It was not easy to be a citizen of Bologna in the early 1500s. A war for power and control raged between the ruling family of the town, the Bentivoglios, and papal forces led by Pope Julius II, who had come to power in 1503 worshiping the sword more than God.
As the city endured a tug-of-war between aristocratic tyranny and a marauding pope, there would seem to be very little choice for the ordinary people just trying to live their lives in Renaissance Italy.
But in 1511, they threw their lot in—at least for a brief time—with the devil they knew. When Annibale Bentivoglio II took Bologna back from Pope Julius II after a three year papal reign, he called on the citizens to carry out a symbolic show of victory.
They gathered in front of the Basilica of San Petronio and pulled down the 11-foot bronze statue of Julius II that was mounted on the facade. Lost in the flurry of destruction was the impact this act would have on the history of Renaissance art—the statue was one of the rare bronze masterpieces created by the one and only Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s association with Pope Julius II began almost as soon as the new pope took power. In 1505, the pope commissioned the sculptor to create his tomb. (Yes, it’s a little weird that the ruler of the Catholic kingdom immediately began considering his death upon his assent to the top position in the Holy See. Even some of his associates thought so.)
As the payments for the project began rolling in, Michelangelo set about planning the complex piece and sourcing marble to use that met his high standards. For eight months, he focused on these preparatory acts, which, even an artistic novice would concede, seem necessary. It was to be an immense undertaking, after all.
But his papal patron was not as impressed. Pope Julius II became furious that the artist was seemingly taking his money without producing any visible work.
It was not a good situation for Michelangelo to find himself in. It’s tough to contradict a powerful religious ruler, particularly one who was more concerned with conquering lands than conquering souls.
In just one example of Julius II’s aggressive reign, he allegedly dithered over whether to accept an offer of surrender from the town of Mirandola in 1510 after a successful siege. His problem with the terms of victory? He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to accept their clause that the citizen’s lives would be spared. This was a man of God who was not to be crossed.
So, faced with this impossible situation, Michelangelo decided his best option was to get out of Dodge. If the artist was in trouble before, he was even more so after the pope discovered that he had taken refuge in Florence. Three sternly worded letters were sent from Rome to the rulers of the northern city demanding that the pope’s artist be sent back.
Aware of this exchange, Michelangelo worried about what he should do. “It is said that, fearing the Pope’s wrath, he thought of going to Constantinople to serve the Turk,” Giorgio Vasari, the earliest chronicler of the Renaissance masters, wrote in The Lives of Artists.
Instead, he was convinced to travel to Bologna, newly conquered by Julius II, for something of a peace summit… or at least what the artist hoped would be a peace summit.
He arrived and went directly to the palace where the pope was enthroned. According to Vasari, “He knelt before the Pope, who looked wrathfully at him, and said as if in anger, ‘Instead of coming to us, you have waited for us to come and find you,’ inferring that Bologna is nearer Florence than Rome. Michelangelo spread his hands and humbly asked for pardon in a loud voice, saying he had acted in anger through being driven away, and that he hoped for forgiveness for his error.”
The pope at first didn’t seem inclined to accept this apology, but after a bishop spoke on the artist’s behalf and received a whack in the face by a mace-wielding pope in return, Julius II seemed to lighten up a bit.
The artist and his patron made up (there were gifts offered by the offending party, of course) and the pope commissioned a new piece on the spot. He wanted Michelangelo to make an 11-foot statue of him to be installed in Bologna, his latest conquest. Michelangelo agreed—what choice did he really have?—and even accepted the paltry 1,000 ducats that the pope offered to pay him for the work.
Over the next year and a half, Michelangelo labored in Bologna to create a papal masterpiece. It wasn’t easy going.
“I live here in the greatest discomfort, subject to the greatest anxieties, and do nothing but labour day and night,” the artist wrote to his brother in Florence on Nov. 10, 1507. “I have undergone and am undergoing so much strain that, if I were obliged to make another figure, I do not believe my life would suffice for it, as the undertaking has been one of enormous difficulty; had it been entrusted to anyone else it would have turned out a failure.”
But his not-so-humble efforts were a success. His completed clay model was approved by the pope, and the final decisions made.
When the artist asked Julius II whether he wanted a book placed in the figure’s left hand, signifying scholarship and intellect, the pope responded, “Give me a sword; I am not a man of letters.”
Michelangelo was ready to wrap the project up, but the final steps were slow-going. There was a first casting of the bronze that went awry. (“His failure has been costly to him as well as to me, for he has disgraced himself to such an extent that he dare not raise his eyes in Bologna,” the artist wrote of the man responsible for the mishap.)
Then there was the townspeople’s delay to mount the finished piece. (“I thought these people would place my statue in position directly it was finished. Now they are dilly-dallying with me and doing nothing with the statue, while I meanwhile have orders from the Pope not to go away before it is in position.”)
But the commission was finally completed and Michelangelo and Pope Julius II were officially reconciled. Less than three months after the statue had been put into place, the artist was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the works that would cement his legacy.
But things didn’t go quite so merrily along for the bronze pope. Only three years after the statue was completed, the Bentivoglio family staged their comeback. For a year, Annibale Bentivoglio II ruled his city once again, before the pope took back what he believed was his.
During that time, the citizens who had “dilly-dallied” the year before to mount the sculpture of their holy tyrant were all too happy to tear it down.
On the orders of Bentivoglio, they pulled Julius II from the basilica and sold the metal for scrap. Michelangelo’s sculpture became a canon in the arsenal of Duke Alfonso de Ferrara, although one that honored its origins by being nicknamed “Julius.”
Before his death in 1564, Michelangelo, decreed that many of his papers and drawings be destroyed in a bonfire. “Michelangelo believed sculpture to be the supreme art, followed by painting and architecture… in contrast, drawings served him merely as tools for preparing these and other monumental works,” Alan Riding wrote in The New York Times.
But when it came to his sculpture of Julius II, paper is all that is left. The only remaining trace of this Michelangelo bronze is a rough sketch in the Rothschild Codex of the facade of the Basilica of San Petronio, complete with its powerful pope.