The most lasting part of his work was his patronage of art. Under him the Renaissance moved its capital from Florence to Rome, and there reached its zenith in art, as under Leo X it would reach its peak in literature and scholarship. Julius did not care much for literature; it was too quiet and feminine for his temperament; but the monumental in art accorded well with his nature and life. So he subordinated all other arts to architecture, and left a new St. Peter’s as an index of his spirit and a symbol of the Church whose secular power he had saved. That he should have financed Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a hundred more, as well as a dozen wars, and have left 700,000 florins in the papal treasury, is one of the wonders of history, and one of the causes of the Reformation.
No other man ever brought so many artists to Rome. It was he, for example, who invited Guillaume de Marcillat from France to set up the fine stained-glass windows of Santa Maria del Popolo. It was characteristic of his vast conceptions that he should try to reconcile Christianity and paganism in art as Nicholas V had done in letters; for what are the stanze of Raphael but a pre-established harmony of classic mythology and philosophy, Hebrew theology and poetry, Christian sentiment and faith? And what could better represent the union of pagan and Christian art and feeling than the portico and dome, the interior columns, statuary, paintings, and tombs of St. Peter’s? Prelates and nobles, bankers and merchants, now crowding into an enriched Rome, followed the Pope’s lead, and built palaces with almost imperial splendor in opulent rivalry. Broad avenues were cut through or from the chaos of the medieval city; hundreds of new streets were opened; one of them still bears the great Pope’s name. Ancient Rome rose out of its ruins, and became again the home of a Caesar.
St. Peter’s aside, it was, in Rome, an age of palaces rather than of churches. Exteriors were uniform and plain: a vast rectangular façade of brick or stone or stucco, a portal of stone usually carved in some decorative design; on each floor uniform rows of windows, topped with triangular or elliptical pediments; and almost always a crowning cornice whose elegant configuration was a special test and care of the architect. Behind this unpretentious front the millionaires concealed a luxury of ornament and display seldom revealed to the jealous popular eye: a central well, usually surrounded or divided by a broad staircase of marble; on the ground floor, simple rooms for transacting business or storing goods; on the first (our second) floor, the piano nobile, the spacious halls for reception and entertainment, and galleries of art, with pavements of marble or sturdy colored tile; the furniture, carpets, and textiles of exquisite material and form; the walls strengthened with marble pilasters, the ceilings coffered in circles, triangles, diamonds, or squares; and on walls and ceilings paintings by famous artists, usually of pagan themes—for fashion now decreed that Christian gentlemen, even of the cloth, should live amid scenes from classical mythology; and on the upper floors the private chambers for lords and ladies, for liveried lackeys, for children and nurses, tutors and governesses and maids. Many men were rich enough to have, besides their palaces, rural villas as refuges from the city’s din or summer heat; and these villas too might conceal sybaritic glories of ornament and comfort, and mural masterpieces by Raphael, Peruzzi, Giulio Romano, Sebastiano del Piombo…. This palace and villa architecture was in many ways a selfish art, in which the wealth drawn from unseen and countless laborers and distant lands vaunted itself in gaudy decoration for a few; in this respect ancient Greece and medieval Europe had shown a finer spirit, devoting their wealth not to private luxury but to the temples and cathedrals that were the possession, pride, and inspiration of all, the home of the people as well as the house of God.
Of the architects outstanding at Rome in the pontificates of Alexander VI and Julius II two were brothers, and a third was their nephew. Giuliano da Sangallo began as a military engineer in the Florentine army; passed to the service of Ferrante of Naples; and became a friend of Giuliano della Rovere in the early days of the latter’s cardinalate. For Giuliano, the cardinal, Giuliano the architect turned the abbey of Grottaferrata into a castle-fortress; probably at Alexander’s behest he designed the great coffered ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore, and gilded it with the first gold brought from America. He accompanied Cardinal della Rovere into exile, built a palace for him in Savona, went with him to France, and returned to Rome when his patron at last became pope. Julius invited him to submit plans for the new St. Peter’s; when those of Bramante were preferred the old architect reproached the new Pope, but Julius knew what he wanted. Sangallo outlived both Bramante and Julius, and was later appointed administer et coadiutor to Raphael in the building of St. Peter’s; but he died two years later. Meanwhile his younger brother Antonio da Sangallo had also come from Florence, as architect and military engineer for Alexander VI, and had built the imposing church of Santa Maria di Loreto for Julius; and a nephew, Antonio Picconi da Sangallo, had begun (1512) the most magnificent of the Renaissance palaces of Rome—the Palazzo Farnese.
The greatest name in the architecture of this age was that of Donato Bramante. He was already fifty-six when he came from Milan to Rome (1499), but his study of the Roman ruins fired him with youthful zeal to apply classical forms to Renaissance building. In the court of a Franciscan convent near San Pietro in Montorio he designed a circular Tempietto, or Little Temple, with columns and cupola so classical in form that architects studied and measured it as if it had been a newly discovered masterpiece of ancient art. From that beginning Bramante passed through a succession of chefs-d’oeuvre: the cloister of Santa Maria della Pace, the elegant cortile of San Damaso… Julius overwhelmed him with assignments, both as architect and as military engineer. Bramante laid out the Via Giulia, finished the Belvedere, began the Loggie of the Vatican, and designed a new St. Peter’s. He was so interested in his work that he cared little for money, and Julius had to command him to accept appointments whose revenue would maintain him;17some rivals, however, accused him of embezzling papal funds and using shoddy materials in his buildings.18 Others described him as a jovial and generous soul, whose home became a favorite resort of Perugino, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Raphael, and other artists in Rome.
The Belvedere was a summer palace built for Innocent VIII, and situated on a hill some hundred yards away from the rest of the Vatican. It took its name from the beautiful view (bel vedere) that extended before it; and it gave its name to various sculptures that were housed in it or its court. Julius had long been a collector of ancient art; his prize possession was an Apollo discovered during the pontificate of Innocent VIII; when he became Pope he placed it in the cortile of the Belvedere, and the Apollo Belvederebecame one of the famous statues of the world. Bramante gave the palace a new façade and garden court, and planned to connect it with the Vatican proper by a series of picturesque structures and gardens, but both he and Julius died before the plan could be carried out.
If we attribute the Reformation proximately to the sale of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s, the most momentous event in the pontificate of Julius was the demolition of the old St. Peter’s and the beginning of the new. According to the received tradition the old church had been built by Pope Sylvester I (326) over the grave of the Apostle Peter near the Circus of Nero. In that church many emperors, from Charlemagne onward, had been crowned, and many popes. Repeatedly enlarged, it was, in the fifteenth century, a spacious basilica with nave and double aisles, flanked with smaller churches, chapels, and convents. But by the time of Nicholas V it showed the wear of eleven centuries; cracks veined its walls, and men feared that it might at any moment collapse, perhaps upon a congregation. So in 1452 Bernardo Rossellino and Leon Battista Alberti were commissioned to strengthen the edifice with new walls. The work had hardly begun when Nicholas died; and succeeding popes, needing funds for crusades, suspended it. In 1505, after considering and rejecting various other plans, Julius II determined to tear down the old church, and build an entirely new shrine over what was said to be St. Peter’s grave. He invited several architects to submit designs. Bramante won with a proposal to rear a new basilica on the plan of a Greek cross (with arms of equal length), and to crown its transept crossing with a vast dome; in the famous phrase ascribed to him, he would raise the dome of the Pantheon upon the basilica of Constantine. In Bramante’s intent the new majestic edifice would cover 28,900 square yards—11,600 more than the area covered by St. Peter’s today. Excavation was begun in April, 1506. On April 11 Julius, aged sixty-three, descended a long and trembling rope ladder to a great depth to lay the foundation stone. The work progressed slowly as Julius and his funds were more and more absorbed in war. In 1514 Bramante died, happily not knowing that his design would never be carried out.
Many good Christians were shocked at the thought of destroying the venerable old cathedral. Most of the cardinals were strongly opposed, and many artists complained that Bramante had recklessly shattered the fine columns and capitals of the ancient nave when with better care he might have taken them down intact. A satire published three years after the architect’s death told how Bramante, on reaching St. Peter’s gate, had been severely rebuked by the Apostle, and had been refused admittance to Paradise. But, said the satirist, Bramante did not like the arrangement of Paradise anyway, nor the steep approach to it from the earth. “I will build a new, broad, and commodious road, so that old and feeble souls may travel on horseback. And then I will make a new Paradise, with delightful residences for the blessed.” When Peter rejected this proposal Bramante offered to go down to hell and build a new and better inferno, since the old one must by this time be almost burned out. But Peter returned to the question: “Tell me, seriously, what made you destroy my church?” Bramante tried to comfort him: “Pope Leo will build you a new one.” “Well, then,” said the Apostle, “you must wait at the gate of Paradise until it is finished.”19
It was finished in 1626.