A picturesque staircase in the vicinity of the Colosseum that recedes from the traffic of the main roads of Rome’s historical center, gently accompanies a minor basilica San Pietro in Vincoli situated on the headland of the Oppian Hill. It can be surprising to find that such a modest church hosts a sizable monument made by Michelangelo. This monument, the tomb of Julius II, consists of a large architectural structure where, in the central niche, an enormous and muscular figure with a long and curled beard sits, turning towards the left while contemplating his surroundings. What about this tomb is such a failure?
Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II: The Beginnings
The remarkable presence of Michelangelo’s Moses catalyzes the viewers’ attention. The monument has even become widely known by the name of the Old Testament prophet that was turned into the subject of the whole structure whose troublesome history gets thereby forgotten. Moses, indeed, is but an element of a larger project that was never completed, a character in a history of frustration, quarrels, jealousies, and eventual failure that unveils a truer, deeper, and perhaps more human insight into the life and work of an artist who, since Vasari’s biographies of the artists, became proverbially known as one of the so-called geniuses of all time.
The tomb monument for Pope Julius II della Rovere was one of the first commissions Michelangelo received from the Pope himself upon his arrival in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was intended by the patron to be a free-standing, enormous, and auto-celebratory mausoleum. The work was inspired by the legendary mausoleum of Halicarnassus which was adorned by an abundance of huge sculptural ornaments meant to embody and aggrandize the pontiff’s persona.
In response to the Pope’s requirements, Michelangelo’s initial project was supposed to take five years to complete. It was therefore extremely ambitious, consisting of a three-level structure surrounded by niches and pilasters that were meant to be filled with about forty sculptures representing Captives and Victories in the lower section, four over-life-size statues on the middle cornice, among which are Moses and two angels supporting a casket, one rejoicing at the ascension of the pope’s blessed soul to Heaven and the other grieving for his loss in the terrestrial world. At the front, one could access the monumental tomb, finding the sarcophagus where the body of the Pontiff was to be laid inside.
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The intended location of Julius II’s mausoleum was no less pretentious than its initial design. As the projects for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica were progressing, following the recently-approved centralized plan designed by Donato Bramante, Julius II expected to place his tomb in the most prominent position in the whole of the Catholic world. He wanted his tomb to be at the very crossing of the two congruent and perpendicular arms constituting the church’s Greek Cross, deemed to correspond to the site where St. Peter was martyred at the time of Nero, where his relics were believed to be kept.
Once the contract was signed, Michelangelo immediately left Rome to source the necessary blocks of marble from the Carrara quarries. This quest took him eight long months, after which he had one-hundred tons of marble shipped back to Rome. By the time the artist returned to the city, however, the Pope refused to meet with him and pay the promised amount of money for the sourced materials, as he had initiated new projects at St. Peter’s Basilica with artists like Bramante and Raphael.
Outraged, Michelangelo abandoned the project and fled to Florence, thereby leading the Pope to summon the artist back to Rome. Michelangelo’s decision to return to the papal city, however, only materialized three years later, in 1508. After his return, the Pope gave the artist another commission, the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which once again came to halt works on the mausoleum until the completion of the ceiling frescoes in 1512.
The Second Contract
Eight years had passed from the signing of the initial contract, and once Michelangelo’s attention was finally returned to the monumental tomb, the project started gaining momentum. By the end of 1512, Michelangelo managed to complete three out of the forty statues that were expected to decorate the mausoleum: the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave (now located in the Louvre) and the aforementioned Moses. However, in 1513, another event came to stop the execution of the monument, and this time, one that would have severe consequences on the unfolding of the project. Pope Julius II suddenly passed away. The heirs of the pontiff thus drafted a new seven-year-long contract with Michelangelo, which drastically reduced the scale of the previous monument and turned it into a wall tomb.
The tomb decoration was still expected to be grand. The lower story was in fact pretty similar to the first project, except for the shortened side walls and the lack of an entrance door, no longer needed for a wall monument. The three sides of the tomb on this level were pierced by niches containing statues representing the Victories. Each niche was flanked by pilasters with Captives tied to them. The number of statues was, however, reduced from around forty to around twenty.
The upper half of the monument underwent more drastic transformations. Although many sculptures were still inhabiting this part of the tomb, these figures now left enough space for a large catafalque where the image of the pope was represented being lifted by four angels. The central image of the Pope was also surrounded by two sitting figures below (possibly a prophet and a sibyl), two more angels offering holy water or incense, and a Madonna and Child in a mandorla above, welcoming him into Heaven.
Progress on this project was once again interrupted when the new Pope Leo X, who belonged to the Medici family, commissioned Michelangelo to design a façade for the Medici church of San Lorenzo in Florence. This city was the Pope’s city of origin. Michelangelo’s absence from Rome prompted Cardinal della Rovere, one of Julius II’s relatives, to enquire with concern and a certain frustration about the lack of progression on Julius II’s monument, which nonetheless received no more attention under the papacy of Leo X’s successors, Pope Hadrian VI and Pope Clement VII, who employed Michelangelo in further unrelated commissions.
Slow progress was made during the time of the Sack of Rome in 1527 when Michelangelo could turn his attention back to the work he was supposed to make for the Della Rovere family. At this time, the artist managed to sculpt the Genius of Victory, an allegorical sculpture that depicts a winning man crowned with oak leaves, a symbol of the Della Rovere family emblem. The victorious man is shown as rising above the man who lost with strength and agility. This is suggested by the twisting position of his muscular torso.
The Tomb of Julius II: The Final Version
Clement VII once again asked Michelangelo to work on his Florentine commissions such as the Laurentian Library and the New Sacristy. This forced him to quit his endeavors to complete Julius II’s monument at yet another time. A few years after the Sack of Rome, in 1531, the disappointed members of the Della Rovere family decided to cancel the contract they had signed with the artist in 1516, urging him to reimburse the money they paid for the completion of the mausoleum. Complex negotiations followed, which lasted one year and involved Pope Clement VII himself, resulting in another contract being signed whereby both parties, the artist and the commissioners, agreed that the monument should be relocated to San Pietro in Vincoli and further downsized.
The following papacy of Paul III, though, stopped the project again, as Michelangelo was again requested to work full-time in the Sistine Chapel in order to complete the fresco of the Last Judgment. Almost four decades after signing the first contract with Pope Julius II, the last contract for the tomb monument was drafted. This one requested Michelangelo to only complete three out of the initial forty sculptures supposed to ornate the mausoleum.
When encountering what remains of Julius II’s tomb monument, viewers are confronted with the single completed sculpture that Michelangelo ultimately provided to his patrons. Moses, as previously mentioned, has become the protagonist of the whole structure, transferring onto the monument his very identity and almost subtracting the monument from Julius II himself. Early modern prints, such as the Jacob Matham engraving from Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, already depicted the sculpture as a free-standing and separate entity from the monument to which it belonged.
This colossal body, carved in marble, is a striking reminder of the monumental scale the tomb was once envisioned to be, as well as a solemn witness to the eventful life of the artist and the tumultuous circumstances that hampered the creation of the initial design. Had it been finalized, this monument would have been one of the largest projects accomplished by Michelangelo. Yet, what came to be known as the tomb tragedy, turned out to be a reminder that even the so-called greatest artists of all times could, and did, face life-long challenges and failures.