The Warrior Pope was also the first patron of the Vatican Museums. Why would a pope want to make public the nude statues of pagan artists and the books of pagan thinkers?

Show Notes

Let’s keep Pope Julius II in mind and follow him from the church to which he was assigned as a Cardinal, San Pietro in Vincoli, to the Vatican Museums, which he founded in the very year in which he became pope, 1503. This will also give us a chance to get to know his uncle better, Pope Sixtus IV, who preceded Julius as a great patron of the arts and helped add to the vigor of the Roman Renaissance.

But I’d first like to suggest that, under the circumstances, it was even more radical for a pope to establish a museum than to wear armor and march into battle, as Julius did.

The Modern West loves museums, but this is not a characteristic shared by many pre-modern societies. Especially when museums intend to shine a light on different times, places, tastes, and ideas, and not merely reflect the reigning orthodoxy, they may seem superfluous or even threatening.  Why, if a society is trying to hold itself together in part by its ideas—and why especially if it believes those ideas to be important truths—should it welcome the art and other stimuli that are rooted in alien and possibly antithetical cultures? Why promote alien ideas rather than strengthen the vitality of home-grown beliefs? Why not turn museums into mosques, for example, as the Erdoğan [Erd’ o wan] regime did in Turkey did last year with the Hagia Sophia and the Kariye Museum?

For this and other reasons, including obvious economic ones, there have not always been museums. Once it was legalized by Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church always promoted Christian art as an aid to faith, but it did not show off the art of pre- and non-Christian worlds, just as it generally did not promote the study of the old philosophers. To the contrary, the Roman Empire under its first Christian rulers often suppressed pagan art and books as a threat to the new official faith of the Empire.

It is impossible to know exactly what happened to each of the many old temples, shrines, and libraries of the pagan Roman Empire, and I need to take up the several general reasons for their disappearance more systematically later. But cultural cancellation is part of the story. The details in Rome are murkier than they are in Alexandria and Ephesus, but such scholars as Kenneth Harl and Ramsay MacMullen document the considerable violence the early Christian emperors used or allowed against both man and building in the effort to raze and destroy the pagan error. Pending a more focused treatment of the issue, we can say at least that the early Christian emperors were not opening museums to show off pagan art or libraries to preserve the works of the best thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. To the contrary!

Lauretti, The Triumph of Christianity (Charlie Photo)

One thing that makes me confident in saying that at least a hefty part of the destruction of ancient shrines, temples, and books came as the result of religious zeal and religious policy is that some of those responsible proudly took credit for the destruction they caused. Those confident they are doing God’s work or cleansing a systemic error, are proud of their efforts and do not hide them. An artistic illustration of this is in a fresco on the ceiling of the Room of Constantine, one of the four great Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. It represents Christ on the Cross looking down at a smashed statue of Hermes. For another kind of example, take a look at a fascinating exchange on the question of what to do with the altar and statue of Nike, which had stood in the Roman Senate House for four centuries. Just do a google search for “Nike statue in Roman Senate.” You will find that St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, won the debate, and the statue was pulled down.

In view of the open hostility of influential early Christians toward pagan art and books, it is striking that it was Catholic Rome that, as best as I can determine, opened the very first museums in the West to feature pagan art. First came the Capitoline Museums, and then, soon after, the Vatican Museum. And if you should ask yourself when this happened, I’m sure you would say, correctly, “the Renaissance.” If there was an open culture war between pagan and Christian in the fourth and fifth centuries, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Catholic Church had mostly reversed course and supported a dramatic rebirth of interest in the art and writings of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Christ Giving the Keys to Peter by Perugino (Charlie Photo)

It did this especially under the leadership of Team della Rovere, the uncle and nephew from the della Rovere family who became Popes Sixtus IV and Julius II. To get the Capitoline Museum started, Sixtus donated several of the bronze statues for which the museum is still known, and he housed them in the palazzo on the right of the piazza that greets you when you ascend the grand staircase Michelangelo designed a century later. Sixtus also had the Sistine Chapel built—“Sistine” is an adjective from “Sixtus”—and he brought in great Renaissance artists to decorate its side walls, including Botticelli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio. He also was the official founder of the Vatican Library, which like the libraries that Augustus and Trajan established in Ancient Rome, had separate rooms for texts in Greek and Latin. In fact, his several building projects in Rome led to his being celebrated as the new Augustus: he was said to be turning Rome from brick to marble just as his ancient pagan predecessor had done. It was not only artists and poets who were taking their inspiration from ancient models: even some of the popes were doing it in the way they ruled.

The Apollo Belevdere (Charlie Photo)

Sixtus’ nephew Julius started the Vatican Museums, which he did by bringing in what are still the museum’s most admired

Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museums (CC BY-SA 4.0)

statues, the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, among others. It took a long time for the Capitoline and Vatican museums to acquire anything like their current size, but Team della Rovere took a decisive step in the direction of honoring the great art and books of pagan antiquity.

Introducing another colorful character will help to demonstrate the touchiness of this dramatic change. I mean Savonarola, the wild monk whose remarkable career came to an end just five years before Julius became pope. He was a Dominican Monk who helped to drive the powerful Medici family out of Florence, and he then ruled the city himself for four years. From this lofty position he extended his direct attacks on everything that could distract his subjects from their duties to God. This included dice, playing cards, fancy clothes, mirrors, luxuries, great art, and even the pope at the time, whose corruption he pointed out. This was Alexander VI, who made an easy target, and he responded by excommunicating the monk.

Savonarola was so persuasive that he even succeeded in getting people to pile up their distracting or immoral possessions and put a match to them, even to ones of considerable value. Of course, he did not persuade everyone, but among the persuaded were bullies happy to intimidate others into throwing their possessions on such so-called “bonfires of vanities.” According to Vasari, the biographer of the great Renaissance artists, Botticelli was so drawn by Savonarola that he gave up painting. In short, when Team della Rovere acted to give the ancient Muses and their devotees an honored place in Rome, they were taking a big step in a new direction, and it was not without opposition. Nor is such genuine cultural openness easily achieved even today.

Now that we have acknowledged two popes for having begun Rome’s Capitoline and Vatican Museums, including the Vatican Library, let’s take a look at what’s in the Vatican Museums. I’ll of course pay special attention to the contributions of Pope Julius II, who today we’ll call the Patron Pope instead of the Warrior Pope.

Plan of the Vatican Museums: A long rectangle on two levels plus a newish picture gallery

Before he and his successors could fill the Vatican Museums with art, a structure had to be built to hold the collection. Our man Julius turned again to Bramante, who also designed war machines and a new St. Peter’s for him, and the result was the largest building built since the huge baths of the Ancient Romans. Simply summarized, it is a rectangle formed by two long, parallel, multilevel corridors that connect two preexisting structures. At the southern end of the corridors is the old Vatican palace of the popes, including the then recently built Sistine Chapel and soon-to-be decorated Raphael Rooms. At the northern end there was a papal retreat on a little hill called the Belvedere, which means “place with a beautiful view,” which is now divided into rooms packed especially with ancient sculpture. Two transverse buildings cut across this large rectangle, thus dividing its interior into three courtyards. To the north is the Cortile della Pigna, or “Pinecone.”  To the south is the Cortile del Belvedere, and the smaller Cortile della Biblioteca, or “Library,” is in the center. Further defining characteristics of the vast space include a tall half-dome or niche, which surrounds the pinecone, and there used to be gardens, terraces, and a theater.

The huge pinecone, which had previously stood for centuries in the atrium of the Old Basilica of St. Peter, has been somewhat eclipsed in recent decades by a large bronze rotating sphere in the center of the Courtyard of the Pinecone. I mention it because it is one of the very few prominent contemporary works in the Museums, and it’s also a useful landmark for getting your bearings. It is called “Sfera con sfera” (“Sphere Within a Sphere”), and the artist says it symbolizes the complexity and fragility of the modern world.

The large rectangle of the Vatican Museums is today divided into 25 distinct museums, and a typical tour marches you through many of them, which vary greatly in size and quality. The most famous of these, the Sistine Chapel, is not merely a museum: it is also a chapel and a voting place for the College of Cardinals. The four Raphael Rooms are probably the second best-known part of the Vatican Museums. Remarkably, these were painted in fresco during and soon after the time Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and their combined size approaches that of the Chapel, as does their excellence.

Raphael, School of Athens (Charlie Photo)

These top two attractions of the Museums owe much to the Patron Pope: he first bullied Michelangelo into undertaking the painting of the Sistine Ceiling, and he then brought in the great artists, especially Raphael, who so beautifully frescoed the walls and ceilings of four large rooms in the Vatican. He did not commission Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel: that was not begun until almost twenty-five years after his death. And he did not live to see the completion of the Raphael Rooms. But if you ever need to explain that human beings can be complicated mixtures of seemingly contradictory qualities, and that the presence of even an offensive vice should not blind us to the presence of other impressive qualities, the Warrior Pope, who was also the Patron Pope, can help illustrate your case.

Julius’s first contributions to the new museum form the core of its next most admired part. It is the large collection of classical sculpture in the several rooms now called the Pio-Clementine Museum, whose two most famous pieces are the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. The Apollo seems to have been rediscovered about fifteen years before Julius became pope. The pope gained possession of it, and the excitement it caused may have helped Julius decide to open it to public view. Then in the third year of his reign, the Laocoön was pulled up out of the ground near the Colosseum, and Michelangelo was among the artists who rushed to see it. It’s easy to see its influence on his powerful torsos. Julius acquired it and added it to his new museum.

The other great repository of classical sculpture in the Museums is the Chiaramonti Museum and the connected Braccio Nuovo. The latter includes the most famous statue of the Emperor Augustus, as well as thousands of other pieces, including busts, full statues, and pagan gods and altars for sacrificing to them.

So, for frescoes, we have the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. For sculpture, it’s the Pio-Clementine, the Chiarimonti, and the Braccio Nuovo museums. Next in order of importance is the Pinacoteca, which simply means the “Picture Gallery.” It is eighteen rooms, some small, whose art is arranged in chronological order from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It not only includes work by such great artists as Giotto, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, and Caravaggio, but it’s arrangement also helps you see some of the general changes that took place during the centuries represented. The location of the Pinacoteca makes it suitable for a last stop, since it is in a new addition set apart from the other museums I’ve mentioned, and it’s also near the snack bar, to which I retreat to gain a second wind after several hours of looking at art.

The five museums I’ve just listed include about 35 rooms, hundreds of painted figures, and thousands of sculptures, but someone might complain that I have not mentioned the Hall of Maps, which I always enjoy, or Etruscan Museum, which is large. But a little focus has advantages too, if one can really speak of “focusing” when I’ve just mentioned 5 museums with 35 rooms, so I’m going to leave it at this for today’s overview. I’ll come back to the main contents of these rooms in subsequent pods.

And if time permits and my strength holds out, we will one day visit the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where the influence of Julius II was also at work. He had Bramante design the apse and Pinturicchio paint it, and he had Andrea Sansovinio carve the tombs. For the stained glass he brought in a French artist, which makes it some of the best glass in Rome.

Socrates once said that human ills would not end until the most powerful people became wise, which he knew would never happen. But Julius shows that on rare occasions, the power to promote great art could be combined with the taste and judgment needed to recognize it.

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