Uwe Ochsenknecht as Pope Leo XAt 29:00 into the movie Luther (2003), freshly elected pope Leo X discusses the German Albrecht of Brandenburg with soon-to-be papal nuncio Aleander. When somewhat idealistic Aleander notes that under canon law Albrecht cannot be the Archbishop of Mainz (who was also primate of the Holy Roman Empire), Leo X virtually smirks as he reminds Aleander that he himself was a cardinal at age 13. Though the point is not stressed further, the insight here is that the highest-ranking church officials, even the pope, were not men of religion at all but men from a handful of great aristocratic families: the Medicis, Brandenburgs, Wettins, etc.
The 47-year-old, Hessian-born Uwe Ochsenknecht plays blubber-lipped Pope Leo X with entertaining arrogance and cynicism. The pope, no more malicious than other princes of his time, was described by a contemporary as an “extremely free-hearted man who avoids every difficult situation”. However he was a son of the powerful House of Medici (and ordained priest after he became the pope). It is no surprise he was very worldly with worldly vices. Hunting and women (and perhaps boys) enjoyed priority over religious matters, which this pope moreover saw as mainly political matters. His fiery predecessor Julius II (the ‘warrior pope’) had tried to stem the influence of princely families; Leo X not only reversed that initiative but created an astonishing 31 new cardinals! Ochsenknecht also conveys well a centuries-old Italian attitude, i.e., sneering disdain for everything not Italian.
Pope Leo X portrait by Raphael
At 32:00 into the movie Leo X implies he is the mastermind behind the re-building of St. Peter’s basilica. In fact, demolition of the old basilica was initiated in the mid-15th Century by Pope Nicholas V and rebuilding was begun in earnest by Leo X’s highly esteemed predecessor, Julius II. Nevertheless Leo was indeed strapped for money because of the project; its demands threatened his lavish lifestyle. One solution was to drain money out of the Vatican’s silver-rich cash cow, the German-speaking part of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the Archbishop of Mainz was allowed to sell indulgences. Half of the money went to the archbishop’s bankers, the Fuggers of Augsburg; half ‘flew over the Alps to Rome’.
Such a brazen money scam of the German faithful enraged the Saxon monk Luther, who decided to show his teeth in late October 1517. At 42:00 in the movie Leo X fumes because the indulgence money dried up because of a ‘drunken little German monk” and concludes ominously, “Sober him!” At 59:00 in the movie Leo X sneers to Cardinal Cajetan “You exaggerate his importance” but then hints at a cardinal’s hat for Luther. This rings true; no pope was freer at creating new cardinals than Leo X. Cajetan’s general pessimism over the ‘Luther Affair’ angers the movie Leo X and he calls Cajetan incompetent and announces he will send Karl Miltitz to Saxony to deal with Frederick the Wise and his monk.
In historical accuracy, the depiction of Leo X is not far off the mark. In detail, the time from the posting of the 95 theses to the arrival of Miltitz to bribe Frederick the Wise with the Golden Rose in 1519 took nearly two years. In mid-1518 Emperor Maximilian had feigned indignation but warned Leo X about ‘several defenders of Luther's errors among the great’. The emperor was of course referring to the second most powerful man in the empire: Frederick the Wise. The dynamics changed completely when Maximilian became mortally ill in late 1518. Frederick the Wise, as the most powerful of the six electors of the new emperor, was, at least until after the election, untouchable. After the election of Charles V however the Vatican’s attack on Luther resumed with excommunication, burning his books, etc. “A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard,” wrote Leo X in 1520. At 1:02 into the movie this metaphor is completed as Leo X himself rides down a wild boar and kills it with his lance.
Leo X does not reappear in the movie. All his efforts to stop Luther had failed. At about the time the first riots incited by Karlstadt hit Wittenberg in late 1521 the real Leo X suddenly died a victim of malaria at only 47.
Q. Do you agree with this assessment Leo X and his predecessor Julius II?