Who was the “Most Unfortunate Pope”? — By: OnePeterFive

Above: portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Five centuries ago today, on November 18, 1523, after fifty days of conclave, “the most unfortunate of the Popes” was elected: Clement VII, whose original name was Giulio de’ Medici.

Born in Florence 45 years earlier, in 1513 he was archbishop of Florence, and in 1517 he was cardinal and vice chancellor of the Holy Roman Church. The second Pope of the Medici family after Leo X († 1521) reigned for almost eleven years in a difficult and troubled period, so much so that he was called, as we were saying, the “unfortunate pope.”

Three colossal misfortunes marred his pontificate: the terrible “Sack of Rome” in 1527 by the Landsknechts, mostly Lutherans, who forced the Pope to take refuge with his court in the impregnable Castel Sant’Angelo; the Anglican schism of 1534, for having denied Henry VIII († 1547), king of England, to marry, as a second wife, the courtesan Anne Boleyn († 1536); and the propagation of the Lutheran heresy.

Having reconnected with Charles V († 1558), on whose head he placed the imperial crown in Bologna in February 1530, Clement VII favored the return of the Medici to the leadership of the government of Florence. He died in Rome on September 25, 1534.

“Clement VII was a Pontiff of unhappy memory but of unconquered constancy in calamities. While he was fortunate as a Cardinal, he was very unfortunate as a Pontiff.”[1]

The second Pope Medici was a friend of literature, art, and music. In particular, he paid great attention to his musical chapel. The choir members of Pope Martin V († 1431) were 12, those of Pius II († 1464) around 18, and those of Leo X († 1521) over 30. A report from the examination commission of papal singers specifies that the ideal size of the choir was fixed under Clement VII: “Clement established the number of singers at 24, that is, seven sopranos, seven altos, six basses, and four tenors; but, being an expert in the art of music, the Pontiff himself examined the singers being admitted, and thus in his time the choir was brought to light and adorned both as regards the voices and the sufficiency of the singers.”[2]

“An expert in the art of music”? Apparently, Clement was the greatest connoisseur of music among the popes of the sixteenth century and delighted in listening to music. Speaking of Clement, the Venetian ambassador Antonio Surian († 1542) writes that music was “an art very much his own, to the extent that it is rumored that the pope is one of the good musicians who are now in Italy.”[3]

An episode that reveals the Pope’s critical capacity appears in The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, written by himself, which, between 1558 and 1565, the famous goldsmith and sculptor dictated to his apprentice Michele di Goro. The author recounts that he was invited by seven papal fifes “to help them at the Pope’s Ferragosto, playing soprano with my cornet in some motets of great beauty selected by them for that occasion.” Very well impressed by the talented cornetist, so much so” “that his Holiness protested he had never heard music more sweetly executed or with better harmony of parts,” Clement VII offered Cellini a steady job “with the other bandsmen.”

What voice the future Pope Clement VII had appears in a letter dated March 11, 1518, addressed by Baldassarre Turini († 1543), papal datary, to Msgr. Goro (Gregorio) Gheri, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s secretary: Cardinal Giulio “sang his first Mass this morning, and he said it, pronounced and sung so well that all the cardinal prelates and others who were in the chapel were amazed […], and he sang it with a sonorous, clear, and intelligible voice.”[4]

The sack of Rome in 1527 was fatal also for the singers of the Roman musical chapels, both the papal chapel and those recently founded or reconstituted of the basilicas (Lateran, Giulia, and Liberian): many singers were lost or perished. To restore his own choir, in the fall of 1528, Clement VII sent Jean Conseil († 1535), a papal singer since 1513 and composer, to recruit new singers in France and Flanders. In a letter dated November 19, 1528, we read that Conseil had found in Flanders “five or six good tenors and among others an excellent soprano of age [a falsettist] and a good bass, and here [in Paris] he found a good tenor.”[5]

Among the composers who sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir stood Costanzo Festa († 1545), who served in the choir from 1517 until his death. “An attentive connoisseur of the sacred production of the Franco-Flemish masters, Festa wrote a considerable number of liturgical compositions, becoming the most important Italian polyphonist before Palestrina.”[6] His Miserere of 1517, which alternates verses in Gregorian chant and verses in falsobordone for four and five voices, will also be the model for Gregorio Allegri’s most famous († 1652).

Almost more out of curiosity than study, we recall that the character of Clement VII sings as a bass in the last act of Benvenuto Cellini, opéra semi-seria in two acts by Hector Berlioz († 1869) to a French libretto by Léon de Wailly († 1864) and Henri Auguste Barbier († 1882). It is a work that, despite the admiration of Franz Liszt († 1886), due to historical inconsistencies and scenic, orchestral, and vocal difficulties, never became popular, with the exception of the overture and Roman Carnival, often performed in concert.

Clement VII was a pope “of unhappy memory” and “very unfortunate”—perhaps one of the worst popes in history, it is true; however, he brought order to the papal choir (too numerous under Leo X and too small under Adrian VI) and sought to ensure that those admitted to the papal choir were competent.


[1] G. Moroni, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica, vol. XIV, Venice, 1842, p. 42; our translation.

[2] Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Fondo Cappella Sistina, 657, fol. 7r-v; our translation.

[3] E. Alberi, Relazioni degli ambasciatori veneti al Senato, series 2, vol. 3, Florence 1846, p. 278.

[4] State Archives in Florence, Mediceo avanti il Principato, Filza 144, doc. 67, c. 185 r; our translation.

[5] Fr. X. Haberl, Die Römische “Schola cantorum” und die Päpstlichen Kapellsänger bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts, Leipzig 1888, p. 73.

[6] G. Ciliberti, Una nuova fonte per lo studio degli inni di C. Festa e G. P. da Palestrina, in Revue belge de musicologie, 1992, p. 149.

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