What was Pope Julius IIs contribution to Renaissance Italy?

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This article will discuss and evaluate the impact of Pope Julius II on the Italian Renaissance. Julius was a towering figure in Italian and European politics. He was known as the ‘Warrior-Pope’ because of his willingness to engage in war. He was also a shrewd diplomat and capable politician. Julius II was to change the history of Italy with his policies and have a very dramatic impact on the Renaissance. He was also a great patron of the arts and personally commissioned many great masterpieces. This article will argue that Julius II was able to contain the expansion of Venice, ended the role of the Borgias in Rome, but he failed to drive the French from Italy. Julius II was also a great patron of the art and he commissioned many of the greatest works in the western tradition. Julius II helped to delay the foreign domination of Italy and in this way he helped to prolong the Renaissance.

Portrait of Julius II by Raphael


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 new Pope awarded many offices and titles from his uncle. In 1471, while still a young man he was created a Cardinal and this allowed him to gain even more power and he became also very wealthy[1]. When his uncle died he helped to arrange for an ally to become Pope. Julius was to be one of the most powerful Cardinals in Rome, but he failed to become Pope after the death of Innocent IV. 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. Italy at the time 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 power in Italy. In 1494 the French invaded Italy and occupied the Kingdom of Naples. This invasion was to start a period of war between France and the Holy Roman Empire for control of Italy. Julius was faced with an unprecedented situation and one that was fraught with threats for Julius II and the Papacy. Like every other Pope, Julius II was determined to maintain his independence and his control of the Papal States. In order to preserve the status of the Papacy in Italy, he was obliged to enter into alliances and wars.

St Peter's Basilica

The Fall of the Borgia’s

Julius faced a great challenge to his position even before he became Pope. He was a mortal enemy of the Borgias and he feared that they would try and assassinate him. Julius was also worried that Cesare Borgia would seize the Papacy or create a dukedom out of the Papal States. Cesare was head of the Papal Armies and control much of the Papal States. Julius was a very shrewd man and he managed to deceive or bribe Cesare Borgia into allowing him to become Pope[3]. This according to Machiavelli was a fateful mistake "therefore, the duke erred in his choice, and it was the cause of his ultimate ruin." [4]. There is still much debate as to why Cesare did this. Julius was able to rally an anti-Borgia collation and he allied himself with the powerful Orsini and other noble families and with their help he was able to take control of the Papal army, which was mostly composed of mercenaries. Cesare was effectively powerless without the support of his army and he 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 Julius was a restless and ambitious man. He was eager to extend the power of the Papacy after a period of relative decline. In recent years Venice had extended its power greatly in Northern Italy, especially after the fall of the Sforza dynasty in Milan. Venice was slowly becoming the greatest power in the North and this together with its massive navy, empire, and its trading networks made it arguably the greatest Italian power. Julius wanted to maintain the balance of power in Italy and saw Venice as a threat to his own 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 established a large Papal army and formed a military and diplomatic alliance called the League of Cambrai. It included many major Italian states and crucially 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 they lost much of their territories in Northern Italy. It seemed at one stage that even Venice would be captured and only a desperate defense and the Republic’s naval forces that saved it from total defeat. Julius, it seems did not want the complete defeat of Venice and he seems to have persuaded the other members of the League to end the war. Soon after in 1510 the Papacy had become reconciled to the Venetian Republic [8]. The balance of power had been restored by Julius II and his League of Cambrai on the Italian peninsula. Furthermore, for the first time in many years, a Pope had full control of the Papal States. However, the most powerful Italian City-State had been greatly weakened and this was to mean that there was no single power that could rival the power of the French monarch and the Emperor Charles V[9].

File:Julius II Three.jpg
Julius II leading his army at a siege

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. 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. The League comprised the Swiss Cantons, Spain, Venice and several Italian City-States and was formed in 1510[11]. In 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 and they were 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 it had first seen. Pope Julius died soon after Novarra and without him the Holy League fell apart. He alone was capable of holding such a disparate collation together and soon the League was dissolved. Without the League the French were once more able to regain their old superiority in Northern Italy after they won a great victory over the Swiss at Marignano in 1515[12]. They were only driven from Northern Italy by the Spanish armies of Phillip II in the 1550s. 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, who were Emperors in Germany and kings of Spain. Some historians have blamed Julius for allowing the Hapsburg’s to become entrenched in Italy but had Julius lived, he would have certainly sought to limit their powers. 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 also in 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 he was committed to reforming the Church. He was well aware that the Church was corrupt and he tried to reform it. Julius issued bulls (orders) that forbade simony, that is 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.

Julius II

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 had many achievements. It was his drive that formed an alliance, that curtailed the ambition of the Venetians when they were threatening to dominate Italy. This Pope 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 he achieved nothing, mainly because of his sudden death. Then there was the failure of the Holy League to expel the French 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 to the Hapsburg. In this way, he could have helped to prolong the Renaissance, which was arguably ultimately extinguished 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