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Shepherding the Flock: Pope Julius II’s Renaissance Vision of a Unified Italy


Renaissance Italy was a politically fragmented peninsula that was controlled by an array of princes while foreign powers occupied vast territories. Nonetheless, one sixteenth-century figure had a vision of political unity, albeit under ecclesiastical leadership. Pope Julius II, reigning from 1503-1513, was an ambitious theocratic monarch who controlled the Papal States and was the leader of Western Christianity. His primary goals were to expel foreign forces and create a Universal Church with wide-reaching temporal and religious authority.

This paper explores how Pope Julius II used portrait medals and coins to communicate his vision of papal dominion in order to cast himself as a unifying figure and as the legitimate ruler of Italy. Medals were distributed to nobles and important diplomats as propaganda. The sitter’s portrait adorned the obverse of each medal, emblematic imagery was featured on the reverses, and Latin inscriptions were included on both sides of the works of art.

Julius commissioned three medals with depictions of shepherds, a motif never before used in a numismatic context. The pope employed this iconography to differentiate himself from the many despots throughout Italy and to underscore the Christ-like nature of his office. Several of the pope’s medals featured the inscription IVLIVS LIGVR, “Julius the Ligurian,” indicating his Italian origins. The phrase was used to portray the pontiff as a true Italian, in contrast to his predecessor, the Spanish pope, Alexander VI Borgia. The LIGVR inscription may have also been an attempt to arouse patriotic sentiment and support for the pope in the face of occupying foreign powers by showing that the papacy was meant to be held by an Italian. Although Julius ultimately failed to accomplish his goals, this study indicates Italy’s struggle for unification was a convoluted affair that spanned many centuries.

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