Pope Julius II (on a coin, above, left) was Michelangelo’s greatest patron. He had waited years to become pope, politicking around, pulling all the strings, bribing cardinals for their vote, bearing arms even. He spent ten years outside of Italy, in exile, doing all he could to get that Spaniard Borgia off the papal throne.
He and Borgia understood each other perfectly: they were two of a kind. Both had had uncle popes who favored them, brought them to Rome, made rich princes out of them and introduced them to the power game.
Julius was rich, though he had started out as poor as a monk. In fact, he had started out as a monk. Luck had it, if there is luck, that his uncle had become pope when Julius was twenty. And right away the uncle, Sixtus IV, made the lad a cardinal and gave him a few bishoprics—six in France and three in Italy, plus some juicy abbeys and other church rents—so he might live as befits a cardinal, a Renaissance cardinal. Sixtus called the boy to Rome and taught him how to rule. He also told him to get an army together and battle a little for the papacy. Julius turned out to be not just good but brilliant at all these skills and he became the Pope’s confidant.
By the time his uncle died, Julius had learned what could be done at the top and he naturally wanted to try his hand. He knew he didn’t yet have the clout to become pope himself so he tried the next best thing: to get a man elected who would follow his advice. At that he succeeded: Innocent VIII became pope and Julius did the actual ruling for him. When Innocent died, in spite of all Julius’ politicking and pressuring and bribing, his arch-enemy Rodrigo Borja (Borgia, as he was called in Italy) was elected and Julius was in for several years of hard times and exile.
Borgia died finally, and suddenly, and Julius came running to Rome for the enclave. But again, the third time, he didn’t have his way. Borgia had stacked the College of Cardinals with his own kind (and kin), and there was a Medici in the running too. For days the cardinals couldn’t decide on a pope and finally elected an old cardinal by the name of Piccolomini (Pius III). He died twenty-seven days later.
This time Julius had his way with the cardinals. He was elected pope and right away started carrying out plans he knew so well he didn’t even have to write them down. He was going to get back for the papacy the pieces of Italy Borgia had let go and drive out all the foreign powers. He was going to rebuild St. Peter’s and make it the greatest temple in the world. Of course it would house his tomb. He would make some kind of monument to his Uncle Sixtus [the Sistine Chapel]. They told him about a Florentine sculptor named Michelangelo Buonarroti.