Pope Leo X was certainly not one of the best popes in the history of the Catholic church. Not differently from any other Pope of the Renaissance, he took advantage of his position to favor members of his family and for personal profit. He was the Pope of the Protestant reformation, that caused the split of the Western Christian church.
Giovanni de Medici
Giovanni de Medici (Florence 1475 – Rome 1521), second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was destined to the ecclesiastical career; he graduated in Pisa in canonical law, having already obtained substantial benefits since his childhood such as the office of Abbot of Monte Cassino and Morimondo; in 1489 he was appointed Cardinal in secret, getting the hat in 1492. His father paid for this office. It wasn’t good times for the Medici family, with Lorenzo the Magnificent dying in 1492 and leaving the family almost broke in the hands of the inept Piero the Unfortunate, the eldest brother of Giovanni. In 1494, the growing disappointment of the population towards Piero, the attacks of Girolamo Savonarola and the invasion of Tuscany by Charles VIII, King of France, led to the ban of the Medici from Florence. The political ruin of his family was not good for the prestige of Giovanni in the office of Cardinal, and for some years he lived in France, in Germany and in the Netherlands. Back in Rome, in his palace (Palazzo Madama) he started a munificent patronage. As governor of Bologna, he was taken prisoner in 1512 in Ravenna by the French. Allied with the Spanish-papal faction, Giovanni could contribute to the return of the Medici in Florence when the French retired from Southern Italy.
Pope Leo X
Giovanni was elected pope March 11, 1513 as a peacemaker after the bellicose pontificate of Julius II. Pope Leo X aimed at avoiding the French and Spanish dominance in Italy, with a tortuous but uncertain policy, too worried to ensure the interests of his house, for which he gave his grandson Lorenzo the Duchy of Urbino (1516). For his political ambition, which was detrimental to the prestige of the Church, he sided with France and then with Spain, but he was unable to prevent the Treaty of Cambrai (1517), which decided the fate of Italy, split between the two powerful countries. Pope Leo X, to fill the exhausted papal finances brought the sale of indulgencies to the next stage, making a large scale business out of this bad tradition: indulgencies were not sold to wealthy donors only, but also to the common people, all across Europe (afterall he was the descendant of a family of bankers!). This was the main factor that determined the success of Martin Luther and his reformation, that started in 1517. Another big factor was that this event was underestimated by Pope Leo X and all the Catholic church.
In the new conflict between Francis I and Charles of Hapsburg to the imperial succession, Pope Leo X tried to negotiate a compensation from both candidates, favoring Charles in the end, when he became the sure winner in the contest, also to have more valid support against the Lutheran danger. As ruler of the papal state Pope Leo X was mild, even though he condemned to death a Cardinal as responsible of a dubious conspiracy; he raised taxes, to pay the expenses for the conquest of Urbino, but especially for his boundless generosity. Pope Leo X was a patron of writers and artists like Raphael and Bembo, but hostile to Machiavelli. He protected press. He reformed the University of Rome, enriching the papal state of ancient codes and books, masterpieces of classical antiquity, trying to promote Rome as the cultural center of Christianity. In Florence, he ordered Michelangelo to complete the church of San Lorenzo designing the facade, but after two years of hard work by the artist he changed his mind, giving him another job: the New Sacristy, today part of the Medici Chapels. As head of the Catholic church, Pope Leo X was quite sensible to the problems of Christianity: he felt the problem of holy war against the Turks, but was gradually diverted by other issues; he concluded (1517) the Lateran Council opened by Julius II; put an end to the Gallicanism, granting however the Holy Roman Emperor the right to appoint bishops. In front of the protest of Martin Luther he showed tolerance, but also lack of understanding about the severity of the problem. He was a sincere believer, but suffered from scandals of prelates and courtiers, creating unworthy Cardinals, for his reluctance to face serious responsibility and his desire to have wealthy supporters. He was buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, in a tomb designed by Antonio da Sangallo.