Roman Jubilee

A series of brief but eventful pontificates served in combination to strengthen the Papal States politically, administratively, and militarily, but did little to address the problems in the religious institution of the Church that would soon lead to the Protestant Reformation.

Summary of Event

On Christmas Eve, 1499, Pope Alexander VI was carried in procession to the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Surrounded by the cardinals and other clergy of Rome, he solemnly opened the holy door, thereby signaling the opening of the Jubilee, or Holy Year, of 1500. Catholicism;Europe
Jubilee, Roman (1500)
Alexander VI
Borgia, Cesare
Borgia, Lucrezia
Pius III
Julius II
Copernicus, Nicolaus
Charles VIII (1470-1498)
Alexander VI
Copernicus, Nicolaus
Borgia, Cesare
Borgia, Lucrezia
Calixtus III
Pius II
Pius III
Julius II
Charles VIII (king of France)
Leo X
Medici, Lorenzo de’ (1449-1492)

The Roman Jubilee, or Holy Year, of 1500, began at the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome after Pope Alexander VI opened its doors.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The Jubilee was an institution then two hundred years old. Supposedly celebrated at the beginning of each century, it had in fact been held more frequently and at irregular intervals. The Jubilee was conceived as a public expression of faith and repentance of sin. Christians from all over Europe were encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Rome, visit the four major basilicas of the city, recite certain prayers, and receive as a result a plenary indulgence—that is, the complete forgiveness of all past sins and the removal of all punishments attached to them, including punishments in the afterlife.

Throngs of people visited Rome during 1500, despite the fact that wars were raging in the north of Italy and plague had erupted in several places. Among those who came was astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, then a young man, who stayed to give lectures for a year. The artist Michelangelo was also present. Large sums of money were collected, partly to finance a crusade against the Turks that never materialized.

Two other persons in Rome during the Jubilee whose presence cast something of a shadow over the proceedings were Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, children of Pope Alexander, who were famous for their avarice, their ambition, and the intrigues in which their father gave them complete support. Lucrezia was successively the wife of three noblemen, marriages carefully arranged by Alexander; she was later suspected of poisoning her husbands, although the legends are probably untrue.

Cesare was cruel and ruthless; his obsession was the establishment of a Borgia state in northern Italy. He received money and troops from his father and went on several campaigns throughout the Italian peninsula, conquering some minor city-states and threatening the independence of the greater ones. His aggressions ended only with his father’s death.

Pope Alexander himself was perhaps the most notorious prelate ever to occupy the papal throne. A Spaniard by birth, Rodrigo de Borja y Doms had decided on a clerical career only after his uncle Alfonso was elected pope as Calixtus III in 1455. Rodrigo became a cardinal the following year at the age of twenty-five, and for the remainder of his life he was intimately involved in the government of the Church at the highest level. He was not ordained a priest until 1468, by which time he had already obtained appointments to a large number of ecclesiastical benefices, including several archbishoprics, and had become enormously wealthy.

Rodrigo’s sexual morals were notorious, and on one occasion his scandalous conduct provoked a strong rebuke from Pope Pius II. His permanent mistress was a Roman noblewoman, Vannozza Catanei, who bore him four children, including Cesare and Lucrezia.

Several times Rodrigo was seriously considered for the papacy, and he was finally elected Pope Alexander VI on August 11, 1492. There were accusations of bribery in connection with the election, although the charges have never been proven. Alexander had in fact been an extremely capable and conscientious administrator of papal properties, and his election met with general approval.

Alexander VI continued to administer the possessions of the Church with care and ability, but he also became more deeply involved in Italian politics, partly from a desire to provide for his children. Beginning in 1494, Italy was menaced by invasions by the French, the Germans, and Swiss mercenary soldiers, all seeking to carve out empires amid the chaos of the city-states. Alexander skillfully threaded his way among the diplomatic intrigues and military adventures of his pontificate.

In terms of religion, little of note happened during Alexander’s pontificate, except for the Jubilee and a few proceedings against heresy. Throughout Europe, there was growing dissatisfaction with the corruptions and abuses of all kinds that afflicted the Church, but Alexander showed little interest in such problems.

He died August 18, 1503, probably of fever, although there were unfounded charges that he had been poisoned. After the brief pontificate of Pius III, the cardinals elected Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who had also been a candidate in 1492 and who took the name Julius II. The new pope’s career paralleled Alexander’s in several respects. He also had entered the Church under the tutelage of an uncle who became pope (Sixtus IV, 1471-1484). He was made a cardinal at the age of twenty-eight and amassed a large collection of lucrative benefices. He built magnificent palaces, patronized the arts, and fathered three daughters.

Julius’s career diverged from Alexander’s in that his major interest was not administration or diplomacy but war. When he was a cardinal, he commanded papal armies in battle on a number of occasions, despite prohibitions in canon law against priests bearing arms. He and Alexander had a strong dislike for each other, and della Rovere spent most of Alexander’s pontificate on French soil; at one time he managed to persuade King Charles VIII of France to invade Italy Italy;French invasions of with the intention of dethroning Alexander, but a peaceful settlement was arranged.

After the death of Pius III, Julius was elected in the shortest papal conclave on record. He distributed bribes liberally to obtain the papal office, although he later showed some concern about abuses in the Church and issued bulls against bribery.

Julius’s pontificate is memorable for three occurrences: the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in 1506, the expulsion of the French from Italy with the pope himself commanding the armies, and the summoning of the Fifth Lateran Council Lateran Council, Fifth (1512-1517) in 1512 to deal systematically with abuses in the Church.

Julius died on February 21, 1513, not long after the council had convened. His successor was Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, then thirty-eight years old, who took the name Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent), ruler of Florence, and had risen to prominence almost entirely through family connections. Unlike Alexander and Julius, he had unimpeachable personal morals and was without scandal. However, he was weak, he loved luxury, and his rule is largely remembered for his patronage of the arts and the beginning of the Reformation. The Fifth Lateran Council continued to meet until 1517, shortly before Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, but it accomplished little toward alleviating the many problems that afflicted the Church.


The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed, in quick succession, the papacies of Alexander VI, a notoriously immoral man who was nonetheless conscientious and skilled in his administration of the Papal States, and Julius II, a militarily minded and gifted leader who came to be known as the Warrior Pope. These two men were in significant measure responsible both for the fact that the Italian peninsula was opened to foreign conquest in the wake of the French invasion and for the manner in which the Papal States reacted to this event. Julius, in particular, had first encouraged France to invade Italy in a failed bid to place himself on the papal throne and then helped to drive the French forces from the peninsula once he had ascended that throne. Alexander and Julius helped to make Rome both an artistic center of the Renaissance and a political and military power to be reckoned with. They failed, however, to recognize the importance of a pervasive and growing discontent with the corruption of the Catholic Church, a discontent that would soon find a voice in the person of Martin Luther.

Further Reading

  • Beck, James H. Three Worlds of Michelangelo. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. One of these three interconnected studies of Michelangelo is an analysis of his relationship to Julius II. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Chamberlin, Russell. The Bad Popes. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2003. Alexander VI is one of seven popes profiled in this study of papal corruption across the six hundred years leading up to the Reformation. Includes photographs, illustrations, genealogical tables, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Creighton, M. M. A History of the Papacy from the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome. Vols. 4-5. New ed. New York: Longmans, Green, 1919. This old work by an Anglican bishop is a balanced appraisal of the Renaissance popes and comes closer than Ferrara’s book to the commonly accepted views of modern scholars.
  • De Roo, Peter. Material for a History of Pope Alexander VI, His Relatives, and His Time. 5 vols. New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1924. This work by a Catholic priest is highly favorable to Alexander and has not been generally accepted by modern scholars.
  • Ferrara, Orestes. The Borgia Pope: Alexander the Sixth. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1940. Attempts to salvage Alexander’s reputation from the almost universally low esteem in which it has been held by modern scholars.
  • Mathew, Arnold H. The Life and Times of Rodrigo Borgia. London: S. Paul, 1924. This book by an archbishop of a schismatic branch of the Roman Catholic Church is generally unfavorable to Alexander but is scholarly and balanced to some extent.
  • Pastor, Ludwig. The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. Translated by Frederick I. Antrobus. Vols. 5-6. Reprint. Wilmington, N.C.: Consortium, 1978. This nineteenth century work by a Catholic scholar is the most thorough history of the modern papacy. Its judgments of Alexander and Julius are balanced and generally unfavorable.
  • Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The Warrior Pope. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. Primarily a very useful political history of Julius’s tenure as pope, this volume also contains a chapter on his patronage of the arts, but it is weak on theological analysis. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Signorotto, Gianvittorio, and Maria Antonietta Visceglia, eds. Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Collection of essays on the papal court and political structures and intrigues. Places Alexander VI’s papacy as a turning point in the relative power of pope and cardinals and analyzes the possesso ceremony in the sixteenth century. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Stinger, Charles L. The Renaissance in Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Study of the resurgence of Rome’s cultural, religious, and political importance in the Renaissance. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

July 15, 1542-1559: Paul III Establishes the Index of Prohibited Books

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

July 22, 1566: Pius V Expels the Prostitutes from Rome

1567: Palestrina Publishes the Pope Marcellus Mass