What does true power look like?
American Congresspeople have the ability to hold hearings to humiliate their enemies. They also have the authority to raise your Social Security by 5% next year instead of 4%.
That’s something, I guess. But it’s not real power.
Real power is the ability to make great people change who they are to please you. Can you make Quentin Tarantino quit movies and master calligraphy? Can you make Basquiat put down the paint brush and take up photography? Can you inspire Salvador Dali to write the great American novel?
Well, Pope Julius II (1503-1513) had this type of power. He had all types of power.
Julius was the dictator warlord of the Papal States, a significant country in the center of the Italian peninsula. Under his leadership, the papal army extended its territory northward, nearly to Venice.
That seems like a lot. But for Pope Julius II, it wasn’t nearly enough. He summoned the greatest artists to Rome. He began construction on St Peter’s Cathedral, the grandest European building project since Hagia Sophia.
Oh, and Julius (Rex Harrison) also wanted to beautify his little private chapel. As punishment for insolence, the pope forced Michaelangelo (Charlton Heston) to pause his sculpting work and paint the ceiling.
To everyone’s surprise, Michaelangelo was inspired to paint a much more ambitious mural than the Pope commissioned. Driven by his muse, the sculptor spent the next four years on his back, paint dripping onto his face.
I love the subject matter and the ambition of “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” but it isn’t a great movie. That’s because Charlton Heston’s Michaelangelo is a surprisingly bland lead character. He’s uninteresting and unsophisticated, childish and asexual. All he does for 2 ½ hours is paint and test the Pope’s patience.
And that leave Pope Julius II as the emotional heart of a major Hollywood movie. What a strange and wonderful choice.
Julius was not the most popular guy in Renaissance Europe. Leading armies into battle seemed like a questionable choice for a Christian holy man. And war and art are expensive. The Pope’s unscrupulous fundraising schemes rubbed many Germans the wrong way and helped to inspire the Reformation.
But don’t tell that to Rex Harrison. Harrison sees the greatness and genius of Julius II. The Pope wasn’t fighting for loot or glory; he had a far-sighted plan to maintain the independence of the Church. Without a stout defense, central Italy and the papacy itself were going to become French colonies (again).
On a personal level, Pope Julius II puts the father in Holy Father. He had a war to conduct and a Church to run, but he still had patience for Michaelangelo’s rebellious outbursts and emotional breakdowns. Dealing with great artists takes a level head and a spirit of forgiveness, and the pope was always ready to be the bigger man.
“The Agony and Ecstasy” shows us a leader who is so confident that he doesn’t need to raise his voice or win every argument with his underlings. Pope Julius II was able to convince an elite sculptor to put down the chisel and paint the greatest mural the world had ever seen. Now that is true power.