by James Lees-Milne, ©1967

This material is in copyright: C Michael Bloch 1967. Requests for permission for any use of this material should be addressed to

Information about the life and work of James Lees-Milne may be found at

Square & Area
Tourist Info

Vatican City
Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2




Peter Saint and Man
Christianity in the Making
Constantine's Basilica
The Site
The Shrine
The Church
The Sacks of Rome
Influence of the Old Basilica
The Vatican Palace
The Renaissance Basilica

Nicholas V
Paul II (1464-71)
Sixtus IV (1471-84)
Innocent VIII (1484-92)
Julius II
St Peter's in 1505

Death of Julius & Bramante
Leo X (1513-21)

Baldassare Peruzzi

Clement VII (1523-34)
Paul III (1534-49)
Michelangelo and Followers
Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo as Architect
Michelangelo's Death (1564)
Gregory XIII
The Dome
The Obelisk

Clement VIII (1592-1605)
Maderno's Nave
Paul V (1605-21)
Problem of the Facade
The High Baroque and Bernini
The Baldacchino
The Bell Towers
Tomb of Urban VIII
Innocent X (1644-55)
The Colonnades
Cattedra Petri
Monument to Alexander VII
Clement IX (1667-9)

Clement X (1670-6)
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Innocent XI (1676-89)
Carlo Fontana
Innocent XII (1691-1700)
Liturgical Significance
Clement XI (1700-21)
Benedict XIII (1724-30)
Clement XII (1730-40)
Benedict XIV (1740-58)
Sobieski Monument
Clement XIII (1758-69)
Clement XIV (1769-74)
Pius VI(1775-99)
The Sacristy
Pius VII (1800-23)
Stuart Monument
Mon. Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI
Pius IX (1846-78)
Vatican Council I
Pius X (1903-14)
Pius XI (1922-39)
Pius XII (1939-58)
A Final Assessment
  Clement X, Altieri (1670-6), was even older. After a tussle to elect a pope lasting from December to April, the cardinals in despair chose this octogenarian. He lived, however, for six years. He had the stamina of an ox and the disposition of an angel. He attributed both these qualities to his rising two or three hours before dawn and retiring to bed at sundown. His reign, like that of his predecessor, was made hideous by the Turkish advances and the squabbles of the Catholic powers. In 1675 the French ambassador, D'Estrees, during a private audience rudely pressed Clement to create more French Cardinals. An outspoken refusal did not prevent him from returning to the subject. The eighty-five year old pope tried to ring his bell and summon an attendant to dismiss the importunate visitor. But the ambassador had the audacity to push him back into his chair. With presence of mind the pope exclaimed, 'You are excommunicated!' and without uttering another word waited until D'Estrees withdrew of his own accord.

Clement X likewise patronized Bernini. Both master and artist were old. They did not conceive large-scale ventures but were content to put finishing touches to the basilica, now nearing completion. In this reign, Bernini began to reconstruct the fountain which Maderno had raised on the north side of the piazza. He designed the irreproachably classical stalls for the Choir Chapel, and fulfilled a long cherished scheme for the altar of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel opposite.

Bernini took immense pains over the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Many sketches for it exist. At first the architect intended the tabernacle to be held in the air by four angels, an idea deriving from a plate in Domenico Fontana's book, Della Trasportazione del'Obelisco Vaticano. Actually, two angels only were carried out in gilded bronze. They are made to kneel on the projecting ends of a marble platform in Sicilian jasper. One adores the tabernacle, the other looks down upon the faithful about to receive communion. There is inexpressible sweetness, not to say sublimity, in these figures which is usually lacking in the emotional fervour associated with the religious imagery of Bernini's middle years. The tabernacle itself, unveiled in 1675, is a slightly elaborated version of Bramante's classical tempietto design. Bernini enriched this beautiful object of gilded bronze with lapis-lazuli. He introduced a motif of keys and Altieri stars on the dome which is crowned by a figure carry8ing a long lance in his left hand. Behind the altar hangs, partly hidden, a canvas of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona, which is sadly dirty.

The altar in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is Bernini's last work for St Peter's. By the time that yet another pope, the Odeschalchi Innocent XI (1676-89), was on the throne of Peter, Bernini was a very old man. He was still at work on sculpture, but most of his days were spent contemplating the divine mysteries. On 28th November 1680 he died at the age of eighty-two. Henceforth, the tempo of work upon the basilica was to slacken considerably. There was in truth little more to be done. The Baroque, which was first introduced to the world in Rome, was almost spent there. Innocent XI did not follow in the tradition of the great baroque popes who had been lavish patrons of contemporary artists. The deplorable state of the papal finances would not allow it. Besides, Innocent's instincts were far from lavish. 'The father of the poor', as he was called by the Romans with a touch of asperity, was naturally parsimonious and ascetic. He lived like a hermit. He dressed in the last pope's garments which were far too short for him; and he wore them - his reign was long - until they were threadbare. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he detested ostentation and acclaim, prohibited entertainment and sternly set his face against women in low-necked dresses. Yet he was not a contemptible ruler. He was the sole European sovereign who dared stand up to Louis XIV. In order to counter that monarch's intrigues to ally Poland with the Turks against the emperor, invasion of the Spanish Netherlands, wars in Italy and Luxembourg and general promotion of Gallicanism and humiliation of the papacy, Innocent formed the Holy League against France. He admitted to his confidants that, however much he disapproved of Louis' diabolical conduct, he had a sneaking admiration for the effective form of absolutism the French king had evolved.

For a time Innocent XI would not appoint an architect to succeed Bernini at St Peter's because, he affirmed, the basilican funds could not meet the salary. Soon, however, he was obliged to look for one owing to the first of several scares that the dome was unsafe. Laymen could never believe that Michelangelo's four piers were sufficiently robust to carry the weight of so enormous a dome. The smallest crack that showed itself in plaster or paving, even the unaccountable fracture of a pane of glass, provoked vehement jeremiads that the whole structure was on the point of collapsing. Now the Romans had got hold of the idea that Bernini in opening staircases up to the loggias within the four piers had seriously weakened them. No one dared go near the basilica for fear of a piece of cornice or pilaster dropping on his head. Accordingly, Carlo Fontana was offered Bernini's vacant post. He at once investigated the condition of the dome and its foundations, and proved them both to be safe.

Carlo Fontana, great-nephew of Domenico and now a man of forty-six, had worked under several high baroque architects, among them Cortona, Rainaldi and last but foremost, Bernini. For a generation after the death of the last he was to be the undisputed leader on whose slender shoulders the mantle of the giants had fallen. And Fontana himself was not a giant. Nor was he as baroque as his greater predecessors and teachers. He was a graceful designer who reverted to the correct classical. Whereas the Baroque was now shifting to other parts of Italy, to be manifested in the novel buildings of Guarini, Juvara and Vittone, Fontana's style by comparison was almost academic. It was also uninspired.

Fontana was a genial, accommodating and industrious professional man. As such he commended himself to the cautious and frugal Innocent XI. The pope commissioned him to duplicate on the south side of the obelisk in St Peter's Piazza the Maderno-Bernini fountain on the north. The work is unexceptionable and Fontana cannot fairly be judged from a copy. Nevertheless, the south fountain is perceptibly coarser in workmanship than its prototype. At the same time, Fontana advocated an extension into the Borgo of Bernini's colonnade in tow straight converging arcades, at the end of which there was to be a transverse gateway, or propylon. On this gateway, he wished to raise a clock tower. The scheme, however, like all previous ones relating to St Peter's towers, came to nothing.

The last pope of the seventeenth century, Innocent XII, Pignatelli (1691-1700), entertained a number of building schemes, including the foundation of the Curia Innocenziana. He was more liberal with commissions than his predecessor of the same name, if less ready with his payments. Fontana was frequently obliged to complain of the inadequacy of his salary. The pope wanted a memorial in St Peter's to Queen Christina of Sweden, in whose conversion he vainly foresaw a return of her country to the Faith and to whose contribution towards the culture of the city he looked back with gratitude. Fontana designed for the first pier of the right aisle a sepulchral memorial of unwonted importance for a royal personage. A white marble bas-relief shows the queen abjuring Protestantism at Innsbruck in 1655. Overhead, a large medallion frames a portrait of Christina in silhouette. It is an unromantic likeness, for she is given a double chin and a prominent nose with flaring nostrils. Both bas-relief and medallion were executed by G. G. Theodon, a French sculptor of talent whose last days were spent carving religious statues for the Palace of Versailles.

Innocent XII and Fontana's most notable contribution to St. Peter's was the conversion of the first chapel of the south aisle into the baptistery. Since the reign of Nicholas V1 (1447-55) baptisms had been performed in the sarcophagus of Probus,2 fourth-century Prefect of Rome, which served as a font. The sarcophagus stood until 1694 in the chapel where the Pieta now rests. Fontana was extremely proud of his new baptistery, of which he published in 1694 a detailed Description in a sumptuously bound volume. The fact that he endured much tribulation through the pope criticizing his designs and complaining of his high charges probably accentuated the final achievement in his own estimation. The walls of the baptistery are lined with polychrome marbles against which are set little side tables of porphyry richly chased with bronze. The cynosure of this lavish chapel is of course the font and cover. For the first Fontana supplied the oval porphyry lid of the sarcophagus which once contained the remains of the Emperor Otto II buried in 983 in the atrium of Constantine's basilica. The lid may, before that, have served the same purpose for the remains of the Emperor Hadrian. It was taken by the architect from the crypt of the new basilica where it had been stored since the destruction of the medieval atrium. On removal, it was dropped and broken into ten pieces, but was so skillfully repaired that he fractures are scarcely visible. The beautiful gilded bronze cover surmounted by the Lamb of God and the enrichments of the font itself were to Fontana's design.

1Until Nicholas V's reign, Pope Damasus's primitive font had been used. It was then discarded because of wear.
His temple, or mausoleum had been at the extreme west end of the old basilica.

It may not be out of place here to take some stock of the liturgical significance of the new St Peter's. What in fact is this enormous building all about? It was certainly not intended as a mere exercise in monumental architecture. Nor was it raised primarily for day to day worship.1 On the contrary, many people find its great size and emptiness chilling. Its Lack of intimacy does not readily invite our prayers, as do many less impressive and more humble churches in Rome and elsewhere. Clearly, its creators had more specific views in mind than art and the celebrating of Masses, although, needless to say, these considerations were never overlooked. The renaissance St Peter's is indeed thoroughly different from the old church it replaced both in intention and in style. First of all, the idea of putting an empty altar in a conspicuous central position under the dome, where it could be viewed from all sides, was something new. The medieval idea had been to veil the holy of holies behind high screens and curtains, and to give it mystery. The relegation of the choir to a side chapel was also quite new. The medieval practice had been to place the choir for the monks in a chancel, secluded by screens it is true, but central enough for their voices to be distinctly heard by the congregation in all corners of the building. In the renaissance St Peter's even the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is situated rather unceremoniously off the north aisle. What is the significance of these changes? It is surely this. St Peter's is really a church built round an altar over a tomb, and everything in its design is subservient to the commemorative purpose. It is no less than a shrine which marks the spot where the first of the apostles was buried. Next, its practical purpose is for ceremonies and spectacles on the grandest and most magnificent scale - pontifical Masses, the opening of the Holy Door in Jubilee Years, canonizations, beatifications, the coronation and funeral of popes, public audiences and even ecumenical councils. As much room as possible was made to enable the Pope to be seen when he officiates at the high altar facing the nave; also room for the processions. These reasons account for the uninterrupted space provided in the nave and transepts.

1Indeed, the daily office sung by the chapter has been discontinued since the Second World War.

Papal ceremonies are rare events; and we ordinary people are seldom privileged to witness them. Even a pontifical High Mass these days takes place seldom enough. But it is one of the most splendid ceremonies of the world. It lasts something like four hours from beginning to end, and is a tremendous ordeal for the chief participant. No wonder St Gregory the Great complained in a letter to Patriarch of Alexandra that when it was over he suffered excruciating pain from the gout it caused him from so much standing.

The preparations and rehearsals are extremely elaborate and complicated. The high altar under the baldacchino reserved for the Pope's sole use is covered with embroidered frontals. Seven candlesticks holding painted candles, a crucifix the work of Benvenuto Cellini and silver statuettes of Saints Peter and Paul are placed upon them. The pontifical throne is set in the apse in front of Bernini's cattedra against hangings of crimson velvet. Between the altar and the throne two rows of benches are ranged for the cardinals and prelates. In the south row near the altar is a smaller throne of crimson and gold, without a canopy, where the Pope will sit during the singing of Terce. It is set on a scarlet dais raised upon steps covered with an emerald green carpet. On various credences the sacred vessels and missals needed for the celebration are carefully disposed.

At last the long awaited procession enters the basilica from the portico led by procurators of the religious orders. A prelate swings a thurible, another carries the papal cross. Acolytes bear gleaming silver candlesticks. Friars in chasubles, abbots, bishops, archbishops and cardinals follow in close order of precedence; next, the Vice Steward of the Holy Roman Church, the Prince Assistant at the Throne (wearing a black velvet doublet, hose and cloak, a white ruff, sheathed sword and carrying a cap, for all the world like Titian's portrait of young Philip II of Spain), the Quarter Master Major and the Master of the Horse gorgeously caparisoned. The Cardinal Deacon precedes the Pontiff. The Holy Father is borne in the gilded sedia gestatoria (or portable throne) under an eight-poled canopy, and escorted by Swiss Guards, Palatine Guards and Noble Guards in all the splendour of their traditional uniforms. Behind walk the Dean of the Rota carrying the mitre, the Papal Physician and that strangely symbolic figure, the 'secret sweeper' (lo scopatore segreto) and other officials. On either side of the Pope are carried the nodding flabelli, or huge fans of ostrich feathers, those exquisite relics of the fourth century, then used for keeping off flies and insects from the oblations, and now a mere memory of the splendours of the Byzantine East.

Suddenly the silver trumpets in the Hall of the Benedictions over the portico sound a fanfare, and the choir bursts into the refrain, Tue s Petrus. The Pope, amid shouts of acclamation, the clapping of hands and the waving of handkerchiefs is borne slowly to the small side throne behind the high altar. The cardinals advance to kiss his hand, the bishops his knee and the abbots his foot.

The Hour of Terce is now sung and the Apostolic Subdeacon, wearing the humeral veil, brings to the throne the buskins and sandals which are put on the Pope by the aiutante di camera, or valet. His livery is possibly the most beautiful of them all. He wears a jacket, waistcoat and breeches of cut velvet in a pattern of the papal insignia upon brocade, the whole being of deep wine colour. Long strips hang from his shoulders and ribbons from his knees. His stockings are likewise of crimson silk and his black slippers have crimson tongues. After Terce the Pope's hands are washed and his cope is replaced by a girdle from which hangs a wide maniple with the Agnus Dei embroidered upon it. After vesting for Mass, the Pope puts incense in the thurible and blesses it. Then the procession is re-formed and approaches the high altar. On arrival, the three junior cardinals meet the Pope and receive from him the kiss of peace. In return they kiss his breast. Seven acolytes place their candles on one of the credence tables; the cross is inserted in the pedestal on the gospel side of the altar. And the Pope advances to say Mass.

The special rites of the pontifical Mass are just as complicated as the preliminaries and steeped in long traditional usage. They are also long drawn out. When, however, the celebration is over, the Pope from the great throne under the cattedra gives the final blessing and grants a plenary indulgence. He then resumes his seat in the sedia gestatoria, and the tiara is placed on his head. The Cardinal Archpriest in a last symbolic gesture presents him with a purse containing twenty-five jules with the words: 'Most Blessed Father, the Chapter and canons of the most holy basilica offer your Holiness the usual stipend for a Mass well sung.'

It is on occasions such as the one I have just described that St Peter's Basilica truly comes into its own, and that those of the faithful who are proud and jealous of the Church's traditions, bless those popes and architects whose art and unashamed extravagance created a setting of such unparalleled magnificence.

9 The Last Centuries

The end of the seventeenth century virtually coincided with the end of the building of St Peter's. Virtually but not absolutely, because there were still two important additions to come during the last quarter of the eighteenth. They are the clock turrets and the sacristy, which I shall mention later. In all other respects, St Peter's fabric was complete and a comparison of contemporary photographs with eighteenth-century engravings of the basilica reveals only a few minor changes outside, and rather more, if we look for them, inside. In fact those eighteenth-century popes anxious to make a grandiose contribution which would immortalize their reign found precious little space available. All the majority were able to do was to adorn altarpieces, and raise monuments, not to themselves, for that was no longer the fashion, but to their predecessors. Clement XI's long reign of twenty-one years (1700-21) opened with the century. It was punctuated by a series of misadventures. The War of the Spanish Succession embroiled him against his will with the chief contestants, the Archduke Charles of Hapsburg and Philip Duke of Anjou, each of whom shamelessly treated the pope's territories as though they were Tom Tiddler's ground to be fleeced of gold and silver. Clement was soon plunged into difficulties with the archduke's brother, the Emperor of Austria, which led to the imperial troops over-running Italy, the capture of Milan and Naples and, in 1707, the invasion of the Papal States. As if these vexations were not enough - for the pope was obliged to surrender on humiliating terms, which infuriated the French against him - he endured the treachery of Anjou, by now Phillip V of Spain, who in professing to repel the Turkish advances in the Mediterranean merely annexed Sardinia to the Spanish dominions. The revival of Jansenism threatened a schism in the French Church (it occasioned Clement's courageous Bull of Condemnation, Unigenitus); and the Chinese converts, supported by the Jesuit missionaries, caused some embarrassment by their wish to retain the ritual honours traditionally paid to Confucius and to their ancestors.

The papacy as a European power may during Clement XI's reign have fallen into eclipse. The pope was not however a member of the cultivated Albani family for nothing. He was one of the Vatican Library's greatest patrons. His interest in archaeology and art was very positive. He founded the Vatican Museum and instituted art exhibitions which hitherto had been unknown in the capital. He was a true lover of historic buildings which he would conscientiously restore when they were in danger of collapse. This did not prevent him from drastically remodeling Pirro Ligorio's great niche (the exedra) and giving a new balustrade to Michelangelo's staircase in the Court of the Pine-Cone.

In St Peter's Basilica, Clement XI supervised the completion of Queen Christina's monument. He also had the domes of the chapels of the Presentation and Blessed Sacrament lined with mosaics, appropriate enough in story but dull as art. His most important contribution was the equestrian statue of Charlemagne, made to offset that of Constantine, beyond the southern extension of the portico. Cornacchini's effort is a sadly watered-down version of Bernini's masterpiece, with which it hardly merits comparison. That the pendant to Constantine should represent the second greatest monarch to champion the universal Church is at the same time fitting. It is a massive and conspicuous piece of statuary, which is the most that can be said for it. The poet Byron, standing one morning of 1817 in the portico, overheard an Englishman mistake the two equestrian statues for those of Saints Peter and Paul, and remark to a companion, 'I never knew that Paul rode a horse again after his dreadful accident.'

Clement XI was further responsible for the monument begun in 1719 to Gregory XIII who had died in 1585. Camillo Rusconi was the sculptor. Rusconi, who was very much influenced by Bernini, departed from the baroque master here in two particulars. In the first place, he made the whole monument of unrelieved white marble in contrast with Bernini's deliberate polychrome surfaces. Then he seated the pope's effigy directly on the lid of the sarcophagus, which is a slightly uncomfortable arrangement. On one side, Religion leans backwards the better to see the pope, whereas Science, wearing a martial helmet like Minerva's lifts up the pall to disclose a bas-relief relating to Gregory's great achievement, the reform of the calendar.

Benedict XIII, Orsini (1724-30), was neither popular nor gay. He was an ascetic Dominican monk with a long mortified countenance and hooked nose. As pope, he inhabited a cell and turned his dark livid eyes well away from the vanities which make life endurable to most men. Puritanical, petty and rather silly, he gave away his beautiful furniture because he deemed it frivolous, and forbade the clergy to wear wigs because such personal adornments were distracting from inner piety. Yet this somber man was responsible for one of the most joyous contributions to St Peter's in the pair of holy water stoups (le acquasantiere) upon the first two piers facing one another across the nave. Cornacchini made the overall design. A couple of winged putti, carved by Francesco Moderati, perch on the moulded base of each pier. They hold up a shell of giallo antico (yellow marble) which with the folded drapery of bigio antico (blue grey) that swathes it, is carved by Giuseppe Lirone. Only when one watches a child clambering up the drapery in a vain attempt to dip a small finger in the blessed water far out of reach, can one realize the colossal size of these seemingly normal stoups.

Clement XII, Corsini (1730-40), continued, after a break of several years, some of the works begun by Clement Albani. He was a munificent patron of art and learning. He began the most beloved of all Roman fountains, the Trevi, built the Palazzo Consulta and the monumental façade of St John's Lateran, adding to that basilica the Corsini Chapel. He founded the Museum of Antique Sculpture on the Capitol.

Clement XII's election was announced by a serious earthquake in Rome. It occasioned yet another scare - not perhaps unreasonable - about the safety of St Peter's dome. In 1703 a lesser earthquake had undoubtedly done some damage to the fabric of the basilica. The 1730 quake occurred during the day-time when people were inside the building. Fortunately no one suffered injury if we discount the death from heart failure of one of two Spanish monks who happened to be crouching in the ball over the cupola at the time. The news of this tragedy quickly spread, and caused consternation among the citizens.

For ten years, no action was taken to investigate the dome's condition. Then Benedict XIV (1740-58) was, after a six months' conclave, elected pope. Prospero Lambertini was not the man to allow the dome, which was the pride of Rome and the world, to collapse. He called upon leading architects, engineers and mathematicians to make the minutest examination of the cracks in the fabric. They inspected every pilaster, cornice and crevice. On four successive occasions, these experts were made to carry out researches and deliberate upon their findings. Again, the pronouncement was: Nothing to fear for the safety of the dome. Benedict, nevertheless, was still not reassured. A fifth time, he set up a commission of twenty-nine persons under the Professor of Mathematics at Padua University, Giovanni Poleni. Each of the twenty-nine members signed a report, none of which expressed alarm, but all of which made different suggestions how to take precautions. Some recommended substituting copper for lead on the dome, some filling up the spaces made for Bernini's staircases to the loggias within the four crossing piers, some strengthening the buttresses of the drum, and some removing the lantern. Poleni believed that the lateral pressure from the components crowning the dome was too concentrated. He advised that the worst cracks ought to be filled and the dome girdled with rings of iron. His recommendations prevailed.

Accordingly, Luigi Vanvitelli, one of the century's most distinguished architects and the builder of the Palace of Caserta for the King of Naples, was employed to carry out these precautionary measures. In 1743-4 he encircled the drum and dome with five stout chains. He put the first in the pedestal, the second above the cornice, the third on top of the attic just under the entablature of the drum, the fourth around the waist of the dome, and the fifth under the metal balustrade of the lantern.

Benedict XIV was one of the most popular popes to sit on St Peter's throne. He was magnanimous and honest; exceptionally good-natured and witty. The most approachable of men, he would walk casually about Rome cracking jokes with anyone he met. To the end of his life at eighty-three, witticisms flowed from his lips. On his deathbed he remarked to his doctor, whose name was Pontio: 'Our Lord died under Pilate: I shall die under Pontius.' This attractive and liberal-minded pontiff liked to treat others as he expected to be treated by them. Consequently he was criticized for pandering to the secular European monarchs whose returns of friendliness were usually far from disinterested. Benedict's chief failing was ductility. A too eager readiness to mediate sometimes led him to make concessions which exceeded the deserts of the recipients. His natural sociability did not conflict with his passion for learning. He was the greatest expert of the age on canon law. His happiest moments were spent in his library. Scholars from every country sent him their books; and Voltaire dedicated a couplet to him. His friendship for the agnostic sage of Ferney brought him a good deal of disapproval from those conservative cardinals to who this most dangerous of the Encyclopedists was absolute anathema.

Benedict enriched the Vatican Library. He extended the Capitoline Museum and founded the Museum of Christian Antiquities. He saw the Trevi Fountain finished and witnessed the release of the first waters over that delicious cascade of sea horses, tritons and rockwork. His repair of churches and hospitals - not always happy, for he went a long way to ruin the Pantheon and S. Maria degli Angeli by over-restoration - often amounted to total rebuilding. He employed Fuga to add the colonnaded façade to S. Maria Maggiore, and Gregorini the elliptical atrium to C. Croce in Gerusalemme. He befriended the painter Pompeo Batoni, who is renowned for countless portraits of handsome and elegant young milords now hanging in English country houses. Life in the city under Benedict XIV was made ineffably sweet by the pope's tolerance, joy and gaiety. His reign witnessed the zenith and decline of the Roman Rococo depicted in the engravings of Vasi and Piranesi. The chief contributor to its ephemeral humanism and fragile beauty was the magnanimous, pleasure-enhancing Prospero Lambertini.

In St Peter's Benedict had to rest content with a series of minor embellishments. He got Vanvitelli to enrich with gilded stucco the vaulting of the three west apses. He had copies made in mosaic of paintings by the artists Pietro Bianchi and Pierre Subleyras for the altars of Saints Basil the Great and Chrysostom. These enormous propaganda subjects of the triumph of the Sacraments over heresy barely qualify as works of art. They are careful representations in a mechanical medium which has completely lost the subtle gradations of line and tone of medieval mosaic work. Later eighteenth-century popes continued the process of substituting vast framed altarpieces in mosaic for original baroque canvases, which were relegated to S. Maria degli Angeli and other churches about the city. Benedict presented a new bell, many gorgeous vestments, silver candlesticks, a cross and a gilt urn still used for laying before the confession at the blessing of the new pallia. He commissioned for several empty niches of the nave and transept statues by the sculptors Slodtz, Bracci, della Valle and Spinazzi. In 1746 Filippo della Valle's tomb for Innocent XII was carried out. Pope Innocent, represented as a frail old man, and not as the masterful champion of the regenerated Catholic Church, is seated between Charity and Justice. The composition is rococo, and the figures are calmer and more elegant than those of the more stalwart baroque age.

When Maria Clementina Sobieski, the wretched wife of the pious stick, the Old Pretender, died at the age of thirty-three, Benedict XIV, out of natural sympathy for the queen who had never reigned and the good woman who had never known happiness, raised a monument to her memory. Although jammed in a passage of the left aisle, its presence in the basilica at all was a signal honour. Just as Innocent XII had found a place for Queen Christina in order to encourage the Swedes to revert to Catholicism, so Benedict also meant the inclusion of the Pretender's wife to be an encouragement and a reproach to Protestant England. The monument, designed by Filippo Barigioni, was carved by Pietro Bracci in full baroque polychrome splendour at a time - 1745 - when the style was already out of date. The portrait of the queen in mosaic is held by a putto and the figure of Charity, who with her left arm thrusts towards the altar the burning heart of the devout and unhappy woman. A pink, gold-fringed drapery hands in heavy folds over both sides of the door to the lift which whirls visitors up to the dome. Below the porphyry sarcophagus of this very noble monument, two little angels receive the crown which the queen never wore and scepter she never held.

Bracci was wholly responsible for the design and most of the carving of Benedict's own monument facing St Basil's altar. The cheerful pope is made in death to gaze for ever upon the grizzly remains of St Josophat, bishop and martyr, who died in 1623 and whose leathery skull protrudes from his vestments in a glass case at the foot of St Basil's altar. Benedict stands in magnificent hauteur, which he never assumed in his lifetime. He blesses the world with an ample gesture of the right hand. With the left he clutches the curly head of an angel. The Romans liked to pretend it was a box of snuff, to which their beloved pope was much addicted. The fingers of his right hand were, they declared, shaking off the remnants of the last pinch he had just taken. Below Benedict Wisdom and Disinterestedness lean on the head of a doorway. The first allegory honours the pope's unexcelled knowledge of canon law; the second his tolerance and complete lack of political ambition.

Even the reign of Benedict XIV had not been wholly carefree. What pope's reign over has been? The Wars of the Austrian Succession brought ravages upon the Papal States. Spain and Austria, without having any direct quarrel with the Holy See, waged a series of senseless and bloody campaigns outside their own frontiers. Not for the first of last time in history Italy was made into a battleground over an issue with which she had little concern. The insidious propagandism of the moribund Jansenist heresy had, like the sting of a wasp after it has been swatted, aimed a parting thrust at the papal armoury. All over Christendom the Jesuits were being assailed. It is true that during the past few decades their unpopularity had been growing apace. The Society's missionaries in distant parts of the globe were long held by the imperial powers to be subversive of colonial government. Fear for the empire as much as hatred of priestly tyranny was Pombal's excuse for banishing all Jesuits from Portugal and the Portuguese dominions in 1759.

The reign of Clement XIII, Rezzonico (1758-69), was clouded by perpetual anxiety over the fate of the Jesuits. If the European statesmen came to identify the Jesuits with the enemies of secular rule, the popes knew that they were their standing force, their right arm against the increasing disbelief fostered by the French Encyclopedists' hatred of religion. It was clear to the papacy that the elimination of the Society was a means of destroying its chief resistance to atheism. A complex and dangerous situation was developing in which the Jesuits were the buffer between two extreme forms of absolutism, that of the popes and that of the dynastic sovereigns of Europe. The scales were weighted against the former by the great influence of the Encyclopedists who regarded the Church's absolutism as the worse evil and the Jesuits as the instruments of reaction.

Clement XIII was bald, corpulent, deeply pious, timid and sixty-five. Nevertheless, he had sufficient perspicacity to foresee the alarming trend of the papal fortunes. With unwonted courage he took action. He roundly denounced Pombal and broke off relations with Portugal. His action was a declaration of war against secular interference with the Church's authority. As a consequence, the Jesuits were driven from France in 1764. Undeterred, Clement issued a bull re-endorsing the Society's privileges. In 1767 the Jesuits were driven from Spain, Naples, Parma and Malta. The pope thereupon issued a monitorium nullifying all anti-clerical laws whatsoever. A League of Catholic Powers promptly formed against the Holy See and the Bourbon kings occupied the Papal States. The pope, pressed to dissolve the Society, refused. His distress was such that, being delicate, he suffered a heart attack and died. Heroic in defense of the Church's rights, Clement was the victim of concerted hostility from the European powers.

He did not therefore have much time to devote to learning and the arts. But he encouraged letters and was fully conscious of the stylistic evolution from the Rococo to the Neo-Classical, which coincided with his reign. His favourite painter was Raphael Mengs, and he preferred the engravings of the Roman revivalist Piranesi to those of his master, Vasi, who had been schooled in the rococo tradition. He appointed Winckelmann, the great apostle of Hellenism, his Commissioner of Antiquities. Clements's only tangible contributions to St Peter's and the Vatican Palace were the screen of the Choir Chapel and the fig-leaves of the nude statues in the sculpture galleries.

If the design of Clement XIII's monument owes nothing to the subject - it was not begun until 1792 - it is so important a piece of sculpture in the developed neo-classical style, and so fitting a memorial to this sad and extremely benevolent pontiff that it deserves mention here. It is the work of Antonio Canova, then in his early thirties. Clement's effigy kneels above a sarcophagus. It faces the tribune. The hands are clasped in prayer. The attitude and expression denote intense spirituality. The lips appear to be murmuring. A pair of attendant virtues are by contrast so dehumanized as to be rather insipid. Religion stands indifferently handling a cross. Rays of light spring from her chaste forehead. The Spirit of Death, a naked winged youth, reclines against the sarcophagus. A pair of couchant lions, one roaring, the other dozing, guard the entrance to the tomb. Although meant to symbolize Clement's strength in action and repose, these beasts - the artist went specially to the royal zoo in Naples to sketch them - approximate closer to nature than the virtues do. Canova in carving the figure of Religion injured himself with a drill. As a result, he suffered all his life from severe stomach pains, which eventually brought about his death.

The reign of the fourteenth Clement (1769-74) was more disastrous than that of the thirteenth. The election of 1769 was openly fought by the European powers over the Jesuit issue. Lorenzo Ganganelli, a former Franciscan monk, was chosen because he was considered by the powers the least likely candidate to obstruct their determination to destroy the Society. Ganganelli lacked conviction and strength of purpose; yet he was good and devout, and tried to put the Church's interests before other considerations. In spite of his simple pleasures, bowls, bird-snaring and riding in a short white coat and red hat - he was frequently thrown to the consternation of his attendants - Clement was liked neither by cardinals nor nobles. After relentless pressure from all sides, he at last consented in 1773 totally to dissolve the Society of Jesus on the ill-founded belief that by this means he would make peace with the Catholic sovereigns. 'It is done', he said, as he laid down the pen with which he had signed the fateful brief of dissolution. 'It is necessary for the Church, but it will be the death of me.' The following year Benevento and Avignon were restored to the papacy. These acts of restitution however brought the pope no comfort. He never ceased to be remorseful for what he knew to have been an act of treachery and base surrender to the forces of irreligion and secular tyranny. He looked upon the two restored fiefs as though they were blood money. The wretched man's sufferings for the few months that remained to him were pitiable. Worry and depression induced herpes and pimples. Without entirely losing his reason, he became mentally unhinged. His mouth slavered and his eyes darted in their sockets as he shuffled from room to room, always keeping close to the wall in deadly fear of assassination by some member of the Society which he had betrayed.

The suppression of the Jesuits has eclipsed all other deeds of Clement XIV. His praiseworthy attempts to reduce taxes and alleviate the wretched condition of his subjects are overlooked. His was a gentle and even poetical nature. He patronized the neo-classical painters and he befriended Mozart. He increased the treasures, notably statuary, of the Vatican and founded the Museum of Antiquities, which now goes by the name of Museo Pio-Clementino. His architect, Michelangelo Simonetti, in making room for the new galleries, necessarily destroyed some notable frescoes by Pinturicchio and Mantegna in the old Belvedere of Innocent VIII. Simonetti furthermore cherished designs for converting one of the lateral chapel domes of the basilica into a bell tower. They were not carried out, and the long, vexed problem how to provide a belfry for St Peter's was to be resolved - not wholly satisfactorily, it must be admitted - be another architect under Clement XIV's successor.

Over the next half century, short of only two years, the throne of Peter was occupied by the two most tragic popes of modern times, Pius VI and Pius VII. For 265 days, the cardinals wrangled and the Catholic ambassadors intrigued before electing Angelo Braschi. Pope Pius VI (1775-99) was a patrician. His extreme dignity and beauty of person were enhanced by amiability and charm. Devout and of irreproachable conduct, this splendid person with his snow-white hair was, understandably, just a little vain. He courted admiration to which he attached more than face value. He was anxious both to love and to be loved.

His pontificate opened with promise of another golden age. Europe was more or less at peace and the great powers were gloating over their defeat of the Jesuits. That issue had been at least temporarily settled. Discreditable though the outcome was to the papacy, Pius VI could in no sense be held personally responsible. Healthy and hard-working, the pope set about all sorts of desirable improvements. He began draining the Pontine Marshes, making roads and building a cathedral in Subiaco. In Rome he put up the Egyptian obelisks at the Quirinal, Trinita dei Monti and Monte Citorio. He extended the Museum of Antiquities begun by Clement XIV, and added largely to the collection of sculpture, including six hundred pieces of antique statuary. He enabled his nephews to raise the monumental Palazzo Braschi in the Piazza S. Pantaleo, the last of the great papal palaces of Rome. He patronized the painters Mengs and David, and the sculptor Canova. Rome became the Mecca of aristocrats and artists from the north, who were drawn by the climate, the monuments, the license and the free entry into all social circles. It was the city of the carnival and the stimulating intellectual exchanges described by Goethe in his journals. There can seldom, if ever, in history have been a cosmopolitan centre offering more beauty, tradition and agreeable living than Rome during the first half of Pius VI's reign.

These idyllic conditions were destined not to last. The clouds of popular discontent gathering in Austria and France, of disbelief and anti-clericalism in every quarter of the old and new world, were gradually drifting into Italy, until they could no longer be disregarded. Rome was about the last place where the eclipse of the old patrician civilization happened. In 1792 vindictive measures were taken in France against the Church. In the following year, the official de-christianization of the French nation was accompanied by organized massacres and noyades of the clergy, and by destruction of ecclesiastical property on a monstrous scale never experienced before in a land which had risen to greatness through the benefits of Christ's gospel. The French Revolution disturbed the whole of civilized Europe, and extinguished once and for all the lamps of the most carefree city of culture in the world.

The seizure of Avignon by the French Republic was tantamount to an act of warfare against the Papal States. Pius VI, in his efforts to maintain neutrality when the coalition of nations was formed against republican France, exercised the most commendable restraint without, however, hesitating to condemn the outrageous misdeeds of atheistic anarchy. And what were the consequences of his restraint? Napoleon Bonaparte was invited by the Directory to destroy Rome. In 1798 the city was occupied by General Berthier and declared a republic. The Swiss Guards were dispersed.1 The fickle Romans, assembled in the piazza, indulged in orgies of 'brotherhood' and burnt the pope's effigy below his windows. Close to the obelisk an altar of freedom was set up before which a 'fraternization feast' was held. Rome was systematically looted by the French. Neither the Vatican Galleries nor the Pope's private apartments were spared. The Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, the Dying Gaul were removed from the plinths on which they had rested for centuries. The Raphael tapestries were stripped; the Madonna della Sedia and countless famous pictures were taken. On one day, five hundred horse-drawn wagons left the gates of Rome on their way to France. Jewels, silver, archives and treasure of all kinds were plundered and transported. In the city wanton damage was done to the collections and the villas of the noble families which contained them.

The eighty-year-old pope was as temporal ruler deposed. Already a very sick man, he was deported one February morning before dawn. On being commanded by a French general to surrender the two rings he was wearing, he replied sweetly: 'I can give you one because it is my own property. But the other', pointing to the Fisherman's Ring, 'must pass to my successor.' Pius terrible journey through rain and snow to Siena, the privations he endured there, the final expulsion from Italy across the Alps when he was mortally ill and half paralyzed, and his death at Valence after forgiving all his enemies need to describing in this text. His sufferings from the hands of the new rulers of the Most Christian Nation of Europe far surpassed those of any pope in modern times.

After much agitation by his sympathizers, permission was granted in 1802 by the French Consulate for the body of Pius VI to be taken back to Rome. Although the pope's wish to be buried as close as possible to St Peter's tomb was not carried out, his kneeling effigy by Canova was placed in the confession of the basilica. It was the ailing sculptor's last work. He carved the head and hands, leaving the rest to his pupil Adamo Tadolini. Pius is in the act of deeply concentrated prayer. The head is tilted, the eyes gaze upwards as it were beyond the confines of the dome into the distant heavens, and the mouth is half open. The face is wrapped in a holy fervour which is too melodramatic to be entirely agreeable.

More to our purpose are Pius VI's benefactions to the church of the Saint whose name he honoured above all others and to whose mediation he committed himself with the fortitude of an early Christian martyr, when he was expelled from Rome. Among his renovations had been new windows to the dome and the regilding of the nave ceiling on which the Braschi arms were substituted for those of Paul V; among his embellishments were the gift of mosaic frontals to twenty-five altars. His two innovations amounted to the pair of clocks on the façade, and the new sacristy.

The hopelessness of previous attempts to build a belfry has been described in a previous chapter. Ever since Bernini's abortive efforts, successive popes recognized that some sort of provision for bells and a clock ought to be made. Pius VI called upon Giuseppe Valadier to settle the problem for all time. Valadier, son of a Dutch father and Roman mother, had been appointed by the pope St Peter's Architect at the age of twenty-seven. He was to become the best known of Rome's neo-classical architects. In selecting the two ends of the church façade, in other words the bases of Maderno's intended towers, for a pair of clocks, Valadier had the taste, and the good manners, to design crests to accord with the style of the rest of the building. Two pairs of angels, of whom Bernini would not have felt ashamed, hold the mosaic clock faces which are crowned with the papal insignia of the Braschi. The southern face registers European mean time, the northern Italian actual time. One enormous bronze bell, founded by Luigi Valadier, the architect's father, and weighing 28,000 lbs, was hoisted into the opening of the attic immediately below the southern dial. The grave, sublime, melodious tone of il campanone echoes on solemn occasions across the piazza like a paternal call from distant Jehovah.

The new sacristy was an even greater undertaking. Its high cost, which aroused a good deal of criticism, is not altogether surprising when we consider that the building is the size of a very large parish church. Pius VI was undeterred by opposition. He was resolved to supply the one necessary appendage which the mother church of the Christian world had been lacking for centuries. Maderno at the beginning of the seicento had wished to build, and Carlo Fontana at the very end had actually designed, a sacristy. The first architect was thwarted by lack of funds and the second by the then pope's reluctance to destroy the existing ancient structure on the only site available. This was the circular Roman tomb of the Emperor Theodosius, the survivor of the two rotundas attached like loose beads to the south transeptal arm of Constantine's basilica. It had undergone various transformations and uses since Roman times. Early in the sixth century, Pope Symmachus remodeled it in the shape it retained until the eighteenth century. In the Middle Ages it became the Church of S. Maria della Febre (Our Lady Protectress against Plague). In the mid-fifteenth century, Pius II deposited in it the head of St Andrew brought to Rome from the Peloponnese. Thereafter, it became known as the Cappella di S. Andrea. The venerable building, the last link with the old basilica, had for a long time served, inadequately it is true, as the sacristy to the renaissance St Peter's. It was regarded by many Romans as a valuable piece of antiquity, and accordingly reverenced. But not by Pope Pius VI. He had no scruples whatever in having it replaced with a more commodious structure capable of accommodating, as well as a sacristy, a treasury, canonry and chapter house, where cardinals and dignitaries might assemble for important functions.

In 1776 Pius chose from several projects submitted by contributors one by Carlo Marchionni, architect of the Villa Albani. Without delay, orders were given for the ancient rotunda to be pulled down. But this last vestige of Constantine's basilica was so soundly built that a squad of demolition workers took months to remove it. At last the site was cleared and completely flattened. On 1st October the Romans watched the strange spectacle of the pope driving triumphantly in a carriage over the open ground. In 1784 the new sacristy was finished and in the presence of a large assembly consecrated by the pope with tears of joy coursing down his cheeks.

The sacristy stands midway to the south of the basilica to which it is attached by two corridors, enclosing the small Piazza Braschi. The roadway to the Vatican precincts passes through the piazza and under the corridors. The sacristy is approached by the public through a doorway leading to the western corridor under Pius VIII's monument. Marchionni, like Valadier with his clock turrents, subordinated the style of his own generation to that of the great basilica dominating the site. Michelangelo's south elevation had to be respected. The best tribute that can be paid to Marchionni is gratitude for leaving the great south transeptal apse free and undisturbed, and for designing the new sacristy in the mannerist style which he found around him. Creative architects are not conspicuous for humility. They seldom show respect for an outmoded style, even if it be that of a great genius. Marchionni was an honourable exception. He deliberately crammed the windows of his sacristy between pilasters, set them at irregular intervals and heights, and thrust the pediments of the upper into entablatures in that outrageous manner first introduced by Michelangelo and soon widely copied by his contemporaries.

The central apartment of the sacristy, called the Sagrestia Commune, is octagonal. Yellow Siena pilasters support a dome. The four entrances are carried by fluted Ionic columns of grey marble. These had been brought from Hadrian's Villa and used by Bernini for the lower stage of his ill-fated belfry. In the middle of the marble pavement are displayed the arms of the Braschi pope - under three stars a child's head or zephyr blowing at a bunch of lilies.

With the sacristy, the new basilica was definitely finished. Nearly two hundred years had elapsed since Sixtus V built the dome; two hundred and thirty-eight since Paul III summoned Michelangelo to make a start on the great piers that support it; and three hundred and thirty-eight since Nicholas V, having decided that the ancient basilica of Constantine must be replaced, called upon Alberti to advise how this could best be done in a style worthy of the age of humanism, of which this pope's reign was witnessing the first streaks of dawn.


Next Page - Top - Documents - Previous Page - - Page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12