Why Pope Julius II May Be the Most Important Pope in History

Even though Pope Julius II was only Pope for ten years between 1503 to 1513, it is still incredible to see the influence that his papacy still has in the Vatican today. The 216th Pope is truly one to remember.

He was born Giuliano della Rovere in 1443 in Genoa, Italy and died at the age of 69 in 1513. Once elected to that Papacy, he took the name Julius after the Roman dictator Julius Caesar.

His first ambition was to regain lost Papal lands which he succeeded in doing and which in turn made him one of the most powerful men in the world. In the fight for the territory, Pope Julius II would even be present at the battlefields to join the struggle for Papal lands. This battlefield role would be unheard of today but earned him a few nicknames, including the Warrior Pope and the Terrible Pope (due to his famous bad temper).

Of the 266 Popes we have had since the first Pope, St. Peter, to our current Pope, Francis, the fights and battles were just a small part of what made Pope Julius II such an important Pope. Below are some of his most important achievements in his decade as Pope.

History of Pope Julius II

Establishing the Swiss Guards

Because the Vatican is its own country, the Vatican has its own military. They protect the Vatican and the Pope. They are officially the smallest army in the world with just 110 soldiers. They are also the oldest army in the world. They were established in the Vatican in 1506 under Pope Julius II. Legend even has it that the designer of their uniforms was Michelangelo who was working on Pope Julius II’s tomb at the time, although many scholars believe this to be untrue. However, they still protect the Popes to this day wearing a very Renaissance-style uniform.

Commissioning the Raphael Rooms

Pope Julius II was also responsible for bringing Raphael to work in the Vatican. The artist who was born in Urbino in 1483 died at the young age of 37 on his birthday, April 6th, 1529. Raphael moved to Rome in 1508 and was even originally asked to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but he refused. He was then given the task to paint the Borgia apartments in the Vatican which are today called the Raphael Rooms. The most famous of these frescoes is called The School Of Athens which is one of the most important attractions inside the Vatican museums today.

Hiring Michelangelo to Design the Tomb for Pope Julius II

Pope Julius II was also responsible for commissioning Michelangelo to carve one of his all-time most famous statues, a Statue of Moses for the tomb of the Pope. This was, without doubt, the most time consuming of all Michelangelo’s works and took him almost his entire life. (And Michelangelo lived a long life, dying at the age of 88). The tomb can be still seen today in Rome at the church of St. Peter in Chains close to the Colosseum. 

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo

The Sistine Chapel was built by Pope Julius II’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV. Pope Julius II ordered the whole ceiling to be fresco painted. After originally asking Raphael and being turned down, it was suggested that the Florentine artist, Michelangelo paint the ceiling. Michelangelo was not happy with this as he said he was a sculpture and not a painter and he was also busy working on the Pope’s tomb. The ceiling tells the story from the Old Testament in the Bible and was begun in 1508 and completed in 1512, one year before the Pope’s death.

sistine chapel ceiling

Founding the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are probably the most famous museums in the world. They were founded by Pope Julius II around 1506. One of the reasons for the opening of the museums was that the public could view a recently found statue of the Laocoon. The Pope believed it to be so beautiful that after purchasing it he wanted the public also to have access to view it. The Laocoon can still be viewed within the museums along with many other ancient artworks collected by Pope Julius and many Popes after.

woman dressed for the vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica as it Looks Today

Pope Julius II is responsible for rebuilding St Peter’s Basilica as we know it today. St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is officially the second biggest church in the world and is the burial site for a number of the 265 former Popes, including St. Peter, whose bones are said to be buried underneath the main altar (you can still take a tour today called the Scavi tour to view these bones). In fact, there was an original old St Peter’s Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine way back between 320 and 330AD. However, it looked very different after Pope Julius II had his way. The Pope had the architect Bramante redesign the whole Basilica as we know it today. Unfortunately, he never saw it completed as the work was barely begun by the time of the Pope’s death.

long shot of st peter's square

The Subject of Raphael’s Most Famous Portrait

Towards the end of Pope Julius II’s life, the Pope sat for Raphael. The portrait today can be seen in the National Gallery in London but a copy of the painting can be seen in Galleria Borghese in Rome, one of the most famous galleries in the world. Many artists were so influenced by this incredible portrait of such a fragile and sick man. The most important of these artists was Diego Velasquez, who went on to create the greatest portrait of Pope Innocent X, which today is in the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome.