Monday, July 27, 2015

THE KING'S AGENT BOOK TRAILER

At the recent Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver, Colorado, it was my pleasure and privilege to speak on writing about art and artists. The King’s Agent is based loosely on the life of Battista della Palla-a patriotic plunderer, a religious rogue-of the 16th century, a lifelong friend to the great Michelangelo.

As the cloistered ward of the Marquess of Mantua, Lady Aurelia is a woman with a profound duty, and a longing for adventure. In search of a relic intended for the King of France, Battista and Aurelia cross the breathtaking landscape of Renaissance Italy. Clues hide in great works of art, political forces collide, secret societies and enemies abound, and danger lurks in every challenge, those that mirror the passages of Dante's Divine Comedy. It is an adventurous quest with undercurrents of the supernatural, powers that could change the balance of supremacy throughout Europe.

In this short trailer, the works of art providing the clue can be seen as well as the actual locations in Italy where the challenges took place.





The King's Agent Book Trailer

Many thanks to the talent Mary Burns, trailer creator and producer!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Recap of the 2015 Denver
Historical Novel Society Conference
panel-talk “Art and Artists in HF”


unnamed
We love art. We love artists. We love art history. We write about art, artists and history. Art-based historical fiction is an expanding and exciting niche in the historical fiction genre. At this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver, June 26-28, writers Alana White (The Sign of the Weeping Virgin), Donna Russo Morrin (The King’s Agent), myself Stephanie Renee dos Santos (Cut From The Earth), Mary F. Burns (Portraits of An Artist), and Stephanie Cowell (Claude & Camille) came together to share our collective wisdom on how and what special challenges arise when writing about art and artists and what to keep in mind when delving into the world of the creative arts. A special thanks to the forty writers who attended our discussion. We hope each of you left with something to aid and enhance your stories!
Here’s the recap of the writing points we covered at the panel-talk:
edit Alana White
Alana White:  “Using art to advance the story in action and dialogue.”
In The Sign of the Weeping Virgin the setting of this historical mystery series is the Italian Renaissance when my protagonist, lawyer Guid’Antonio, conducts investigations for the powerful Medici family.  In the novel, the young ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, asks Guid’Antonio to investigate two mysteries for him. One involves a weeping panel painting of the Virgin Mary, the other centers on a missing girl. While there is considerable art in the narrative, it is Sandro Botticelli’s fresco of Saint Augustine that provides the clue to solve the mystery of the young woman who has disappeared.
Since this is a mystery, I wanted to “plant” the clue that enables Guid’Antonio to solve the riddle four times. While painting the “Saint Augustine” in Guid’Antonio’s family church, Botticelli overheard some young monks arguing among themselves. Amused, he recorded four lines of their dialogue at the top of the painting in the scribbled lines of a geometry book. (Restorers discovered the lines while cleaning the fresco in the relatively recent past.)
  • We see Sandro painting the lines at the top of the fresco:
Is Brother Martino anywhere about?
Brother Martino just slipped out.
Slipped out where?
Through the Prato Gate for a breath of fresh air.
  • Guid’Antonio has gone into the church to inspect the panel painting on the altar—the reportedly weepin
  • g painting. On the way out, he notices Sandro’s newly completed fresco on the south wall.  While Guid’Antonio sees the scribbles high up in the gloom, he cannot read the lines. “Guid’Antonio made out a fringed tablecloth and a couple of books, one leather bound, the other open to a page scribbled with a few odd markings and, hidden as it was in the shadows, a bit of text he could not make out.  Like his spirit, all the rest of Sandro’s masterful work was lost in a world of dark, and so he turned away.”
  • Very brief, but advances the mystery elements of the story. By now, Guid’Antonio—and we—suspect “Brother Martino” has something to do with the missing girl.
  • While Guid’Antonio is standing near the church front, his nephew and secretary, Amerigo Vespucci, swings the doors open, admitting sunlight.  At last Guido reads the dialogue.  Realizing Botticelli must know something about “Brother Martino,” he hurries to Botticelli’s workshop. Now close to the novel’s end, Sandro provides Guid’Antonio with the clue Guid’Antonio needs to wrap up the loose threads concerning the girl, and the mystery of the weeping Virgin Mary painting, too.

edited Donna Russo Morrin
Donna Russo Morin:  “Using specific artworks to reveal time period and/or social/political attitudes – to depict an art history advancement.”
  • Civilizations are remembered, discovered, through their artists and their art.
  • There are certain eras where humanity made significant social/cultural changes. The Renaissance is one of those times.
  • The Italian Renaissance artists changed the very nature of their mediums.
  • The Renaissance signaled the reemergence, the ‘rebirth,’ of Humanism, the belief in the intellectual potential and overall experience of humankind. Art reflected Humanism, turning to more realism.
  • A perfect example is Michelangelo’s David. In this scene, my female protagonist in The King’s Agent sees the statue for the first time: It was indeed a giant; Aurelia guessed it to be taller than three men. When she studied the face, all of David’s mysteries were revealed. The face was, as she had heard, a bit large for the size of the head, but upon his features, she saw all of the fear, tension, and aggression the real David must have felt when attacked by the colossal Goliath. Wrinkles perforated his forehead, thick brows drawn together, with a scornful twist to his full lips; fearful, yest, but with an inner assuredness that all evil could be felled. There was great nobility to the man etched into immortality, a beautiful determination astounding the eye as well as the soul. 
  • Art mirrored the turn from religious themes; were instead infused with sensation that paintings were modeled after real people/real life. In this quote, the male protagonist scours a painting by Carlo Crivelli:  The painting was a combination of hard angled buildings and gracefully rounded people. It projected a vanishing perspective, with Mary glimpsed in the foreground just through an open door, two men in the gallery beside the building, and others in the background, the success of the dimensions depicted, were a function of the perfect spatial and size balance of each person and object rendered.
  • This is the sort of realism that found its birth in the rebirth of the Renaissance.
  • edit Steph
    Stephanie Renee dos Santos:  “Use of artist space to depict action in story – moments of crisis and conflict.”
    I elucidated this point with excerpts (condensed versions shared here) from my forthcoming novel Cut From The Earth, the story of an empathetic Portuguese tile maker, Piloto Mendes Pires, who risks everything to save slaves and escape The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that ushers Portugal into a New Age. 
    Example 1:  Chracter Conflict
    The back alley door slammed open as Rafa picked up a large rolling pin, double the size of a baker’s.
    In stormed Senhor Guimares, the owner of the nearby Red Clay Tile Factory. His dark mustache quivered on his flushed face.
    “Where’s Padre Piloto?” he demanded.
    Piloto peered down through the floor’s grid. He remained quiet, waiting to hear what he’d come for.
    “Hand me the template,” Rafa said to Jawoli calmly. Rafa placed the 14 x 14 metal template on top of a flattened slab of clay, and began cutting tiles out with a knife.
    “I asked a question you ignorant peças!” Senhor Guimares bellowed. “Where is the Padre!?” He shook his index finger at them.
    Piloto cringed. He rushed to the stairway. How to deal with this man?
    Senhor Guimares stomped by the kilns and over to where the men worked.
    “Who’s in charge?” he demanded, his mustache now twitching. “Comer o pao que o diabo amassou! I’m speaking to you!” Sweat ran down his temples and dripped onto his pressed linen shirt, taut on his keg belly.
    Rafa put the scoring tool down and stared coldly at the intruder. “Padre Piloto.”
    • This excerpt shows how one can use the artist space and materials to demonstrate and create conflict between characters, while allowing the reader deeper into the specifics of the artists world.
    Example 2:  Crisis
    A jolt shot through Piloto’s body, ejecting the tile from the tong’s grip. It shattered on the floor. He dropped the iron-tongs. They clattered upon the shards. Barrels of chalky glazes shook, their thick soups boiling over their rims, mixing paddles churning in the vats. The viscous substances ebbed and flowed down the sides of their holding containers: manganese-browns, copper-greens, cobalt-blues, iron-oxide oranges, creating an amalgam of colors on the ground.
    Rolling pins fell off counters, and ricocheted end-on-end before congregating in a pile, next to the vats. Dried goat balls the size of peaches filled with liquid glaze vaulted to the floor, glaze paints squirting out their nozzle ends. Buckets of paintbrushes careened, the brushes scattering like plucked feathers. Work pedestals spun. Small glass jars of pigments vibrated across tabletops; others wobbled off, exploding. Water spilled from barrel containers, housing gooey slip used to join clay pieces, and formed puddles on the floor’s low spots. The holding tank of white iron-oxide cracked down the front, its contents oozed out. Stacks of clay blocks toppled, hitting the floor with loud thuds.  Pails of wires, paddles, anvils, and ribs shimmered off back shelves, while the shelves themselves threatened to pitch forward.
    Piloto dashed from spot to spot, arms outstretched, catching items and picking up others.  He filled his arms.
    What is going on?  
    The earth heaved again, a second more severe shock, a violent undulating ocean wave.
    • This scene uses the visually unique and exotic tile making factory to recreate what it might have been like for a tile maker the fatal day of November 1st, All Saints Day, when The Great Lisbon Earthquake leveled Lisbon, Portugal in 1755.
    edit Mary F Burns
    Mary F. Burns:  “Seeing and thinking through the eyes and heart of the artist.”
    A question for all historical fiction authors is: Do you have to be a (Fill in the Blank) in order to write about one as a character?  Lawyer, Doctor, Midwife, Artist?   No, but it helps if you have an affinity for the work that person does, and of course, you have to understand how that kind of person thinks, feels, sees, understands, communicates.
    I learned enough about how John Singer Sargent painted—his style, his technique, his preferred media—to be able to realistically portray him in his studio and as an artist.  He was very expressive and entertaining for his sitters—he fed them, played the piano and sang, dashed around the room with a cigar in his teeth, laughing and telling jokes.
    But away from the canvas, I learned from biographies, he had a hard time with words, found it difficult to express himself, a very private person, genial, kindly, energetic. He loved light and shadow, as most painters do, and having a complicated personality himself, he wasn’t averse to showing both the lighter and darker sides of his subjects.”
    However, he denied that he consciously depicted the “psychological” state of his subjects, said he “merely painted what was before his eyes.” But even his closest friends said otherwise. If he simply accurately painted what he saw, then it must be that our feelings, our principles, our character and background and griefs and joys are written upon our bodies, because that’s what appear in his portraits, which is why ultimately, I decided to write my novel with fifteen different voices telling the story,  the voices of people who sat for portraits by Sargent, some of them dear friends, some one-time clients, but all providing different perspectives and clues as to who Sargent really was. As Oscar Wilde said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” And Sargent definitely revealed himself through his portraits.
    * A special thanks to Mary for creating our artsy book trailers for the talk!
    (All except Stephanie Cowell’s which was made by her talented son!)
    edit SC
    Stephanie Cowell:  “How much artistic ‘process’ to reveal in scenes – when is enough enough?”
    You cannot write truly and deeply about anyone’s work (be it laundress, cellist, teacher, or painter) without showing them doing their work yet you must be careful how you write this. I try to reveal the work of my protagonist in scenes in which he is also living his life.  In the panel, I read a scene where Monet has a fight with his wife, rushes off to paint to calm himself and loses track of the hours; when he comes back to his actual life, having been gone for a long time, he finds something bad has happened. So there is a contrast between the ecstatic, all-consuming hours of his painting and the relatively ordinary needs of the people he loves.  In the case of an artist, the art is indivisible from the person. But the language of any profession is unique to that profession and you can’t go so far into the way an artist works that you confuse the reader with terminology. You also can’t have so much of the creation of art that you lose the plot tension. But you can’t ever just say that someone is anything without showing how it affects everything, even the aches in his body. Painting ruled Monet’s life; if he felt it didn’t go well he would be in total black despair and you couldn’t go near him. So you have to show that. Art was so huge for him it was like being drunk; it affected everything in him and everyone to whom he was close.
    For the Love of Art in Historical Fiction! 
    To find out more about each author, their books, and to purchase their art-based historical novels: 
    Alana White:  www.alanawhite.com
    Donna Russo Morin:  donnarussomorin.com
    Stephanie Cowell:  http://www.stephaniecowell.com/
    Stephanie Renee dos Santos: http://www.stephaniereneedossantos.com/

Monday, June 1, 2015

THE SON OF LA TIGRE, CATERINA SFORZA,
BRINGS A TITLE OF NOBILITY TO THE MEDICI

His parents were wed in secret, many thought of him as a bastard; he was baptized with the name Ludovico (named for a Sforza uncle); he was the son of one of the most famous and powerful woman of the Renaissance…and he became the first titled Medici.

Bianca Riario and her
half brother Giovanni
Caterina Sforza’s son, Ludovico, was born in April of 1498; his father, Giovanni de’ Medici, died just five months later. When Ludovico, now renamed Giovanni for his deceased father, was still a baby, his mother was captured by Cesare Borgia and imprisoned in Rome, first in the Belvedere Castle then—after a failed escape attempt—in the Castel Sant’Angelo. During the years of his mother’s imprisonment, the care of Giovanni was entrusted to his eldest sister, Bianca Riario—twenty years his elder. Together, they sought refuge in a convent until the release of their mother.

Once more under the tutelage of his mother, in possession of her fiery, aggressive temperament, Caterina brought out the best and the worst in her youngest son. From an early age, Giovanni’s interests lay in physical activities and his training in military arts began in his youth. Caterina devoted herself to his education, attempting to instill in him the values of the Italian nobility of her family. The combination was deadly, but not for Giovanni.

At the death of his mother in 1509, Giovanni came under the protection of the Canon Francesco Fortunati and the wealthy Jacopo Salviati of Florence. Salviati did his best to keep the recalcitrant youth under control. It was a battle waged and lost. Salviati returned to Florence without Giovanni, who, though only 11, was left to run wild. Stories abound of his mischievous behavior in the Tuscany region…in Florence, in the Mugello Valley. His companions were the low, the peasants and the gangs of the area. Giovanni committed his first murder—most likely a gang killing—at the age of 12.

The act was too egregious for Salviati to remain impassive. He called Giovanni to Florence and soon brought the youth to Rome when Salviati was appointed ambassador to that city. But the change of location did nothing to curb Giovanni’s violent proclivities. Salviati sent him back to Florence and enrolled him in military academy, hoping to put Giovanni’s aggressive tendencies to good use. It was a wise choice.

Called to Rome by the pope, Leo X, Giovanni’s cousin—the son of Lorenzo Il Magnifico de’ Medici and Clarice Orsini—Giovanni first became a politiziotto, a policeman, in Vatican City. But it was not long before Giovanni’s military prowess found him greater position and power. In March of 1516, Giovanni became a military captain of a cavalry with no less than one hundred men under his control. His captaincy began with a trial by fire. During the War of Urbino, the pope commissioned Giovanni and his men to strip the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere, of his title and his lands. So great was the might of this cavalry, they defeated the duke in a mere twenty-two days.

Perhaps his resounding victory did much to raise Giovanni in the eyes of his one-time protector, Jacopo Salviati. In 1517, Giovanni married Salviati’s daughter, Maria. But married life and the birth of a child did little to slow Giovanni down.

Now renowned as a great condottiero, Giovanni became a master at the new form of battle, creating masters of the men in his company. He instituted new methods of training, aiming for a compact, disciplined structure of offensive. Giovanni mounted his company on lighter, faster, quieter horses, making them lethal with stealthy ambushes. Even in regards to uniforms, Giovanni used thinner, lighter armor padded with black leather.

Giovanni’s training techniques were as intense as they were novel. Any man desiring entrée into his forces must already be adept at the use of weapons and combat on horseback. But that wasn’t nearly good enough for Giovanni. He pushed his men harder, made them deadlier. Those who excelled on the training field were rewarded; those who didn’t, those Giovanni called cowards and traitors were banished from camp, or worse, sentenced to death. His efforts did not go unnoticed or underutilized.

Giovanni and his men fought for Pope Leo against the French in 1521. In the same year, Pope Leo X died, a death that touched Giovanni deeply. In mourning and constant reverence, Giovanni added black stripes to his insignia, naming himself forever as Giovanni della Bande Nere (John of the Black Stripes). In 1522, he turned his weapons and fought on the side of the French. He then switched to the Emperor’s side in 1523 and defeated the Imperial and Swiss forces at Caprino Bergamasco in 1524.

Another cousin now sat on the papal throne, Clement VII, the once Giulio di Giuliano. Clement, still supporting his military cousin financially, ordered Giovanni to return his arms to those of the French. Giovanni did so in 1525.

For this powerful, fearless man who made violence and war his life’s purpose, it was no great war or battle that brought about his demise, but a skirmish.

The War of the League of Cognac broke out in 1526. During an early scuffle, Giovanni was wounded in the thigh by a harquebus. Seemingly superficial at first, the wound refused to mend. With a few of his Black Band, Giovanni made for Venice and their superior physicians. Though he missed the famous Battle of Pavia, he re-entered the never-ending wars on Italian soil, appointed as Captain General of the Army Infantry Italian League.

On November 21, 1526, 12,000 German Landsknechts under the command of Georg von Frundsberg, marched on Venice, a force that had already overcome Venice’s Alpine defenses. Giovanni worked together with Francesco Maria della Rovere, Captain General of the League in Italy. Giovanni devised the plan…leave the French and the Swiss troops in front position while Giovanni and his Black Band, along with Rovere’s troops, rounded on the Germans, to attack from a different vantage point.

Rovere withdrew his troops under the onslaught of the Landsknechts in Milan. Giovanni and his band remained, attacking from the rear at the confluence of the Mincio and Po Rivers. His troops reigned triumphant, but not unscatched.

At the very end of the battle, Giovanni was shot by a falconet, a wound that was thought to have
shattered the femur in his right leg. Too much time passed as they transported Giovanni to Mantua and the home of his friend and fellow soldier Luigi Gonzaga. The delay rendered useless the expert treatment and eventual amputation of the limb by the renowned healer, Mastro Abramo.

His recovery is a moment captured in a letter from an eyewitness to the event, Pietro Aretino, who wrote to Francesco Albizi:

“Not even twenty,” Giovanni said smiling, “could hold me,” and he took a candle in his hand, so that he could make light onto himself, I ran away, and shutting my ears I heard only two voices, and then calling, and when I reached him he told me: “I am healed,” and turning all around he greatly rejoiced.

Giovanni did, indeed, stand again. But the gangrene—or septicemia—was unstoppable. Giovanni knew his end was near, but he would not leave this world in bandages. Pulling them from his leg, he broke free and laid upon a camp bed. There he died on November 30, 1526.

In 2012, Giovanni della Bande Nere was exhumed, along with his wife, in an effort to preserve his remains. The exhumation showed no breakage of his right thigh, where the fatal wound was supposedly located. The bones of the lower leg were removed, but the femur itself showed no damage. The most convincing theory is that the wound itself was not fatal, but its infection was.

Not long after Giovanni’s death, his mode of battle was rendered obsolete by the introduction of the mobile canon. For this reason, Giovanni’s death is the metaphorical end of the great condottieri of Italy.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

IT'S YOUR TURN, DEAR READERS!
ANNOUNCING THE 2015 READER SURVEY

Writers and readers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader.

What then do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favourite reading blogs? These and other questions have been the subject of two previous reader surveys.

ANNOUNCING A 2015 READER SURVEY, conducted by the talented M. K. Tod (see more on Tod below) designed to solicit further input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favourite authors and, for the first time, favourite historical fiction. THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.

If you are a reader or a writer, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] with friends and family and on your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year’s survey even more significant. Those who take the survey will be able to sign up to receive a summary report when it becomes available.



         HISTORICAL FICTION IS MAINSTREAM: Less than 2% of participants said they rarely or never read historical fiction.

         GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Women and men differ significantly in their reading habits and preferences and their views of historical fiction.

         AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Those under 30 have different preferences for genre and time period 
and have different patterns of consumption and acquisition.

         SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A BIG IMPACT ON READING: Social media and online sites play an increasingly significant role for those choosing, purchasing, and talking about fiction.

         BOOK BLOGS ARE VERY POPULAR: 1,473 participants listed one, two or three favourite blogs.

         GEOGRAPHY: Responses to questions such as the use of online tools for recommendations and purchasing and preferred setting for historical fiction varied by geography.

         PRICING: Sadly, readers are pushing for low prices. For example, 60% want e-books at $5.99 or less and 66% want paperbacks at $10.99 or less.

         ONLINE BOOK CLUBS ARE GAINING POPULARITY: 21% belong to online clubs while 15% belong to clubs meeting in a physical location

         VOLUME OF BOOKS READ MAKES A DIFFERENCE: for example, high volume readers have different expectations for book reviews, a higher interest in tracking their books, and higher usage of online tools and social media to augment their reading experience.

Participate in this year’s survey by clicking the link and please share the URL with others https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.
Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

FROM BASTARD TO POPE TO THE BANE OF HENRY VIII:
GIULIO DE’ MEDICI,
THE NEXT MEDICI TO DISTINGUISH HIMSELF

He couldn’t have known, at the time of his birth, that his father had been brutally slain exactly one month to the day before he was birthed into the world. And yet Giulio, the child of Giuliano de’ Medici and Fioretta Gorini, must have found out, must have learned the truth of his father.

Though most call him Giuliano’s bastard, further research leaves one to believe that, through the power of Lorenzo de’ Medici—the strength of Il Magnifico—he was legitimized in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the church. It was contended that Giuliano and Fioretta were married in secret, per sponsalia de presenti, and that, somehow, proof of this was ‘discovered.’ By virtue of a well-known principle of canon law, Giulio was a bastard no more.

He was raised in his uncle’s house, raised as one of Lorenzo’s own children, with an intensive, all-encompassing, and Humanistic education. He was cared for by the very nurturing Clarice. And yet, when he learned, when Giulio found out the details of his father’s horrific assassination, what must it have done to his young mind? Would the machinations of the Medicis and the Pazzis, which led to his father death, blight him against such a way of life?

It would appear to be so.

Little is written of Giulio’s childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. Knowing the tight bonds and the dominance of the Medici clan, it is safe to assume these years were spent in deep study and in learning the ways of politics and despotic ruling by Lorenzo’s side. After the death of Lorenzo, incurring the misguidance by Piero, Giulio, like most of his family, went into exile in 1494. Traveling the Italian countryside brought him honors nonetheless; he became a Knight of Rhodes, a military association, and a Grand Prior of Capua. Like his cousin, his obeisance to the Roman Catholic Church would deliver his freedom to him once more.  

Giulio comes into his own in 1513 when is cousin, Lorenzo’s son, now Pope Leo X, conferred on Giulio the title of Cardinal and made him legate at Bologna. Leo X’s propensity for a pleasure-loving lifestyle, left much, if not all, of the papal governing fell to Cardinal Giulio, where he proved himself to be a more than capable administrator.

zucchetto then and now
The zucchetto, the papal cap, changed heads quickly. Upon Leo X’s death in 1521, Adrian VI was quickly elected to the position by the College of Cardinals, Giulio doing much to push his victory. But Adrian’s reign was short lived. He took the papal throne in January of 1522, then left it, by his death, in September of 1523. In November of 1523, Cardinal Giulio became Pope Clement VII.

Young Pope Clement VII
Clement brought great diplomacy and economic stability to the papal states. However, there is much greater evidence concerning the areas in which he failed. Most prominent was his failure to either see the threat of the Protestant Reformation or his timidity to do anything about it. For this, he was often criticized not only by members of the Catholic church but by the people themselves. It appeared to many that he was, though ordained as the pope, more ingrained as a Medici and a Italian prince.

Politically he wavered, switching his allegiance between France and Spain as easily as the wind changes direction. Such ambiguity led to one of the two major events in the life of Pope Clement VII. 

His wavering support of the Emperor Charles of Spain brought about the Sack of Rome in 1527. In truth, the marauding of the Holy City was an act of mutiny on the part of Charles’ overworked, under-paid military, it nevertheless brought Charles a crucial victory over the League of Cognac, the alliance of France, Milan, Florence, Venice, and the Papal States.

As for Rome itself, it was laid to waste; the pillaging—and starving troops—left leaderless by the death of Charles of Bourbon at the very inception of the siege, proceeded to defile the city, raping, murdering, and vandalizing to their hearts content. Clement VII himself barely made it to the safe haven of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Although he agreed to pay a ransome of 40,000 ducats and cede many territories to the Emperor, he was held prisoner in the castle for six months. He found his escape through bribing Imperial Guards who disguised the pope as a peddler. Once free, Clement took shelter in Orvieto and later Viterbo. He did not return to Rome until October of 1528, where he found the city nearly abandoned and wholly ravaged. To add insult to his downtrodden life, back in his home city of Florence, those who always longed to see the mighty Medici fall, took the opportunity to once more exile the family from the city walls.

In June of 1529, much of his papal power was returned with the Peace of Bologna, bringing accord between the warring parties. The Papal States regained some of their lost cities and the Medicis were returned to power in Florence by the benevolence of Charles V. But drama was not yet done with Clement VII.

Catherine of Aragon
In the same year that Clement endured the sacking of his great city, he was being pestered on yet another front. A hedonistic, egotistic king who wanted a divorce from his wife, a divorce only the pope could grant. Through Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s demands on Clement were ceaseless. Demands Clement continually denied. While on the surface it may appear that Clement did so in keeping with the dictates of the Catholic religion, in truth, his actions were motivated by his keenness to keep his relationship with Spain, Henry VIII’s wife Catherine of Aragon being the aunt of the Emperor Charles, in tact. The act severed the relationship between Rome and England, indeed, between England and the Roman Catholic Church, a relationship never to be healed.

Clement had pacified Spain, broken with England. But what of France? In an effort to repair this alliance, Clement (or rather, in truth Giulio de’ Medici) betrothed his cousin’s daughter, Catherine, to Henri of Orleans in 1533. This young man, a man already in love with another woman, would become, due to the early death of his eldest brother, King Henri II.

An aged Pope Clement VII
Clement died, at the age of 56, in September of 1534. Rumors abounded that he was murdered, poisoned by mushrooms. It was a strange fashion of the age to give such salaciousness to deaths at the time, so such a theory cannot be given any great credence. For the most part, Giulio/Clement’s historical imprint is one of confliction and confusion; he is remembered as a Medici first, a man of the church second. His intelligence was remarkable while his diplomacy was deplorable. His personal life was beyond reproach yet despite good intention, the labels of heroism and greatness are denied him. And yet there is one lasting legacy of such magnificence, perhaps all else may be forgiven.

Just a few days before his death, Pope Clement VII commissioned a young sculptor and painter by the name of Michelangelo to render The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, an act that gave birth to a true wonder of the world.

The Last Judgment
Michelangelo