Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pope Julius III

Julius III, who reigned as head of the church from 1550 to 1555, was famous as an expert in canon law. As well, he fortuitously appointed Michelangelo as chief architect of St. Peter's and engaged composer Giovanni Palestrina as choirmaster of St. Peters Basilica. But his greatest legacy was a notorious homosexual scandal, perhaps the greatest in the history of the papacy. Julius had an infamous reputation for having sex with male juveniles, and he flaunted his bent for pedophilia, making no effort at discretion. Julius had a tendency to appoint hot underage studs to the position of Cardinal and an unfortunate habit of mixing business and pleasure.

Decades before becoming pope, Julius was traded as a hostage by the cowardly Pope Clement VII to Emperor Charles V during the sacking of Rome. Julius would have been killed, but in a complicated twist Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, enemy of Clement VII and "rogue commando" cardinal, rescued the hostages, including Julius, from the clutches of the Emperor.

Just before he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte, age 61, fell head over heels for a beautiful 15-year old beggar named Fabian, whom he picked up off the streets of Parma. Two years later, del Monte, as Pope Julius III, renamed the young man “Innocenzo” (oh, the irony!) and made him a Cardinal who served as his chief diplomatic and political agent. Julius's brother legally adopted the 17-year old boy, at Julius's insistence, endowing him with the Pope’s family name, as Innocenzo Ciocchi del Monte. The pope outrageously appointed Innocenzo cardinal-nephew*, and showered the boy with so many benefices** that his income was one of the highest in all of Europe. The young cardinal was functionally illiterate and incapable of performing the duties of his office. Even though he had the demeanor of a foul-mouthed gay slut, Innocenzo was endowed with power and prestige by his patron. The entire sordid affair raised many eyebrows and thus inspired more than a century of anti-papacy sentiment throughout Europe. Pope Julius III died in 1555, at age 67, after having suffered many painful attacks of gout.

*Cardinal-Nephew: Every Renaissance Pope appointed a blood relative(s) to the College of Cardinals, and a nephew was the most common choice. The term “nepotism” rose from this practice – the Latin term for Cardinal-nephew was “cardinalis nepos”.

**Benefice: the permanent and irrevocable right given to a cleric by the church to receive revenue in exchange for the performance of a spiritual service (such as the care of souls, the exercise of jurisdiction, the celebration of Mass, etc.). A benefice is based on the scriptural teaching that those who serve the altar should live by the altar.

Pope Julius III had been elected against the backdrop of fierce political infighting within the conclave of cardinals, especially between the acrimonious Spanish, German and French representatives. After 10 long weeks, Julius won election as pontiff in 1550, a man considered equally objectionable to all factions. The celebrations for his election had more of a carnival festivity than of a religious ceremony. The man knew how to party.

Once he was elected pope, however, Julius III looted the papal coffers to build a pleasure palace on the outskirts of Rome. The Villa Giula, as it is known, became the full-time residence of Julius III, and the pope personally oversaw the construction. He hired only the best, including Michelangelo, and had little interest in taking care of the affairs of the papal office. Julius spent the bulk of his time, and a great deal of Papal money, on entertainments at the Villa Giulia (above), where putti (cherubs) play with one another's genitals amidst the vine-covered trellis of the ceiling frescos (see less explicit examples in the photo below). Other art throughout the complex depicts scenes of bacchanals, nymphs and satyrs. The villa was sited along the banks of the Tiber a short distance from Rome, where the Papal party would disembark for day-long picnics and various acts of debauchery.

A nymphaeum (below) featured corridors, secret passages and artificial grottoes where the pope and his guests loved to play hide-and-seek, although not in the same innocent way children do. I’m not making this up. The villa serves today as home to the National Etruscan Museum, located a stone’s throw from the Villa Borghese park (take tram 3 or 19 from the center of Rome).

It was reported that Julius, awaiting Innocenzo's arrival in Rome to receive his cardinal's hat, showed the impatience of a lover awaiting a mistress, and that he boasted of the boy's sexual prowess. The Venetian ambassador to the Vatican further stated that the young Innocenzo shared the pope's bedroom and bed.

But there were others grave offenses, as well. Pope Julius III opened St. Peters and other major churches to sexual orgies that emphasized homosexual behavior. Innocenzo continued to embarrass the church even after the Pope’s death. A pair of unfortunates dissed him on his way to the conclave, and their insolence cost them their lives. The newly elected Pope, Pius IV, arrested Innocenzo and imprisoned him for double homicide. Officials let him out of confinement a few years later, but he was soon charged with raping a woman and again incarcerated. Yet again he was released through the intervention of Pope Julius’s friends. When Innocento died in 1577, he was buried next to his former lover, Pope Julius III.

And there you have it.


  1. This would make a great novel. Has anyone written one?

  2. "This would make a great novel. Has anyone written one?"

    Novels in English about Italian Renaissance figures are few and far between and, so far as I know, there aren't many in Italian. (The most famous, of course, as well as the all-time worst, is "The Agony and the Ecstacy," whose command of historical fact is so take-it-or-leave-it that you could easily think Stone was writing about someone who never existed.) But Anonymous is correct that there is plenty of material out there. Most famous, of course, is Benvenuto Cellini, whose non-stop autobiography has been the energy behind many adaptations, including Berlioz's eponymous opera. There are other more interesting but less famous characters for whom a lot of creative elaborations on the scarce evidence aren't necessary, as has befallen both Michelangelos -- Buonarotti and the guy from Caravaggio.

    As it happens, at the moment I'm embarking on a novel project set in seventeenth-century Rome, which was a much more open society than the Rome in which Julius III lived and reigned. Between the death of Pope Paul III in 1549 and the election of Pope Sixtus V in 1585, the papacy -- and, consequently, the city itself -- suffered a long drought of highly puritanical, heavy-handed pontiffs. Julius III was not among them -- obviously! -- but he was also a virtual stranger in Rome at the time of his election and, apart from his predilection for Italian chicken, he was a good and sensible ruler of the Church. As far as cheesy gay gossip is concerned, the 17th century was far more interesting, beginning with the election of Paul V Borghese in 1605 and continuing for the rest of the century.

    But I think it's important to distinguish between the cheesy, gasp-getting, and cackle-baiting tidbits of tacky detritus that get onto websites that claim to "expose" things that nobody would know otherwise. I also think that far more interesting are issues of gender stability, sexual identity, and the roll of romantic love in erotic attraction in Early Modern Italy. There's been a lot of serious literature -- in English -- about those topics; but, again with Anonymous, I think more people would know about them if somebody put those issues into the lives of real people through carefully researched historical fiction. That's what my goal is.

    On the whole, the Renaissance in Italy was far, *far* more tolerant of the private behavior of high authorities than the U.S. public is today. In that regard Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries was more like 21st-century France than the United States, which seems to thrive on a sort of backwards-Protestant/agnostic delight in the shenanigans of Catholic clergy. (Note: I am *not* talking about the abuse of children, nor am I saying what my own moral position is. I'm writing purely as a professional historian of the period.)