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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

2000 Years of Roman History, Part Four: Two Popes

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

Long lines form early to enter St. Peter’s Basilica or the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums). They are separate venues, and although St. Peter’s is free, there is a long security line. The Musei Vaticani house some of the world’s best art, including the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Stanze, and countless other objects.

Unless you’d like to see the Sistine Chapel along with 20,000 people a day, it’s worthwhile to consider a small group tour, or pre-opening or late afternoon tour, to avoid the crush. By all means, book online as there really is no need for a huge queue. Nonetheless, the line to buy a ticket is astounding, even in winter. Or stop by after three p.m. for a less crowded Vatican Museum experience. For hundreds of years tourists and pilgrims have flocked to St. Peter’s and in modern times, the Vatican.

Approximately six million people visit the Musei Vaticani a year. To whom do we owe these treasures? Two popes made much of it possible.

Musei Vaticani

Musei Vaticani, Rome

Simply put, it’s good to be pope. There’s money, power, and lots of art to commission. It’s also good to have an uncle as pope. There were two popes from the della Rovere family who shaped Rome into a Renaissance art center, Sixtus IV (1414-84) and Julius II (1443-1513). Each commissioned great artwork and created a foundation not only for their own family’s wealth and power, but also for Rome to emerge from a backwater to a center of culture and influence.

When Giuliano della Rovere became pope Julius II in 1503 (ruled until 1513) he also had lots of enemies, namely the Borgias, who immediately preceded his papacy as Pope Alexander VI. His uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (ruled 1471-84), paved the way, by naming his nephew Giuliano a cardinal and creating an art patronage program Julius II/Giuliano would continue.

Julius clearly had a few goals: establish Rome as the premier Christian city, increase the landholdings of the papal states (expand the kingdom), subdue and control enemies, and rid the papal states and surrounding territories in Italy of foreign rule, particularly the French. His earned a nickname of the Warrior Pope for his temperament and aggression.

Rundown Rome

To understand the contributions Julius II made to the city it is necessary to understand what Rome was like at the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth century. The city was in a dilapidated state, with broken down buildings, swampy land, poor or non-existent infrastructure, and compared to Renaissance Florence, clearly an inferior boondocks. After the end of the Roman empire the city fell into decline and languished in the middle ages, no longer a major political or military player.

This was also a time of great rediscovering of Roman art. Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) was discovered during Julius II’s reign as well as important sculptures, now in the Vatican Museums, such as the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoon. These rediscoveries had an enormous impact on artists seeking to emulate the classical arts and honor the heritage of the Roman empire.

Three ancient ruins that changed Renaissance art: 1) Octagonal Room, Nero’s Domus Aurea, Rome, 64-68 CE. Artists, including Raphael, would lower themselves on ropes into the sunken rooms and ruins. They were in awe of the wall paintings and sculptures. Now stripped of most of its interior riches, the vast site is open to semi-private guided tours given by experts who work at the archeological site. 2) Hagesandros, Athenodoros, and Polydoros, Laocoon and His Sons, Musei Vaticani, Rome, early first century BCE. This sculpture was discovered in 1506 in Nero’s then buried Domus Aurea, his Golden House. Apollonios of Athens, 3) Apollonios of Athens, Belvedere Torso, Musei Vaticani, Rome, first century BCE. This ancient fragment was revered for its high quality. The sculpting of the muscles had a great impact on Michelangelo’s rendering of the human body.

Once thriving with one million inhabitants under the Roman empire, there were now merely 50,000 people. Partially to blame was the 1378 -1417 Great Schism, when different factions of cardinals elected competing popes, all claiming to be the true pope. Papal authority was greatly eroded with the pope residing in France for some time. Rome once again became the home to the papacy in the second half of the fifteenth century.

At the beginning of Julius’ reign, most of the population lived in the Campo Marzio (Campus Martius) by the bend of the Tiber and the neighborhoods were squalid and dangerous. Michelangelo was taken aback when he traveled from his native state-of-the-art Florence to Rome to work for Julius, and eventually paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Crumbled ruins were everywhere. Walls surrounded the eleven plus mile circumference of the city, but one could hardly call it a city since much of it was uninhabited.

This is the city Julius inherited. He succeeded in creating an artistic program simultaneously looking backwards to embrace the Roman empire’s legacy and looking forward creating a modern, new city. His ideas were sometimes daring and symbolic of Rome’s new European presence as a cultural center. However, without his uncle Pope Sixtus IV we wouldn’t have had Giuliano della Rovere as pope, and we wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s or Raphael’s Stanze.

The Uncle

Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere) began his life in northern Italy, near Savona on the Italian Riviera, and entered the Franciscan order about ten years old. The church essentially was his family. He was well educated with a doctorate from Padova and ambitious enough to bring the della Rovere family into a position of influence.

One way to accomplish this is to elevate male relatives to the college of cardinals – which he did without a second thought. The cardinals held considerable sway politically and socially, plus they were rich, given their large stipends to fund luxury lifestyles. Six della Rovere nephews were made cardinals and while the nepotism seems inappropriate to us, it wasn’t uncommon. Italy did not have a king, the Papal States were akin to a small kingdom, and the pope was like the king. Unlike other parts of Europe, Italian nobility was not land based on inherited wealth but founded on accumulated family wealth initially from banking or other businesses then investing in land. For the Papal States, the business was the church.

Melozzo da Forli’ commemorated the della Rovere family in his 1477-78 fresco Sixtus IV Confirming Bartolomeo Platina as Papal Librarian. Sixtus is enthroned and attended to by his five subjects situated in a columned hall. The classicizing columns and neatly balanced composition with spatial perspective are typical of Renaissance painting of this time. The columns in the foreground feature white oak leaves entwinned against a blue background. The oak tree and leaves are the emblem of the della Rovere family. The pope is seated in the power position of a throne, very formal, with no interaction amongst the figures. No one looks at the viewer.

Melozzo da Forli’, Sixtus IV Confirming Bartolomeo Platina as Papal Librarian, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1477-8.  This detached fresco is now in the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca. As a side note, this fresco brings back fond memories of my first Italian Renaissance art history class exam as this painting was featured as an “extra credit” question in a midterm essay exam.

Melozzo da Forli’, Sixtus IV Confirming Bartolomeo Platina as Papal Librarian, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1477-8. This detached fresco is now in the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca. As a side note, this fresco brings back fond memories of my first Italian Renaissance art history class exam as this painting was featured as an “extra credit” question in a midterm essay exam.

Bartolomeo Platina, the kneeling figure pointing to the inscription, was also Sixtus’ biographer. The inscription recognizes Sixtus’ rebuilding of Rome’s streets, churches, hospital, walls, bridges and thanks him for creating the Vatican Library. Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, is standing in the center of the fresco facing Pope Sixtus. Other members of the della Rovere family are depicted as Sixtus’ inner circle.

Sixtus IV and Julius II: The Sistine Chapel

Sixtus IV’s definitive project was the renovation and redecoration of the papal palatine chapel, now known as the Sistine Chapel, named Sistine after Sixtus. Sixtus’ redecoration included the wall frescoes but not the ceiling frescoes, as Julius II would continue to commission art for the chapel. The Sistine Chapel was an important addition to the Vatican, since the Basilica of St. Peter’s as we know it today did not exist, except in its earliest form, which originated in the fourth century and was literally falling apart. There are essentially three major art commission cycles in the Sistine Chapel: the 1480-2 walls by various artists, the 1508-12 ceiling by Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement 1536-41.

It is estimated that the Sistine Chapel (before Michelangelo’s ceiling was painted) was used around forty times a year, to convene the college of cardinals, for diplomatic events and visitors, for mass, matins, and vespers. Because only the most privileged and erudite would enter into the chapel it was paramount that the fresco cycle on the walls of the chapel – unfortunately overlooked by modern viewers in favor of Michelangelo – convey a message of papal authority and affirmation of the legitimacy of the pope.

Cosimo Rosselli, Old Testament scenes Crossing of the Red Sea on the left and Adoration of the Golden Calf on the right. Rosselli was a Florentine painter and contemporary of Botticelli.

Cosimo Rosselli, Old Testament scenes Crossing of the Red Sea on the left and Adoration of the Golden Calf on the right, Sistine Chapel, Musei Vaticani, Rome. Rosselli was a Florentine painter and contemporary of Botticelli. The 1480-2 frescoes are the square sections on the lower level.

The entire Sistine Chapel frescoes, including Michelangelo’s, should be understood as a complex series of interrelated connections between the Old and New Testament. Michelangelo’s sixteenth century ceiling and Last Judgement frescoes are not stand alone separate from the 1480s frescoes but should be considered part of a multifaceted visual program.

Scenes for the walls were specifically chosen to underscore divine rule and church law, with one side featuring Old Testament scenes from the Life of Moses and on the opposite wall New Testament scenes from the Life of Christ. Florentine and Umbrian artists were chosen to fresco the scenes including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Michelangelo worked in Ghirlandaio’s shop as a youth and Raphael worked for Perugino as an aspiring artist.

Spiritual leadership is a key theme in the frescoes. The chapel was constructed with the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon in the Old Testament which gives it credibility as the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic church. The Life of Moses scenes include the finding of Moses, his journey into Egypt, crossing of the Red Sea, adoration of the golden calf, and last days of Moses. The New Testament scenes start with the nativity, baptism, performing miracles, sermon on the Mount, last supper, and Resurrection. Four of these scenes were destroyed when Michelangelo painted his frescoes. The most essential fresco is Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, essentially the founding of the church in Rome, and accentuating the indisputable preeminence of the pope as head of the church.

Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1508-12 as visitors enter from the “wrong” end of the chapel.

Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1508-12, as visitors enter from the “wrong” end of the chapel.

Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling frescoes are not a narrative or story of an individual or saints. Instead themes of how wrongdoing and sin prevail (Drunkenness of Noah; Adam and Eve) and how sin interferes with connecting to God, while at the same time emphasizing the hierarchy of the church, prophets, and Old Testament figures. The final scene, Separating Light from Darkness, over the altar stresses, the importance of the Eucharist and divine power of God.

The artist has neatly tied together the wall frescoes to the ceiling by representing prophets and sibyls between the wall and ceiling in their role as Old Testament figures prophesying the New Testament. The ancestors of Christ seated on thrones, an unusual art depiction, represent Christ’s physical heritage. With the history of the papal Great Schism and the future Reformation imminent, the visual program needed to situate the church’s papal power in Rome, as envisaged by the Old and New Testaments.

Michelangelo’s nine ceiling scenes increase in bold color and depictions of God get larger as the viewer progresses towards the final scene at the altar. Visitors now enter the “wrong” end of the chapel at the culmination of Michelangelo’s frescoes: the Separation of Light from Darkness. Visitors were originally intended to enter at the Drunkenness of Noah and proceed past the old testament scenes towards the creation of light and dark. It’s counter-intuitive as the scenes do not follow a chronological sequence. It may not make perfect sense to us today, but the entire chapel was understood as a brilliant and multifaceted theological concept, the most complex theological iconography in Renaissance painting.

The Revival of Rome: St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s as we know it today was formerly Nero’s Circus for staging games and races, and later on executions, including the martyrdom of St. Peter, apostle of Christ and first bishop/pope of Rome. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor who legalized Christianity about 313 CE, erected a church over the site of St. Peter’s burial. Constantine’s church became the epicenter of the Christian faith in the West.

The mid 1400s saw the official papacy moved from Rome’s Lateran Palace to its current location in the Vatican. By now the original St. Peter’s was an old, decaying church, and Julius II sought to transform it into a grand structure worthy of the official home of the papacy. Julius commissioned Donato Bramante to construct a new apse in 1506, but it would take a long time to realize completion – twenty-two popes and twelve architects later. The plan of the church would be modified many times, with Raphael taking on the role as chief architect from 1514-20, and Michelangelo from 1546-64. If there is one architect whose fingerprints we can see and feel today, it is Michelangelo’s.

Bramante designed churches in Milan before re-locating to Rome. His architecture is very sculptural in design, compact, balanced, and symmetrical. Architectural elements have great balance and harmony. Bramante’s staircase for the Vatican, designed to facilitate traffic and horse carts, is a prime example of form and function. However, his death prevented much building structure for St. Peters to be completed, although the giant piers rely on his design.

Donato Bramante, Spiral Staircase, Vatican, Rome. 1505. Not open to the general public, but only through semi-private tours. The staircase leads to a wonderful view of Rome, and is worth the price. The staircase allowed traffic, including the pope, and animal carts easy access to the upper floors of the Vatican.

Donato Bramante, Spiral Staircase, Musei Vaticani, Rome. 1505. Not open to the general public, but only through semi-private tours. The staircase leads to a wonderful view of Rome, and is worth the price. The staircase allowed traffic, including the pope, and animal carts easy access to the upper floors of the Vatican.

Michelangelo, although working on St. Peter’s long after Julius II’s death, enhanced Bramante’s plan, corrected design and stability errors of other architects, and devised a handsome and sound dome. Unfortunately obscured somewhat today from the viewpoint of the St. Peter’s square, the dome is beautifully displayed when you enter the Vatican Museums and step into the courtyard. The proportions are fitting and the use of columns and ribbing are creative.

The church plans required a phenomenal amount of money, so much so that the pope began to sell indulgences to help pay for the structure. Around this time Martin Luther visited Rome and undoubtedly this served as inspiration for his 1517 Ninety-Five Theses challenging Roman Catholic theology and causing his excommunication. In some ways, Julius II’s ambitious building plans and astronomical costs fueled the Reformation.

Donato Bramante, Michelangelo and others, St. Peter’s, Rome. Interior and dome.

Donato Bramante, Michelangelo and others, St. Peter’s, Rome. Interior and dome.

Julius II: The Raphael Rooms

At the same time Michelangelo was standing on scaffolding painting the Sistine ceiling, Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) was frescoing the four Stanze, which means “rooms” in Italian. No ordinary rooms, these were the papal apartments. This was a lucrative and high-status commission for the young painter from Urbino. The Stanza della Segnatura (1509-11), the first of the four painted, is the room of the signature, where the pope would sign documents and judgements in the company of his extensive library.

Each wall of the Segnatura room depicts Julius II’s values and Roman Renaissance ways of thinking. The subjects of the four walls are: Poetry, Justice/Law, Theology, and Philosophy. It’s a humanistic, kind of a liberal arts view of the Italian world in the early sixteenth century. The Segnatura room isn’t just a place for a desk and books – it embodies the intertwining of secular ideas with Christian theology. It may seem like odd bedfellows to us, but it was a brilliant rendering of Renaissance ideals.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome, 1509-11.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. The ceiling contains personifications of theology, philosophy, justice, and poetry.

The two most important frescoes, and largest, are the walls opposite each other with the themes of Theology and Philosophy. The Theology fresco takes on the heady subject of the doctrine of the Eucharist, reinforcing that the communion wafer is the body of Christ. An embankment of clouds supports the heavenly realm of God the Father, Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptist, and saints. The consecrated Eucharist is enshrined on the altar below, bridging the heavenly and earthly space, while the earthbound saints and other theologians actively engage in discussion and admiration.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome, 1509-11. Theology, also known as the Disputa’ or Disputation over the Sacrament.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. Theology, also known as the Disputa’ or Disputation over the Sacrament.

Raphael centers the Eucharist precisely in the middle of the fresco, directly under God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as the Trinity and Eucharist become one. He could not make it more evident that the church’s teaching is that the host is transformed into the body of Christ. The center and heavenly realm radiate calm, while the humans on the earthly level agitate and are in motion.

Across the room from Theology is Philosophy, probably the most famous of the Stanze frescoes. In the Renaissance the subject of philosophy included science and mathematics. Raphael manages to brilliantly infuse a bevy of figures with order and sensibility, largely due to the use of monumental architecture to unify the composition and breaking the figures up into groups of three or four. The fresco is a who’s who of classical and contemporary figures including Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. Diogenes, Pythagoras, and others intermingling with Raphael’s self-portrait and a portrait of Michelangelo. Even Bramante is represented as Euclid. Inserting portraits of contemporaries as philosophers must have been of great interest to viewers, as it is today, as well as connecting the past to the present.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, Rome, 1509-11. Philosophy, also known as the School of Athens.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. Philosophy, also known as the School of Athens.

Allegedly the portrait of Michelangelo, the lonely stone-cutter sitting by himself, was added at the last minute after Raphael glimpsed the Sistine ceiling and wanted to pay tribute to the artist. Under the arch stand Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right. Essentially the books they hold espouse the three natures of God, pre-dating Christian theology of the trinity, and the ethics and consequences of moral human behavior.

The great minds of science, math, and philosophy mingle, discuss, and come together, bringing grand ideas to change and challenge the world. Why include science, math, and philosophy subjects in a Roman Catholic papal apartment? Greek and Roman traditions were greatly respected and emulated in Renaissance Italy. Not only were lost art works re-discovered and put on display in the Vatican but literature and writings of the Greco-Roman world were highly valued.

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. Philosophy

Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Musei Vaticani, Rome, 1509-11. Philosophy, detail of Raphael’s self portrait above (on the far right in a black cap looking out at the viewer) and Michelangelo below.

The Vatican library, initiated by his uncle, was the repository of thousands of Greek and Latin manuscripts. Equating Julius II’s values with Greco-Roman ideals suited him well. In addition, Christian thought at the time felt it was part of God’s plan that the Greco-Roman world facilitated the spread of Christianity through the vast Roman empire’s system of communication, roads, and sea routes. The four walls of the Stanza are not intended to contrast one to another but complement each other as interrelated, blending Christian and pagan concepts into a harmonious collection of ideals and values.

Portrait of Pope Julius II

Raphael’s work for Julius II in the Stanze led to portrait commissions of the elite and powerful in Rome. Half-length oil paintings of cardinals, popes, and prominent men were captured in revealing and intimate portraits. Raphael married secular portraiture (think Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa) with the need for a more formal approach for the aristocracy. His portrait of Pope Julius II built on Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait, with the subject half turned to the viewer. Raphael’s portraits became the archetype for Titian and other artists, with the subject usually seated, in three-quarters length, with telling insight into the sitter’s personality.

Painted in the summer of 1511 while Raphael was working on the Stanze, the bearded pope looks frailer than his nickname the Warrior Pope, save for the left hand gripping the chair. The painting was exhibited publicly eight months after Julius’ death at the high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church known for the chapel and tomb of the della Rovere family.

Julius II felt an affinity towards Julius Caesar, and chose his papal namesake after Caesar. He had hoped to re-build Rome to carry on the rich artistic traditions of the Roman empire. Yet his portrait looks pensive, and almost mournful. Julius was facing mounting instability in the church with the Reformation looming, the French trying to claim him illegitimate as pope, and the Papal States had lost control of Bologna to France. In fact, he grew a beard out of mourning for the lost conflict in Bologna.

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, National Gallery, London. 1511, oil on poplar.

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, National Gallery, London. 1511, oil on poplar. National Gallery open access policy, Creative Commons 4.0.

Technology shows us that Raphael changed the background of the painting considerably. Now a deep green, it was originally blue with decorations of the papal keys (still visible), crossed oak branches, and papal tiara. The green background provides a more successful contrast to the pope’s red cape and skull cap. He wears five rings. The rings on the right hand mirror the primary colors in the painting and also symbolize the virtues established in the New Testament: white for faith, green for hope, and red for charity. Note that the large acorns on the chair are symbols of the della Rovere family.

Raphael catches Julius at a vulnerable moment – this is the pope who bickered constantly with Michelangelo and was demanding and difficult to please.

How different this portrait is from Melozzo’s fresco of Sixtus IV some thirty years earlier. Here there is greater intimacy and the viewer can relate to the subject. Gone are the standing statue figures with blank expressions. Raphael gives us a glimpse into a person’s animus and in turn set a precedent for future portraiture.

Although great patrons of the arts and re-builders of Rome, Sixtus IV and Julius II were far from humble Christians. Sixtus IV used his power as pope to build a family dynasty through nepotism. He also issued a papal bull continuing to approve of conquest in countries where the main purpose was slavery and human trafficking. The papal bull was based on the horrendous idea that non-white non-Christians were inferior and it was acceptable to conquer and enslave them. It was also part of a greater plan to convert non-Christians.

Julius II was hardly chaste and virtuous. He elevated four relatives to cardinals and had a daughter, Felice, while he was a cardinal. His daughter led a discreet life, not always recognized as a della Rovere, and mindful of her precarious status. Julius II also had a violent temper and often was mean spirited. It is difficult to grapple with their immoral, downright unchristian behavior and treatment of people of color alongside the beauty of their art. It’s certainly something to think about as you line up for the Musei Vaticani.


Hall, Marcia B, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011


Miller, Julia, I. “Religion, Politics, and Art.” A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, edited by Babette Bohn, and James M. Saslow. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 65-84.

Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Fourth edition. Laurence King, 2011.

Partridge, Loren and Randolph Starn. A Renaissance Likeness: Art and Culture in Raphael’s Julius II. University of California Press, 1980.

Talvacchia, Bette. Raphael. Phaidon, 2007.

Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wivel, Matthias, “The Warrior Pope: Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II.” The National Gallery of Art video, London, May 23, 2019.

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