The papal crown having eluded him twice, Cardinal della Rovere now missed it a third time. His strongest opponent, and an arrogant contender, was the French Cardinal d’Amboise. Cesare Borgia too, controlling a solid group of eleven Spanish cardinals, was a third force grimly bent on the election of a Spaniard who would be his ally. Armed forces of France, Spain, of the Borgia, the Orsini and various Italian factions exerted pressure for their several interests by an intimidating presence. Under the circumstances, the Cardinals retreated for their conclave within the fortress walls of Castel Sant’ Angelo, and only when they had hired mercenary troops for protection, removed to the Vatican.
Might-have-beens haunted the election. Once more an accidental pope emerged when the leading candidates cancelled each other out. The Spanish votes were nullified by tumultuous mobs, shouting hate for the Borgias, which made election of another Spaniard impossible. D’Amboise was cut out by the dire warnings of della Rovere that his election would result in the Papacy being removed to France. The Italian cardinals, although holding an overwhelming majority of the College, were divided in support of several candidates. Della Rovere received a majority of the votes, but two short of the necessary two-thirds. Finding himself blocked, he threw his support to the pious and worthy Cardinal of Siena, Francesco Piccolomini, whose age and ill health indicated a short tenure. In the deadlock Piccolomini was elected, taking the name Pius III in honor of his uncle, the former Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who had been Pius II.
The new Pope’s first public announcement was that reform, beginning at the top with the papal court, would be his earliest care. A cultivated and learned man like his uncle, though of more studious and secluded temperament, Piccolomini had been a Cardinal for over forty years. Active in the service of Pius II, but out of place in the worldliness of Rome since that time, he had stayed away in Siena through the last pontificates. Though hardly known, he had a reputation for kindness and charity instantly seized upon by the public craving for a “good” Pope who would be the opposite of Alexander VI. The announcement of his election excited tumults of popular rejoicing. Reformist prelates were happy that the government of the Church was at last entrusted to a pontiff who was “the storehouse of all virtues and the abode of the Holy Spirit of God.” All are filled, wrote the Bishop of Arezzo, “with the highest hopes for reform of the Church and the return of peace.” The new Pope’s religious and virtuous life promised “a new era in the history of the Church.”
The new era was not to be. At 64, Pius III was old for his time and debilitated by gout. Under the burden of audiences, consistories and the long ceremonials of consecration and coronation, he weakened daily and died after holding office for 26 days.
The fervor and hope that had welcomed Pius III was a measure of the craving for a change, and warning enough that a Papacy concentrating on temporal aims was not serving the underlying interest of the Church. If this was recognized by perhaps a third of the Sacred College, they were chaff in the wind of a single fierce ambition. In the new election, Giuliano della Rovere, using “immoderate and unbounded promises,” and bribery where necessary, and to the general astonishment sweeping all factions and erstwhile opponents into his camp, secured the papal tiara at last. He was chosen in a conclave of less than 24 hours, the shortest ever recorded. A monumental ego expressed itself in the change of his given name by only a syllable to the papal name of Giulio, or Julius, II.
Julius is ranked among the great popes because of his temporal accomplishments, not least his fertile partnership with Michelangelo—for art, next to war, is the great immortalizer of reputations. He was, however, as oblivious as his three predecessors to the extent of disaffection in the constituency he governed. His two consuming passions, motivated by neither personal greed nor nepotism, were restoration of the political and territorial integrity of the Papal States and embellishment of his See and memorialization of himself through the triumphs of art. He achieved important results in both these endeavors, which, being visible, have received ample notice as the visibles of history usually do, while the significant aspect of his reign, its failure of concern for the religious crisis, has been overlooked as the invisibles of history usually are. The goals of his policy were entirely temporal. For all his dynamic force, he missed his opportunity, as Guicciardini wrote, “to promote the salvation of souls for which he was Christ’s Vicar on earth.”
Impetuous, hot-tempered, self-willed, reckless and difficult to manage, Julius was an activist, too impatient to consult, hardly able to listen to advice. In body and soul, reported the Venetian Ambassador, he “had the nature of a giant. Anything that he had been thinking overnight has to be carried out immediately next morning and he insists on doing everything himself.” Faced by resistance or contrary views, “he looks grim and breaks off the conversation or interrupts the speaker with a little bell kept on the table next to him.” He, too, suffered from gout, as well as kidney trouble and other ills, but no infirmities of body restrained his spirit. His tight mouth, high color, dark “terrible” eyes, marked an implacable temperament unprepared to give way to any obstacles. Terribilità, or awesomeness, was the word Italians used of him.
Having broken the power of Cesare Borgia, he moved on to neutralize the feuding baronial factions of Rome by judicious marriages of della Rovere relatives to Orsinis and Colonnas. He reorganized and stiffened the papal administration, improved order in the city by stern measures against bandits and the paid assassins and duelists who had flourished under Alexander. He hired the Swiss Guard as the Vatican’s protectors and conducted tours of inspection through the papal territories.
His program to consolidate papal rule began with a campaign against Venice to regain the cities of the Romagna, which Venice had seized from the Holy See, and in this venture he brought France to his aid in alliance with Louis XII. Negotiations streamed from him in local and multi-national diplomacy: to neutralize Florence, to engage the Emperor, to activate allies, to dislocate opponents. In their common if conflicting greeds, all participants in the Italian wars had designs on the expanded possessions of Venice, and in 1508 the parties coalesced in a liquid coalition called the League of Cambrai. The wars of the League of Cambrai over the next five years exhibit all the logical consistency of opera librettos. They were largely directed against Venice until the parties shifted around against France. The Papacy, the Empire, Spain and a major contingent of Swiss mercenaries took part in one permutation of alliance after another. By masterful manipulation of finances, politics and arms, aided by excommunication when the conflict grew rough, the Pope succeeded ultimately in regaining from Venice the estates of the patrimony it had absorbed.
In the meantime against all cautionary advice, Julius’ pugnacity extended to the recovery of Bologna and Perugia, the two most important cities of the papal domain, whose despots, besides oppressing their subjects, virtually ignored the authority of Rome. Announcing his intention of taking personal command, and overriding the shocked objections of many of the cardinals, the Pope stunned Europe by riding forth at the head of his army on its march northward in 1506.
Years of belligerence, conquests, losses and violent disputes engaged him. When in the normal course of Italian politics Ferrara, a papal fief, changed sides, Julius in his rage at the rebellion and the dilatory progress of his punitive forces, again took physical command at the front. In helmet and mail, the white-bearded Pope, lately risen from an illness so near death that arrangements for a conclave had been made, conducted a snow-bound siege through the rigors of a severe winter. Making his quarters in a peasant’s hut, he was continually on horseback, directing deployment and batteries, riding among the troops, scolding or encouraging and personally leading them through a breach in the fortress. “It was certainly a sight very uncommon to behold the High Priest, the Vicar of Christ on earth … employed in person in managing a war excited by himself among Christians … and retaining nothing of the Pontiff but the name and the robes.”
Guicciardini’s judgments are weighted by his scorn for all the popes of this period, but to many others besides himself the spectacle of the Holy Father as warrior and instigator of wars was dismaying. Good Christians were scandalized.
Julius was carried forward in this enterprise by fury against the French, who through a long series of disputes had now become his enemies and with whom Ferrara had joined. The aggressive Cardinal d’Amboise, as determined to be Pope as Julius before him, had persuaded Louis XII to demand three French cardinalships as the price of his aid. Against his will, Julius had complied for the sake of French support, but relations with his old rival were embittered and new disputes arose. The Pope’s relations with the League, it was said, depended on whether his hatred of d’Amboise proved greater than his enmity for Venice. When Julius supported Genoa in its effort to overthrow French control, Louis XII, needled by d’Amboise, made enlarged claims of Gallican rights in appointment of benefices. As the area of conflict spread, Julius realized that the Papal States would never be firmly established while the French exercised power in Italy. Having once been the “fatal instrument” of their invasion, he now bent every effort upon their expulsion. His reversal of policy, requiring a whole new set of alliances and arrangements, awed his compatriots and even his enemy. Louis XII, reported Machiavelli, then Florentine envoy in France, “is determined to vindicate his honor even if he loses everything he possesses in Italy.” Vacillating between moral and military procedure, the King threatened at times “to hang a Council around [the Pope’s] neck” and at other times, with d’Amboise pressing at his elbow, “to lead an army to Rome and himself depose the Pope.” A vision of not merely succeeding but replacing the Pope lured Cardinal d’Amboise. He too had become infected by the virus of folly—or ambition, its large component.
In July 1510 Julius ruptured relations with Louis, closing the Vatican door to the French Ambassador. “The French in Rome,” gleefully reported the envoy of Venice, “stole about looking like corpses.” Julius, on the contrary, was invigorated by visions of himself winning glory as the liberator of Italy. Thereafter Fuori i barbari! (Out with the barbarians!) was his battle cry.
Bold in his new cause, he executed a complete about-face to join with Venice against France. Joined also by Spain, ever eager to drive the French out of Italy, the new combination, designated the Holy League, was given a fighting edge by the addition of the Swiss. Recruited by Julius on terms of a five-year annual subsidy, their commander was the martial Bishop of Sion, Matthäus Schinner. A kindred spirit to the Pope, Schinner hated his overbearing neighbors, the French, even more than Julius hated them and was dedicated in his heart, soul and talents to their defeat. Gaunt, long-nosed, limitless in energy, he was an intrepid soldier and spellbinding orator, whose eloquence before battle moved his troops “as the wind moves the waves.” Schinner’s tongue, complained the next King of France, Francis I, gave the French more trouble than the formidable Swiss pikes. Julius made him a Cardinal on his entering the Holy League. In later days in battle against Francis I, Schinner rode to war wearing his cardinal’s red hat and robes after announcing to his troops that he wished to bathe in French blood.
The addition of another martial cleric, Archbishop Bainbridge of York, whom Julius made a Cardinal at the same time he elevated Schinner, deepened the impression of a Papacy addicted to the sword. “What have the helmet and mitre in common?” asked Erasmus, clearly referring to Julius although prudently waiting until after his death to do so. “What association is there between the cross and the sword, between’ the Holy Book and the shield? How do you dare, Bishop who holds the place of the Apostle, school your people in war?” If Erasmus, always so adept at ambiguity, could say as much, many others were made yet more uncomfortable. Satiric verses referring to the armored heir of Saint Peter appeared in Rome and caricatures and burlesques in France, instigated by the King, who used Julius’ warrior image for propaganda against him. He was said to “pose as a warrior but only looks like a monk dancing in spurs.” Serious churchmen and cardinals were antagonized and begged him not to lead armies in person. But all arguments about exciting the world’s disapproval or supplying added reason to those agitating for his removal were in vain.
Julius pursued his aims with an absolute disregard of obstacles that helped to make him irresistible, but his pursuit disregarded the primary purpose of the Church. Folly, in one of its aspects, is the obstinate attachment to a disserviceable goal. Giovanni Acciaiuoli, Florentine Ambassador in Rome at this time, sensed that affairs were out of control. Schooled in the Florentine theory of political science based on rational calculations, the Ambassador found in the wild swings of Julius’ policy and in his often demonic behavior disturbing evidence that events were proceeding “outside of all reason.”
As a builder and sponsor of the arts the Pope was as passionate and arbitrary as in his policies. He aroused many against him by deciding to demolish the old basilica of St. Peter’s for replacement by a grander edifice suitable to a greater Holy See and a Rome that he would make the world’s capital. More than that, it was to house his own tomb, to be built in his lifetime from a design by Michelangelo which surpassed, in Vasari’s words, “for beauty and magnificence, abundance of ornament and richness of statuary, every ancient and imperial mausoleum.” Thirty-six feet high, adorned by forty larger-than-life statues, surmounted by two angels supporting the sarcophagus, it was expected by the artist to be his masterpiece and by the client his apotheosis. According to Vasari, the design for the tomb preceded the design of the new church and so excited the Pope that he conceived the plan of a new St. Peter’s as suitable housing for it. If the motive of his Papacy, as his admirers claim, was the greater glory of the Church, he identified it with the greater glory of the Supreme Pontiff, himself.
His decision was widely deplored, not because men did not want a handsome new church, said a critic, “but because they grieved that the old one should be pulled down, revered as it was by the whole world, ennobled by the sepulchres of so many saints and illustrious for so many things that had been done in it.”
Ignoring disapproval as always, Julius plunged ahead, commissioning the architectural design by Bramante and pressing the work so vehemently that 2500 laborers were employed at one time in demolishing the old basilica. Under the pressure of his impatience, the accumulated contents of centuries—tombs, paintings, mosaics, statues—were discarded without inventory and lost beyond recall, earning Bramante the title il minante. If Julius shared in the title, he cared not at all. In 1506 he climbed down a ladder to the bottom of a steep shaft constructed for a pier of the new building, there to lay the foundation stone for the “world’s cathedral,” which was inscribed of course with his name. The cost of construction far exceeded papal revenues and had to be met by a device of fateful consequence, the public sale of indulgences. Extended to Germany in the next pontificate, it completed the disillusion of one angry cleric, precipitating the most divisive document in Church history.
In Michelangelo the Pope had recognized an incomparable artist from the time of his first sculpture in Rome, the Pietà, a requiem in marble which no one from that day to this can view without emotion. Finished in 1499 on commission from a French cardinal who wished to present a great work to St. Peter’s on his departure from Rome, it made Michelangelo famous at 24 and was followed within five years by his overpowering David for the cathedral of his native Florence. Clearly the supreme Pope had to be glorified by the supreme artist, but the temperaments of the two terribili clashed. After Michelangelo had spent eight months cutting and transporting the finest marble from Carrara for the tomb, Julius suddenly abandoned the project, refused to pay or speak with the artist, who returned to Florence in a rage, swearing never to work for the Pope again. What had taken place inside the dark truculence of the della Roveran mind no one can say, and his arrogance would not permit him to offer any explanation to Michelangelo.
When Bologna was conquered, however, the triumph had to have a monument by no other hand. After repeated and stubborn refusals and through the persistent efforts of intermediaries, Michelangelo was eventually won back and consented to model a huge statue of Julius three times life size as ordered by Julius himself. When it was viewed by the subject while still in clay, Michelangelo asked whether he should place a book in the left hand. “Put a sword there,” answered the warrior Pope, “I know nothing of letters.” Cast in bronze, the colossal figure was toppled and melted down when the city changed hands during the wars, and made into a cannon derisively named La Giulia by papal enemies.
In the Renaissance spirit, Julius’ Papacy, carrying on the work of his uncle Sixtus IV, poured energies and funds into the renovation of the city. Everywhere laborers were building. Cardinals created palaces, enlarged and restored churches. New and rebuilt churches—Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Pace—arose. Bramante built the sculpture garden of the Belvedere and the loggias connecting it to the Vatican. Major painters, sculptors, carvers and goldsmiths were called on for ornamentation. Raphael exalted the Church in frescoes for the papal apartments, newly occupied by Julius because he refused to inhabit the same suite as his late enemy Alexander. Michelangelo, dragooned against his will by the importunate Pope, painted the Sistine ceiling and, caught by his own art, worked alone on a scaffold for four years, allowing no one but the Pope to inspect his progress. Climbing a ladder to the platform, the aging Pope would criticize and quarrel with the painter, and lived just long enough to see the unveiling, when “the whole world came running” to gaze and acknowledge the marvel of a new masterpiece.
Art and war absorbed papal interest and resources to the neglect of internal reform. While the exterior bloomed, the interior decayed. A strange reminder of ancient folly appeared at this time: the classic marble Laocoon was rediscovered, as if to warn the Church—as its prototype had once warned Troy. It was dug up by a householder named Felice de Fredi when clearing his vineyard of ancient walls in the vicinity of the former Baths of Titus, built over the ruins of Nero’s Golden House. Although the find was broken into four large and three smaller pieces, every Roman knew a classical statue when he saw one. Word was immediately sent to the Pope’s architect, Giuliano de Sangallo, who set out at once on horseback with his son riding behind him and accompanied by Michelangelo, who happened to be visiting his house at the moment. Taking one look at the half-buried pieces as he dismounted, Sangallo cried, “It is the Laocoon that Pliny describes!” The observers watched in anxiety and excitement as the earth was carefully scraped away and then reported to the Pope, who bought the statue at once for 4140 ducats.
The ancient earth-stained Laocoon was welcomed like royalty. Transported to the Vatican amid cheering crowds and over roads strewn with flowers, it was reassembled and placed in the Belvedere sculpture garden along with the Apollo Belvedere, “the two first statues of the world.” Such was the éclat that de Fredi and his son were rewarded with an annual pension for life of 600 ducats (derived from tolls of the city gates), and the finder’s role was recorded by him on his tombstone.
From the antique marvel sprang new concepts of art. Its tortured motion profoundly influenced Michelangelo. Leading sculptors came to examine it; goldsmiths made copies; a poetic Cardinal wrote an ode to it (“… from the heart of mighty ruins, lo!/Time once more has brought Laocoon home.…”); Francis I tried to claim it as a prize of victory from the next Pope; in the 18th century it became the centerpiece of studies by Winckelmann, Lessing and Goethe; Napoleon seized it in transitory triumph for the Louvre, whence, on his downfall, it was returned to Rome. The Laocoon was art, style, virtue, struggle, antiquity, philosophy, but as a voice of warning against self-destruction it was not heard.
Julius was no Alexander, but his autocracy and bellicosity had aroused almost as much antagonism. Dissident cardinals were already moving into the camp of Louis XII, who was determined to oust Julius before Julius drove him from Italy. The ouster had become an accepted objective, as if the awful example of the last century’s Schism had never happened. Secularization had worked too well; the aura of the Pope had shriveled until he was, in political if not in popular eyes, no different from prince or sovereign, and subject to handling on those terms. In 1511, Louis XII in association with the German Emperor and nine dissident cardinals (three of whom later denied their consent) summoned a General Council. Prelates, orders, universities, secular rulers and the Pope himself were called upon to attend in person or through delegations for the stated purpose of “Reform of the Church in Head and Members.” This was everywhere understood as a euphemism for war on Julius.
He was now in the same position as he had once tried to place Alexander, with French troops advancing and a Council looming. Deposition and Schism were openly discussed. The French-sponsored Council, with the schismatic cardinals taking the position that Julius had failed to carry out his original promise to hold a Council, convened at Pisa. French troops re-entered the Romagna; Bologna fell once more to the enemy. Rome trembled and felt the approach of doom. Worn out by his exertions at the front, tired and ill at 68, his territory and authority both under attack, Julius, as a last resort, took the one measure he and his predecessors had so long resisted: he convoked a General Council under his own authority to meet in Rome. This was the origin, in desperation rather than in conviction, of the only major effort in religious affairs by the Holy See during this period. Though carefully circumscribed, it became a forum for, if not a solution of, the issues.
The Fifth Lateran Council, as it was named, convened at St. John Lateran, the first-ranking church of Rome, in May 1512. In the history of the Church the hour was late, and there were many who recognized it as such, with an urgency close to despair. Three months earlier, the Dean of St. Paul’s in London, John Colet, scholar and theologian, preaching to a convention of clergy on the need for reform, had cried, “never did the state of the Church more need your endeavors!” In all the rushing after revenues, he said, in “the breathless race from benefice to benefice,” in covetousness and corruption, the dignity of priests was dishonored, the laity scandalized, the face of the Church marred, her influence destroyed, worse than by the invasion of heresies because when worldliness absorbs the clergy, “the root of all spiritual life is extinguished.” This was indeed the problem.
A savage defeat in the Romagna, just before the convening of Lateran V, reinforced the sense of crisis. On Easter Sunday, the Swiss having not yet taken the field, the French, with the help of 5000 German mercenaries, overpowered the papal and Spanish armies in a sanguinary and terrible triumph at Ravenna. It was an ill omen. In a treatise addressed to the Pope on the eve of the Council, a Bolognese jurist warned, “Unless we take thought and reform, a just God himself will take terrible vengeance, and that before long!”
Egidio of Viterbo, General of the Augustinians, who gave the opening oration at the Lateran Council in the presence of the Pope, was another who saw Divine Providence in the defeat at Ravenna and did not hesitate to use it in words of unmistakable challenge to the old man glowering from the throne. The defeat showed, said Egidio, the vanity of relying on worldly weapons and it summoned the Church to resume her true weapons, “piety, religion, probity and prayer,” the armor of faith and the sword of light. In her present condition the Church had been lying on the ground “like the dead leaves of a tree in winter.… When has there been among the people a greater neglect and greater contempt for the sacred, for the sacraments and for the holy commandments? When has our religion and faith been more open to the derision even of the lowest classes? When, O Sorrow, has there been a more disastrous split in the Church? When has war been more dangerous, the enemy more powerful, armies more cruel? … Do you see the slaughter? Do you see the destruction, and the battlefield buried under piles of the slain? Do you see that in this year the earth has drunk more blood than water, more gore than rain? Do you see that as much Christian strength lies in the grave as would be enough to wage war against the enemies of the faith …?”—that is to say, against Mohammed, “the public enemy of Christ.”
Egidio moved on to hail the Council as the long-awaited harbinger of reform. As a reformer of long standing and author of a history of the Papacy composed for the express purpose of reminding the popes of their duty in that regard, he was a churchman of great distinction, and interested enough in clerical appearances to preserve his ascetic pallor, so it was said, by inhaling the smoke of wet straw. He was later made Cardinal by Leo X. Listening to the Lateran voices at a distance of 470 years, it is hard to tell whether his words were the practiced eloquence of a renowned preacher delivering the keynote address, or an impassioned and genuine cry for a change of course before it was too late.
For all its solemnity and ceremonial and five years’ labors and many sincere and earnest speakers, the Fifth Lateran was to achieve neither peace nor reform. Continuing into the next Papacy, it acknowledged the multitude of abuses and provided for their correction in a Bull of 1514. This covered as usual the “nefarious pest” of simony, the holding of multiple benefices, the appointment of incompetent or unsuitable abbots, bishops and vicars, neglect of the divine office, the unchaste lives of clerics and even the practice of ad commendam, which was henceforth to be granted only in exceptional circumstances. Cardinals as a special class were ordered to abstain from pomp and luxury, from serving as partisan advocates of princes, from enriching their relatives from the revenues of the Church, from plural benefices and absenteeism. They were enjoined to adopt sober living, perform divine office, visit their titular church and town at least once a year and donate to it the maintenance of at least one priest, provide suitable clerics for the offices in their charge and obey further rules for the proper ordering of their households. It is a picture of what was wrong at every level.
Subsequent decrees, more concerned with silencing criticism than with reform, indicated that the scolding of preachers had begun to hurt. Henceforth preachers were forbidden to prophesy or predict the coming of Anti-Christ or the end of the world. They were to keep to the Gospels and abstain from scandalous denunciation of the faults of bishops and other prelates and the wrongdoing of their superiors, and refrain from mentioning names. Censorship of printed books was another measure intended to stop attacks on clerics holding offices of “dignity and trust.”
Few if any of the Council’s decrees ever left paper. A serious effort to put them into practice might have made an impression, but none was made. Considering that Leo X, the then presiding Pope, was engaged in all the practices that the rules forbade, the will was missing. Change of course must come either from will at the top or from irresistible external pressure. The first was not present in the Renaissance Papacy; the second was approaching.
In the battle of Ravenna the vital French commander Gaston de Foix had been killed and his forces, losing impetus, had failed to exploit their victory. D’Amboise had died, Louis was hesitant, support for the Council of Pisa, condemned as schismatic and null and void by the Pope, was leaking away. When 20,000 Swiss reached Italy the tide turned. Beaten at the battle of Novara outside Milan and compelled by the Swiss to yield the duchy, expelled by Genoa, forced backward to the base of the Alps, the French “vanished like mist before the sun”—for the time being. Ravenna and Bologna returned in allegiance to the Pope; all of the Romagna was reabsorbed into the Papal States; the Council of Pisa picked up its skirts and fled over the Alps to Lyons, where it soon faded and fell apart. Because of the underlying fear of another schism and the superior status and dignity of the Lateran, it had never had a firm foundation.
The indomitable old Pope had accomplished his aims. Rome exploded in celebration of the flight of the French; fireworks blazed, cannon boomed in salute from Castel Sant’ Angelo, crowds screaming “Giulio! Giulio!” hailed him as the liberator of Italy and the Holy See. A thanksgiving procession was staged in his honor in which he was represented in the guise of a secular emperor holding a scepter and globe as emblems of sovereignty, and escorted by figures representing Scipio, conqueror of Carthage, and Camillus, who saved Rome from the Gauls.
Politics still ruled. The Holy League was crippled when Venice turned around to ally herself with France against her old rival Genoa. The Pope in his last year pursued complex connections with the Emperor and the King of England, and it was not long after his death before the French returned and the wars began again. Nevertheless, Julius had succeeded in halting the dismemberment of papal territory and consolidating the temporal structure of the Papal States, and for this he has received high marks in history. In reference books he can be found designated as “true founder of the Papal State,” and even “Saviour of the Church.” That the cost had been to bathe his country in blood and violence and that all the temporal gains could not prevent the authority of the Church from cracking at the core within ten years are not reckoned in these estimates.
When Julius died in 1513, he was honored and mourned by many because he was thought to have freed them from the detested invader. Shortly after his death Erasmus offered the contrary view in a satiric dialogue called Julius Exclusus, which, though published anonymously, has been generally attributed to him by the knowledgeable. Identifying himself at the gates of Heaven to Saint Peter, Julius says, “… I have done more for the Church and Christ than any pope before me.… I annexed Bologna to the Holy See, I beat the Venetians. I jockeyed the duke of Ferrara. I defeated a schismatical Council by a sham Council of my own. I drove the French out of Italy, and I would have driven out the Spaniards too, if the Fates had not brought me here. I have set all the princes of Europe by the ears. I have torn up treaties, kept great armies in the field, I have covered Rome with palaces.… And I have done it all myself, too. I owe nothing to my birth for I don’t know who my father was; nothing to learning for I have none; nothing to youth for I was old when I began; nothing to popularity for I was hated all round.… This is the modest truth and my friends at Rome call me more god than man.”
Defenders of Julius II credit him with following a conscious policy based on the conviction that “virtue without power,” as a speaker had said at the Council of Basle half a century earlier, “will only be mocked, and that the Roman Pope without the patrimony of the Church would be a mere slave of Kings and princes,” that, in short, in order to exercise its authority, the Papacy had first to achieve temporal solidity before undertaking reform. It is the persuasive argument of realpolitik, which, as history has often demonstrated, has a corollary: that the process of gaining power employs means that degrade or brutalize the seeker, who wakes to find that power has been possessed at the price of virtue—or moral purpose—lost.