Comment Opinion & Features

A terrible pope but a patron of genius

Raphael's portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals

Pope Julius II, the “Warrior Pope”, was the most successful – and fortunate – artistic patron of the High Renaissance in Rome. But we cannot fully appreciate him without also considering his successor, Pope Leo X. These two popes were a double act. Julius may have been the patron of the masterworks of the age, but Leo was the true connoisseur.

The sins of Leo X are many. The consequences of his reckless and extravagant reign are infamous. He bears a heavy personal responsibility for the unfolding of the Protestant Reformation. I have no intention of challenging the verdict of history. But I think it’s nevertheless important to recognise Leo’s cultural achievements. The High Renaissance in Rome reached its artistic culmination and fulfilment under him.

It was during Leo’s reign that the collaboration between the arts and humanist scholarship reached its peak. Artistic genius was paired with learned advice with a frequency and effectiveness unseen previously. This did not happen in the same way or to the same extent as under Julius. These ambitious and dazzling collaborations between intellectual scholarship, artistic talent and patronage were not inevitable.

Leo was born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the Republic of Florence. While Julius was a warrior-statesman with an intuitive approach to artistic patronage, Leo was a highly educated and sophisticated prince. He valued art for art’s sake, read Latin and Greek, composed music and actively participated in the arts of his time. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that while Julius “understood the importance of finding poets to eulogise him … the enjoyment of elegant Latin prose and melodious verse was part of the programme of Leo’s life”.

Leo was also a spendthrift and a glutton. His love of luxury and excess is summed up perfectly in his oft-quoted remark: “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He is reputed to have said this to his brother, Giuliano, after his election to the papacy in 1513. Giorgio Vasari called Julius II “magnificent”. He settled on “munificent” for Leo. Whereas Julius restored the papal finances, Leo X practically bankrupted the papacy. Much of the territory won by Julius was lost by Leo. Rather than change course, he pawned papal plate and then, to fund the new St Peter’s, he vastly expanded his notorious programme for the sale of indulgences and heaped fuel on the fires within Christendom which ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.

Many of the collaborations which defined the arts under Leo were his direct doing. They were significant because humanists were very rarely artists and artists were very rarely humanists. Why? Because humanists were highly educated scholars with years of academic training. Roman humanism was a particular intellectual movement devoted to the studia humanitatis – the literary, historical and moral studies which developed from renewed interest in Antiquity, its writings and its civilisation. Knowing a bit about the classics and the liberal arts or being a man of culture and of the world didn’t make you a humanist (and it still doesn’t).

Leo knew that artists and scholars needed each other. For Raphael’s commission to rebuild St Peter’s, Leo paired Raphael with a humanist “learned adviser” in Fra Giovanni Giocondo. Raphael was grateful for this. In a similar vein, when Raphael wished to read the 1st-century architect Vitruvius, the humanist scholars Andrea Fulvio and Fabio Calvo were asked to translate it for him.

The immensely ambitious Villa Madama on Monte Mario is a case study in the collaboration of patronage, humanism and the visual arts. Raphael’s concerns as an artist are those of Vitruvius and Pliny – for orientation, for separation of public and private spaces and for views. Giovanni da Udine’s beautiful Garden Loggia is decorated with a scheme from tales from Ovid. In the Villa Madama we see a culmination of the High Renaissance understanding of the Antique – extravagant yet delicate ornament, rich use of colour, and expensive and varied materials. Rome may have rediscovered the plan and form of good architecture under Julius, but it was Leonine Rome which added back the light, colour and ornament.

When Raphael painted The School of Athens in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura for Julius II, there was no Greek printing house or language school in Rome. Julius commissioned the masterwork, but it was under Leo that a Greek school and printing press was finally established in the city to give substance to the art. He revived Rome’s university, the Sapienza, founded chairs in Greek and Hebrew and appointed nearly a hundred professors.

Territorial losses, financial pressures and political crises all contributed to a loss of confidence early on during Leo’s reign. He was a weak politician and a waverer. He either did not understand or could not act as the times required. Just a year after Leo’s election, he enlisted Raphael and his school to support a papacy threatened on multiple fronts. The world had changed in less than five years. The School of Athens is a positive and optimistic painting with an ambitious agenda for the future. It is flooded with light. Raphael’s paintings for Leo are quite different. In The Meeting of Leo the Great and Attila in the Stanza d’Eliodoro, Leo is cast as the pope who can (because he needs to) save the Church from existential threat. In The Fire in the Borgo in the Stanza dell’Incendio Leo is depicted as the man who can take command of a situation of elemental danger.

A detail from The Fire in the Borgo

The contrast between Raphael’s 1511-1512 portrait of Julius II and his portrait of Leo X is also instructive. Julius and Leo are both seated, depicted from the waist up, wearing the fur-trimmed cape and velvet hat of their office. The similarities, however, end there. The portrait of Julius is charged with an almost terrifying latent energy. It depicts the pope sitting alone in deep thought following his loss of Bologna in 1511. The weight of the world is on his shoulders; his left hand grips the chair. He wears the beard he vowed not to shave until he recaptured the city. The room is bare but at the same time filled with his presence. Julius looks within himself with fiery intensity.

Raphael presents Leo as plump and freshly shaved, and flanked by relatives. He sits at a desk with a jewel-encrusted, illuminated Bible, a looking glass and a gilded bell for summoning servants. Leo seems as if he has been disturbed, and gazes towards someone outside of the composition.

Leo and his court had hoped his reign would achieve – or simply enjoy – a Pax Medica; he liked the idea of the Medici as healers but didn’t do much to bring this about except identifying the witty pun. He was an extravagant Renaissance prince when the Church needed a steady Successor to the Prince of the Apostles. It needed pastoral care rather than patronal flair. What good we can credit his papacy can be seen in his artistic patronage and in the collaborations between humanists and artists which he both understood and effected. This synthesis was carried forward from Julius to culmination, fulfilment and fall under Leo.

Stephen Withnell is a DPhil student in architectural history at Campion Hall, Oxford, director of strategy at Stonyhurst College and a governor of Westminster Cathedral Choir School