The Musician Pope Who Excommunicated Luther

Five hundred years ago, on the night of December 1, 1521, a few days before his forty-sixth birthday, a great pope of the so-called Renaissance died: Leo X, whose original name was Giovanni de’ Medici.

The second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent was born in Florence on December 11, 1475 in the most important of the great Florentine families. On March 11, 1513, at the age of thirty-seven, “against every expectation in the world was elected pope” (B. Cellini, My Life, Oxford University Press 2002, p. 6). The splendid Portrait of Leo X (above) that Raphael, his favorite painter, made in 1518 has been preserved in the Uffizi in Florence.

The first Medici Pope  — we read in the biography — entered into the clerical state at the age of seven, with the rite of the first tonsure; he was created cardinal in pectore at the age of 13 and published at 16. His education was nourished by the surveillance of his mother, Clarice Orsini, and the influence of the writers, humanist philosophers and musicians of the Medici court. It’s difficult here to recall, even in short, his eight years of pontificate; a very short period, but sufficient to call that century the “century of Leo X.” We remember the promotion of his own family also in the international context; in 1517 the conspiracy of the “young” cardinals led by Alfonso Petrucci, to poison the pope; the Lutheran Revolt, initially dismissed by Leo X as rixæ monachales, a “quarrel between monks”; the useless struggle of the pope to impose candidates outside the Habsburg house in the schemes for the election of the new emperor; the canonical approval by Leo X of the Monte di Pietà, to grant favorable loans to the most needy classes; the closure of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) and the ecclesiastical problems dealt with and resolved there; the pope’s support for the reform of religious orders — Franciscans, Camaldolese, Vallombrosans, Hungarian Benedectines —; the erection of the Compagnia del Divino Amore (Divine Love) with which the Arciospedale di S. Giacomo degli Incurabili was reborn; the approval, accompanied by abundant indulgences, of the Arciconfraternita di S. Girolamo della Carità for the assistance of the last, to which St. Philip Neri would join. These last two institutions were very significant in the Rome of the sixteenth century.

A reconstruction of Pope Leo X’s historical figure would be incomplete if, in addition to the man, the patron, the prince, the sovereign and the pope, the musician and composer did not appear. The Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office dedicated a five-euro commemorative bimetallic coin to him. We want to make some mention of the musicæ artis peritissimus, the passionate lover of music, as he was said by many.

There was certainly no lack of music in the Medici house. His father “also loved music, in which he was most excellent” (Poesie del magnifico Lorenzo De’ Medici, Bergamo 1763, p. XXI); he delighted in playing various instruments, especially the lira da braccio, and in singing, although “of a very hoarse voice” (Ibidem, p. XXX); besides that he was an excellent improviser. The Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517), active at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was probably the music teacher of the future pope and dedicates two motets to him: Optime pastor divino, for 6 voices, and Quid retribuam tibi, Leo, for 3 voices.

Lorenzo took the lead in promoting polyphony on an unprecedented scale at both official and unofficial levels and that by doing so he set a splendid example for others to follow. It was an example which his son Giovanni never forgot after he became Pope and presided over one of the most memorable moments in Italian and European musical history (F. D’Accone, Music in Renaissance Florence: Studies and Documents, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire 2006, p. 290).

Leo X was a player of lute and harpsichord. He received as a gift many instruments; in particular: a small organ “so varied of voice” constructed at Brixen (Bressanone) and given by Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona (1474-1519); an organo di alabastro brought to him from Naples; “an instrumentum in his chamber, upon which he practiced, and gave vent to his musical inspirations”; a large cembalo made by Lorenzo Gusnasco of Pavia in 1514 and considered by the same author as his most beautiful work; silver instruments made by Hans Neuschel at Nuremberg (cfr. A. Pirro, Leo X and Music, in The Musical Quarterly, 21, 1935, p. 15).

Under the first Medici Pope, the Sistine Chapel Choir, under the guidance of the French musician Elzéar Genet (also Carpentras), reached the number of 32 members for the first time.

The Italian chaplain and historian of the Spanish court Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457-1526) on April 20, 1513 from Villadolid wrote about the new pope: “Grece et latine habemus ponteficem eruditum, sed musicum, et qui cantorum collegiis et frequenti corona delectetur,” that is, “We have a pontiff erudite in Greek and Latin but also musical, who is delighted with the bands of singers and with the numerous assembly” (Opus epistolarum, Parigi 1670, p. 283).

So far the great patron of the arts, and music in particular, and the musician. But, as we have  mentioned above, Luther’s “excommunicator” was also a composer. His known works are five: three polyphonic motets on Latin sacred texts; one setting of a French secular text; and one instrumental canon.

In a letter by Georgius Sirmiensis (1490 ca.-1548 ca.), chaplain of the King of Hungary, we read about Leo X: “iste erat valde musicus; et iste composuit unum mutetam: Qui pro nobis contra nos, si Deus est nobiscum,” that is, “he was a great musician and composed a motet entitled Qui pro nobis…»  (in Monumenta Hungariæ Historica. Scriptores, 1, Pest 1857, p. 55); that composition has been lost.

At least his two instrumental pieces have survived: the Canon di papa Lione x a 3 voci and the chanson for 5 voices Cela sans plus, which is attributed to the “gardinale [sic] di Medici” in a Florentine period source (Firenze, Biblioteca nazionale centrale, MS Magliabechi XIX.107bis) and to “Leo papa decimus” in a Swiss manuscript (Basle, University Library, F X 1-4). Not bad for an amateur, not bad really.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email