Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Giulio de''Medici (1478 - 1534) Pope Clement VII 1530c.

Sebastiano Luciano called del Piombo, Studio of 

Portrait of Giulio de''Medici (1478 - 1534) Pope Clement VII, Sebastiano Luciano called del Piombo, Studio of
Oil on Panel
16th Century
22 x 18 ½ inches 56 x 46.5 cm
Sotheby''s Monaco December 6th 1991 (lot 194)
Possibly C. Volpe and M. Luco L''Opera completa di Sebastiano del Piombo Milan 1980 p.126 Possibly M. Hirst Sebastiano del Piombo Oxford 1981 p.155
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Pope Clement VII's misfortune was to live through interesting times. His reign was to see two events that register still, perhaps, as ineradicable stains on the history of Rome. The first of these, now felt only as a cultural milestone, was the sack of Rome by the armies of Charles V in 1527, which marked, it is often thought, the end of the High Renaissance in Italy. The other was the secession of England from the Holy See, whereby King Henry VIII added lustre and a champion to a previously German schism, and dented Papal authority in Europe for ever.

It is this latter fact which makes Clement a figure of such central importance in British history, as his refusal - under imperial duress, as well as the qualms of his own conscience - to grant the King divorce from Catherine of Aragon led directly to the breach with Rome and ultimately to the Reformation, which would dictate England's and then Britain's relations with the European powers for at least the next two and a half centuries, and the very nature of English life for ever.

Giulio de''Medici was reared in the very thick of Italian courtly diplomacy; Lorenzo the Magnificent was his uncle, and superintended his education. It was not, however, a training likely to produce a mind attuned to the increasingly radical enthusiasms and politics of his age. The crafted duplicity that he attempted to bring to the balance of powers, in which a nominal duty to Emperor Charles V was trimmed by a favour to France in the interests of is native Florence, came unglued when a vast, mercenary and crucially Lutheran army was permitted - if not actually encouraged - by an exasperated Charles V in 1527 to ravage Rome. The Pope watched powerless for weeks from the fortress of Sant'Angelo as the city was sacked by the German army, utterly in the power of the Emperor.

When in 1530 King Henry VIII had begun to realise that the only chance of producing a male heir to the English throne lay in divorcing his wife, Catherine of Aragon, an otherwise simple circumstance was complicated by the fact that Catherine, who had no desire for this humiliating diminution of her status, was the Emperor's aunt Although Clement made some efforts to recognise the sincerity of the King's dilemma - he believed that he lived incestuously with his brother's wife - the final outcome can never have been truly in dispute. Pope Julius II had provided Henry with a dispensation to marry the widow of his late elder brother Arthur, which Henry now pretended to find theologically insufficient. He - or rather his increasingly frantic agent Cardinal Wolsey - now urged Pope Clement to recognise the true state of the King's marriage and dissolve it, or rather, acknowledge that it had never existed.

When the Pope refuted Henry's arguments, the King's lawyers pressed a yet more serious a case: that the Papal authority could not in any case provide a dispensation as Julius had secured. In 1532 Archbishop Warham died, and Henry was able to appoint a more amenable figure, the radical Cranmer, to the see of Canterbury. Cranmer then pronounced on the divorce, and on June 1st 1533 Queen Ann Boleyn was crowned. Parliamentary acts prevented all appeals to Rome, the publishing of Papal Bulls in England and in January abolished absolutely Papal control over the Church in England. When three months later the Papal Commission found that the King's marriage to Catherine had been lawful it was off little importance; the King had, in any case, been excommunicate for nearly a year. The rule of Clement VII was, therefore, disastrous for the future of Catholicism in England not due to any spiritual failing in the papacy, but from a mishandling of a more conventional dynastic and political problem. At the time of the breach with Rome neither Henry nor the majority of his court and subjects had any sympathy with the Lutheran reformers. Nor did most, such as the King, who denied the authority of the Bishop of Rome ever cease to think of themselves as orthodox Catholics; that was to come in the following reign.

It is a monument to the age in which these events occurred, and undeniably to patronage of the men themselves, that all of the actors in the King's Great Matter are known to us through the work of the greatest European artists. Henry was painted by Holbein, Francis of France encouraged Cellini and gave a refuge to the ailing Leonardo, Charles V was a friend of Titian and Pope Clement oversaw the completion of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, and the initiation of the Last Judgement and was the patron of Sebastiano del Piombo. As a youthful Cardinal Giulio de''Medici he had been painted in the reign of his uncle Pope Leo X by Raphael; recognising that a great painter is inseparable from a great ruler he sponsored Sebastiano Luciani, called del Piombo after the lucrative office - keeper of the lead seals - with which the Pope rewarded him.

This portrait of the Pope is a study repetition of the head and shoulders of a portrait of c.1527, of which the prime example is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A further version, now considered studio work, is in the Getty Museum in Malibu. It was suggested in 1991 when this panel was at sale in Monaco that it might be one of two portraits left in Sebastiano's studio and inventoried there at his death1. This is possible, although at least one other example of this format is known and various repetitions are likely.

1. M. Hirst Sebastiano del Piombo Oxford 1981 p.155 quoting an inventory mentioning two portraits of the Pope at the late painter''s house; one in a garden room, and another in the painter''s studio (camera in qua pingere solebat…)
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