many interrelated and long in the making - which had far-reaching consequences for Christianity and world politics.
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 as chief advisor to both Pope Leo X (1513-1521) and Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523). Assuming leadership of a nearly bankrupt Church, Clement initially attempted to steer an independent course for Catholicism through a tangle of international threats. Inheriting Martin Luther’s growing Protestant Reformation; 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 Europe led by Suleiman the Magnificent; Clement's problems were complicated and magnified by King Henry VIII of England’s contentious divorce, resulting in England breaking away from the Catholic Church; and in 1527, souring relations with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V leading to the violent Sack of Rome, during which the Pope himself was imprisoned. After escaping confinement in Castel Sant'Angelo, Clement - with few material, military, or political resources - compromised the political independence of the Church by allying with his former jailer, 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” 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.