‘Julius Caesar Pontifex II’?

‘Julius II operated as a patron on a scale and on a level of quality that make him equal to the artists we associate with him: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo. If, as many believe, this was the greatest assembly of talent ever to work for one man at the same time, we must hail Julius as the most perspicacious as well as the most fortunate patron the world has ever known.’331

Among the works of art commissioned by Julius are some of the most famous in the world - the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by the reluctant Michelangelo; the Vatican Stanze, painted by Raphael; the new St Peter’s, begun by Bramante. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. As cardinal and as pope, he was one of the most active patrons at the papal court, both within and outside Rome. A bare catalogue of his major commissions shows the extraordinary scope of his patronage.

In Rome, before he became pope, he had built the best part of three palaces, restored two ancient basilicas, and paid for extensive works at a third. In the garden of one of his Roman palaces, he had amassed a fine collection of antique sculpture; and in Sixtus IV’s chapel in St Peter’s, he had placed a masterpiece by a contemporary sculptor, the bronze tomb of his uncle, by Antonio Pollaiuolo.

Two of the palaces that he built in Rome were associated with one of the three ancient basilicas that he repaired and embellished. His titular church, San Pietro in Vincoli, naturally benefited from his patronage. Some of the money for this came from a legacy left by Cardinal Nicholas of Kues, who had held the title before Sixtus. Giuliano della Rovere covered the transepts and the side aisles with vaults, and restored the roof of the basilica; he also rebuilt the main entrance, and put an arcaded portico before the facade. For the niche on the altar containing the chains believed to be those that had bound the captive St Peter, he had Antonio Pollaiuolo make beautiful doors of gilded bronze, with reliefs showing the imprisonment of St Peter and his release by an angel. These doors, made in 1477, bore the papal arms and an inscription with Sixtus’s name, as well as the arms and the name of Giuliano.

On the southern side of the basilica, he built a cloister for the clergy who served it. Work on this seems to have been interrupted; it was finished while he was pope. To the north, he constructed a comparatively modest palace to serve as a residence for the titular cardinal; work on this was not begun until after 1481, when the restoration of the basilica was complete. It apparently had three storeys, with an arcaded loggia running the length of the upper floor. Every internal door on the piano nobile still bears his coat of arms. He seems to have been fond of this palace, and often stayed there for a few days when he was pope, though it had its drawbacks. An envoy described the chambers that he was using there as small and stuffy, uninhabitable in the heat of the day.332

It has usually been thought that this palace did boast of one famous amenity, a lovely garden containing the cardinal’s collection of antique sculpture and inscriptions, but recent work suggests that this may have been found at the palace that was in fact his main residence in Rome, at Santi Apostoli.333 By contrast with the palace at San Pietro in Vincoli, the one he built at Santi Apostoli was considered one of the most luxurious in the Rome of his day. It had two distinct halves, on either side of the basilica. That on the south had been begun by Pietro Riario, and included some rooms from an earlier palace on the site built by Cardinal Bessarion, which are now incorporated in the Palazzo Colonna built on the site in the eighteenth century. The part that Giuliano della Rovere built to the north of the basilica survives, and the windows of the piano nobile still bear his arms. 

This block of the palace was not large, and the façade is not imposing, but the decoration of the three rooms on the piano nobile was particularly fine, and much still survives. They have carved marble cornices and elaborate sculpted window frames and benches supported by carved balusters. These windows have no parallel in Rome, but do resemble some to be found in the ducal palace at Urbino, which were completed a few years before the Santi Apostoli palace: a porphyry slab in one of the window recesses at Santi Apostoli carries the date 1482. This floor of the block was linked to the corresponding floor on the other side of the basilica by a two-storeyed loggia running across the facade of the church; the upper loggia was closed in the seventeenth century. A similar loggia was built on the first floor of the southern and western sides of the small courtyard of the palace, with a ground-floor arcade on all sides. After he became pope, Julius built another block behind this, and a second, larger courtyard.

To the east of the basilica, extending southwards, lay a large garden, with a beautiful pavilion built about 1485. This may have joined on to the southern block of the palace, but it was incorporated into the eighteenth-century Colonna palace, and its relation to the earlier one is uncertain. Originally, it had an arcade with seven bays opening into the garden, with rooms above it; the standard of the decorative detail is very high. The quality of the ‘palazzina', as this pavilion is called, has led to speculation that it was designed by a famous architect, but no documents survive to furnish any information on this.

The portico of the basilica has been attributed to the Florentine architect Baccio Pontelli. Much altered, this is now the oldest surviving part of the church, which was substantially rebuilt in the eighteenth century. Inside the church, there is a very personal memorial of Giuliano della Rovere: the tomb of his father, Raffaele. As on many Roman tombs of this period, a marble relief depicts the dead man lying on a bier. Unusually, at either end of the bier stand two weeping putti, holding a shield with the della Rovere arms. The inscription, dated 1477, recalls that Raffaele was the brother of Sixtus IV, as well as the cardinal’s father; it does not mention his other children. Originally placed in the choir of Santi Apostoli, in the nineteenth century the monument was moved to the crypt.

Of the third palace that Giuliano della Rovere built in Rome as a cardinal, nothing seems to remain. In the document recording the sale in September 1492 of Cerveteri and Anguillara by Franceschetto Cibo to Virginio Orsini, which was signed there, it is referred to as the palace outside the Porta Sant’ Agnese newly built by Cardinal San Pietro ad Vincula.334 From this description, it is not clear if the palace was associated with the basilica of Sant’ Agnese, which lies over a mile from the gate, along the ancient Via Nomentana. Giuliano is known to have restored the basilica in 1479, though what connection, if any, he had with the church, remains obscure.

Exile from Rome presumably brought about a suspension of the cardinal’s building activities there. Perhaps the last major commission to be completed before he left was the wonderful bronze tomb of his uncle, Sixtus IV, made by Antonio Pollaiuolo, which is now in the Treasury of St Peter’s. Originally, it was placed in the chapel that Sixtus IV had built in the old St Peter’s - where Julius would also be buried - the last addition to the old basilica and the last part to be demolished in 1606. The freestanding bronze monument has a life-size, recumbent figure of the pope, lying on a platform surrounded by representations of the virtues and of the liberal arts. Beautiful as the monument is, it seems a little inappropriate for a pope whose field of study was theology to be surrounded by female figures in classical draperies. ‘Theology’ is represented by the goddess Diana, reclining, nearly nude, and looking into a sunburst surrounding the Trinity. It is not known what part, if any, the cardinal had in deciding on the design of the monument, but he must have at least approved of it. His arms appear on it, together with those of the pope, and the inscription records his responsibility for the commission.

In the vicinity of Rome, Vincula held the abbey of Grottaferrata from 1473, and the bishopric of Ostia from 1483. The buildings at Grottaferrata were in a ruinous state: he restored the monastery and enclosed it with a wall and defensive works that gave it the appearance of a fortress. It was used, against his will, as a military base by Girolamo Riario’s soldiers in the campaign against the Colonna in 1484. He visited Grottaferrata occasionally, but Ostia became a favourite residence. There he built one of the most advanced fortresses of the day, designed in large part by Baccio Pontelli. No documents concerning its construction survive, and it has been argued that the basic design of the fortress was established while Cardinal d’Estouteville held the see, and that Vincula simply continued the work that he had begun.335 A more recent study argues that d’Estouteville never began the improvements to the fortification that Sixtus had wanted him to make.336

The design of the fortress was influenced partly by its site - its unusual triangular shape was determined by its position on the river, which has subsequently changed its course. Its great bastions put the fortress in the forefront of military design in Italy in the late Quattrocento, and it has been much admired for its beauty.337 When it came under siege in the 1490s, however, its defences were criticized - ‘the experts don’t consider the fortress to be strong’ - and Alexander was told that Ostia could not hold out for a week against artillery because the fortress was very cramped and its defences deficient.338 In the attack in May 1494, the new cathedral of Sant’Aurea that Vincula had built was burned, together with the old episcopal palace. The cardinal apparently preferred to stay in the fortress anyway.

Vincula’s long tenure of the legation of Avignon prompted him to undertake building there too. No trace survives in the papal palace of the work that he had done there, but his reconstruction of the south side of the archiepiscopal palace has not been obliterated, and the façade still has an inscription bearing his name and titles. Breaches in the city ramparts, caused by flooding in 1471, were repaired on his orders, but not at his expense: the money was raised by a local tax. He does not seem to have commissioned any restoration or alterations at the cathedral, but he did give fine vestments and jewels and plate, including a crucifix and candelabra, almost all bearing his arms. He also established a choir of six boys to be instructed in plain chant by a master.339

In Savona, his home town, Vincula largely followed the example of Sixtus IV in his commissions. Sixtus had paid for extensive alterations to the cathedral (which was demolished in the mid-sixteenth century by the Genoese to clear the way for a fortress) while Vincula rebuilt the presbytery. Throughout his years as a cardinal - particularly when he held the see of Savona, from 1499 to 1503 - and even when he was pope, he continued to pay for the embellishment of the cathedral. In the late 1480s he commissioned a large polyptych of the Madonna in majesty for the main altar, executed by the Brescian painter Vincenzo Foppa, assisted by Lodovico Brea. After he became Bishop of Savona in 1499, he paid for the decoration of the apse in 1501-2, and contributed to the construction of fine choir stalls, which bear portraits of him as pope and of Sixtus IV at the sides of the central stall. Six silver statues of the Apostles and two candelabra of silver and crystal that he gave to the cathedral have been lost. A portrait of himself that he gave to the episcopal palace in 1493 also disappeared. 

The Franciscan monastery in which Sixtus had begun his ecclesiastical career was chosen by Sixtus as the site for the funerary chapel that he built for his parents, and after his death, Vincula continued the work, paying for frescoes and a polyptych of the Nativity for the high altar, which his uncle had probably commissioned in 1483. Dismantled in the eighteenth century, the three central parts of the polyptych are now in Avignon; the left-hand wing has a portrait of Sixtus IV kneeling in his pontifical robes, the right-hand one a portrait of Vincula in the habit of a Franciscan.

Most notable among the surviving works commissioned by Giuliano della Rovere in Savona is the palace that he asked Giuliano da Sangallo to build for him, which was begun in 1495. Never completed to the original plan, and subsequently altered, with its façade patterned with white marble and grey stone, it is still the most elegant and imposing palace in the city. Vincula also bought from the Fregosi in 1494 a palace in Genoa, which he described as ‘our house of San Tomasso’,340 but it was claimed in 1498 as a traditional residence of the governor of the city. Vincula denied this, saying that he wanted the governor to leave it, and that he was not prepared to accept any rent for it. He had not bought it to let it out, he said, but to put it in order for his own use, and to make it an ornament to the city.341

After he became pope, although he continued to contribute to the embellishment of Savona cathedral, he largely confined his patronage to Rome and the Papal States. Within Rome, apart from work at Santi Apostoli and San Pietro in Vincoli, which was a continuation of earlier projects interrupted by his exile, his patronage was largely confined to the complex of St Peter’s, the Vatican and the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The exceptions to this were commissions in and for the favoured Roman church of the della Rovere, Santa Maria del Popolo, and the abortive project to build a huge Palazzo dei Tribunali to house many of the offices of the curia.

If the compass of his interests in building in Rome was comparatively limited, the scale of some of his commissions, and the quality of all of them, were not. So grand were several of the schemes, notably those planned for him by Bramante, that they were not completed during his lifetime, usually never completed at all. Julius’s primary interest was always in building; ironically, as a patron he is best remembered for the paintings by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel and by Raphael in the papal apartments, for the ‘tragedy’ of the great tomb commissioned from Michelangelo, which dogged the artist for decades, and for the destruction of the old basilica of St Peter’s.

Not all his projects were on the grand scale. Some of the first works that he had done as pope were improvements to his living quarters at the Castel Sant’ Angelo, including a loggia looking out over the Tiber, perhaps designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, and a bathroom in which he could take medicinal baths, whose construction he took the Venetian ambassador Giustinian to see in March 1504.342 Towards the end of his life, he began a covered way from the fortress to the Vatican, which would be shorter and straighter than the one Alexander had built.343

Work on the Vatican began in 1505, with the Belvedere courtyard. This was the first of Bramante’s great designs for Julius that were destined not to be finished. The villa built on high ground 300 yards from the Vatican by Innocent VIII was to be linked to the palace by three terraces, flanked by covered porticoes serving as corridors, with the top storey providing a link between the second storey of the wing of the palace built by Nicholas V and the ground floor of the villa. The lowest court would provide an open-air theatre, for entertainments such as the bullfights put on there in 1509.344 The two upper courts were to be laid out as formal gardens with fountains; they were to be linked by ramps framing a nymphaeum. At the Belvedere, a special garden was constructed for the pope’s collection of classical sculpture, which was augmented during his pontificate by newly discovered pieces, including the Laocoon, dug up on the Esquiline hill in 1506.

This sculpture garden, and the right-hand portico corridor leading to the Belvedere from the palace, were the only parts of the plan to be substantially realized during Julius’s pontificate, and, even so, much remained to be done on the portico. They may well have been the aspects of the project that interested him most. He went frequently to the Belvedere, and to have a convenient means of reaching it out of the rain or the glare of the sun would be very appealing. Much has been read into Bramante’s grandiose designs, and it is claimed that Julius was trying to emulate the Imperial villas of the Caesars,345 but the fact is that no one knows how much of the inspiration for the project came from Bramante, and how much from the pope. 

Julius’s huge inscription, and the medal that he had struck to commemorate the Belvedere scheme both refer to it as a ‘via’: the inscription on the Belvedere itself records that he constructed this ‘via’ for the convenience of the popes.346 This suggests that, for him, its prime purpose was to be a way of getting from one place to another, not the recreation of a piece of Imperial Rome. Vasari347 records a story that, if it is true, throws light on the question of who, artist or patron, was allowing himself to be carried away by visions of Imperial grandeur. Bramante, he says, proposed to Julius a hieroglyphic emblem for the frieze of the courtyard. A profile of Julius Caesar, a bridge with two arches, and an obelisk were to stand for JULIUS II PONT[IFEX] MAX[IMUS]. The pope received this proposal with derision, calling it a folly.348

Bramante devised another grandiose plan to restore and rebuild the Vatican, including remodelling the facade overlooking the square before St Peter’s, the only part to be built. This was being constructed about 1508-9. In August 1508 Julius summoned Alfonso d’Este’s envoy to an audience ‘high up near the roof, where he is having corridors and loggias, very delightful, made’;349 these works may have been those on the new façade. Was it as somewhere to take the air while conducting business on a summer’s day, near the new apartments to which he had recently moved, that this appealed to Julius too? Or was it as a new Septizonium, an echo of the huge palace of Septimius Severus on the Palatine, as some art historians would argue?350

The façade was completed, after both Julius and Bramante were dead,351 by Raphael, who, with assistants, painted the vaults of the loggia on the second floor. This loggia leads from the suite of rooms now known as the Stanze of Raphael, the papal apartments that he decorated for Julius II and Leo X. The two rooms painted by Raphael for Julius - the Stanza della Segnatura and most of the Stanza d’Eliodoro - contain some of his finest work. Julius moved to these apartments in 1507, when he decided he could no longer bear to live in the chambers that had been decorated by Alexander VI and that included a portrait of his loathed predecessor, saying he didn’t want to have to see Alexander all the time. But he rejected the suggestion that he could have this portrait and the Borgia arms removed, saying that wouldn’t be right, but he didn’t want to live there and be reminded of Alexander’s wickedness.352

The iconography of the frescoes painted for Julius by Raphael in the pope’s new apartments has been much discussed, particularly that of the ones in the Stanza della Segnatura, which may have served as Julius’s private library. The four major frescoes on the walls, painted in 1508-11, are: the Disputa, representing the discussion of, or the triumph of, the mystery of the Eucharist; the School of Athens, representing the triumph of philosophy; Parnassus, celebrating poetry; and, on the wall around the window, representations of civil and canon law (with Julius portrayed as Gregory IX) and of the three cardinal virtues. Such a programme was a common one for the decoration of Renaissance libraries, and interpretations that link, for example, the figure of Apollo in Parnassus with the Apollo Belvedere in Julius’s sculpture collections, and with the fact that the Mons Vaticanus was believed by Roman humanists to have been sacred to Apollo,353 are ingenious, but perhaps over-strained. Nothing is known about who devised the details of the programme for the paintings, let alone what part, if any, Julius had in it; there is some evidence, from preliminary drawings, that Raphael himself added as many figures, and grouped them in such a way, as best suited the needs of his composition.354

Of the major frescoes in the adjoining Stanza d’Eliodoro, begun in 1512, two were completed for Julius. The painting of the story from the Apocrypha of the expulsion of Heliodorus - who had been sent by his master to seize the treasure from the temple at Jerusalem - by a horseman assisted by two angels has two portraits of Julius: one as himself, observing the scene from the left, and another as the high priest Onias, praying before the altar. It is seen as an allusion to the expulsion of foreign powers from the Papal States. The second fresco is an oblique reference to an episode during the expedition against Bologna in 1506, when Julius, in the cathedral at Orvieto, venerated a relic of a thirteenth-century miracle whereby a priest who had doubts about the doctrine of Transubstantiation had his faith confirmed by seeing the host bleed. The pope himself is shown kneeling opposite the priest. Both frescoes could be seen as depictions of the power of prayer, and would accord with Julius’s frequent insistence that God would help to overcome those who tried to take the property of the Church or doubted her authority. Once again, though, it has to be said that nothing is known about who devised the programme for the room, or what part Julius had in its choosing.

Something is known about the elaboration of the programme for the other major series of frescoes that Julius commissioned for the Vatican, those on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. By Michelangelo’s own account, ‘the first design consisted of figures of the Apostles within the lunettes, while certain portions were to be adorned after the usual manner.’ As soon as he began work, he realized that ‘it would come off a poor thing’ and told the pope so. ‘Then he granted me a new commission to do what I wished, disposed to satisfy me, and told me to paint down to the stories underneath.’355 Some art historians have argued that this must not be taken to mean that he did not have the guidance of an iconographic programme drawn up by a theologian;356 but, in fact, the programme, though rich and suggestive, is relatively straightforward. Even the various Sibyls could easily have been inserted into their appropriate places in the ceiling with the help of the little books of illustrations of the Sibyls and the prophecies associated with them that were popular and easily obtainable at the time.357

If, as seems possible, he had little or no part in devising the programme, Julius was certainly interested in the work itself. According to Condivi, a friend of Michelangelo, during the painting of the ceiling the pope often wanted to see how it was progressing, and would climb up a ladder and be helped by Michelangelo onto the scaffolding beneath the vault. His impatience to see it completed, Condivi wrote, prevented the final touches from being put to the fresco. When Julius asked one day when he would have finished, Michelangelo replied ‘When I can’; the pope, furious, demanded ‘Do you want me to have you thrown off the scaffolding?’ After he had left, Michelangelo had the scaffolding dismantled.358

The ceiling occupied Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. It is probably his best-known work, but he did not want to paint it. He was not a painter, he maintained, but a sculptor, and he already had a major commission from the pope, one much more to his taste. This was for Julius’s own tomb. Julius had summoned Michelangelo to Rome in March 1505, and in April the artist left for Carrara to quarry the marble for the huge, free-standing monument that he had projected. This was to be about twenty- three feet wide and thirty-six feet long, with three separate levels and around forty statues, as well as bronze reliefs depicting the deeds of the pope. He returned to Rome in December, but while he was waiting for the marble to arrive, Julius was already losing interest in the project, and Michelangelo could not obtain the payment that he needed to go on with the work. He fled home to Florence in April. Julius sent briefs summoning him back, but he was afraid to return, and did so only when the head of the Florentine government, Piero Soderini, compelled him to obey the pope’s summons. 

After an unsuccessful attempt to meet him at Viterbo, he eventually appeared before Julius in November 1506, by which time the pope had sent another brief saying he wanted ‘to have some works done by him’ in Bologna.359 Condivi’s famous account of his reception has the ring of truth. When he was brought into the room where Julius was dining, the pope looked at him angrily and said, ‘You ought to have come to us, and you waited for us to come to you.’ Falling on his knees, Michelangelo asked for pardon, saying he had left because he could not bear to be turned away from the palace by the pope’s men, as he had been. Julius, his head bowed, said nothing, but was roused by a prelate who tried to make excuses for the artist, saying he had erred through ignorance. He turned on the unfortunate man, saying he was the ignorant one for abusing Michelangelo while the pope himself said nothing, and drove him from the room. Then he called the artist to him, pardoned him and told him not to leave Bologna.360

But he had not brought him to Bologna to work on the tomb, and it was not until the last months of the pope’s life, after the completion of the Sistine ceiling, that Michelangelo turned his mind to that project again. On his death, Julius left 10,000 ducats to continue the work. A new contract was signed in May 1513 with Julius’s heirs; the tomb, to a new design, was to be finished in seven years, and Michelangelo was to be paid a further 13,000 ducats.361 He worked furiously for the next few years; it was during this period that he produced the powerful statue of Moses, the centrepiece of the monument to Julius that was finally erected in San Pietro in Vincoli. In this statue, he perhaps paid tribute to the character of the pope whose commissions had blighted so much of his life: the Moses is a far better evocation of Julius than the bland recumbent figure on the monument produced by a pupil of Michelangelo. 

The miserable saga of the tomb dragged on until 1547, when the botched compromise was finally completed to the satisfaction neither of the artist nor of the della Rovere. After all those years, and all that effort, apart from the Moses, only two statues by Michelangelo were included in the monument - rather characterless figures of Rachel and Leah, personifying the contemplative and the active life.

Julius had not intended his tomb to be erected in San Pietro in Vincoli, but in St Peter’s itself. According to Condivi, it was the scheme for the tomb that led to Julius’s project for the destruction of the old Constantinian basilica of St Peter’s and its replacement by a new church conceived on the grandest scale,362 a story that fitted comfortably into conceptions of a megalomaniac pope. Careful recent scholarship has shown that the genesis of the idea, and Julius’s plans for St Peter’s, were rather more complex than this. The first bull offering indulgences - commutation of punishment for sins - in return for financial contributions to the rebuilding, promulgated in February 1507, states that Julius had cherished hopes, since he had first been a cardinal, of renewing the church of the Prince of the Apostles.363 This statement may be more than a rhetorical flourish of the official who drafted the document. The need to do something about the crumbling basilica had been apparent for years, and Nicholas V had begun work on the reconstruction. The foundations of the choir that he had begun in 1451 were to be used by Julius as the basis for the choir that he asked Bramante to construct, which was to be the site for the tomb by Michelangelo.

In his plans for the reconstruction of St Peter’s, Julius was following in the footsteps not only of Nicholas V, but of his uncle, Sixtus IV. Sixtus had built on to St Peter’s a chapel intended as a combination of choir chapel and a site for his own grave: it was here that Julius had erected the tomb that he commissioned from Antonio Pollaiuolo. The tiles on the floor bore the della Rovere arms; the ceiling was decorated with oak branches and acorns in green and gold. It became a della Rovere burial chapel - Julius himself was eventually buried there, near his uncle, following his nipoti Clemente and Galeotto della Rovere and his sister Luchina. Julius planned to build a new choir chapel for St Peter’s, to be dedicated to the Virgin, where his own tomb was to be erected. Michelangelo’s grandiose scheme for a free-standing tomb required a generous space; the foundations for a choir chapel already laid by Nicholas V provided an obvious solution. But a conflict arose between Michelangelo’s requirements for a site for the tomb and Bramante’s plans for a wholesale reconstruction of the church.

Bramante became rather carried away, and put before the pope a plan that would have meant reorienting the church so that it faced south, on to a new piazza with, at its centre, the obelisk popularly known as ‘Caesar’s obelisk’ and believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. The pope rejected this idea outright. To carry out this plan would have meant shifting the tomb of St Peter, and Julius would not hear of it. The building work that was undertaken was on such a large scale that it required so many workmen that Julius joked there were enough for him to hold a military parade.364 For Julius, the construction of the new choir had priority; he did not set himself the impossible task of rebuilding the whole basilica in his lifetime. In his will, he left 30,000 ducats for his tomb, his chapel and to endow a choir of twelve singers, the Capella Giulia, that he had founded only a month before.365 It took over a century for the new St Peter’s to be completed, with many changes of plan in which the work undertaken during Julius’s lifetime became lost. But, thanks in part to Bramante’s enthusiastic demolition of large parts of the old fabric in preparation for his own building, which ensured that the ancient basilica would have to be replaced, it is Julius who is regarded as the founder of the St Peter’s that now stands.

Another, far smaller, choir combined with a funerary chapel, both designed by Bramante, was finished during Julius’s lifetime, that of Santa Maria del Popolo. This church had been rebuilt by Sixtus IV, and had become associated with the della Rovere; several members of the family were buried there, including Cardinals Cristoforo and Domenico della Rovere. Julius was fond of it and used it for important public ceremonies, such as the publication of treaties, and private devotions, such as his prayers for his dying nipote Galeotto. To his uncle’s church, Julius added a fine new choir, which still survives, with its simple, shell-shaped apse, a tribune with frescoes by Pinturicchio, and stained-glass windows by Guillaume de Marçillat. 

This provides the setting for two of the finest Renaissance tombs in Rome, that of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who died in 1505, and that of Julius’s cousin, Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, who died in 1507. Both were commissioned by Julius from Andrea Sansovino. It was a magnanimous gesture on the part of the pope to provide a resting-place of such dignity, in a church so dear to the della Rovere, for a man who had at one time been a bitter enemy, but who had become reconciled with him, and whose own family had been scattered by the French conquest of their duchy of Milan. To this church, Julius also gave a masterpiece by Raphael, painted in 1511-12: the portrait of the pope as an old, sad but resolute man, that now hangs in the National Gallery in London. Its original purpose was to be hung in the church on feast-days, perhaps as a pair with Raphael’s Madonna of the Veil. (In the last year of his life, Julius also commissioned another picture of the Virgin, the Sistine Madonna (now in Dresden), in which the pope kneels at her feet.)

In his commissions at St Peter’s and Santa Maria del Popolo, Julius was consciously following his uncle. He tried to follow him in other projects too, improvements to communications within Rome, and the erection of a building to house the offices of the curia, but with mixed success. Sixtus had replaced an old, ruined Roman bridge over the Tiber, building the Ponte Sisto to connect what was then one of the most populous areas of Rome with Trastevere. Julius also planned to replace an old Roman bridge, Nero’s Pons Triumphalis, but this plan was never realized. The bridge was to have linked two new, straight, wide streets running either side of the Tiber, to be laid out by Bramante. One, the Via della Lungara, running from Trastevere to the Borgo near the Vatican, succeeded in enticing a number of wealthy men, including Agostino Chigi and Cardinal Riario, to build palaces and villas along it. 

The scheme for the corresponding street on the other side of the river, the Via Giulia, was realized only in part, for the focus of the street was to have been a square with the massive new Palazzo dei Tribunali on one side, opposite the palace, now known as Sforza-Cesarini, where the chancery then was. Sixtus had also planned to build a huge, new office building, near St Peter’s. Work was begun on the Palazzo dei Tribunali in 1508; it was designed as a powerful, fortress-like building. After two or three years, however, work was stopped. Much of what had been built was later dismantled, and gradually the site was filled up with other buildings, though remnants of the ground floor can still be seen on the Via Giulia.

Outside Rome, most of the building activity that Julius sponsored involved the repair or extension of fortresses in the Papal States. He was much taken with the fortress-palace that had been under construction by Antonio da Sangallo for Cesare Borgia at Civita Castellana when he saw it in 1506, and ordered that it be completed.366 At the port of Civitavecchia, he ordered the construction of a fortress. Having seen the model of the design, probably by Bramante, he decided to go himself to lay the foundation stone, in December 1508. He took great interest in the building of this rocca; he was reported to be spending 70,000 ducats to make it beautiful and strong.367 Bramante was also asked to design a new courtyard in the mediaeval fortress of Viterbo, and was consulted on the project for a port at Recanati that Julius planned in 1511.

It is not certain if Bramante had a hand in designing the new, ill-fated fortress that Julius built in Bologna, which was demolished by the citizens in 1511, but since he was with Julius in 1506 when it was being planned, it is likely that he was at least consulted. The papal palace in Bologna, which itself had the aspect of a fortress, was strengthened with new defences, but Julius also had a grand stairway made (attributed to Bramante), ordered some purely decorative alterations and had a new chapel hastily constructed - ‘like the papal chapel in Rome’, but with wooden screens rather than screens of marble and ironwork. 368During his second stay in the city, in 1510-11, before he became finally disenchanted with the Bolognese, he spoke of his plans for the communal church of San Petronio, which faces on to the same square as the papal palace (now called the Palazzo Comunale): he wanted, he said, to make it the first church in the whole of Italy, in revenues, in magnificence and in privileges.369

One contribution that he had made to the magnificence of San Petronio was the bronze portrait statue, larger than life, that he ordered Michelangelo to make when he summoned him to Bologna in 1506. Michelangelo agreed with reluctance, and it took him over a year of toil to produce the statue - only for it to be destroyed a few years later by the Bolognese, in an act of vandalism that Julius found hard to forgive. Practically all that is known about this statue before its destruction comes from Condivi’s biography of Michelangelo, which recounts another exchange between pope and artist that sounds as though it contains a kernel of truth. Before the pope left Bologna, the story goes, Michelangelo showed him a clay model of the statue, but said he was not sure what the figure should hold in its left hand. Did the pope wish to be shown holding a book? A book? Julius replied, a sword rather, for ‘I am no scholar.’ He then joked about the figure’s right hand, which was raised in a vigorous act of benediction. Did this statue of his give a blessing or a curse? Michelangelo replied that it threatened the Bolognese lest they be foolish.370

The only other place in the Papal States to benefit from a large-scale commission by Julius was the shrine of Loreto, built around what was believed to be the house of the Virgin Mary, miraculously transported there from Nazareth in 1294. Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, who had been Bishop of Recanati, in which diocese Loreto lay from 1477, spent much of his income on decorating the shrine, which was not many miles from Senigallia. Julius commissioned Bramante to do some work in the church there, including the design of a beautiful screen surrounding the Santa Casa itself, and ordered the construction of a papal palace, which was begun in 1510. Once again, Bramante set about the work with a will; de’ Grassi, recording Julius’s inspection of ‘the ruins and the buildings’ that Bramante was creating at Loreto in June 1511, recalled the architect’s nickname of ‘Ruinante’.371 Once again, the work was not completed for many years.

Arnaldo Bruschi, the Bramante scholar, believed that Bramante devised a spectacular plan, with a huge courtyard uniting the church and the palace: an evocation of Caesar’s forum, with its temple of Venus.372 Such an interpretation of a project to honour and dignify a shrine to the Virgin Mary that had acquired special family significance for the della Rovere stems from the idea - which has become an orthodoxy for art historians - that the artists who worked for Julius were seeking to echo Imperial themes and emulate Imperial glories, and that they did so to please Julius, because he saw himself as heir to the Roman emperors, as reviving the glories of the Roman Empire, as well as restoring the Church.

The scale of some of Bramante’s projects for the pope, and perhaps also of Michelangelo’s plans for his tomb, indicate that they, at least, were consciously trying to emulate the ancients - but Julius’s reaction to some of Bramante’s ideas show that he was not so taken with the notion. In Latin poems urging him to reconquer Jerusalem and the East, in sermons telling him that, thanks to the discovery of the New World, he governed wider realms than Julius Caesar had, the pope was exhorted to emulate Caesar, and even told that he surpassed him.373 Satirists, too, compared the warrior pope and his Roman namesake. But how much direct evidence is there that Julius saw himself in this way?

There is, in fact, very little. Essentially, it comes down to one inscription - IULIUS CAESAR PONT. II - on one of the medals issued to commemorate the expedition to Bologna in 1506, which presumably had been authorized by the pope. None of the other medals or coins that he is known to have issued, none of the inscriptions placed on the buildings or paintings that he commissioned, carries such a title. There was a report in July 1510, from Maximilian’s envoy in France, that the commanders of an expedition that Julius had sent against Genoa were using the words ‘Papae Julii Caesarii’, but none of the detailed reports of this abortive enterprise from those who actually took part in it mention this.374 The choice of the title Julius II is not in itself evidence that the pope identified himself with Julius Caesar. At first, he thought of taking the title Sixtus V, but then decided on Julius - perhaps simply because it was the nearest that he could come to his own name, Giuliano, without evoking memories of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who turned from Christianity back to the old Roman gods.

What was said of Julius by other people, cannot be taken as evidence of his own motives. If writers in and around the Roman court liked to think of themselves as the heirs of the ancients, if satirists could not resist using an obvious weapon against a warrior pope apparently obsessed with the things of this world, it does not mean Julius saw himself like that.

The small medal bearing the inscription IULIUS CAESAR PONT. II was issued in connection with Julius’s triumphal entry to Rome on his return from Bologna in 1507. The inscription on the obverse was ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, the text for Palm Sunday, the day on which he entered Rome. Paride de’ Grassi had raised objections to making too much of the pope’s return, saying that it was an inappropriate point in the liturgical year for celebrations. Julius did not take kindly to this - his self-esteem was in need of some nourishment, after a rather hurried departure from Bologna.375 De’ Grassi noted that the Romans themselves did not enter into the spirit of the celebrations; only courtiers close to the pope erected triumphal arches with laudatory inscriptions.376 At least one of these made an indirect reference to Julius Caesar, incorporating Caesar’s renowned comment ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ in a couplet praising the pope as the author of peace and liberty.377

No such references were recorded in the account of his entry to Bologna, which was organized by de’ Grassi along the lines of the procession that the popes made to take possession of the Lateran at the beginning of their pontificates. The inscriptions on the triumphal arches hastily erected in Bologna had celebrated Julius as a liberator, the expeller of tyrants. Specially minted coins thrown to the crowds during the procession carried the inscription ‘Bologna freed by Julius from the tyrant’ and, on the reverse, IULIUS II PONT. MAX. There was no mention of Caesar.

Echoes of Roman triumphs were commonplace elements in ceremonial entries in Renaissance Italy. One of the most frequently invoked figures was Julius Caesar, whom the triumpher would be said to have surpassed. Cesare Borgia had paraded through the streets of Rome, with the motto ‘Aut Caesar aut nihil’ - ‘Caesar or nothing’; Charles VIII had been compared to Caesar in his triumphal entries into Italian cities.378 There is nothing exceptional about the references to Caesar made in connection with Julius II, no good reason why the use of this favourite, and somewhat stale, motif should be considered of special significance when applied to him.

In all the thousands of surviving accounts of conversations and discussions held with him, there is no hint that he saw himself as the heir to, or the reviver of, the glories of ancient Rome. He was not a tactful man. If he learned in later years to keep his own counsel rather better than before, he was still given to outbursts of enthusiasm in which he would talk of wild plans, such as going to Paris to crown Henry VIII as King of France. 379If he had had any desire to emulate Caesar or the Roman emperors, had in any way identified himself with them, surely some hint would have emerged at some time?

Nor did he ever say he wanted to be the monarch of all Italy, another ambition that cultural historians have ascribed to him.380 The direct evidence of his political aims reveals more modest aspirations. Indeed, how could he dream of ruling over all Italy, when he could not even assert or maintain papal control over Bologna without help from the troops of other powers, could not capture Ferrara in nearly three years of trying?381 Driving the ‘barbarians’ out of Italy was an ambitious enough aspiration, and one that he never accomplished. To the end of his pontificate, he depended on the military help of others to hold on to the Papal States.

The one piece of political iconography in which Julius is known to have taken a direct interest, which was created following the expedition to Bologna of 1506-7, was a stained-glass window that he had erected in a hall in the Vatican near the chapel. Julius was depicted enthroned in a public consistory, with the cardinals around him, and the King of France kneeling before him. He may well have ordered this to be made in anticipation of a meeting with Louis that had been supposed to take place that winter, but which he had avoided for fear he might be held prisoner by the king.382 This window was criticized because the episode depicted had never taken place; if Alexander had had himself portrayed with Charles VIII, they had actually met in Rome, with the king paying the pope all the elaborate courtesies that etiquette demanded.

The inscriptions on Julius’s coins, medals and buildings do give clear evidence that there was a figure and a place with which he wished to be identified. The figure was Sixtus IV; the place Savona, or, more broadly, Liguria. The great inscription running along the outer wall of the Belvedere that still greets those entering the courtyard from the Porta Sant’ Anna — IVLIVS II PONT. MAX. LIGURUM VI PATRIA SAONENSIS SIXTI IIII NEPOS VIAM HANC STRVXIT PONTIFICVM COMMODIDATI - is the most striking example of this: it records that he was the nephew of Sixtus IV, that he came from Savona, that he was the sixth Ligurian pope. References to his relationship to Sixtus were frequent in the inscriptions on the works that he commissioned as a cardinal, such as the fortress at Ostia.383 Some small portraits of the pope in manuscripts written and illuminated for his private library also couple the name of Sixtus with his own.384 References to Savona, and especially to Liguria, were a very common element in his inscriptions,385 although it was not customary for popes to celebrate their place of birth in this way. In conversations with ambassadors, too, when he was discussing the affairs of Genoa, he would refer to it as his ‘patria’.386

To deny that Julius saw himself as a second Caesar or the reviver of the splendours of Imperial Rome is not to say that he could not appreciate, perhaps even enjoy, the literary parallels of his courtiers, or the grandeur of Bramante’s dreams. But Julius, for all his impetuosity and excesses of enthusiasm, was a pragmatic politician who lived in the real world. There is no evidence that he encouraged comparison of his deeds with those of Caesar, nor that such comparisons inspired him. He was a patron of discrimination and taste. He loved building, and had a keen sense of beauty - whether in a palace, or a painting, or a fortress, or a ship. Much less attention is paid to the fortifications that he commissioned or improved than to his palaces or churches, but he took as much delight in watching the progress of the work at Civitavecchia as he did in inspecting the building site at St Peter’s - and certainly more than in triumphal arches, or stilted formal praise and flattery.


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