Pope Julius II (1443–1513) – a valiant ruler, courageous politician and a great protector of art

Portrait of a kneeling Pope Julius II, papal apartments (Raphael Rooms), Musei Vaticani

Portrait of a kneeling Pope Julius II, papal apartments (Raphael Rooms), Musei Vaticani

He was entrepreneurial and intelligent, and was also able to skillfully maneuver among the factions and parties of the State of the Church. He came from an influential family of condottieri and cardinals – della Rovere, while the election of his uncle as pope (Sixtus IV) resulted in Giuliano becoming a significant nepot with a perspective to climb even higher in his church career, and he had never forgotten about this possibility.

Portrait of a kneeling Pope Julius II, papal apartments (Raphael Rooms), Musei Vaticani
Portrait of Pope Julius II, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), London, National Gallery, pic. Wikipedia
Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (on the left), fragment of a fresco by Melozzo da Forli, Pinacoteca Vaticana
Sistine Chapel, vault paintings, Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti)
Funerary monument of Pope Julius II, Church of San Pietro in Vincoli
Funerary monument of Julius II (fragment), in the middle, lying pope, Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli
Viewing loggia of Julius II in the Castle of the Holy Angel
Raphael, The Liberation of St. Peter, apartments of Julius II
Portrait of Julius II as Pope Gregory IX, apartments of Julius II (Raphael Rooms), Musei Vaticani
Pope Julius II carried in a gestatorial chair, fragment of a fresco, apartments of Julius II (Raphael Rooms), Musei Vaticani

He was entrepreneurial and intelligent, and was also able to skillfully maneuver among the factions and parties of the State of the Church. He came from an influential family of condottieri and cardinals – della Rovere, while the election of his uncle as pope (Sixtus IV) resulted in Giuliano becoming a significant nepot with a perspective to climb even higher in his church career, and he had never forgotten about this possibility.




After the death of the following Pope Innocent VIII, he was indeed the top candidate, but in the game for St. Peter’s throne he was superseded by another more skilled and experienced enemy (number one) – vice-chancellor of the Borgia family (Alexander VI). During his pontificate, fearing for his life, Giuliano hid at the French court. There he, tirelessly conspired against the pope and his family. Finally, in 1503, at the age of 60 years old, della Rovere became the Bishop of Rome, assuming the name Julius in honor of his predecessor… Julius Caesar. Looking at his famous portrait, painted in 1512 by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), depicting him as a frail, elderly man with a sunken face, it is often forgotten that, Julius was considered a man who was full of life, uncompromising and violent, that he was simply il papa terrible, while during his pontificate he behaved like other rulers of those times – he waged wars with the aim of defending or enlarging the borders of the State of the Church, he mounted a horse and did not shy away from a sword, in order to achieve that aim. Leading his armies, he threw out foreign invaders from Italy, took over lands that were occupied by the French and finally got rid of the warlike Cesare Borgia – the son of the previous pope. In this way he guaranteed glory and grandeur to the Church and the papacy.


Julius II liked opulence and luxury, while at the same time being uncouth, limitless in drinking wine and eating, and treated the State of the Church as his private property. Despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that he assumed the throne of St. Peter, because of protection and simony, during his pontificate he strove to limit them, although this did not bring about any visible results. He himself did not exhibit, in comparison to his predecessor Alexander VI Borgia, tendencies to family nepotism, other than naming three of his nephews cardinals. He also did not epitomize the unsuitableness of sexual life, since he did not possess any mistresses, while his child which was conceived while he was still a cardinal, was not given any church offices, as was customary among popes, most likely because it was a girl. His enemies, of which he had many, did accuse him of sodomy, but there is absolutely no evidence of it, and neither of syphilis, of which reportedly Julius ultimately died. His uncompromising attitude garnered him not only enemies but mockers as well. It is to him that Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated his famous Praise of Folly, as a satire in which the pope is not allowed into heaven by St. Peter.


Conscious of threats, in 1506, for his own protection, Julius II brought 150 bodyguards from the Swiss canton Uri, the so-called Swiss Guard, which since then has always been a part of the Vatican landscape.
 

 

The portrait of Julius II, also includes other, exceptional features. For ten years of his pontificate, he was for Rome and for the papacy a tireless constructor and funder, a ruler, who wanted to turn the city into a leading center of art, not only in Italy, but in all of the Christian world. Until then, Rome had not known such an indefatigable builder, protector of art and a decorator of papal and church interiors. In order to achieve this goal he brought the greatest artists from all parts of the Apennine Peninsula – including Michelangelo, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Andrea Sansovino, Antonio and Giuliano da Sangallo, Perugino, and Pinturicchio. However, his main ambition was the construction a new St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano), thus creating a new symbol of the papacy and the largest church in the world.

Julius II brought order to the city streets and squares, tore down buildings, built roads, created new arteries, such as via Giulia or via della Lungara. He halted inflation, stabilized grain prices, fought banditry in the city and built waterworks. Expenditures for wars, but most of all administrative, architectural and artistic undertakings of the pope were enormous. He obtained the money to finance them, just as his predecessors had done, from simony and from the very profitable sale of indulgences. The greatest of these indulgences, was introduced by Julius in order to acquire funds for the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, and was so intensely promoted that it brought an increase in the papal treasury from 300 thousand to 500 thousand ducats. However, this practice raised a first wave of displeasure in Germany, which ultimately spread all across Europe taking on the form of the Reformation. On one hand, therefore, the papacy enjoyed and unknown until now prosperity during the pontificate of Julius II, gaining in strength, on the other hand this prosperity led to a religious scission in Europe.

The pope was buried – as he had desired – in the Vatican Basilica, however not in a grand tomb decorated with forty figures, but under a modest slab, visible at the foot of the statue of Pope Clement X. Thus the true creator of the new St. Peter’s Basilica possesses one of the most modest papal tombs in this church. The remains of the great tombstone which he intended to create for himself, put together in one structure, are found in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The multi-floor, rather incoherent in form statue is a far cry, from what Michelangelo had planned for the pope. Today it attracts attention not because of its monumentality, but because of one figure that is located there. It is Moses, one of the most exceptional sculptures of all time and one of the best works of the divine Michelangelo. However, the prone figure of Julius II, sculpted in marble, rests on the middle abutment of the monument, completely unnoticeable.




Buildings created or begun during the pontificate of Julius II:

  • Start of the construction of the new Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano (1506) according to the designs of Donato Bramante
  • Expansion of the Apostolic Palace on the Vatican
  • Construction of a viewing loggia in the Castle of Sant’Angelo

Painting works

  • Decorations of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo)
  • Start of the decorations of papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace – Vatican stanzas (Raphael)

Sculpting works

  • Beginning the works on a monstrous in size tomb, destined for St. Peter’s Basilica (unfinished) – currently in a much more modest from in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The greatest part of this composition is Michelangelo’s Moses.