Pope Julius II by Raphael

Pope Julius II by Raphael Sanzio (1512)

Giuliano della Rovere was born in 1443 in Liguria, Italy.  He came from a noble, but poor family.  He received his schooling from his uncle Francesco who was a member of the Franciscan Order.   In 1471 Francesco became Pope Sixtus IV and was able to further the career of his nephew. At the end of 1471, he made the twenty-eight year old Giuliano a cardinal priest in Rome and this post afforded him many beneficiaries from which he built himself a considerable income.  His uncle died in 1484.  Giuliano was not in the position to become pope himself but his sizeable wealth allowed him to bribe the papal electors so as to have the weak but now indebted Cardinal Cibo made Pope Innocent VIII.  This newly elected pope was merely a puppet of Giuliano for the ensuing eight years.  When Pope Innocent VIII died, Giuliano made his move to become the next pope but during the eight years of being the power behind the late pope he had made enemies of many of the other cardinals and for them it was “pay-back time”.  They ignored Giuliano’s candidacy and instead in 1492 voted in his enemy Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI.  Giuliano was devastated at being overlooked and fearing for his life fled the country and journeyed to France where he remained until Pope Alexander VI died in 1503.  Once again Giuliano was overlooked when it came to vote in a new pope and the cardinals elected Pius II, who was ill at the time and died twenty-six days after becoming the new pontiff.  Giuliano della Rovere sensed that his time had come at last and with the help of much bribery and promises of high office he persuaded the cardinals to vote for him at the papal elections and so in 1503 Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II.

Unlike the papacy of today in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the office of the pope had great temporal power and Julius II, known as “The Fearsome Pope” was a war-like pope who wanted the Papal States to become stronger, more powerful and for it to extend its control and by so doing, enlarging the papal rule.  With his powerful army he recaptured the lands of Romagna and Perugia and brought them under his control.  In 1509 his forces defeated the might of Venice.  Next he turned to ousting the French from Italian lands with the help of the Holy League, an alliance he formed for the purpose of expelling the forces of Louis XII of France from Italy and thereby consolidating his papal power.   Venice, the Swiss cantons, Ferdinand II of Aragón, Henry VIII of England, and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I were the chief members of the League.   The Swiss, who did most of the fighting, routed the French at Novara in 1513, but in the same year Julius II died and the league fell apart. Two years after his death the France re-established the French in Lombardy

One of the most important legacies Pope Julius II left was as a patron of the arts.  He persuaded, some historians would say bullied, Michelangelo into re-painting the Sistine Chapel.  It was Julius II who commissioned Raphael to paint four rooms in the Vatican, now known as Stanza di Raffaello and it was Julius who hired the Italian architect Donato Bramante to design and build an impressive new basilica in place of the old Basilica of St Peters , which sadly Pope Julius II never saw completed.
My Daily Art Display today is an oil on panel portrait of Pope Julius II painted by Raphael Sanzio in 1512, two years before the pontiff’s death.  It is an awe-inspiring work of art.  The pontiff doesn’t look at us.  His look is somewhat downcast and there is a definite melancholia about his demeanour.  It is as if he didn’t want to sit for his portrait.  We are almost dismissed by his dejected expression as if he wants desperately to be left alone.  Is this a realistic expression or just Raphael’s slightly unkind take on the pontiff’s mood?  According to the biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari, the contemporaries of the pope found the portrait

“….so true and lifelike that the portrait caused all who saw it to tremble as if it had been the living man himself…”

To be fair, the pontiff was sixty eight years of age and maybe at that age we are all allowed to look grumpy !  There is a feeling that the pope is just too despondent to speak, even too dispirited to look you in the eye.  Maybe he believed he had cause to be downhearted as it was around this time, 1511, that he learnt that Bologna had seceded from the Papal States.  At this loss, he grew a beard as a token of his mortification, which was also an ancient form of mourning.  He let this soft milky-white beard grow and did not shave it off until a year later.

The pontiff sits before us in an armchair on which is carved his own personal emblem, the acorn.  Julius’s family name was della Rovere which is the Italian word for oak.  Raphael has not positioned the pope “face-on” as was the norm for portraits of enthroned rulers of that time.  Raphael has captured in this painting an ageing man with a lined face and its sagging flesh.  Raphael however has given it colour and radiance.  The fingers of his hands bear emerald and ruby rings.  His right hand grips a white handkerchief giving an air of private compassion whilst his left hand grips the arm of the chair.  The white ruched fabric of his robe cascade and billow over his knees and hide his frail body.    We are not approaching the portrait as mere commoners about to kneel before our religious master.   We approach an elderly man from the side as if we are coming up to an elderly relative.   The pope is not wearing his ceremonial triple-crown hat.  He just wears his simple red fur-trimmed cap.

This painting of the somewhat frail and bearded leader of men makes us forget that he was, years earlier, a leader, who rode into battle with his troops.  His fragility belies that image we have of that fierce figurehead.  This was once a powerful man, someone to be reckoned with and  of whom Michelangelo said that on their falling out “he could feel the rope around his neck”.   When we look at this man we know we are in the presence of somebody special, someone who exudes unquestionable authority.  Raphael gave this old man a demeanour, which despite the ravages of time, makes us believe we are in the presence of greatness.