December 18, 2023 | Alicia B.

Unfortunate Facts About Pope Clement VII, The Unluckiest Pope

Pope Clement VII may have been the holiest man of his time, but he’s also considered the most unfortunate–and for good reason. He climbed mountains to get his dream job, only to have the worst time ever. From invasions to revolutions, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Yet, as unfortunate as Clement VII's reign was, it was never boring, and transformed Europe forever.

1. He Had A Tragic Past

Before the world knew him as Pope Clement VII, he was just Giulio de' Medici. Yes, he belonged to the legendary Medici family. But it’s more complicated than that. In April 1478, a month before Giulio’s birth, his father's enemies charged the Medici patriarch during the Pazzi Conspiracy.

Tragically, the father and son never had the chance to meet. Losing his dad before birth already stacked the deck against young Giulio, but it got even more heartbreaking.

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2. He Had A Mystery Mother

Giulio was fatherless thanks to the Pazzi Conspiracy. But no one knows why he was motherless. You see, his mother’s identity is a mystery—not that it stopped people from speculating. Most believe his mom was Fioretta Gorini, the unmarried daughter of a professor, and possibly the inspiration for the Mona Lisa.

If she was Giulio’s mother, it adds an even more tragic element to his past. Sadly, she passed just a year after his birth. The poor one-year-old seemed doomed: he was an illegitimate orphan in a world where good breeding was everything.

Luckily, fate was on his side, and Giulio’s famous family swooped in to save the day.

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3. He Had Amazing Uncles

After spending seven years with his godfather and architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, Giulio’s life dramatically changed again. He moved in with his uncle, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Lorenzo didn’t just take the orphan in, he raised Giulio like a son. The future pope grew up with cousins Giovanni (also a future pope), Piero, and Giuliano. Thanks to their background and amazing educations, they were all destined for greatness–or, at least, infamy.

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4. He Was Good Looking

Unlike his outgoing and charming cousins, Giulio was shy, and sensitive. But that didn’t matter because he was blessed in the looks department. Many couldn’t help but comment that Giulio was easy on the eyes.

His intelligence and ambition didn’t hurt either. But Giulio faced barriers that even his beauty, talent, and legendary family couldn’t vanquish.

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5. He Faced Barriers

Giulio dreamed of being in the clergy. Unfortunately, high ranking positions remained off-limits to illegitimate children. At least for now. As an alternative, Lorenzo guided his disappointed nephew towards the army.

Giulio eventually gave in, but he still longed for what he couldn’t have. Yet, life in the army would soon be the least of his problems, and everything changed when tragedy struck.

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6. He Experienced Loss

Tragically, 14-year-old Giulio lost another parent figure when Lorenzo the Magnificent passed. Once again, things didn’t look great: many families would have tossed him aside. But the Medicis stood by him.

Even though he was only 17-years-old, Lorenzo's son Giovanni became Giulio's guardian. And there was a silver lining to the tragedy: Giulio scrapped the army thing and studied religion alongside Giovanni. He would never be the same again.

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7. He Fled His Hometown

Piero the Unfortunate wasn’t just Giulio’s cousin or the Lord of Florence. He was also a colossal failure, and the entire family paid the price for it. Thanks to Piero’s idiotic decisions–which included giving Charles VII of France a ton of important land–his furious subjects went after the family.

This time, their last name was a curse that led to their exile to Venice. Giulio tried to make it work anyways. And by making it work, I mean getting into mischief.

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8. He Became A Wanderer

This exile turned out to be an excellent opportunity. Yes, Giulio continued studying religion, but he also did so much more. He made the most out of banishment. Giulio traveled across Europe with Giovanni.

The pair had fun—way too much of it. They ended up behind bars. Twice. Piero bailed them out both times. Finally, in 1500, they finally stopped the shenanigans and got back to business.

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9. He Received An Opportunity

Giulio and Giovanni finally returned, and worked hard to restore the Medici name back to its former glory. This included participating in battles, during one of which Giulio became a captive. His successful escape led to opportunities with Pope Julius II.

Meanwhile, the Medicis regained Florence. The family was on the up and up–but Giulio couldn’t help but be naughty on the side.

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10. He Allegedly Had A Secret Child

In 1510, Simonetta da Collevecchio, a family servant, gave birth to Alessandro de' Medici. Officially, he was Lorenzo II’s illegitimate son. But rumor has it that the child was actually Giulio’s.

To this day, many historians believe the rumors. While the truth remains a mystery, Giulio’s shameless actions added more fuel to the fire.

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11. He Played Favorites

Giulio didn’t do a great job at quelling rumors concerning his alleged child. Did he even try at all? Giulio showed blatant favoritism to Alessandro by selecting him for prestigious positions.

This was suspicious because Alessandro’s competition was equally, if not more qualified than him. But Giulio didn’t lose sleep over this favoritism because he also benefited from the nepotism in shameless ways.

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12. He Was Well Connected

How did Giulio, with his illegitimate parentage, end up as pope anyway? Turns out, it’s all about who you know. The ball started rolling in March 1513, when Giovanni became Pope Leo X. Jackpot! Thanks to his cousin, Giulio received opportunities to prove himself–and boy did he.

It didn’t take long for his rank and reputation to skyrocket. Giulio’s cousin-turned-pope was more than happy to help him out, even if it involved doing something shady.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikipedia

13. He Received Help

Pope Leo X went above and beyond. Just months later after coming into power, Leo X declared the legitimacy of his cousin’s birth: he insisted that Giulio’s parents were actually engaged. Was this true?

We don’t know–and Leo X and Giulio probably didn’t know either. But the truth didn’t matter because the highest clergy positions–including the papacy–were no longer out of reach to Giulio, who was made a cardinal in 1513.

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14. He Became Well Respected

Giulio immediately became indispensable to Leo X’s administration. The cardinal led the pope's forces to victory on countless occasions.

He cleverly switched alliances to maintain the balance of power between King Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Between 1519 and 1523, he even governed Florence. Basically, Giulio proved that he was awesome. But was he good enough to be the next pope?

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15. He Was A Shoo-In

After Pope Leo X passed on December 1, 1521, most people assumed Giulio would be his successor. After all, he was the whole package: he had the brains, experience, connections, reputation, and accomplishments to be pope.

All in all, he was perfect. Who would be crazy enough to not vote for Giulio?

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16. He Had Rivals

Turns out, a sizable chunk of the voting bloc opposed Giulio for unexpected reasons. They didn’t have doubts about his competency. Rather, they held onto petty grudges and old family feuds.

Giulio saw his dream slipping through his fingers quicker than sand. Knowing he had to act immediately, he took a huge risk and prayed it would paid off.

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17. He Took A Risk

Giulio showed off his acting chops when he declared that he wasn’t worthy of high office. He took this "I’m-so-humble" act even further and nominated someone else.

In reality, however, he didn’t expect anyone to vote for Adrian Dedel. His nominee was a nobody lacking in political expertise. Adrian wasn’t even Italian! This was just a calculated performance of modesty. Naturally, and with Giulio’s luck, this totally backfired.

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18. They Called His Bluff

The voters caught onto Giulio’s charade and bluff. They called him out on it by electing Pope Adrian VI. To add salt onto the wound, the vote was almost unanimous in Adrian’s favor. Ouch!

And that’s the story of how Giulio messed around and found out. But life wasn’t done throwing curveballs at our almost-pope.

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19. He Was The Talk Of The Town

In 1522, rumors surrounded Giulio, and they weren’t good. People noticed he didn’t have any successors to take over. What would happen to Florence?

They speculated that he intended to abdicate his rule of the city-state, and give the people power. Today, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all. But back in the day, it was the sort of thing that angered some very powerful people.

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20. He Faced Conspiracies

Even though it became apparent that these rumors were fake news, it was already too late. A group of elite Florentines conspired to take Giulio out and replace him with a government led by Francesco Soderini.

Franceso wasn’t just a fellow cardinal, he was also Giulio’s archenemy. Thanks to Florence’s rumor mill, Giulio had a massive target on his back.

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21. He Had Enemies

Soderni wasn’t just flattered by this plan, he actively supported the mutiny. The prospect of gaining power and settling scores was irresistible. He had the audacity to approach Francis I of France, and even more shockingly, Pope Adrian VI.

Soderni asked these men to battle Giulio and invade his allies. He thought it would be easy to gain their support, but Adrian’s response shocked Soderni and his fellow rebels.

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22. He Had Allies

Instead of agreeing to take out his former rival, Pope Adrian VI surprised Soderni. Instead of siding with them, Adrian imprisoned the cardinal and his conspirators. Giulio emerged from this debacle stronger than ever.

However, he wouldn’t remain Florence’s ruler for long. Don’t worry: this time, Giulio was more than happy about it.

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23. He Achieved His Dream

It was more than a dream come true—in 1523, Giulio became Pope Clement VII following Adrian’s passing. Not bad for an illegitimate orphan, huh?

But Pope Clement VII discovered he was almost a victim of his success. Due to his accomplishments and reputation, expectations were sky high. To make matters worse, political storms that were centuries in the making were headed his way.

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24. He Faced Revolution

Thanks to his luck, the Reformation arrived on Pope Clement VII’s doorstep. It was the biggest challenge to Catholicism in centuries. While trouble had been brewing for a while, it’s generally accepted that it began when Martin Luther published his grievances with the Church.

Soon enough, it spread like wildfire across Europe. Martin’s initial problems concerned the Church’s greed, and the pope’s spending habits only added fuel to a fire that threatened to destroy everything.

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25. He Was A Big Spender

When the masses are poor, hungry, and angry that the Church expects their money, spending big probably isn't the wisest decision. But that’s what Pope Clement VII did. It led to him becoming even more unpopular.

He was a legendary patron of the arts-which basically just means he spent a lot of money on art. In his defense, some of his purchases are still huge deals.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikipedia

26. He Made An Iconic Purchase

Pope Clement VII’s most important purchase is probably commissioning Raphael’s Transfiguration. It was the legendary artist’s last painting. This, along with its beauty and religious significance, made it the most famous oil painting in the world.

But it didn’t make Clement any more popular with the reformers. He had no idea how to handle them, which spelled big trouble for the papacy.

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27. He Made A Poor Impression

In the past, Pope Clement VII’s maneuvering could be interpreted as clever. Now? Charles wasn’t impressed; he viewed the pope’s actions (or lack of) as indecisive and weak.

Was Florence’s renowned leader losing his touch? Sensing an opportunity, the Holy Roman Emperor began scheming. Pope Clement VII had no idea what was headed his way.

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28. He Was Betrayed

On May 6, 1527, Charles sent at least 20,000 men to Rome—uninvited. The emperor had had enough of Pope Clement VII switching sides. His army was a show of force to intimidate Pope Clement VII.

That’s all Charles intended it to be: a show. But he lost control of his—mostly unpaid—men. The apocalypse arrived on the pope’s doorstep.

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29. His City Fell Apart

The invaders overpowered and slaughtered Rome’s defenses. And that was just the beginning. This group committed mass looting, slaughter, holding civilians for ransom, and so much worse.

You name it, they did it. As the pillage unfolded, they sunk deeper and deeper into depravity. The invaders spared nothing–and no one–from their wrath. And Pope Clement VII was target number one.

Pope Clement VII as Saint Gregory the Great by Giorgio Vasari.Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

30. He Became A Captive

Pope Clement VII could no longer run or hide after the pillagers annihilated his guards and imprisoned him. While he languished in the dungeon of Castel Sant'Angelo, the invaders ransacked his city.

They refused to free him until they received their massive ransom. They wouldn’t budge. As much as it pained him, Pope Clement VII knew he was out of options. He promised a hefty sum of money and control of four cities in exchange for his freedom. But there was just one problem.

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31. He Couldn’t Deliver

You know all that money and land Pope Clement VII promised in exchange for his life? Turns out, he couldn’t deliver. The pope failed to raise the full ransom amount.

And the four cities that he promised to the Holy Roman Empire. Well, those cities weren’t his to just give away. Only one ended up changing hands. Clement couldn’t make anyone happy–especially his own people.

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32. Everyone Hated Him

Was the sack of Rome entirely Pope Clement VII’s fault? No–but people were angry, and needed someone to blame. And there was no one better to lash out on than the man in charge.

Every leader makes mistakes, but this was unforgivable. Forgiveness wasn’t an option. Until the very end, the pope’s subjects despised him. Considering the extent of damage, their fury is understandable.

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33. He Couldn’t Fix It

A not-so-fun fact about the sack of Rome: it stretched on for a grueling eight months, and it only ended because the city ran out of food and people to pillage. There was nothing left in Rome aside from the plague.

Understandably, the surviving Romans fled the city. Between that exodus and all the destruction, the city's population had dwindled from 55,000 inhabitants to just 10,000. And the sacking's long term impact was even more tragic.

Rome was the center of Italian High Renaissance culture and art. Thanks to the pillage, the Italian High Renaissance took its last breath and perished. The sacking left the city and surrounding areas weakened and vulnerable to their rivals.

Unable to bear the sight of the ruined city, Pope Clement VII had to get away from it all.

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34. He Disappeared

Pope Clement VII went into exile. When he returned to Rome a year later, he had his work cut out for him. The pope returned to a devastated city, hateful subjects, and scarce resources.

There was also the matter of Emperor Charles V. He was the elephant in the room, and the one ultimately responsible for sending all those men to Rome. But would he face any repercussions for his destructive tactical decision?

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35. He Moved On

The ruler of the Holy Roman Empire denied any responsibility for the sack of Rome and appeared to be embarrassed by the behavior of his men. In the end, Pope Clement VII absolved him and the two men joined forces. We can’t help but wonder if the pope bought the emperor's act of denial.

After all, the invaders marched to Rome on his orders. But the destruction of the city completely changed the power dynamics in Europe. This meant that Pope Clement VII could no longer get away with his old games.

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36. He Lost Power

The destruction of Rome reduced Pope Clement VII to a shadow of his former glory. It upended European power dynamics. Even though Clement disagreed with Charles’ policies, especially around expanding the Holy Roman Empire, he couldn’t afford conflicts.

As a result, he constantly gave into the Emperor’s demands. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for another ruler to bombard the pope with even more demands.

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37. He Clashed With A King

At the time, there was one thing that even the riches of a king couldn’t buy: a divorce. England’s King Henry VIII desperately wanted to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. He wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, but his religion prohibited this.

Still, Henry wasn’t a quitter and requested the annulment anyways. Pope Clement VII already disagreed with the annulment from a religious perspective. But there was another less known reason that made his final decision a no-brainer.

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38. He Was Powerless

It all circled back to the sack of Rome. You see, Catherine of Aragon happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt. So, Charles had a huge incentive to preserve Henry and Catherine’s marriage.

That meant that Pope Clement VII had double the motivation to refuse Henry, even though he knew the English king wasn’t going to react well.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikipedia

39. He Gave A Warning

On January 5, 1531, Pope Clement VII sent  King Henry VIII a stern letter that prohibited Henry from remarrying. The pope warned that the punishment would be excommunication.

Henry didn’t exactly take this rejection well. He ultimately defied the pope and married Anne Boleyn anyway. Henry took his rebellion even further–Christianity and England would never be the same.

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40. He Lost A Country

Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII’s clashes resulted in another Reformation. In this English version, Henry dropped the Catholic Church and created his own. This was another devastating loss for Clement.

Under the pope’s watch, the Church lost many former devotees and Christianity splintered. Yet, Clement's  theological objection to Henry’s annulment is interesting considering he held other radical views.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikimedia Commons

41. He Was A Radical

In 1533, Pope Clement VII approved Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. It was an incredibly radical idea. Even 99 years later, Galileo Galilei ended up in hot water with the Catholic Church for endorsing the same idea.

Perhaps Pope Clement VII was a man ahead of his era who just happened to be cursed by his circumstances and misfortune. Sadly, he was running out of time.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikipedia

42. He Was Sick

During the same year, Pope Clement VII began to struggle with health issues. This was no common cold—symptoms included liver failure, yellow skin, and blindness.

Things were not looking great for the 55-year-old pope. Despite their very best efforts, his doctors couldn’t cure him. Clement had reached the beginning of the end.


43. There Was No Cure

By the end of 1533, Pope Clement VII’s health seriously deteriorated. He may have been in his mid-50s but he was aging much more rapidly. The pope’s doctors feared this was the end for him—they were right.

On September 25, 1534, Pope Clement VII passed. He was 56-years-old, and had reigned as pope for almost 11 years. Despite the Clement's many chronic illnesses, many believed something more nefarious contributed to his end.

Pope Clement VII FactsFlickr, Rodney

44. There Were Weird Rumors

Rather than his illness, many people believe the pope had succumbed to deadly demise cap mushrooms and that his exposure to this dangerous fungi was intentional. While it was a widely held belief that Clement had been poisoned, it was probably untrue.

After all, the pope had struggled with his illnesses for over a year, and his symptoms aren’t indicative of ingesting dangerous mushrooms. Nevertheless, it was an exciting end to a complicated legacy.

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45. He Had A Tarnished Legacy

History hasn't forgotten Pope Clement VII, but that's not necessarily a good thing. "No pope ever began so well, or ended so miserably" summarizes the opinion many historians hold.

For better and for worse—emphasis on worse—our pope lived through one of Europe’s most religiously tumultuous and seminal periods. Yet, despite all the hate that Pope Clement VII received during and after his life, he might not have been as bad as history has painted him.

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46. He Tried His Best

Other historians are more sympathetic. Sure he was a pope, but Giulio de' Medici was still a person. Many issues he faced were a long time coming.

Perhaps Pope Clement VII truly tried his best, and it just wasn’t enough. Perhaps he just happened to be pope at the wrong place and time. But what is clear is that he truly was the unluckiest pope in all of history.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikimedia Commons

47. He Was Too Indecisive

It wasn’t just bad luck that destroyed Pope Clement VII: his indecisiveness was another curse. When the ideological flames of the Protestant Revolution reached Rome, the pope and his men agonized over how to respond.

In the meantime, his inaction only caused the revolt to grow larger and larger until the reformers split off into their own branch. This wouldn’t be the last time Clement's indecisiveness led to trouble.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikimedia Commons

48. He Was Caught In The Middle

Even though Clement had ended a conflict between them, King Francis I of France and Holy Roman emperor Charles V were still at odds in 1527. The stakes? Only the domination of Europe, no big deal.

In response, Pope Clement VII reused his signature technique: instead of picking a side, he constantly shifted alliances. The goal was to maintain the balance of power. Yet, as we know, Clement's schemes ended in complete disaster.

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49. He Stood His Ground

The pillagers had massive demands, including an eye-watering ransom. Despite being outnumbered, Pope Clement VII refused to give in. You see, he was confident that his allies would soon storm Rome with their forces and save the day. But as time passed, the pope realized no one was coming. He and Rome were on their own.

Pope Clement VII FactsWikimedia Commons

50. He Did Something Daring

Despite coming to a ransom agreement with his captors, Clement was imprisoned and sat in the dungeon for six agonizing months. Eventually, he decided that enough was enough. That's when he came up with a dangerous plan: he was going to break out of penal institution.

Incredibly, luck was on his side, and Clement snuck out wearing a disguise. The sack of Rome was over—but nothing would ever be the same. The destruction of the city ruined all faith that people had in the pope's ability to rule. As such, his once glorious legacy was forever tarnished, and Pope Clement VII became remembered as the pope who lost Rome.

Castel Sant'AngeloUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18



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