The Working Relationship Between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo

Topics: Michelangelo

Michelangelo and the Pope

The relationship between patron and artist in the time of the Renaissance was, in essence, the driving force of the Renaissance itself. Rich men and women paid artists for their work, and in return the artists produced a piece or several pieces that otherwise would not have existed. In the case of the Warrior Pope and Michelangelo, the relationship was often times rocky and not always exactly as either of them thought it would turn out, but in the end, the works commissioned by Pope Julius II from Michelangelo are some of the most well-known pieces of the Renaissance era.

Soon after Michelangelo had finished his sculpture the David, he was called to Rome by the pope for a very important commission—the carving of his tomb. As a sculptor very much in love with his trade (and perhaps a bit more in love with the idea of making a Vatican-sized amount of money)

Michelangelo left for Rome and dropped all other projects in order to start planning the layout of the tomb.

Michelangelo immediately began devoting all his time to sketching the forty sculptures to decorate the tomb and bringing all the required marble to Rome from Carrara, spending eight months in the city choosing the most appropriate blocks of white stone. “In spite of several mishaps in transit-one of his cargo boats ran aground in the Tiber, and several others were swamped when the river flooded—by the start of 1506 he had transported more than ninety wagonloads” from the town where he had also gotten the marble for the Pieta and the David.

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After all this planning and time put into the project, however, the pope abruptly put the building of his tomb on hold when the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica was made necessary, and more immediately so than the project Michelangelo had been so enthusiastic about.

“Overwhelmed with despair,” Michelangelo left Rome when the pope would not see the commission started, vowing never to return to the city. The pope’s brand new project was headed by Bramante, an architect who dealt mainly with military projects but was now set on rebuilding the holiest of Rome’s churches. Bramante was seen by Michelangelo later as his greatest enemy, mainly for three transgressions: talking the pope out of the building of his tomb, talking the pope into commissioning Michelangelo for the frescoing of the vault of St. Peter’s, and attempting to get the pope to give the commission to Raphael of Urbino after seeing Michelangelo’s success at a task he had deemed impossible for the sculptor. Because of the patron-artist relationship between the pope and Bramante, and the length of that relationship with Bramante building quite a few contraptions for the Warrior Pope, his word was taken by the pope when he suggested that Michelangelo, instead of carving the pope’s tomb, should undertake the most difficult task known to any artist—the “man’s art” of frescoing.

Michelangelo had only ever attempted one other fresco before this grand task was placed before him, and even though it was a chance to pit himself against the Renaissance man himself, it was not completed. With just the attempted (and abandoned) Battle of Cascina under his belt as “experience” with the medium, it would have made sense for the artist to listen to and stick with plans that had already been set in place for the fresco. However, with the current plan having been created by Bramante and focusing majorly on a geometric pattern, it is understandable why he would want to start fresh. The pope originally wished to paint twelve apostles within the geometric pattern Bramante proposed. Michelangelo, with a stubborn attitude able to match even il papa terribile’s, was able to talk the pope out of the plan enough to have him abandon Bramante’s design entirely, which allowed him total free reign over the piece—an unusual but not entirely impossible instance when it came to patrons and their commissioned works of art. This showed that Pope Julius II had faith in Michelangelo, despite the fact that Bramante most assuredly did not.

Along with reworking the idea of twelve apostles into including a few mythological beings, Michelangelo made sure to also paint tributes to the Rovere family, which were present in oak twigs and and trees and acorns held by figures within the fresco. Despite the fact that Michelangelo oftentimes disagreed strongly with the pope’s plans and frequent wars—sometimes for the plain fact that it was hindering him from getting his payment for his work—this was common for most Renaissance artists, since their patrons were, after all, paying them to create the piece. With as much work and time Michelangelo put into the Sistine Chapel, though, it was understandable when he behaved in the antisocial, sour manner he had, even towards the pope. Julius II was not called il papa terribilie for nothing, however, and throughout the four years the two men often bumped heads.

During his time painting, Michelangelo often did as much as he could to make sure no one, not even the pope who was paying for the fresco, was allowed onto the scaffold hanging within the chapel. The stubborn and persistent attitudes present in both men -and exemplified by Michelangelo’s pestering for more money to the point of following Julius II toward war and the pope growing a beard in protest of French occupation in Italy—made for an interested handful of years, dotted and dashed with many letters home from Michelangelo complaining and whining about everything from the pope to his house to his assistants. Although Pope Julius II was not one to be crossed, Michelangelo definitely had a temper of his own that would flair up when things did not go his way.

With the art of fresco being the most difficult by far of the Renaissance, and the fact that Michelangelo was a skilled sculptor but definitely not a skilled frescoist, it is most impressive that the fresco was in fact finished and acceptable. The reveal of the fresco was an attraction to pilgrims and art enthusiasts alike, and finally after its completion, Michelangelo got to finally work on the job he had originally been called to Rome for, the carving of the pope’s tomb, and with good reason, since the pope died soon after the completion of the fresco, but not before Michelangelo got the money for his work out of him. The relationship between the two men was often argumentative and bitter, but over anything else, bound by art and the love of it. At the end of the day, the Warrior Pope wanted to honor his God (and his time as pope) with a piece of art unlike any other, and Michelangelo did more than deliver on that front.

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The Working Relationship Between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo. (2022, Mar 07). Retrieved from

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