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As French forces began to prey on the Italian states in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, Rome became the focus of Italy's collective defense, and the pope the architect of that defense. Milan had fallen, and the northern states were under pressure, but they could survive as long as Rome remained strong. Pope Leo X did an admirable job in this role. A gifted administrator, he effectively maintained stability in Rome, the central Italian state. However, his successor, Pope Clement VII, while a decent and moral pope, was a failure as a politician. To make things worse, during his reign international conditions became increasingly complex and threatening. When Clement VI ascended to the Papal throne in 1523 there was, in Europe, for the first time in centuries, a great emperor. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was heir to Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Austria, and Naples, as well as a claimant to Milan by imperial right. Meanwhile, France's Francois I insisted on ruling Milan and Naples himself. England's Henry VIII left Italy alone, content to sit back and leave Italy to be destroyed by these powers. In Florence, the Medici were losing their hold on the city.
Spanish and French armies fought on Italian soil, debating claims to pieces of Italian territory and demanding that the Pope declare for one side or the other. Pope Clement VII proved himself incapable of making a steadfast decision, changing his mind sometimes on less than an hour's notice. After one particularly sudden and ill-advised change, Charles V ranted, "I will come into Italy and revenge myself on the fool of a pope."
The 'imperial' army of some 22,000 Spaniards, Italians, and Germans, assembled in Lombardy during the winter of 1526 to 1527. The army was not truly controlled by any single leader, but after defeating the French in a major set battle, they demanded payment, a little of which they received from Spain, some of which they took from the broken Milanese, who had been subjugated to Imperial-Spanish rule. Much of the demanded payment went unmet. The army, angry and hungry, moved south. Spain, meanwhile, was negotiating with the Pope over payment of a ransom the Imperial army had demanded from Rome. Clement VII, a disastrous negotiator and decision-maker, refused to pay the ransom, and the talks went nowhere. On May 5, 1527, the army arrived at the walls of Rome, starving and still unpaid. The Pope denied a final request for the ransom, since he believed that the small Roman professional force of 5,000, aided by volunteers, could fend off the starving army due to the Romans' advantage in artillery. At midnight, the Roman citizens were summoned to arms and the army of mercenaries began its attack. By one p.m., thirteen hours later, the mercenaries held the city.
The settlement of Bologna in 1530 placed most of Italy in Spanish hands. Venice, Florence, and the Papal States retained their independence, but were compelled to cooperate with the Spanish to their great inconvenience in order to survive. Under high taxes and tight restrictions, the Italian economy crumbled and intellectual and artistic production declined. The power of the Church declined under the pressure of the Protestant Reformation, which had begun in 1517. That power suffered still further when Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1532 over his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The Church reacted drastically in Italy, censoring writing and art and reaffirming the doctrines of Catholicism more rigidly than they had during the Renaissance period. Gradually, the spirit of the Renaissance was sapped and replaced with a more somber outlook. Though much of the change wrought by the Italian Renaissance proved irreversible and spread to other parts of Europe (the Northern Renaissance), by 1550, the rate of change had slowed to a stop in Italy.
Fellow Florentine Francesco Vettori wrote of Pope Clement VII, "if one considers the lives of previous popes, one may truly say that, for more than a hundred years, no better man than Clement VII sat upon the throne." Pope Clement VII followed a line of pontiffs who had brought the Papacy to moral degradation with corruption and manipulation. He epitomized what the leader of the Church should be—conscientious, loyal, discreet, devout, and morally upstanding. However, these qualities did little to help him in his role as politician. Such a ruler would have been dangerous at the center of Italian affairs in any time, but the particular situation in which Clement VII found himself upon ascending to the throne accentuated his flaws as a negotiator and decision-maker.
For years the Papacy had been the seat not only of the leader of the Church, but also of shrewd, if not always ethical politicians. Though Pope Sixtus IV and Pope Alexander VI had lived lives of corruption and excess unbefitting a leader of the moral responsibility they held, they, and Rome along with them, had prospered. Leo X had similarly been a talented bargainer and administrator, proving that such skills could exist without the moral transgressions of his predecessors. The Renaissance Papacy was characterized by popes who had devoted themselves more to their role as political leader than that of spiritual figure. This is the real irony of the 1527 fall of Rome, and in truth, all of Italy: at a time that, above all else, demanded a pope who could be an international statesmen, it had Clement VII, whose qualities were more suited to the neglected role of spiritual leader, and his political power and knowledge limited to Italy alone.
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