Has anyone ever made it all the way through The Agony and the Ecstasy? I have tried, since I delight in old-timey movies, but I confess I can only take about 20 minutes of Charlton Heston grimacing. As one critic said, he seems to paint the Sistine Chapel as long as Michelangelo did…
But much as I don’t care for Rex Harrison either, I like him as Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope, the dude that hired and fired Michelangelo, the dude that shepherded in St. Peter’s and the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Julius happened to be good buddies with Raphael, Da Vinci, and my buddy, Luca Pacioli. Rome was practically a small town back then.
Giulano della Rovere was the nephew of Francesco della Rovere, studious and faithful Catholic fellows from Liguria on the northwest coast of Italy. Both were Franciscans, which was considered a highly unlikely path to the papacy. Uncle Francesco was minding his own business, teaching philosophy at the University of Padua, when he was made a cardinal at age 53. Because he was unworldly and super-pious, they also elected him Pope Sixtus IV.
The first thing Sixtus did was appoint several family members and nephews to be cardinals. He also attacked the Ottoman empire at Smyrna, created the Spanish Inquisition, established the Vatican Archives, and hired someone to build the Sistine Chapel. So he wasn’t all that other worldly–he had been paying attention. The other cardinals weren’t so happy about the nephew-appointing which showed rampant nepotism.
Feud with the Borgias
One guy who really didn’t like it was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. So, when Borgia bribed his way to the papacy in 1492 and became Alexander VI, his chief rival Giulano had to leave town. Giulano had ties to the French and the Neapolitans, who also had tried to help “fund” Giulano’s election to his uncle’s former position. But the Borgias had more money. Weren’t we just talking about church corruption and indulgences yesterday? The money for building the basilica and the Sistine Chapel had to come from somewhere…
But Della Rovere was a vigorous diplomat and had no trouble hanging out at the French Court during a chunk of Pope Alexander’s papacy. He had himself led armies in multiple campaigns: Todi, Spoletto, Citta di Castello, and Mirandola. These sound like pretty small places, just the right size for Franciscan army general to take.
There was also a long back-and-forth skirmish between France and Naples. Ultimately, Pope Borgia I wanted his son Cesare to marry a French princess and the French wanted their archbishop of Rouen to be made a cardinal. In a diplomatic meeting in France, Cesare pulled out the cardinal hat and Della Rovere placed it on the archbishop’s head, so I guess the Borgias had made their peace with Giulano. But, when Pope Alexander Borgia died in 1503, the cardinals didn’t make Giulano pope. Not right away.
They nominated an intermediary, Pius III. Unfortunately for Pius III, he had an ulcer in his leg. Only a few days after being made pope, he couldn’t walk in the ceremony because of the prescribed medicine (being bled in several places). He only lasted 26 days, the shortest time for any pope.
The cardinals finally turned to the nephew of Sixtus IV and made Giulano della Rovere pope. He refused to live in the rooms of Pope Borgia, but can you blame him?
Warrior Pope — Seriously — at age 60
Giulano chose the name Julius, not because of the first Pope with that name, but because he fancied himself Julius Caesar. He actually led troops into battle (hence the depiction of him atop the mountain, subduing the citizenry of some tiny town) after becoming pope. He also continued the diplomacy/intrigue by forming a League of Cambrai and generally agitating among the Neapolitans, French, Genoese, and Venetians.
Julius II also granted a dispensation to the Henry VIII. Not the one that you’re thinking of, not the Anne Boleyn one. This was a dispensation for Henry to marry Catherine of Aragon, who had been married to his brother. Allegedly, Catherine and Arthur hadn’t actually slept together, so the marriage was annulled. All the years later, when Henry tried to have the Catherine marriage annulled, it was to undo what Julius had granted. Make up your mind, said the latter pope, who wouldn’t grant the second annullment, and … Reformation.
Legacy of Ceilings, Walls, and Swiss with Special Hats
The other actions that Julius II took in his relatively short papacy of a decade was to create the Swiss Guard. This is the pope’s private army, which still plays a role today and wears ceremonial gear while trying not to look ridiculous.
And Julius did hire Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As noted earlier, he didn’t have it built, but he did think it might be nice to have it painted. He really liked Raphael, who painted several things in the Vatican (School of Athens), but Raphael preferred walls only and turned him down. Ultimately, Michelangelo was hired to paint the ceiling. As the story goes (if you go through at least the first part of the movie), Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, not a painter, and he was already working on a pope’s tomb.
But Julius talked him into it, and Michelangelo had a vision of painting several key scenes from Genesis as the motif. It took a long time, and Julius got irritated, Michelangelo left town, returned, painted more. The ceiling was eventually finished and, years later, Michelangelo was also hired to paint the Last Judgment on the opposite wall, which seems ironic.
Finally, Michelangelo agrees to paint, Julius thinks he’s taking too long, Michelangelo stomps off after not receiving a partial payment but calms down after seeing some trees and comes back, more painting, more arguing… the movie is so-o-o-o-o long. Then it’s finished.
Later on, after Julius has passed on and several more popes and intrigues have happened, Michelangelo returns and paints the Last Judgment on the opposite wall. Which seems ironic.
Except nothing involving the Renaissance papacy is ironic. It all just happened.