Emilio Altieri was born in Rome in 1590, the son of a noble Roman family. He received a doctorate in law from the Roman College in 1611 and worked for Giambattista Pamphili, the future Innocent X, in the Rota, the Supreme Court of the Church. In 1624, Altieri was ordained a priest. He was thirty-four years of age.
For three years, Altieri served as an auditor in the Polish nunciature and from 1627 – 1654, as bishop of Camerino. Camerino is a small, picturesque town in the Marches region in Italy in the Apennines bordering Umbria. In 1644, Innocent X sent him as nuncio to Naples, but was unsatisfied with his tenure there and recalled Altieri in 1652. In 1657 Alexander VII appointed him to several positions, one of which was as a consultor or expert advisor.
A month before his death, Clement IX made Altieri a cardinal. It is thought that this honor, coming so late in life to someone having such a distinguished career was because he may previously have waived his claim to the elevation in favor of an older brother who was also in service to the Church. Clement IX predicted that the seventy-nine year old Altieri would become the next pontiff. During the contentious conclave that dragged on for nearly five months, no candidate could win a majority of votes with Spain and France vetoing certain ones. Altieri was probably considered neutral and was finally elected in April of 1670. He took the name of Clement X in honor of his benefactor, Clement IX. A humble and pragmatic man, he had tried to refuse the nomination due to his advanced age. His pleas were rejected. He would reign for nearly six years.
Clement was aware of the limitations of his age. Since all but one of the male descendants of his family had chosen ecclesiastical careers, the pope, in order to save the name from extinction, adopted the Paluzzi family, one of whom had married Clement’s niece, the sole heiress of the family. In exchange for adopting the Altieri name, Clement made one of the Paluzzi a cardinal and appointed him Cardinal Nephew to take on the duties too onerous for him to carry out at his advanced age.
The relationship was not a happy one. The cardinal reduced the Secretary of State to a menial position, exploited the pope's great kindness, accumulated wealth and offices for himself and his family and ruled in a heavy-handed way. He abolished the tax immunities of the diplomatic corp thereby uniting even the ambassadors against the pope. Romans complained that, though Clement X was Pope in name, Cardinal Altieri was Pope in fact.
Clement faced unprecedented pressure from Catholic powers to appoint their nominees to the rank of cardinal. Louis XIV sent two names to Clement for appointment as cardinals from France. Clement’s response was to appoint six, thereby diluting the strength of the newly made French cardinals. This action alienated the king.
During his reign, the threat of Turkish domination in Poland was imminent and of grave concern to the pontiff. Saddled with internal problems, Poland reached out to the papacy and even to the Protestant king of Sweden. Clement and Cardinal Odescalchi, the future Innocent XI, both offered aid and tried to rally Catholic powers in Europe to defend Poland. This attempt was unsuccessful. The Polish noble, John Sobieski decisively stopped the Turks in 1673 and was subsequently elected king of Poland in 1674, thereby eliminating the possibility of a Protestant on the throne.
In France, the situation was less positive. Louis XIV duped Pope Clement into thinking his plans to invade Holland were motivated by a desire to restore the Catholic faith there. In fact it was a war of conquest and Clement’s opposition to Spain and to the Holy Roman Emperor giving aid to the Dutch was a mistake. Louis XIV then appropriated revenues from Catholic holdings in France for his war effort. France, however, was not alone in exploiting the weaknesses of this papacy. Other powers were guilty as well.
Ecclesiastically, Clement X is noteworthy for many canonizations and beatifications during his reign. Among them was St. Rose of Lima, Peru, the first American saint, in 1586. He also beatified Pius V and the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. Clement was particularly concerned with formalities regulating the removal of relics of saints from cemeteries. He ordered that they could not be removed without permission of the cardinal-vicar. The relics could only be exposed in churches and be given only to cardinals or high prelates. Excommunication was the penalty for anyone demanding money for relics.
Clement was very impressed with the accomplishments of the early French missionaries in Canada and he erected a see at Quebec. The bishop would depend solely on the Holy See for support. Other missionary work included solicitations from as far away as Muscovy when ambassadors were sent to consult with Clement about ecclesiastical matters.
Known for his great charity, he did much for the poor through almsgiving and social legislation. He tried to improve agriculture and foster industry in the Papal States. During the Jubilee year of 1675, despite his waning health and obvious discomfort from gout, he visited churches on at least five occasions and Trinity Hospital twelve times to wash the feet of pilgrims and give liberal alms to them.
Clement decorated the bridge of Sant’ Angelo with the ten statues of angels in Carrara marble still to be seen there today. The two fountains, which adorn the Piazza of St. Peter’s church, are from Clement’s reign, and a monument has been erected there in his memory. The Palazzo Altieri in central Rome was also refurbished.
Clement X died at eighty-six years of age from the agonies of gout. His tomb is in St. Peter’s Basilica.