(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

Portrait of Julius II

Oil on wood, 108 x 80,7 cm
National Gallery, London

Portraits of Julius II as an old man exist in three versions: in the National Gallery, London, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence and in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. A thorough investigation of the London painting has proved it to be the original. The version in the Uffizi is now said to be from Raphael's workshop, while that in the Palazzo Pitti has been attributed to Titian by some experts.

Pope Julius II gave this painting to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where after his death it was displayed on important feast days. In 1591 Cardinal Sfondorato sold it to Scipione Borghese. Its provenance until its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1824 is also documented, so that it can be said with certainty that the London picture is authentic, despite the other existing versions.

The Pope who had commissioned the pictorial cycles and the works that had so contributed to the artist's fame, is depicted - according to historical sources, in the master's hand - in a portrait "so animated and true to life that it was frightening to behold, as though it were actually alive" (Vasari).

The painting shows the Pope seated with the tiara on his head, dressed in a white surplice and a purple mantle. Here the simple but effective tonal contrast, first used in the Portrait of a Cardinal, reappears. The Pope, though old, still seems very vigorous and the Della Rovere energy is clearly visible in the hand that grasps the right arm of the chair with strength and pride. The two acorn-shaped knobs on the back of the chair recall the Pope's coat of arms. The intimacy of the image indicates that Raphael has progressed from the narrative compositions of the Vatican Stanze to the full dominance of individual subjectivity.

The pattern of papal keys and tiaras just visible in the green curtain was originally painted gold to simulate embroidery, and the artist's change of mind, disclosed when the painting was scientifically assessed in 1969 prior to cleaning, is one of the main reasons for its acceptance as the original of several versions of the portrait.

The picture can be dated by Julius's beard, which he grew as a token of mortification at having lost the city of Bologna in 1511 and had shaved off by March 1512. He was to die at 70 the following year. A choleric and active man, much criticised during his turbulent pontificate for personally leading his troops in strenuous military campaigns, he is represented as at once forceful - as in the left hand - aristocratic the right hand - and meditative. The portrait is in every way worthy of a patron unique in the history of art, a pope discerning and fortunate enough to have been served by three of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance - the architect Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.