Chances are he will fare better than his predecessor, Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who reigns during the time of our story, The Wolves of St. Peter’s. Nicknamed Il Papa Terribile or the “Fearsome” or “Terrifying” Pope, Julius was known for his violence, temper, foul language, and flying into rages in which he would beat his underlings with sticks or even his fists.
Ross King in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling reports that a Venetian ambassador said on meeting him: “It is virtually impossible to describe how strong and violent and difficult to manage he is.” While on Julius’s death, a Spanish ambassador remarked: “In the hospital in Valencia, there are a hundred people chained up who are less mad than his Holiness.”
Julius was also known as Il Papa Guerriero – “The Warrior Pope.” Taking the name of Julius Caesar, he saw himself as both Emperor and Pope. At that time, the Church’s territorial ambitions extended beyond the Vatican, and Julius was keen to recover the lost Papal States. Unlike any pope before, he rode into battle alongside his men – and in a bit of absurdity no fiction writer could make up, took the Sistine Chapel Choir with him.
Julius is also hailed as a patron of the arts, and he fulfilled his plans for St. Peter’s with the same ferocious determination as he pursued his wars. But as much as he wanted Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he almost met his match in the strong-willed artist. Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Chapel and fled Rome with papal assassins in pursuit, only returning when he was sent a written guarantee of his safety. Knowing Michelangelo as well as we feel we do, we can only imagine his humiliation at having to beg Julius’s forgiveness.
And as if what we know for certain about Julius isn’t fearsome enough, unholy stories about him still abound. He had a number of mistresses and fathered three girls, one of whom lived to adulthood. He contracted syphilis, which had just made its way to Italy from the New World. (Julius was apparently not the only pope to have an active social life - see the Wikipedia entry on sexually active popes.) He was also homosexual, which was highly hypocritical since he was burning “sodomites” at the stake. (Hint to Benedict’s successor – catching up with the 21st century on this bit of dogma could probably cut the number of Vatican scandals in half.) Another story concerns the nature of his relationship with a young boy, who some say was a hostage. This boy becomes the basis for Agnello in The Wolves of St. Peter’s.
The popular Showtime series The Borgias picks up on another rumor concerning Julius. A lifetime of pursuing the papacy has left him as frustrated as Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of the Road Runner. Having exhausted all other avenues to oust the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, he spends Season 2 plotting to poison him. Whether or not Julius actually murdered him (two other theories point to accidental poisoning by his son or, quite mundanely, malaria), it was because of Julius that the Borgia name became synonymous with poison.
There was another pope between Alexander and Julius, Pius III, who enjoyed a reign of only twenty-six days. He may have died of an ulcer, or, you guessed it, poison. But that's another story.
The Wolves of St. Peter’s is now available for preorder.
As for who should be next Pope, we fully endorse Elmore Leonard’s suggestions.