Julius II and the Glory of the Papacy

How one pope changed the Holy Office from church leader to an earthly ruler.

Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503. By the time of his death in 1513, this man changed the political landscape of Renaissance Italy and the role of the Papacy. To many, he is considered one of the greatest popes.

Julius recognized the need for the pope to be not only a religious ruler but also a secular one. Julius saw the need for the Church to have a territorial kingdom in Italy to protect itself. As Leopold von Ranke stated, Julius is the true founder of the Papal States.

Consolidation and protection of the Papal States would include him leading armies. Julius also used many artists to enhance his image and popularity as a massive self-promoter. Contemporary scholars would have mixed opinions of him. Machiavelli saw him as a political genius, while Erasmus saw him as a poor ruler. The latter used his position poorly for his gain.

Suppose one looks at Julius II and his political and military endeavors. In that case, one can see how Julius II was not a great pope in a spiritual leader, but his political influence would be felt in much of society in his time.

Julius saw a new world forming with the discovery of the Americas and advancements in science taking place. These advancements and discoveries gravitated towards Rome, and Julius saw himself as the center. It would be up to him to restore the glory and respect of the Papacy.

Early Life

Julius was born Giulano della Rovere in 1445 at Albissola near Savona. Julius gained much influence in the Papal Court and later dominated the College of Cardinals. He studied Church law under Franciscan monks and began to make a name for himself.

In 1471 Giuliano was made a cardinal with the ascension of his uncle Sixtus IV. It was not unusual for popes to make nephews and other close relatives cardinal as a security source for the papacy. The pope hoped that family bonds would ensure trusted advisors. While this was sometimes true, it could be a source of jealousy and other problems on other occasions.

Giuliano was placed in charge of the church of San Pietro in Vicola. This church would continue to be a loyal home base for Julius throughout his life. He was also made bishop of Carpentras in France. By his elevation to the pope, he would hold several bishoprics in Avignon, Verdun, Lausanne, Viviers, Albano, Sabena, and Ostia.

In 1480 he was the papal legate to France and performed his duties favorably. Giuliano would encourage the French presence in Italy to offset the Spanish in Naples; later in life, this would cause trouble once he was elected pope.

The death of Sixtus in 1484 caused some problems for Giuliano. Factionalism among the cardinals during Sixtus’s reign caused bitter rivalries to flourish among those who supported and those who were against Sixtus.

A civil war was nearly started between Giuliano and the equally ambitious cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia. These bitter rivals went so far as to be holed up in their fortified palaces. The election of Innocent VIII saw Julius retaining his positions and favor, and the rivalry was somewhat nullified for the time being.

When Innocent died in 1492, Borgia was elected Alexander VI. Giuliano accused Alexander of gaining the papacy by simony, buying off cardinals to vote for him. As a result, Julius left Rome for France and would not return for ten years. In exile, Giuliano would gain the friendship of both the King Ferdinand of Spain and Louis VII of France. He would protect the cardinal from the fury of the Pope. Over this time, Julius would grow deep hate for Alexander and his son, Cesare Borgia.

Ascension To The Papal Throne

In 1503 Alexander and his son both fell ill. Cesare would recover, but Alexander would die. In September of that year, Pius III was made Pope but died within a month. By this time, Giuliano had returned to Rome for the conclave and was quickly elected Pope Julius II.

The speed at which he was elected Pope by an almost unanimous vote has caused some speculation that he was elected by bribery, ironic that he had accused Alexander of the same crime. Julius II was unique as a Pope. He saw himself not only as a leader of the Church but also as a secular ruler. His very manner showed him to be a man of action.

As Abbe Mouret stated about the Pope’s character, he had a giant’s moral and physical stature; his violent and enthusiastic nature would lead his contemporaries to nickname him” terrible.” Julius saw himself as something like a lord over the princes of Europe and believed he could be the master of them all. He was ambitious, strong-willed, impatient, and had grandiose plans. These qualities would be helpful for a monarch but not a priest.

These were qualities that Machiavelli, present in Rome at the time, found most admirable in a leader. Even in his old age, he had a youthful fire and was said to have the soul of an emperor. He was known to speak his mind, no matter if it was rude. His manners caused him much trouble when treating the Venetian ambassadors at the Papal Court; Girolamo Dona, on his deathbed, stated that he was glad to die as he no longer had to deal with the pope.

Liberating Portions of Italy

Italy was not the united country it is today during Julius II’s reign. The Spanish and French had control of much of Italy at the time. Milan, Naples, and Florence were all under foreign domination by 1494. Only the Papacy and Venice were independent.

Julius needed to take control of the former Papal States and restore the dignity and authority of the Papacy. At this point, the former papal territories in Romagna, Marche, Umbria, and Lazio were dominated by foreign powers or Italian despots.

One of his first duties to reestablish control was to remove the warring factions in Rome and fill the curia with his family and loyal cardinals. Julius avoided selling offices, choosing his favorites and family members for important positions.

Julius knew not to overdo his appointments of family members but did give some critical roles in his territory. He made his nephew, Francesco Maria Rovere, the Prefect of the city of Rome, and later was created Duke of Urbino. Julius’s favorite nephew Galeotto was made a cardinal.

As Machiavelli stated, having served as a Papal legate and been involved in the Neapolitan Baron War, Julius understood the need for force to establish one’s authority. He had seen how Innocent VIII had used his influence over Charles VIII of France to dispose of Ferrante of Naples, who attempted to seize papal cities in the region.

Julius learned that using a Catholic king’s devotion to the pope for military gains could be pretty helpful. His use of military force to achieve his goal would draw criticism from Erasmus and others. They saw warfare as unbecoming of a Pope.

The election of Julius II caused immediate problems for Cesare Borgia, who was Alexander VI’s son. Cesare was a competent commander and statesman and was an example used in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Without papal support, however, Cesare was helpless.

Cesare was in control of much of the Romagna Church lands that his father had bestowed upon him. He held several strategic forts and towns in the province that would be of use to Julius. Cesare knew that conflict was soon to come. Having supported his father, Cesare was sure that Julius would exact his revenge on the son.

Julius at first protected the young Borgia, though it was more out of necessity at the time. Luckily for Cesare, Julius saw that he would be more beneficial to him alive, at least for the time being. The Pope did not possess the troops to force Cesare out. Cesare did surrender many of his forts and was placed on house arrest at Ostia.

The Papacy seized Cesare’s lands following his death in battle in 1508, increasing the Pope’s holdings. This victory improved Julius’s esteem and wealth. He allowed some of the former tyrants of the towns to return but limited their power. Now Julius moved to consolidate his control of the Papal States.

The Treaty of Blois in 1504 was meant to unite the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, Louis VII of France, and Ferdinand I of Spain with Rome against Venice. The plan did not see fruition, as Spain would not commit to the cause and the French and German kings had a falling out. An agreement was reached between Venice and the Papacy, which saw the Venetians accept Papal supremacy, and they gave up some territory, though Julius was not completely satisfied.

Two significant cities needed to be captured by Julius; Bologna and Perugia. At first, Julius attempted to negotiate peace with the cities, wanting the surrender of the tyrant Giovanni Bentivoglio in Bologna. Even when Julius threatened to use military force and his most excellent tool as the Pope, a Bull of Excommunication from the Church, the peace talks fell through.

Julius left Rome at the head of twenty-four cardinals and five hundred troops for the city of Perugia. The Duke of Urbino aided him. During his campaign, Julius also gained forces from France, Spain, and the Swiss. The Swiss contingent would become the foundation of the Swiss Guard which still protects the Pope to this day. Arriving at the city gates, Giampaolo Baglioni surrendered the city in September 1506. The Papal forces never had to fire a shot to take the city.

When Julius’s forces and a French contingent arrived at Bologna, Bentivoglio fled the city in November of 1506. Julius entered the city in triumph, much like a Roman Emperor. Julius went so far as to enter the city on a chariot covered by a purple canopy.

The city’s people welcomed the image of “Pope-Liberator.” It was also here that Julius ordered the great sculptor Michelangelo to create a statue of the Pope in the city as a monument to his authority.

In 1508, the League of Cambria was formed. The treaty united Julius, Maximilian, Louis, Philip of Burgundy, and Ferdinand against Venice. Julius had worked to gain the support of these secular rulers. He promoted French and Spanish cardinals and endorsed Maximilian’s election as the Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Maximilian was of great concern to the Pope, as he worried about the German emperor usurping his authority in Rome, causing Julius to attempt to keep Maximilian away from the city.

However, the issue was resolved once it was clear that Maximilian simply wanted the Pope to crown him. The immediate goal would be to regain the territory that these men had lost from the Venetians.

This union was highly successful, and the Venetians capitulated in 1510. However, they were allowed to retain control of critical coastal cities. The French were invaluable in this endeavor, winning the battle of Agnadello. Julius made peace with the town, which Louis saw as a betrayal. France would continue the conflict with Venice.

Betrayal From France

The betrayal of the French was another step in Julius’s plan to liberate Italy. He wished to unite the Italians to drive out the “barbarians” that had invaded the peninsula. Julius could maneuver the English to his side against their long-time enemies, the French. He also decided to make an example of Alfonso D’este, the Duke of Ferrara, excommunicating him for supporting the French.

Ferrara and France proved to be challenging adversaries for the Papal forces. Alfonso held out against Julius and inflicted heavy losses on his troops. Machiavelli theorized that he was able to resist the Pope due to the antiquity of his family name; nobility had a right to rule and lead. He captured Bologna in 1512, inciting the citizens to revolt and destroy the statue of Julius that Michelangelo had completed in 1508, melting it down for cannon shots.

In 1511, Louis called a synod at Tours of all the bishops in France to proclaim the privileges of the Galician Church. It was stated the Pope could not justly be involved in a secular war and that the ruler he fought against could revoke their support against the Pope. Frenchmen were forbidden to go to Rome to attend the Papal Court. They determined that Julius’s war against them was unjust and should not be supported.

January of 1511, though ill, he took charge of his men at the Mirandola, shouting at the city walls to surrender. In this campaign, Julius showed himself not to be afraid to lead troops into battle. Julius showed himself to be fearless and capable of youthful energy. It is also a testament to the man’s ability to continue what he feels is right. However, he had little popular support at this point.

In October of 1511, Spain joined the alliance against France, renaming the union the Holy League. Julius was also able to establish a mercenary treaty with the Swiss, taking this force from the French and establishing the Swiss Guard. With this added help, Julius’s parties were able to overwhelm the forces at Bologna and Ferrara. This turnover event reinvigorated the allied forces.

In May 1512, a new league was formed with England, Maximilian, Spain, and Venice against France. The French finally gave up the fight and left, and Bologna surrendered soon after. The League was dissolved, as they had served the Pope’s purpose.

Julius’s military efforts worked to reconstruct the shape of Italy. The French had left for the time being, and the possibility of a united Italy was not out of the question. Julius also achieved his goal of a Papal monarchy of sorts, with the Pope controlling the Papal States.

Criticism of Military Actions

Julius’s military endeavors did not endear him to everyone. Erasmus wrote the Julius Exclusus several years after the Pope’s death in 1513. Erasmus wrote a satirical dialogue between the late Pope and St Peter and Julius’s earthly Genius at the Gates of Heaven.

It is shown that Julius did not live up to the ideals of St Peter and used his authority poorly. Julius goes so far as to attempt to threaten Peter with excommunication if he does not let him in, which Peter, of course, ignores. Julius makes excuses for his wars against Venice and France, attempting to justify his unjust acts.

In the end, Julius decided to simply wait and build up forces to take the gates by force if need be. Peter and Genius bemoan the fate of the people of the earth if they are led by someone as power-hungry as Julius.

Erasmus makes an interesting argument in this work. As the leader of the Church, Julius should have been more concerned with the spiritual well-being of the people than securing territory for the papacy. His wars could not be justified as holy. Had he been able to follow through with his hope of building and leading a Crusade against the Turks, his image may be somewhat better. As it was, Christians going to war with Christians could hardly be deemed as just spiritually, especially pacifists such as Erasmus.

Rebuilding Rome

Julius showed himself to be a brilliant diplomatic strategist and a great self-promoter. The triumphs through Bologna and Rome were just one aspect of this side of the Pope. He had papal palaces built at Santo Apostoli and San Pietro in Vincoli. He filled them with cloisters and sculpture gardens.

Julius dreamed of reshaping Rome and how the world would see the city. The artists he would choose helped Julius build a Christian Rome on an “antique scale.” He employed the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects of the time; Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bramante, respectively.

Julius’s first grand project was the complete reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He chose Donato Bramante from Urbino to head the project. Bramante had gained a reputation for his unique and inspired designs. He was given the commission to design the Basilica in 1503. It would take three years and several redesigns before the project was underway. Although never finished in either man’s lifetime, today’s Basilica is an architectural marvel.

Bramante was also commissioned to design the Belvedere courtyard for the new Papal Apartments at the Vatican. While never finished, these contemporary apartments allowed Bramante to introduce his friend Raphael to the Pope to paint the apartments.

Raphael had gained a reputation for himself as a great painter in Florence when he was called to Rome in 1508. Raphael was commissioned to paint the new papal apartments. Julius refused to live in the Apartamento Borgia; such was his hatred for his predecessor.

His work can be seen in the Stanza della Senatura and the Stanza d’Elidoro. Here his best know fresco cycles, including Virtues and the School of Athens, can be seen. Another great work of Raphael is the state portrait he did of Julius, which some said was so life-like that they would tremble at its gaze as if the man himself was there.

Raphael was also a gifted architect in his own right and finished reconstructing the Vatican facade. He assisted Bramante in the St. Peter’s Project and would take over as Chief Architect after Bramante’s death in 1514.

One other artist would join Bramante and Raphael in Rome in 1504. Julius summoned Michelangelo to build the Pope’s tomb. Michelangelo was well known as a great sculptor, though he was also known for his painting and architectural designs. Giuliano da Sangallo recommended Michelangelo for the tomb project; However, many believe that accepting the commission for the tomb was one of the worst mistakes the artist made.

Julius wished for his tomb to be a great representation of his achievements and life. Statues of Biblical figures such as Moses would adorn the grave. The tomb was a proclamation of Julius’s glory as a conqueror and patron of the arts. Figures representing virtues would trample figures that would be provinces brought under Julius’s control. And the pinnacle would be the figure of Julius being lifted to heaven by angels. The tomb project would go through many revisions and stops and starts in work. The final tomb would not be completed until 1524.

St Peter’s had to be redesigned to accommodate the tomb. Michelangelo would also be commissioned in 1508 to build a bronze statue of Julius in the center of Bologna following the Pope’s victory over the city. This commission was a type of penance for Michelangelo. He had previously left Rome for Florence when Julius lost interest in the tomb project. He was then denied an audience with the Pope. When Julius requested that Michelangelo return, he avoided the Pope. Finally, when Julius was in Bologna, Michelangelo came to him and was chastised but forgiven by the Pope. With the statue, he had regained his favor.

In the statue design, Michelangelo had Julius holding a book. Julius told him to make it a sword, as he was no scholar. Julius wanted to portray himself as a man of action, not one who spent his time reading and studying in the cloister. Julius also saw the figure gesturing as if to bless or curse the onlooker, which Michelangelo said was a warning to behave.

Another great project that Julius would give Michelangelo was the painting of the Sistine Chapel. The painting of the glorious frescos on the ceiling caused some tension between the Pope and Michelangelo. Michelangelo was known as a private man, and Julius was constantly checking on the progress of the painting. Though Michelangelo insisted that he was not a painter, the Sistine Chapel is one of his best-known works. The Sistine ceiling project also illustrates the rivalry between Bramante and Michelangelo. Bramante suggested Michelangelo for the ceiling, knowing that he had no experience with fresco and would hopefully ruin him. Michelangelo would also find a reason to dislike Raphael when Bramante showed the younger artist the progress of the Chapel, which would inspire Raphael.

Lasting Legacy

In the roughly ten years that Julius II sat on the throne of St. Peter, he drastically changed the face of the Papacy. He established the Pope as a monarch of sorts with the establishment of the Papal States.

He brought some of the ancient glory back to the city of Rome thanks to his patronage of the arts. It is doubtful that Julius would have achieved all he did without his fiery personality. His tenacity and determination allowed him to achieve his goals and earn his nickname, “terrible.”



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Nick Howard

Nick Howard

I am an educator and a writer. My topics of interest include sports, movies, comics, history, professional wrestling, food, music, and hobbies.