He is the sanctimonious crusader against the corruption of Pope Alexander VI in The Borgias, but Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, later Pope Julius II, was a pontiff with a record every bit as chequered as his more famous predecessor. Della Rovere is cast as a pious contrast to the loose moralled Rodrigo Borgia, but in truth had a track record of corruption in securing the election of Innocent VIII; Borgia’s predecessor. Having amassed great wealth from holding a succession of lucrative sees during his career, della Rovere had a string of palaces filled with sumptuous artwork and had fathered at least three children. There are rumours too of a homosexual affair with one Francesco Alidosi, a favourite whose corrupt governance of Bologna resulted in the city revolting against Papal rule. He was, in short, no saint.
Della Rovere, having survived various assaults upon his person during the pontificate of his bitter rival Borgia, was elected to the supreme office in 1503. His election as Pope Julius II followed the death of Alexander’s short lived successor Pius III, who had reigned for a mere 26 days. Della Rovere had no qualms about imitating Borgia’s methods in securing his own election through bribery. Having done so, he then issued a hypocritical bull against simony.
Pope Julius II by Raphael
Julius II had swiftly secured the imprisonment and exile of the infamous Cesare Borgia but the removal of the former Gonfaloniere had created a vacuum in which those princes who had been divested of their territory by the Borgias, now sought to regain it with Venetian support.
This brought Julius into confrontation with Venice, not-withstanding the fact that he owed his election in large part to Venetian backing. Demanding the return of those territories which Venice had appropriated, Julius embarked on a long running feud with the Venetian Republic that would have grievous consequences for Italy.
In 1508 Pope Julius concluded the formation of the League of Cambrai, by which he intended to dismember the Venetian Empire; inviting the Kings of France, Spain and Hungary and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian to descend upon the Italian Peninsula and carve up the territories currently under Venetian control; excommunicating the Doge and placing the city itself under Papal interdict in the following year.
The Venetians suffered a major defeat at the hands of King Louis XII at Agnadello and despite heroically defending Pavia against the combined forces of the League, nevertheless submitted unconditionally to Papal authority in a humiliating ceremony on the steps of St Peters in 1510.
The genie could not so easily be put back in the bottle however. Those forces which the Pope had invited into Italy with the promise of easy territorial pickings continued their depredations. In one infamous incident, civilians fleeing the sack of Vicenza had sought refuge in a network of caves only to be asphyxiated when the pursuing French soldiers elected to smoke them out.
Realising his error, Julius now turned against the French and their ally the Duke of Ferrara; the husband of Lucrezia Borgia whom he detested and whose lands he coveted. He concluded an alliance against them which included Spain, England, the Emperor Maximilian and even Venice. A fresh round of bloodshed was therefore visited upon Italy, in which Julius took a full and active part. Here was the warrior Pope; personally taking charge of the siege of the castle of Mirandola in the depths of winter 1511; supervising the siting of the cannons and enduring the freezing conditions encamped in a wooden hut within range of the defenders’ guns. On one occasion two of his cooks were killed by a shot from the ramparts much to his fury. The French relief army was delayed in coming to the assistance of the besieged garrison after their commander the hapless Seigneur de Chaumont was injured by a snowball in the face of all things and later fell off of his horse into a river. When the garrison finally surrendered, Julius allegedly quibbled over their request that he should spare their lives.
The war culminated in the Battle of Ravenna in 1512; one of the bloodiest encounters of the period. The French, although victorious in this encounter, suffered such losses as to force their withdrawal from Italy, threatened as they were by an invasion mounted in support of the Pope by the young King Henry VIII of England, although not before they had put Ravenna to the sack.
Battle of Ravenna
Julius now presided over the Congress of Mantua which aimed to settle the territorial disputes arising from the war but the continuing animosity between the Pope and the Venetians and his refusal to allow Venice to keep any of the territory she had thought to regain through allying herself with the Pope ultimately drove the Republic into the arms of the King of France.
When Julius II died from a fever early in 1513 he left Italy once more threatened by a French invasion and a fresh round of mayhem and bloodshed proved to be his political legacy. This Pope then, should be remembered as a warmonger and man of blood. Julius, legend has it, once complained to Michelangelo that a statue to be raised in Bologna in his honour held a bible in its hand and insisted instead that it should hold a sword. The statue, torn down by the people of Bologna when they revolted against the exactions of Alidosi, was sold to the Duke of Ferrara who melted it down and made it into a canon which he named Julius.
The art-loving Julius’ patronage of Michelangelo, who at times feared for his life from the Pope’s wrath, nevertheless has left us with the incredible artistic legacy of the Sistine chapel and for that, I suppose, we can forgive him a lot.
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Life of Julius II