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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pope Julius II

Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1512.
Raphael da Sanzio
Some of the greatest works of art ever created were not entirely the inspiration of the artists usually credited with making them but that of others--great leaders, great thinkers, men and women of great wealth. Sometimes these individuals have a footnote in the story surrounding the great work of art.  Sometimes, they're all but unknown. Did you ever wonder whose idea it was to have Leonardo paint his Last Supper? Who was the heroic model for Michelangelo's David?  Who commissioned Picasso to paint Guernica? Sometimes however, the force behind the artist is almost as much a part of the work as the artists. An interesting case in point would be Giulano Della Rovere. He was born in 1443 at Albrissola in Italy. His family was poor. As a teenager, he became a Franciscan. A bright, feisty young man, he embraced the church with both his intellect and his own dynamic personality, making the most of one of the few pathways to a better life available during the fifteenth century. In 1471, his fortunes made a dramatic improvement. His uncle, Francesco della Rovere, was elected Pope!

As popes go, Uncle Francesco wasn't much of a pope. Taking on the name, Sixtus IV, he built a bridge across the Tiber connecting the Vatican to greater Rome (not that Rome was very "great" at the time). He also built the Sistine chapel--a crude, ungainly structure, as much a fortress as a church. On the negative side, he might be said to have given nepotism a bad name. He made quite a number of Rovere relatives Cardinals; and invited them to Rome where, for the most part, they did little more than feast on church wealth and dabble in church politics. Giulano, at the age of 28, was one of these new young Cardinals. However, when it came to church politics, he was much more than just a dabbler. He became a powerful force to be reckoned with. During the next 22 years, he was almost elected pope himself, twice, before finally succeeding to the office in 1503. He chose the name, Julius II. And neither art, nor the Catholic Church, has ever been the same since.

Donato Bramante's first draft of his
plan for St. Peter's Basilica,  1505-06,
superimposed over the plan for
the original St. Peter's Basilica.
Julius II is often known as the "warrior pope" and it's a distinction well taken. During his nearly ten-year papacy his various military endeavors on behalf of the Papal States nearly bankrupted the church. However it was just this militant side of his character that was responsible for marshaling the talents of three of the greatest artistic geniuses in the history of art--Bramante the architect, Michelangelo the sculptor, and Raphael the painter. Working with Bramante, he took the dramatic step of order up a whole new church, literally built around and over top of the old St. Peter's Basilic (right).

We all know of how the pope nearly forced Michelangelo to paint his greatest masterpiece on the ceiling of Julius II's uncle's namesake chapel. Beyond that however, in one of the most grandiose gestures of egoism in the history of art, (aided and abetted by Michelangelo) Julius II planned his own tomb, to be the centerpiece of his new church, centered under its magnificent dome. It was to be a massive rectilinear pyramid having some forty sculptural works crawling all over its tiered surface like a giant wedding cake.  Had it been realized, it would have taken Michelangelo the rest of his life to carve.

Working with Raphael, the pope conspired to implant a new humanism in the painted decoration on the walls of his magnificent palace (a portrait of Julius II by Rapahel is shown at top). Not everything turned out as he planned, of course. The church wasn't finished until 130 years after the pope's death. His magnificent tomb ended up reduced to not much more than wall decoration in an obscure church on the far side of Rome; and both Julius II and Raphael died before they could truly unleash the full force of their combined inspiration on the walls of his great church. But whatever might be said regarding the pope's tyrannical tactics, political chicanery, military debacles, or his magnified ego, Julius II must be accorded his place as one of the greatest creative forces in the history of art.
The much reduced Wall Monument
to Pope Julius II, San Pedro in Vincoli,
usually said to be the tomb of the pope,
 but actually Julius II is buried beneath the
 floor of St.Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The figure of Moses in the center is the only
element of Michelangelo's original design  
to be executed.
Michelangelo's original design
for the tomb of Julius II

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