As both a pope and a man, Julius had many faults. He was impetuous—“so impetuous,” wrote the contemporary historian Francesco Guicciardini, “that he would have been brought to ruin had he not been helped by the reverence felt for the Church, the discord of the princes and the condition of the times”—mercurial, vindictive, a poor organizer, and a deplorable judge of character. Though an adept diplomatic tactician, he had little sense of long-term strategy. Eaten up by worldly ambition, he was utterly unscrupulous in the pursuit of his ends. Certain qualities, however, he possessed in full measure. One was courage; another was indomitability of spirit. On his journey back to Rome, at the age of nearly seventy, he was already contemplating a new league, headed by himself and comprising Venice, Spain, England, and if possible the empire, whose combined forces would drive the French once and for all from the Italian Peninsula; and by the beginning of July negotiations had begun.
These presented no serious problems. Ferdinand of Spain had already gained all he could have hoped for from the League of Cambrai and had no desire to see any further strengthening of the French position in Italy. In England, Ferdinand’s son-in-law Henry VIII willingly agreed to keep his rival occupied in the North while his allies did the same in the South—although he was obliged to point out to the pope, while accepting his proposals, that it would have been better if they had not been carried by an obvious double agent (recommended, it appears, by the late Cardinal Alidosi), who was regularly reporting all developments to King Louis. Venice, which throughout the negotiations was fighting hard—and on the whole successfully—to resist French offensives in the Veneto and Friuli, asked nothing better. Maximilian, as usual, dithered; but even without him, the new league promised to be a force to be reckoned with.
One reason, apart from his natural temperament, for the emperor’s ambivalent attitude was the proposed Church Council at Pisa which he and King Louis had jointly sponsored. Already Louis was beginning to regret the idea, and support for it was rapidly falling away. After two short sessions, local hostility was to force its removal to Milan; and there, although under French protection, it was openly ridiculed to the point where a local chronicler forbore to record its proceedings because, he claimed, they could not be taken seriously and anyway he was short of ink.
Meanwhile the pope, having almost miraculously recovered from an illness during which his life had been despaired of, was able to proclaim the Holy League on October 4 and begin preparations for war. He soon found, however, that King Louis also held an important new card in his hand: his nephew Gaston de Foix, Duc de Nemours, who at the age of twenty-two had already proved himself one of the outstanding military commanders of the day. Courageous, imaginative, and resourceful, this astonishing young man could make a decision in an instant and, having taken it, could move an army like lightning. A dash from Milan in early February 1512 was enough to thwart an attempt by a papal army to recover Bologna; unfortunately, it also suggested to the citizens of Bergamo and Brescia that with the French forces away on campaign this was an opportune moment to rise in revolt and return to their old Venetian allegiance. They were quickly proved wrong. Marching night and day in bitter weather—and incidentally, smashing a Venetian division which tried to intercept him in a battle fought by moonlight at four in the morning—Nemours was at the walls of Brescia before the defenses could be properly manned, and he and his friend Bayard led the assault, fighting barefoot to give themselves a better grip on the sloping, slippery ground. Brescia was taken by storm, the leader of the revolt was publicly beheaded in the main square, and the whole city was given over to five days’ sack, during which the French and German troops fell on the local inhabitants, killing and raping with appalling savagery. It was another three days before the 15,000 corpses could be cleared from the streets. Bergamo hastily paid 60,000 ducats to escape a similar fate, and the revolt was at an end.
The campaign, however, was not. Nemours, determined to give his enemies no rest, returned to Milan to gather fresh troops and then immediately took the field again. With an army that now amounted to some 25,000, he marched on Ravenna and laid siege to the town. As a means of drawing out the papal army, the move was bound to succeed. Its commander, the Spanish viceroy in Naples, Ramón de Cardona, could not allow a city of such importance to be captured under his nose without lifting a finger to save it. And so on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1512, on the flat, marshy plain below the city, the battle was joined.
Of all the encounters recorded in Italy since Charles VIII had taken his first, fateful decision to establish a French presence in the peninsula nearly twenty years before, the Battle of Ravenna was the bloodiest. When at last the papalists fled from the field they left behind them nearly 10,000 Spanish and Italian dead. Several of the leading Spanish captains, some of them seriously wounded, were in French hands, as was the papal legate, Cardinal de’ Medici. Ramón de Cardona himself, who had taken flight rather earlier in the day—he is said not to have drawn rein until he reached Ancona—was one of the few to survive unharmed. But it had been a Pyrrhic victory. The French losses had also been considerable, and, worst of all, Nemours himself had fallen at the moment of triumph, in a characteristically impetuous attempt to head off the Spanish retreat. His place was taken by the elderly Seigneur Jacques de La Palice, who was possessed of none of his speed or panache. Had the young man lived, he would probably have rallied what was left of the army and marched on Rome and Naples, forcing Julius to come to terms; but La Palice was cast in a more cautious mold. He contented himself with occupying Ravenna, where he was unable to prevent an orgy of butchery and rape which surpassed even that suffered by the Brescians a few weeks before.
Now there suddenly occurred one of those extraordinary changes of political fortune which render Italian history as confusing to the reader as it is infuriating to the writer. When the news of Ravenna reached him, Julius, foreseeing an immediate French advance on Rome, prepared for flight. Just before he was due to leave, however, he received a letter from his captive legate, whom La Palice had unwisely permitted to correspond with his master. The French, wrote Cardinal de’ Medici, had suffered losses almost as great as those of the League; they were tired and deeply demoralized by the death of their young leader; their general was refusing to move without receiving instructions and confirmation of his authority from France. At about the same time the Venetian ambassador in Rome sought an audience with the pope to assure him that, contrary to widespread rumors, the republic had not accepted any French proposals for a separate peace and had no intention of doing so.
At once Julius took new courage. Overpowered, at least temporarily, in the military field, he flung all his energies into the Church Council that he had summoned for May 1512. This had now become more necessary than ever, since King Louis’s renegade Council of Milan had taken advantage of the victory of Ravenna to declare the pope contumacious and suspend him from office. It was true that even in Milan itself few people took the findings of so transparently political a body very seriously; nonetheless, this open split in the Church could not be allowed to go unchecked or unanswered. On May 2, with all the state ceremonial of which the papal court was capable, the Supreme Pontiff was borne in his litter to the Lateran, followed by fifteen cardinals, twelve patriarchs, ten archbishops, fifty-seven bishops, and three heads of monastic orders: a hierarchical show of strength that made the handful of rebels in Milan seem almost beneath notice, precisely as it was intended to do. At its second session this Lateran Council formally declared the proceedings of the Council of Pisa/Milan null and void and all those who had taken part in it schismatics.
On that very same day Pope Julius also proclaimed the adhesion of the Emperor Maximilian to the Holy League, and Maximilian now gave orders that all subjects of the empire fighting with the French army should immediately return to their homes on pain of death. To La Palice, this was disastrous news. He had already suffered a serious depletion of his French troops, most of whom had been recalled to deal with the impending invasion of Henry VIII in the north; the precipitate departure of his German mercenaries now left him in the ridiculous position of a general without an army—or at least without any force capable of holding the Swiss and Venetians whom he suddenly found ranged against him. Meanwhile, the Spanish and papal forces were also back in the field and, although only a shadow of what they had been before their recent defeat, were able to advance virtually unopposed on all fronts. By the beginning of July the pope had not only regained all his territories but had even extended them to include Reggio Emilia, Parma, and Piacenza. La Palice, with what was left of his army, had no choice but to return to France, where Louis XII, who only three months before might have had the entire peninsula within his power, now saw all his hopes annihilated.
Pope Julius II died on February 21, 1513, of a fever, probably brought on by the syphilis from which he had suffered for many years. There had been little of the priest about him apart from his dress and his name. His pontificate had been dominated by politics and by war; his strictly ecclesiastical activities had been largely confined to routine matters, though it was he who had issued the fateful dispensation which authorized Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother, Arthur.
By far Julius’s most important legacy was as a patron of the arts. He had a passion for classical statuary, enriching the Vatican collections with masterpieces such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön. (The latter had been accidentally unearthed in 1506 by a man digging in his vine yard.) But he is nowadays chiefly remembered for his decision to replace the old Basilica of St. Peter with a new building, infinitely more magnificent than its predecessor. The plans for this he eventually entrusted to Donato Bramante,5 who, abandoning his original design for a Greek cross-in-square church with the tomb of St. Peter directly beneath a vast dome, eventually decided on a more traditional Latin basilica with nave and aisles, together with a portico derived from the Pantheon. Away went the ancient mosaics, the icons, the huge medieval candelabra; it was not long before the architect had acquired a new nickname, Il Ruinante. The work on St. Peter’s alone would have kept him fully employed for the rest of his life, but Julius also made him responsible for a radical redesign of the Vatican Gardens.
The pope also gave encouragement and employment to the twenty-six-year-old Raphael, whom he commissioned to fresco his own apartments—he refused absolutely to inhabit those of the hated Alexander—and to Michelangelo, whom, as we know, he had to bully mercilessly (“I’m a sculptor, not a painter,” the artist protested) into painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It has been suggested that, despite the bullying, the two men were lovers. Both, certainly, were homosexual, and Julius, although he had engendered three daughters while still a cardinal, was widely accused of sodomy. On the whole, the idea seems improbable; but we shall never know.
Excessive modesty was never one of the failings of Pope Julius II, and as early as 1505 he also commissioned Michelangelo to design his tomb. This was originally intended to stand thirty-six feet high and to contain forty statues, all of them over life size; according to Vasari, the principal reason for his decision to rebuild St. Peter’s was in order to provide suitable accommodation for it. Unfortunately, the money ran out and the project had to be radically revised. A far more modest version can now be seen in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome; but Julius was actually buried in what there was of his new St. Peter’s—as, doubtless, he would have wished.