July 23, 1487 – Pope Julius III
The Cathedral of Sienna is one of my favorite structures, certainly my favorite House of the Holy. A medieval church, the alternating bands of dark and light marble that make the cathedral’s façade are so striking and they continue inside also, creating quite an impact as you enter. The dramatic stripes break the vertical severity of its columns and extend onto the walls above. The black-and-white stripes contrast with the ceiling, which is rich blue and spangled with gold stars. Above the rounded arches are busts of 171 of the 266 popes in history, from St. Peter to Lucius III, pope from 1181 until his death in 1185. Lucius never met a heretic he didn’t think needed roasting on an open fire.
There are so many paradoxes in the history of the Catholic church’s acknowledgment of same-sex relationships, but none so more than its persecution of ”sodomites” who were burned at the stake for their ”sin” during an era when the church had popes, cardinals and bishops who were known to have had male lovers, and a hierarchy that tolerated and protected them. Same-sex adventures and assignations were not necessarily a barrier to advancement to high church office.
Among the popes, there’s the notable and embarrassing death of Paul II (1464 – 1471). He went to heaven in 1471, taken by a stroke while getting plugged by a page. After his death, one of his successors suggested that he should rather have been called ”Maria Pietissima”, Our Lady of Pity, because he would sob at times of crisis and for his propensity for dressing up in sumptuous ecclesiastical finery.
Pope John XII (955 – 964) was a notorious sex fiend. He had sex with women and men in the papal palace and when visitors refused his attentions he went ahead and raped them anyway. He held massive orgies and took particular pleasure in defiling holy sites, like the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Next is Sixtus IV (1471-84), who appointed one of his young boytoys as Archbishop of Parma, officially for his ”gifts of the spirit and the body”. Leo X (1513-1521) enriched the Vatican’s art collection and its hot young men collection.
Benedict IX (1021 -1062) imitated John XII by hosting licentious orgies. These and other excesses caused such indignation that Benedict IX was deposed in 1045, but then reinstated, only to be deposed again. He disappeared into such deep obscurity that his actual death date is unknown.
Julius II (1503-1513) had many same-sex liaisons, plus he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Julius II’s enthusiastic patronage of Michelangelo’s homoerotic depictions of the male figure also indicate that he also really appreciated the physical beauty of men.
Among other early popes Pope Callistus (170- 223) failed to condemn sex between men; Leo IX (1002-1084) implemented church reforms, but rejected the appeals for harsh penalties against clerical sodomites, and also rejected appeals to prevent the consecration as bishop, of the promiscuous bisexual John of Orleans (1399 –1467). Paul III (1534 -49) protected and bestowed honors on his son, Pier Luigi Farnese, who surrounded himself with male lovers, used Roman police to track down a young man who had spurned his advances, and was accused of raping other clerics.
Julius III was head of the church from 1550 to 1555, and he not only appointed Michelangelo as chief architect of St. Peter’s, but also hired hot composer Giovanni Palestrina as music director of St. Peters Basilica. But he is mostly remembered for a notorious gay scandal, perhaps the greatest in the history of the church. Julius III had an infamous reputation for having sex with young men, making no effort at discretion. He appointed hot studs to the position of Cardinal and had an unfortunate habit of mixing business and pleasure.
Just before he was elected pope, he was just plain old 61-year-old Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte who happened to fall for a beautiful 15-year-old named Fabian, whom he picked up off the streets of Parma. Two years later, as Pope Julius III, he ironically renamed the young man “Innocenzo” and made him a cardinal who served as his chief diplomatic and political agent. Julius III’s brother legally adopted the boy when he was 17, at Julius’s insistence, endowing him with the Pope’s family name: Innocenzo Ciocchi del Monte. The pope outrageously appointed Innocenzo as “Cardinal-Nephew” and provided the boy with so many “benefices” with an income that was one of the highest in Europe. The young cardinal was functionally illiterate and incapable of performing the duties of his office. Even though he was a foul-mouthed gay slut, Innocenzo was well-endowed with power and prestige by his patron. The entire sordid affair raised eyebrows and inspired more than a century of anti-papacy sentiment throughout Europe. Pope Julius III died in 1555, at 67 years old, worn out by all that special “exercise”.
Let’s stop for a quick glossary of Papal terms:
“Cardinal-Nephew”: Every Renaissance Pope appointed at least one blood relative to the College of Cardinals, and a nephew was the most common choice. The term “nepotism” rose comes this practice; the Latin term for Cardinal-Nephew is “cardinalis nepos”.
“Benefice”: A permanent and irrevocable right given to a cleric by the church to receive revenue in exchange for the performance of a spiritual service. A benefice is based on the scriptural teaching that those who serve the altar should live by the altar.
Julius III was elected pope with fierce political infighting within the Conclave of Cardinals, especially between the acrimonious Spanish, German and French delegates. After 10 long weeks, Julius won election as pontiff in 1550, a man considered equally objectionable to all the different factions. The celebration of his election was more of a bacchanal than of a religious ceremony. That pope knew how to party!
Once he was pope, Julius III looted the Vatican treasury and had a pleasure palace built on the outskirts of Rome. The Villa Giula became the full-time residence of Julius III, and he personally oversaw the construction. He hired only the best, including Michelangelo, and he had little interest in taking care of the affairs of the church. Julius III spent most of his time, and a great deal of church money, on entertainments at the Villa Giulia, where cherubs play with one another’s chubbies amid the vine-covered trellis of the ceiling frescos. Other art throughout the palace depict scenes of orgies with nymphs and satyrs. The villa sits along the banks of the Tiber a short boat ride from Rome, where Julius III’s posse would disembark for all-day acts of debauchery.
Villa Giulia has corridors, secret passages and artificial grottoes where the pope and his guests played hide-and-seek, although not in the same way little kids do. I’m not making this up. Today the Villa Giulia is home to the National Etruscan Museum.
Julius III publicly boasted of Innocenzo’s sexual prowess. The Venetian ambassador to the Vatican reported that young Innocenzo shared the pope’s bed. But there were other grave offenses, as well. Julius III opened St. Peters and other major churches to gay orgies. Innocenzo continued to embarrass the church even after the death of Julius III. A pair of unfortunate men dissed him on his way to the conclave, and for their insolence he had them murdered. The newly elected Pope, Pius IV, arrested Innocenzo and imprisoned him. Vatican officials let him out of confinement a few years later, but he was soon charged with sodomy and again was jailed. Yet again, he was released through the intervention of Julius III’s friends. When Innocento died in 1577, he was buried next to Pope Julius III in Saint Peter’s Basilica. You can visit them there. They remain one of Rome’s fun couples.