Monday, April 27, 2009

This Day in Religious History (“Warrior Pope” Julius II Gets Tough With Venice)

April 27, 1509—Summoning the wrath that earned him the sobriquet pontefice terribile, Pope Julius II struck back at the rulers of Venice by putting the entire city-state under an interdict. Thus, all God-fearing members of this center of commerce and culture—whose leaders had recently crossed the Vatican—found themselves under a solemn ecclesiastical edict cutting them off from the sacraments.

Nowadays, we know Julius best through his association with two transcendent artists whose unfortunate lot was to be rivals for his patronage. Raphael painted the pope’s upstairs rooms in the Vatican palace, then did Julius’ portrait—the image accompanying this post.

You’d never know, scrutinizing this image without any knowledge of the subject, that Julius was positively feared—maybe even more than longtime executive editor Abe Rosenthal was in the New York Times newsroom! If anything, the pope’s portrait reminds me of King Lear at the end of his rope—and, indeed, at the time of his sitting Julius had survived one life-threatening illness and was a year away from succumbing to another.

Julius was pretty much what you’d expect in a Renaissance pope:

* Promiscuous—he’d fathered three daughters out of wedlock by the time he became pope in his early 60s, and he gave away one in marriage during his reign.
* Corrupt—he’d resorted to bribery to play kingmaker (or, in this case, pope-maker) for Cardinal Ciba (i.e., Innocent III), then used the same skullduggery to secure his own election 19 years later.
* Cultured—though best known for commissioning the basilica of St. Peter, the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s Moses for his own tomb, Julius also issued in 1512 a papal bull establishing the Capella Julia for the study of music and the chant.

Besides Raphael, the other artist most strongly associated with Julius is, of course, Michelangelo. I suspect that, like me, at least some of you have an image of him drawn from Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. In the 1965 film adaptation, one scene lingers, more than 35 years later, in my memory, of Rex Harrison as the pope, raising his voice to Michelangelo (Charlton Heston, naturally) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, demanding: “When will you make an end?”

“When I am finished!” comes the reply, the eternal cry of the perfectionist artist.

Harrison’s casting in the role was doubtless a function of box-office clout—after all, he’d only just won the Oscar for My Fair Lady. But Hollywood execs could not have asked for anyone better suited to this role, because “Sexy Rexy” (he was, like Henry VIII, married six times) was the sole shining light of the 1963 film that launched a thousand Tinseltown nervous breakdowns, Cleopatra.

The cynical wit of Harrison’s Julius Caesar in the 20th-Century Fox debacle represented a thin veneer for a character born to dominate. A life in the theater had prepared the actor exceptionally well for this (particularly so when he scared ingénue co-star and musical newcomer Julie Andrews practically out of her wits before the Broadway opening of My Fair Lady).

How does Julius Caesar relate to Julius II, besides the superficial matter of that first name? Go back to the beard in the Raphael painting. Julius II wore it as a tribute to the destroyer of the Roman Republic, who had gone hirsute as a pledge against his enemies in the field, the Gauls.

If possible, Julius II had even more enemies than Caesar: the French, successors to the Gauls as a troubling presence to the north, but also the Turks and the Bolognese. You can imagine this pope as a chieftain, a commander, even a Carnegie-style captain of industry with his disdain for the hoi polloi, support of culture, and demand for results right now. But you can’t possibly envision him as a successor to St. Peter, the fisherman all too aware of his own frailty even as he became the rock on which the Church was built.

One person who definitely couldn’t see Julius as successor to Peter was Erasmus of Rotterdam. In 1517, four years after Julius had died, the humanist scholar satirized the first pope meeting his most recent deceased successor in Julius exclusus e coelis.

In it, St. Peter, standing at the pearly gates, inquires of Julius what he has done to merit entrance. The reply becomes the occasion for a ferocious (and, conveniently for the author, anonymously published) attack in which the late pontiff is blamed for an entire catalogue of sins—not just simony and sorcery, but also—especially telling for the pacifist humanist—the fact that Julius “kept great armies in the field,” leaving a trail of blood across Italy.

General Sherman had nothing on Julius. In a suit of gleaming silver armor, the pontiff led armies into battle himself, and would leave even cardinals shaking in their boots when they quailed at following his path through snowdrifts that reached as high as their chests--even when they were mounted.

Before assuming the papacy, Julius had been regarded as a good friend of Venice. But before long, by taking various places in the Romagna—territory that belonged in those days to the papacy—by filling various religious offices without input from the pope, and by subjecting clergy to a secular tribunal rather than ecclesiastical courts, leaders of the watery city-state pushed the pope into cooperating with Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and King Louis XII of France in the League of Cambrai.

Julius was not at all happy about this alliance—he was a kind of clerical but undemocratic Garibaldi, hoping to unite Italy by driving out hated foreigners such as the French—but he’d do what he felt he had to in order to protect papal prerogatives.

I’m not going to bore you with the multiple switches in diplomatic and military policy that ensued at the papal court during these years—they gave me whiplash just trying to follow it all. Instead, I’ll leave it to John Julius Norwich, summing things up with typical effortless elegance in A History of Venice:

“In scarcely more than four years, the three principal protagonists in the war of the League of Cambria had gone through every possible permutation in the pattern of alliances. First France and the Papacy were allied against Venice, then Venice and the Papacy ranged themselves against France; now Venice and France combined against the Papacy—and, indeed, all comers….Alliances were matters, above all, of tactical convenience; when they no longer served a useful purpose they were broken off and new, more promising ones formed in their place….Ultimately, always, there was only one rule to be followed: that of each man for himself.”

Then as now, armies cost money. Amazingly, Julius left the papal coffers full at the time of his death—but, as a product of the curial culture of the time, he’d perpetuated a cycle of spending, then looking for any ready means to pay for his high art and low wars.

His successor, Leo X, was such a spendthrift that he hired Dominican friar Johannes Tetzel to sell indulgences to raise funds for Julius’ pet project, an entirely rebuilt St. Peter’s Basilica. That sale sparked Martin Luther’s wrath.

The consequences of that righteous anger were spelled out in a sermon I heard some years ago in my parish. An English Jesuit was escorting some friends through the Sistine Chapel. Gaping at the ceiling, they inquired how much the magnificent images had cost.

“Half of Europe,” the priest answered drily.

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