February 29th marks the birthday of Paul III (Alessandro Farnese, 1468-1549), the last of the Renaissance popes.

By Martina Bollini

February 29th marks the birthday of Paul III (Alessandro Farnese, 1468-1549), the last of the Renaissance popes. Upon the death of Clement VII in 1534, Alessandro was elected pope after a two-day conclave. He was the first Roman to hold that office since Martin V (1417-1431). Chiefly, Paul is remembered for his support of new religious orders (such as the Jesuits) and for convening the Council of Trent in 1545.

Paul III was a notable patron of the arts. Since his early days as a cardinal, Alessandro surrounded himself with a “learned company”, to quote the poet Ludovico Ariosto. In this literary guise, Raphael portrayed him around 1510.

As a pope, Paul III reconstituted the Sapienza University and promoted urban restoration in Rome. Right in the center of the city, Paul carried on the construction of his family palace, Palazzo Farnese, where he employed the greatest architects of his time: Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Michelangelo, and Giacomo della Porta. 

Paul III was one of Michelangelo’s greatest patrons. After his election, Paul requested the artist to enter his service. According to Vasari, when Michelangelo refused, the pope lost his temper, crying: “I have had this desire for thirty years, and now that I am Pope do you think I shall not satisfy it? I shall tear up the contract, for I am determined to have you serve me, come what may.” In 1535 the artist was appointed architect of St. Peter’s and given support to complete the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. In the following years, Michelangelo decorated the pope private chapel, the Pauline Chapel, and designed the Piazza del Campidoglio, on the Capitoline Hill, as a symbol of the renovated papal power. 

Perino del Vaga became court artist to Paul III. Among his major commissions were decorative projects for the Sala Regia (Royal Hall) in the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Titian made several portraits of the pope; he visited Rome at his invitation in 1545-46.


Raphael, Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, 1509–1511, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Titian, Pope Paul III without Hat, c. 1543, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Palazzo Farnese, 1517-1550, Rome.

Giorgio Vasari, Paul III Farnese Directing the Continuance of St Peter’s – Sala dei Cento Giorni, 1546, Palazzo della Cancelleria, Rome.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Piazza del Campidoglio – Capitoline Hill, 1536-46, Rome.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St Peter – Pauline Chapel, 1542-50, Vatican.

Perino del Vaga and his workshop, Sala Paolina, 1545-47, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome.

Titian, Pope Paul III and his Grandsons , 1546, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

Guglielmo della Porta, Tomb of Pope Paul III, 1549-75, Bronze and marble, Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican.

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