Rovere Family




Emergence of the della Rovere Family

The election to the papacy of two members of the della Rovere family of Savona facilitated the family's rise to prominence.


Francesco della Rovere played a pivotal role through the promotion of his relatives after he became Pope Sixtus IV in 1471.  He awarded the office of cardinal to six family members, two of which replaced appointees who died while he was still pope.  One of these cardinal-nephews, Giuliano, was elected Pope Julius II in 1503, and he, in turn, gave four more della Rovere relatives the red hat.


Emblem and Family Name

Because the name "Rovere" means "oak," the oak tree and its foliage were used as the principal motif on Rovere coats of arms.  After Francesco della Rovere became pope, the papal insignia of crown and keys were added.


Oak imagery was also used separately from the family crest.


Effect on Rome

The many ecclesiastic and private commissions by the della Rovere popes and their newly enriched relatives made a considerable contribution to the re-emergence of Rome as one of the great cities of Europe.






Francesco della Rovere (1414-84) was a pious man who maintained a simple life and wore the habit of the Franciscan order.  As Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), he moved the papal residence back to the Vatican, which was relatively primitive at that time.  (His predecessor, Paul II, had established a princely court at the Palazzo Venezia.)


Despite Francesco's personal piety and desire for reform within the Church, his extravagance as a papal patron led to abusive fund-raising practices like the sale of indulgences (pardons for sins that were granted by popes or priests).  Beginning with Sixtus IV, they were sold rather than granted for particular circumstances.  This practice was one of Martin Luther's complaints against the Church, and dissatisfaction with it contributed to the Reformation.



Pope Sixtus, like many popes, was guilty of nepotistic practices in his ecclesiastic and civil appointments, which benefited his family enormously.


He not only enriched himself and his family but also changed inheritance laws so that when popes and cardinals died, their wealth could pass to relatives rather than remaining with the Church.


Franciscan Affiliation

As a Franciscan, Sixtus did much to promote this relatively new order and its tenets during his pontificate.


Some beliefs affected the subject matter of religious art.  For instance, there were restrictions against depicting any saints except St. Francis with the stigmata.


Patronage in Rome

As pope, Sixtus IV made many important contributions to the city of Rome and the Vatican.


In Rome, he initiated a program of urban renewal that included widening streets and piazzas and adding a bridge, the Ponte Sisto.


Sixtus ceded land to a Spanish order for a monastery, whose church and martyrium, known the Tempietto, are architecturally significant.


He commissioned the rebuilding and expansion of many older churches and the building of two new churches.


Santa Maria del Popolo, begun 1472. Santa Maria del Popolo, which bears Sixtus' coat of arms, was begun in 1472.  Because Sixtus encouraged cardinals to commission burial chapels there, this church contains many of their tombs.  


Santa Maria della Pace, 1478-83. The Church of Santa Maria della Pace was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV as a votive church on the site of a chapel containing a painting that was considered miraculous because its image of the Virgin Mary was reported to have bled after being stabbed with a knife. On seeing the painting, the pope vowed he would build a church here as an expression of gratitude for the Virgin's help in ending a war (pace means "peace") with Florence.  The monastery of Santa Maria della Pace is best known for two later additions:  a cloister by Bramante and a façade by Pietro da Cortona (began 1656).


Vatican Commissions


Sistine Chapel, 1473-81. The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it derives its name.  It stands between St. Peter's and the rest of the Vatican Palace.  Because it was designed to satisfy particular liturgical requirements of the Vatican, it consists of a single large space without subdivision by supports.  In having a fortified exterior and lacking features like an apse, the building does not resemble a church.


Library in Nicholas V Wing. Sixtus moved the Vatican collection of manuscripts to a library that he built into the lower story of the Nicholas V Wing.  One of the frescoes that decorated the library depicts the pope appointing the new library's first prefect, Bartolomeo Platina, as two generations of papal nephews look on.  Over a decade later, the manuscripts were moved to a larger library built by Pope Sixtus V, and the painting is now in the Vatican museum.


See more about Pope Sixtus IV's contributions to Rome and the Vatican.





Benefit to the City of Rome

The city of Rome was enriched not only by pope Sixtus' projects but also by those of his younger relatives, who wished to advertise their recent elevation in status through architecture and art.  The newly created nephew-cardinals often improved their titular churches by adding lavish palaces to them.


The following are among the younger relatives whose careers were benefited by Pope Sixtus' aid.


Giuliano della Rovere

Giuliano (1443-1513) became Pope Julius II in 1503 (discussed below).


Raffaele Riario della Rovere

Raffaele Riario, who was the son of one of Pope Sixtus' nieces, was named a cardinal in 1477 and papal chamberlain in 1484.


In 1517, he was implicated in the Petrucci plot to assassinate Pope Leo X and was forced to surrender the grand titular palace he had just built.  After a short period of incarceration in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Raffaele's relatives obtained his release by paying a huge fine.  Although his cardinalate was restored in 1518, the palace was not.


Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome.  In 1489 Raffaele commissioned an extravagant new titular palace, later called the Palazzo della Cancelleria.  It was the largest palace in Rome at that time and the first palace whose façade incorporated the orders.  In 1517 the palace was re-assigned to the Vice-Chancellor, hence the name Cancelleria, which means chancery. 


Michelangelo's Bacchus. In 1496, Raffaele commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a figure of Bacchus (Dionysos in Greek mythology), the Olympic god associated with wine.  Raffaele was displeased with the work and rejected it.  


Hunting Preserve, Bagnaia. As the Cardinal of Viterbo, in 1498 Raffaele created a hunting preserve at nearby Bagnaia, which later cardinals of Viterbo developed into a park with fountains, and then, into an outstanding garden.  


Francesco Maria della Rovere

Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538) was Sixtus IV's great nephew and the son of Giovanni della Rovere and Giovanna da Montefeltro, the daughter of Federico II da Montefeltro.  Francesco became the Duke of Urbino in 1508 at the age of eighteen because Giovanna's brother, Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, who had no children of his own, made Francesco his heir.  One of the foreground figures of a painting that Raphael executed in the Stanze della Segnatura for Pope Julius II, Francesco's uncle, is thought to be a likeness of Francesco as a youth.  Francesco married Eleanora Ippolita Gonzaga, the sister of Federico II Gonzaga, and their descendants ruled Urbino until 1631, when the line died out.






The prestige and political power that Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513) achieved in Rome brought him to the papacy in 1503.  As both a cardinal and a pope, he was an extravagant patron of the arts.


Patronage as Cardinal

As cardinal, Giuliano's titular church was San Pietro in Vincoli.  After the death of his cousin, Cardinal Pietro della Rovere, who served as Santi Apostoli, he received that title and its church.


Sixtus IV's tomb. After Sixtus IV's death, Giuliano commissioned Antonio Pollaiuolo to sculpt a bronze tomb, which was installed in St. Peter's.  This tomb is considered one of the artist's best works. 


San Pietro in Vincoli. Giuliano rebuilt much of San Pietro in Vincoli.  Inside he commissioned tombs for his father, Raffaele della Rovere, and his cousin Pietro.  His own tomb would later be placed here as well, although he had intended for it to reside in St. Peter's. 


Church of Santi Apostoli. At the Church of Santi Apostoli, Giuliano continued the rebuilding and expansion that had been begun by his cousin and predecessor Pietro, making changes and additions as he saw fit.  He commissioned the painter Melozzo da Forli to paint the newly constructed choir with a scene of Christ in Glory.


Patronage as Pope

As Pope Julius II, Giuliano entirely changed the architectural history of the Vatican by initiating three new projects:  the building of new St. Peter's, the Belvedere Court, and the façade of the Vatican Palace.  Within the palace, he initiated two of its most celebrated fresco programs:  Raphael's Stanze and Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling.


Commissions to Michelangelo

The relationship between Julius II and Michelangelo, which spanned nine years and several projects, has often been described as tempestuous.


Tomb of Pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 1505-45. Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to make an elaborate multi-figure, freestanding, three-tier tomb.  The tomb was the subject of much rancor between Michelangelo and the pope, and later, between Michelangelo and Julius' heirs.  The final tomb was a much smaller wall tomb.  Although it had originally been intended for St. Peter's, it was finally installed in San Pietro in Vincoli, which had been the titular church of both Julius and his uncle when they were cardinals.  Michelangelo completed only three statues for the tomb: Rachel, Leah, and the central figure of Moses, whose look of passion and intensity are believed to mirror Pope Julius' defining qualities.


Bronze statue of Pope (destroyed), 1507-8. After taking Bologna in 1506, Pope Julius ordered Michelangelo to make a three times life-size bronze statue of himself and had it mounted on one of Bologna’s city gates.  The statue was later melted and made into a cannon by the Bentivoglio family, who Julius had overthrown.  This cannon was popularly known as "La Giulia."


Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, 1508-12. When the Sistine Chapel ceiling had to be repaired, Julius decided to replace the old decoration of blue sky and stars with a fresco cycle of Old Testament scenes by Michelangelo. Oak imagery referring to the della Rovere family was used in many places.


Commissions to Raphael

In 1508, Pope Julius brought Raphael to Rome to decorate part of the Vatican Palace.


Stanze, Vatican, begun 1508. Pope Julius commissioned Raphael to fresco the Stanza della Segnatura, which most likely functioned as the pope's library at that time.  The frescoed scenes, which include the famous School of Athens and La Disputà, feature likenesses of the pope and other members of his family in the guise of historical figures.  The success of this room led Julius to commission the decoration of the Stanza d'Eliodoro, another of the four rooms known as the Stanze, which are located on the third story of the Nicholas V Wing. Raphael's assistants on this project included Giovanni Penni and Giulio Romano. 


Portrait of Pope Julius II, c.1512. In his famed portrait of the aging Julius, Raphael depicted the pope seated in an armchair in front of a rich green tapestry backdrop.  The pope's chair is turned diagonally from the picture plane, and he gazes down and out of the picture, a powerful man rendered pensive by age and experience.  The beard represents a pledge he made not to shave until he had rid Italy of foreign occupiers.  The finials rising from the corners of the chair back are carved as cap-side-down acorns, which refer to the della Rovere oak. 


Sistine Madonna, 1513-14. Pope Julius commissioned Raphael to paint an altarpiece for San Sisto at Piacenza, which was the main church dedicated to Saint Sixtus.  The painting was presented to the city of Piacenza as a token of Julius' appreciation for the city's help in driving the French out of northern Italy.  The painting is known as the Sistine Madonna because the figure on the left, whose face has Pope Julius' features, is Saint Sixtus, the patron saint of the della Rovere family. 


Commissions to Bramante

The pope appointed Bramante to be the minister of public works in Rome and assigned him several major projects at the Vatican and in Rome.  Because the work was at a relatively early stage when Bramante died, just eleven years into the project, little was completed as originally designed and most of what he did build was altered.


Belvedere Court, Vatican Palace, begun 1505. The pope commissioned Bramante to design a thousand-foot long terraced courtyard known as the Belvedere Court to connect the Vatican Palace with the Villa Belvedere. Although it is not a villa in the usual sense of the term, it included a number of features that became mainstays of sixteenth-century villa architecture like terracing and the use of focal points along the central axis.  The current exedra replaced Bramante's original exedra, which contained a concentrically designed staircase.  To vary the pattern of the long expanse of arcading, which provided galleries for antique statuary, two forms were used:  a simple column-on-pier form on the lower and middle terraces and a complex pattern invented by Bramante that was called a travata ritmica.


St. Peter's, Vatican, begun 1506. Julius II commissioned Bramante to design a new church to replace Old St. Peter's.  Although earlier popes, such as Nicholas V, had commissioned additions and alterations to the structure of Old St. Peter's, Julius II was the first to take the decisive step of beginning the demolition of the damaged structure.  Bramante's first plan for the new church is known from a medal and from a partial plan known as the parchment plan.  These two plans roughly correspond in having a number of distinct parts in common.  Bramante based the lateral distance between the crossing piers on the width of the nave of Old St. Peter's.  By clipping the inner corners of the crossing piers to make them essentially triangular in section, Bramante expanded the size of the square whose width defined the diameter of the dome.  This produced a dome that was wider than the nave, but, unlike medieval wider-than-nave domes, required only four piers.  Bramante's design for a solid-core hemispherical dome is known from one of the drawings in Serlio's Architettura.  The interior was articulated as a single huge story by the use of the colossal order on the massive crossing piers.  The most contentious issue regarding Bramante's plan is the question of whether he intended to build a centrally-planned church or a longitudinal one.  Both the parchment plan and the medal are ambiguous on this point, and later designs appear to vacillate between the two options.  Bramante had created the ideal Renaissance centrally-planned church in his Tempietto, and he certainly approved of the form.  However, such a design would have created liturgical problems and may have been seen as too pagan for the central church of Christendom. 


Vatican Palace façade, begun 1509. To give it a more formal, unified entrance, the pope commissioned Bramante to design an entrance façade for the Vatican Palace.  Its three stories of loggias were later filled in and a fourth story was added by the next pope.  With the construction of wings beside and across from it, the façade became part of the Courtyard of S. Damaso.  


Choir and apse of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, begun c. 1508. Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante to enlarge the choir and apse of Santa Maria del Popolo, which was built by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV in the previous century.


Santa Casa, Loreto. The pope commissioned Bramante to design the Santa Casa (Holy House), a stone enclosure for the legendary house of the Virgin at a sanctuary at Loreto.


City Planning

Pope Julius saw to the repairing of many streets, bridges, and aqueducts and commissioned the construction of two new streets, which run parallel to each other on opposite sides of the Tiber just south of the Vatican.  The one on the Vatican side is the Via Lungara and the one on the city side is the Via Giulia, which is one of the few genuinely Renaissance streets left in Rome.


See more about Pope Julius II's contributions to Rome and the Vatican.
















Patron Families 7 of 8




Melozzo da Forli's Sixtus IV Appointing Platina Prefect of the Library, 1474 -77. See Figure Identification