Some of the greatest works of art ever created were not entirely the inspiration of the artists usually credited with making them but that of others--great leaders, great thinkers, men and women of great wealth. Sometimes these individuals have a footnote in the story surrounding the great work of art. And sometimes, they're all but unknown. Did you ever wonder whose idea it was to have Leonardo paint his Last Supper? Who was the heroic model for Michelangelo's David? Who commissioned Picasso to paint Guernica? Sometimes however, the force behind the artist is almost as much a part of the work as the artist himself. An interesting case in point would be Giulano della Rovere. He was born in 1443 in Albrissola in Italy. His family was poor. As a teenager, he became a Franciscan. A bright, feisty, energetic, young man, he embraced the church with both his intellect and his own dynamic personality, making the most of one of the few pathways to a better life during the fifteenth century. In 1471, his fortunes made a dramatic improvement. His uncle, Francesco della Rovere, was elected Pope!
As popes go, Uncle Francesco wasn't much of a pope. Taking on the name, Sixtus IV, he built a bridge across the Tiber connecting the Vatican to greater Rome (not that the city was very "great" at the time). He also built the Sistine chapel--a crude, ungainly structure, as much a fortress as a church. On the negative side, he might be said to have given nepotism a bad name. He made quite a number of Rovere relatives into cardinals; and invited them to Rome where, for the most part, they did little more than feast on church wealth and dabble in church politics. Giulano, at the age of 28, was one of these new young Cardinals. However when it came to church politics, he was much more than just a dabbler. He became a powerful force to be reckoned with. During the next 22 years, he was almost elected pope twice himself before finally succeeding to the office in 1503. He chose the name, Julius II. And neither art, nor the Catholic Church, has been the same since.
Julius II is often known as the "warrior pope" and it's a distinction well taken. During his ten-year papacy his various military endeavours on behalf of the Papal States nearly bankrupt the church. However it was just this militant side of his character that was responsible for marshalling the efforts of three of the greatest artistic geniuses in the history of art--Bramante the architect, Michelangelo the sculptor, and Raphael the painter. Along with Bramante, he took the dramatic step of ordering up a new church, literally built around and over top of the old St. Peter's Basilica. Along with Michelangelo, in one of the most grandiose gestures of egotism in the history of art, he planned his own tomb, to be the centrepiece of this new church, centred under the magnificent dome; a massive rectilinear pyramid to have had some forty sculptural works crawling all over its surface. And with Raphael, he conspired to implant a new humanism in the painted decoration of the walls of his magnificent new church. Not everything turned out as he planned of course. The church wasn't finished (much less decorated) until 130 years after his death. His magnificent tomb ended up being merely a wall ornament in an obscure church on the far side of Rome. (They did come up with some fairly impressive ceiling decorations however.) And both Julius and Raphael died before they could do much more than unleash their combined inspiration on the wall plaster of the papal apartment. But whatever might be said regarding his tyrannical tactics or his magnified ego, Julius II must be accorded his place as one of the greatest creative forces in the history of art.