A Restored Masterpiece Now at Florence’s Pitti Palace
Pope Leo X (1475-15 was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Clarice Orsini and possibly one of the most interesting figures in Renaissance Italy. His passion for music, art and letters gave him a reputation as the “humanist pope” who initiated monumental projects like the new St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Rooms’ painting decoration, and supported writers and artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. However, according to contemporary sources, he was also immoral, perverted and totally gay. Francesco Guicciardini, in his History of Italy, writes:
In the early days of his pontificate, he was believed to be very chaste, but it was later discovered that he indulged excessively and without shame in those pleasures which I honestly cannot name. (Guicciardini, History of Italy, Volume 16, Chapter 12, ll. 29-32.)
Guicciardini wasn’t the only one to hint at Leo’s homosexual orientation. Paolo Giovio, another historian, wrote the Leo loved to entertain his valets and servants in “lascivious ways” and legend has it that when he came back to Florence in 1515, after the Medici family was exiled, Leo X had young naked boys dance around the streets coated in gold paint to symbolize the “return of the Medici Golden Age” (unfortunately, the poor guys died of lead poisoning). Giovanni dall’Orto, in his extensive review of Italy’s gay historical figures (link: Saggi di storia gay e lesbica di Giovanni Dall’Orto), mentions the Pasquinades (anonymous lampoons posted on public spaces in Rome) which described the pope’s inappropriate behavior. One of them is particularly funny:
O Rome, when Leo married you [when he became pope], only bardasse [passive sodomites] and buffoons were held in high regard. (See quote) Link: http://www.giovannidallorto.com/biografie/leoneX/leoneX.html
Raphael’s famous portrait of Pope Leo X, kept at the Pitti Palace in Florence, shows us a full-figured man (his favorite dish was peacock sausages wrapped in gold leaf) sitting at his desk, with a precious illuminated manuscript open before him. He’s clearly been studying it, because he’s holding a magnifying glass in his hand, but he must have been distracted by something (or somebody) outside the picture as he’s looking away from it. Behind him, his two associates and close friends, Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi and his cousin Giulio de’ Medici, while in the background we can perceive some classical buildings. The finely chiseled bell next to the book is another symbol of Leo’s sophisticated taste: his enemies accused him of making the Vatican go bankrupt because of his proverbial luxury!
Now perfectly restored to his former glorious state, this painting is more than just a portrait, it’s a perfectly clear biography of an aesthete that valued art and beauty above anything else. If he had been living in our times, Leo would certainly be called a fashion icon (or maybe a fashion queen) who thought that uniqueness and fabulousness were more important than anything in this world. The fact that his enemies tried to destroy him, accuse him of nepotism, simony, sodomy and so on (all of these accusations were probably true, by the way) only made him laugh and exclaim, “God has given us the papacy. Now, let’s enjoy it!”.
If you want to learn more about Leo X, the Medici and their fabulous queerness, book our Medici tour at the Pitti Palace!