What was Pope Julius IIs contribution to Renaissance Italy?

Portrait of Julius II by Raphael

Pope Julius II was a towering figure in Italian and European politics. He was known as the ‘Warrior-Pope’ because of his proclivity towards war. He was also a shrewd diplomat and capable politician. Julius II changed the history of Italy with his policies and had a dramatic impact on the Renaissance. He was a great patron of the arts and personally commissioned many great masterpieces. During his time as pope, Julius II contained the Venice's, ended the role of the Borgias in Rome, but failed to drive the French from Italy. Julius II's policies and actions delayed foreign domination of Italy and prolonged the Renaissance.


The future Pope was born Giuliano della Rovere, in 1443, to a noble but impoverished family. His uncle became Pope Sixtus IV in 1471. As was the custom of the time, the Pope Sixtus appointed Julius to offices and granted him various awards. In 1471, while still a young man he was elected to a position as Cardinal. This position allowed Juliuis to not only acquire power, but it also allowed him to become quite wealthy.[1] When his uncle died, he helped to arrange for an ally to be elected Pope. Julius aid to the new Pope positioned him to most powerful Cardinal in Rome, but he still failed to become Pope after the death of Innocent IV.

St Peter's Basilica

His hated enemy Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander IV and Julius left Rome and spent time in Northern Italy.[2] He only returned to Rome after the death of Alexander IV. He eventually became Pope in 1503. At the time, Italy was in turmoil and had just entered a new and bloody phase in its history. Venice was becoming increasingly powerful and was threatening the balance of powerin Italy. In 1494 the French invaded Italy and occupied the Kingdom of Naples. This invasion started a period of war between France and the Holy Roman Empire for control of Italy. Julius was faced with an unprecedented situation - how to limit Venice's growing power and expel the French empire from Italy. Like every other Pope, Julius II was determined to maintain his independence and control over the Papal States. In order to preserve the status of the Papacy in Italy, he was obliged to enter into alliances and wars.

The Fall of the Borgia’s

Even before became Julius became pope he fear that the Borgias would try to assassinate him. Julius was worried that Cesare Borgia would try to seize the Papacy or create a dukedom out of the Papal States. Cesare was head of the Papal Armies and controlled much of the Papal States. Julius was a shrewd man and he managed to outmaneuver and bribe Cesare Borgia into allowing him to become Pope.[3]. According to Machiavelli, Cesare was destroyed by his failure to stop Julius rise. Machiavelli stated "therefore, the duke erred in his choice, and it was the cause of his ultimate ruin." [4]

It is not clear why Cesare allowed Julius to become Pope. Julius effectively rallied an anti-Borgia collation to his side and allied himself with the powerful Orsini and other noble families. Ultimately, with these families help he was able to take control of the Papal army, which was composed primarily of mercenaries. Cesare was effectively powerless without the support of his army and fled to Naples, where Julius managed to persuade the local ruler to imprison him. Later Cesare was sent to Spain and the power of the Borgia’s in Italy was broken forever. Julius according to many commentators at the time saved the Papacy from becoming a puppet of Cesare Borgia. Julius II also secured the Papal States as a single entity and denied Cesare Borgia the opportunity to carve a principality for himself from Papal Lands.[5]

League of Cambrai

Cesare Borgia- Julius' great enemy

Julius was a restless and ambitious man. He was eager to extend the power of the Papacy after years of decline. In recent years, Venice had extended its power power in Northern Italy at the expense of the Papal States. This decline was exacerbated by the fall of the Sforza dynasty in Milan. Venice was slowly becoming the one of the greatest powers in the Mediterranean. Venice accomplished by leveraging its massive navy and trading networks into formidable empire. Julius sought to maintain the balance of power in Italy and saw Venice as the chief threat to the Papal States. Furthermore, the Venetians had encouraged vassals of the Pope to revolt in the Papal States and occupied several cities in the Papal States.[6].

Julius built a large Papal army and formed a military and diplomatic alliance called the League of Cambrai. It included many major Italian states and France. The French king’s army allowed Julius to recapture some key cities such as Bologna and Rimini from Venice. The League of Cambrai army met the Venetian army at Agnadello. (1509)[7] At this battle,the Venetians were decisively defeated and to retreat in Northern Italy. At one point, it appeared that Venice would even be captured. Venice was only saved after a desperate defense of Venice that was aided Venice’s navy. Julius, actually was not interested in Venice's complete defeat. Instead, he wanted a weakened Venice and once that was achieved persuaded the other members of the League to end the war. A few years later in 1510, Julius was able reconcile with the Venice.[8] Julius successfully restored the balance of power with the help of the League of Cambrai. Furthermore, for the first time in many years, a Pope had full control of the Papal States. However, while this made it easier to govern the Papal States, Julius lacked the a powerful enough city state to challenge the French after the defeat of Venice. Essentially, defeating Venice Julius was forced to work with the French monarch and the Emperor Charles V because they lacked a military that could challenge him directly.[9]

Holy League

Julius II became concerned even before the Cambrai League’s victory at Agnadello of the growing power of the French. The French king, Francis I was a hugely ambitious monarch and had direct or indirect control of large areas of the north of Italy.[10] Julius was concerned that France could become the dominant power in Italy and the Papacy could ultimately be reduced to a dependency of the French Empire. Julius II was a powerful advocate of Papal independence but he also hated the French as outsiders and referred to them as ‘barbarians’.

In order to curb the growing power of the French he formed a new alliance, that became known as the Holy League. Julius negotiated a settlement with Venice in 1510 because he wanted to use them to control France. That same year he created the Holy League which was composed of the Swiss Cantons, Spain, several Italian City-States and Venice.[11] Later that year, Julius personally led an attack on the French held town of Mirandola, which he captured. The French were left very exposed in Italy. They were also defeated by the Swiss at the Battle of Novarra in 1513. Julius was too ill to savor his victory and in the end, the victory of the Holy Alliance was not as decisive as he had hoped.

Pope Julius died soon after the Battle of Novarra and without him the Holy League fell apart. He alone was capable of holding such a disparate collation and the League dissolved. Without the League the French were once again able to regain their control of Northern Italy after the defeat of the Swiss at Marignano in 1515.[12] The French were not driven from Northern Italy until the 1550s by the Spanish armies commanded by Phillip II. The Holy League had initially been very successful and had greatly limited French power in Italy, if Julius had not died, it is quite possible that the League could have expelled Francis I entirely from Italian territory. [13] After the dissolution of the League, the future of Italy was to be decided by two foreign powers, the Valois dynasty in France and the Habsburg (the emperors of Germany and kings of Spain). Some historians have blamed Julius for allowing the Hapsburg dynasty to become entrenched in Italy. This criticism is probably unfair because had Julius lived, he would have been more effective at limiting their power. He was always guided by the principle of the balance-of-power in Italy and would have surely formed an anti-Hapsburg League.[14]

Pope Julius II

Julian was one of the most powerful secular rulers in Italy and Europe. Julius did not neglect the Papacy and the Church. He proved to be an able administrator and helped to reform the government of the Papal States. Julius, unlike his predecessors and many of his successors, was committed to reforming the Church. He was well aware that the Church was corrupt and sought to dramatically reform it. Julius issued bulls (orders) that forbade simony (the selling of Church offices) and reformed many monastic orders.[15] Pope Julius II was also a capable administrator and he reformed the curia, the Papal bureaucracy. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the Fifth Lateran Council. This was convened to eradicate corruption in the Church and to end the many abuses in the Papal government. This Council despite its good intentions did not manage to achieve much because behind it Julius II died before many of the intended reforms could be implemented. If Julius II had managed to reform the Church this could have changed history as only four years after his death, Martin Luther nailed his theses to a Church Door. If Julius II had been able to carry out his reforms he could have prevented a schism in the Church.

Still many of Julius IIs plans were thwarted or never came to fruition. Perhaps his most concrete achievements and successes were in the arts. He was one of the greatest patrons of the arts in Renaissance Italy. Julius was able to secure the services of Michelangelo, by paying him (or threatening him) into working in Rome. He commissioned the great Florentine, who preferred sculpting to painting - to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is commonly regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance.[16] Julius also paid Raphael to paint four rooms in the Vatican, that are widely considered to be his masterpieces. Perhaps his most ambitious project was the rebuilding of the Basilica of St Peter’s, which had become dilapidated over the course of the centuries. He hired Bramante, the great architect to design a new Basilica. Julius’ project was completed by Pope Leo X.


Julius II was one of the greatest Renaissance Popes. He stabilized the Papal States and held the French Empire at bay. Julius also engineered the downfall of the Borgia clan and possibly saved the Papal States from being partitioned. He was also a great patron of the arts and he has left the world an unprecedented number of artistic and architectural masterpieces. Julius also had some notable failures. Despite all his efforts at reforming the Church his untimely death stalled his reform efforts. While the Holy League under Julius served as a counterweight to the French, they failed expel them from Italy. This was because, Julius the architect and the driving force behind the League and when he died the French were able to retrieve their position in Italy. Had Julius lived it is highly likely that he would have driven out the French and then turned his attention towards the Hapsburgs. It is possible that if he had lived longer he could have prolonged the Renaissance, which was eneded by the Hapsburg domination of Italy.


  1. Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The Warrior Pope. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), p. 127
  2. Shaw, p. 133
  3. Sabatini, Raphael. The Life of Cesare Borgia London: Stanley Paul & Company, 1912), p. 167
  4. Machiavelli, Niccola. The Prince (Hamondsworth, Penguin, 1992), p. 45
  5. Sabatini, p 115
  6. John Julius Norwich. A History of Venice (New York: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 345)
  7. Norwich, p. 356
  8. Norwich, p. 377
  9. Norwich, p. 415
  10. Mallett, Michael and Christine Shaw. The Italian Wars, 1494–1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2012), p. 89
  11. Shaw, p. 134
  12. Mallet and Shaw, p. 113
  13. Guicciardini, Francesco.The History of Italy. Translated by Sydney Alexander. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 117
  14. Mallet and Shaw, p. 113
  15. Shaw, p. 118
  16. Shaw, p. 118