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October 20, 2020

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War and the Muses - Michelangelo’s Bronze Statue of Pope Julius II

A lost bronze statue of Pope Julius II by none other than Michelangelo has a curious military history. How this came to be is a part of the convoluted politics of Renaissance Italy.

Pope Julius II (1503-13) was one of the most aggressive men ever to hold the See of Peter. A determined reformer, Julius set out to set to assert the rights and power of the Church in Italy, where much of the vast lands of the Papal States were actually held by various princely families. Among these families were the Bentivoglio, who had held Bologna for more than a century. In 1506 Julius captured Bologna.

Having captured the city, Julius decided that it needed an heroic statue of himself to remind the Bolognese who was boss. And he decided that Michelangelo was the just the man to make it. At the time, Michelangelo was working in Florence. Now Julius and Michelangelo had quarreled bitterly over a previous commission, the papal tomb. So Michelangelo was not inclined to respond to the Pope’s call, nor were the Florentines willing to let him go, fearing for his safety. But the Pope pressed the issue, saying all was forgiven, and Michelangelo relented, while the Florentines tried to insure his safety by making him their ambassador to the Holy See.

Arriving in Bologna, Michelangelo was startled to discover that the proposed commission was to create an heroic bronze statue of Julius. Now bronze wasn’t Michelangelo’s medium, it was marble. But the Pope insisted, and Michelangelo acceded. In addition to paying the artist a princely sum, the Pope thoughtfully donated the town’s church bells to Michelangelo for use as raw materials.

Michelangelo made a clay model showing the Julius sitting on a throne. In the words of the near contemporary art historian Giorgio Vasari,

When the clay model was almost finished, the Pope went to see it before he left Bologna. The Pope said he could not tell whether the figure was blessing or anathematizing the people of Bologna. Michelangelo replied that the figure was warning the people to behave themselves.

“Should I put a book in the left hand?” Michelangelo asked.

“Put a sword,” said the Pope. “I don’t know much about books.”

After the Pope returned to Rome, Michelangelo put the keys of St. Peter in the figure’s left hand.

Michelangelo spent 18 months working on the statue. It was enormous; three times life size, the seated figure was fully ten feet tall. But there were problems, caused largely by the fact that Michelangelo had never worked in bronze before. He was using the “lost wax” process. This involves building a solid core of hard clay, which is then covered with a layer of wax. The artist sculpts the wax. When finished, the wax is covered by more clay. Molten bronze is carefully poured so as to displace the wax, which escapes through tiny vents left for the purpose. When the bronze has cooled, the slay is broken away, and the result is a bronze surface which includes all the details left in the wax. Assuming everything goes right. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, his lack of experience with the medium left the bronze surface rather irregular, and finishing the statue required a lot of filing down and fining. Finally, in 1508 the statue was installed in the church of San Petronio in Bologna. It remained there on display for barely three years.

Although by any logical criteria Julius’ capture of the Bologna had liberated it from an oppressive regime, the Bolognese greatly resented their loss of “independence.” As soon as the opportunity arose, in 1511, they chucked the papal garrison out, with some help of a French Army. They pulled down Michelangelo’s great bronze of the Pope, hauled it around the piazza, abused it a good deal, and finally turned the metal over to, Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferarra (1476–1534), a noted artilleryman, widely known by the nickname “Il Bombardiere – the Bombardier.”

Perhaps because he lacked fine artistic sensibilities or perhaps because he desperately needed the bronze, Alfonso had the statue melted down and used to make a great cannon, which he mischieviously named “Giulia.” He seems to have done this to stick it to the Pope, because, you see, Alfonso was married to Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of one Julius' greatest enemies, the late Pope Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503).

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