This material is in copyright: C Michael Bloch 1967. Requests for permission for any use of this material should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Information about the life and work of James Lees-Milne may be found at www.jamesleesmilne.com
How long the obelisk had stood on its previous site to the south of the old basilica and on a line due east of the two round chapels of St Petronilla and St Andrew (both destroyed in the Renaissance) is, as I have already said, no longer certain. Until the recent excavations under St Peter's, it was supposed that the obelisk had marked the central point of the divisional wall, or spina of Caligula's Circus in which Nero's horrible massacre of Christians took place in A.D. 67. The discovery of a Roman cemetery under the foundations of Constantine's church now suggest that the circus was further away to the south; and that if the obelisk did once stand in the middle of the spina, it must have been moved at some unknown date to the site beside the basilica which it certainly occupied throughout the Middle Ages. The tremendous task of removing it in 1586, and indeed that of setting it up in A.D. 37 when first brought to Rome, make an intervening removal without any historical record most unlikely. Is it not therefore possible that instead of marking the center of the spina, it stood in the middle of the circus' northern boundary? The elder Pliny in his Natural History refers to the obelisk's transportation from Egypt to Rome by order of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) as an outstanding event. The barge that carried it had a huge mast of fir wood which four men's arms could not encircle. One hundred and twenty bushels of lentils were needed for ballast. Having fulfilled its purpose, the gigantic vessel was no longer wanted. Therefore, filled with stones and cement, it was sunk to form the foundations of the foremost quay of the new harbour at Ostia.
Pope Sixtus had not been on the throne four months before he erected in the middle of St Peter's Piazza a full-size wooden model in order to judge how the real obelisk would look on this prominent site. Having settled the exact spot, he made it known that a suitable agent was needed to do the removing. From all parts of Europe mathematicians, engineers and doctors of science flocked to consider the possibilities. More than five hundred architects are said to have submitted plans. Some of these were so preposterous as to cause much merriment among members of the Fabbrica. Resorts to magic and calls upon the Mother of God for miraculous intervention were put forward as well as several pseudo-scientific schemes of infantile ingenuity. Bartolomeo Ammannati assured the pope that given one year's reflection he was bound to find a solution, and begged him to wait. Sixtus, with an impatient gesture, merely waved the architect aside. When all the serious and silly proposals had been rejected as impracticable, Domenico Fontana, who was Della Porta's second in command, presented the pope with a little model crane of wood and an obelisk of lead. By gently turning a handle he raised and lowered the obelisk with ease. This simple method, he explained to His Holiness, was all he needed. Instantly convinced, Sixtus without further ado entrusted the undertaking to Fontana and commanded him to proceed at once. The unequivocal appointment aroused bitter opposition among the competitive savants and engineers.
Fontana may, in order to get the commission, have made light of the task. It is known that inwardly he viewed the whole affair with apprehension, which he cleverly disguised under an assumed air of self-confidence. Only to intimate companions did he disclose his belief that the pope was slightly mad. To lift a column more than eighty feet high, all of one piece, and weighing a million pounds, required superhuman effort. Fortunately Fontana's sense of self-importance came to his rescue. After all, he reflected, there was nothing he was incapable of achieving once he put his mind to it. He was a scholarly man, very precise, with a meticulous application to detail. Absurdly dignified, pedantic in speech and manner, he could not be defeated in argument and was maddeningly unruffled. In truth Fontana was unequaled as a technician, but as an artist second-rate. His strict observance of the scientific rules enabled him to carry out feats of engineering, and also to raise grandiose buildings of little grace or elegance. His Lateran Palace, vast, pompous, academic and dull, is a typical specimen of his architecture and the rather joyless generation which he represented.
The 30th April 1586 was the critical day on which Domenico Fontana's qualifications were put to the test. The architect had been careful to take precautions lest the dangerous enterprise should fail. He had a relay of post-horses ready harnessed on which to flee from Sixtus's anger if the worst should happen. The earth, which throughout the centuries had engulfed the obelisk at least half way up the shaft, had already been dug away, revealing the four enormous blocks of the same granite which Pliny had mentioned as forming the base. The needle itself, packed in straw mats and encased in wooden planks, was lashed by strong iron bands. At dawn Fontana led an army of eight hundred labourers to hear Mass in the open, while a hundred and forty carthorses chafed and stamped on the polished cobbles. With him were his brother and inseparable companion Giovanni, and his favourite assistant the thirty-year-old Carlo Maderno, who was never to forget this day. The whole of Rome was assembled to watch. Every window and every roof-top was crammed with spectators. After confessing and receiving the Blessed Sacrament, the army of workmen entered the enclosure set apart for them. Their leader mounted a raised rostrum from which to direct operations, as though he were about to conduct some monstrous orchestra. At two o'clock when all was ready Fontana raised his hand and the trumpets sounded the signal to begin. The enormous wooden machine which was to lift the obelisk with stout ropes was slowly set in motion by thirty-five windlasses, each worked by two horses and ten men. There was a sound of creaks and groans accompanied by the cracking of whips and the neighing of horses. Soon the bystanders noticed a perceptible wrench and quiver. Slowly but surely the great obelisk was lifted off the base on which it had rested for perhaps fifteen hundred years. At the twelfth turn, it had risen a foot or more into the air. The architect had so far triumphed. The obelisk was under his control. The spectators were jubilant. The guns in the Castle of S. Angelo fired a salute, the church bells of the city pealed forth and the workmen carried the self-satisfied little architect shoulder high around the enclosure.
The seemingly impossible had been achieved in that the granite monolith was hoisted. Still there were difficulties and perils ahead. On 17th May the obelisk was lowered horizontally to the ground and conveyed on rollers to its new destination. Then the pope announced that the exacting task of re-erection must wait until the heat of the summer was over. The day chosen was 14th September, a Wednesday, which Sixtus always considered a lucky day, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. When the date came round, the eight hundred workmen again trooped at dawn to the nearby church of Santo Spirito, where they attended Mass on their knees. Fontana approached the pope and knelt to receive his blessing. A greater crowd than before had gathered to watch the scene. With bated breath in the deadly silence which had been enjoined by Sixtus on pain of instant execution the people stood in the sunshine of this early autumn day. A gallows had been erected as a warning to anyone daring to utter a sound. Again the trumpets blew. A bell was rung by Fontana and this time forty windlasses were turned by one hundred and forty horses. Thereupon 'the wheels', to quote an eyewitness, 'made such a noise that one might have thought the very earth was going to split and the sky above to open'. Fortunately no such thing happened, and the picturesque incident of a sailor from Liguria, who, seeing the ropes about to burn from the heat and friction, risked his life by shouting, 'Water them!' may be apocryphal. Pope Sixtus is said to have pardoned the sailor's disobedience and asked what special favour he would like granted. The answer was the right for his home town to Bordighera to supply palms to Rome every Palm Sunday in perpetuity. Certainly the custom was observed for as long as the papal power lasted. Everything now proceeded smoothly with the lowering of the obelisk and an hour before sunset it was seen to sink happily on to the backs of four little couchant lions. Made of bronze, each of these delicious beasts wears a tiara over a flowing mane and has two bodies, of which the tails are amicably intertwined with its neighbour's and the claws clasped upon the pedestal below. The whole operation had been accomplished with only fifty-two movements of the windlasses.
On this occasion the exultation of the populace was uncontrollable. They sang and danced, drank and feasted, rang bells and let off fireworks until the early hours of the following morning. Meanwhile Fontana presided over a banquet given to the workmen. It consisted of bread, cheese, ham and two bottles of wine each, which do not seem excessive reward for so much labour. The architect was made a papal nobleman, given 70,000 scudi there and then and promised an annual pension of 2,000 scudi. The pope struck commemorative medals and received poems of congratulation in twenty languages. The event was recorded by the publication of a handsome folio with detailed plates showing how the stupendous transportation was carried out.
The re-erection of the obelisk was considered a notable feat for several reasons. It was a triumph of the mind of man over a seemingly insoluble problem of engineering; and, the age being a scientific one, Fontana's machinery was appreciated as novel and ingenious. It marked a further sage in the gradual embellishment of the new basilica and its precincts. Lastly, it celebrated the triumph of the Faith of Christ, St Peter and the apostles over pagan superstition. The proximity of the obelisk to the old basilica had always been resented as something of a provocation, almost as a slight to the Christian religion. It had stood there like a false idol, as it were vaingloriously, on what was believed to be the center of the accursed circus where the early Christians and St Peter had been put to death. Its sides, then as now, were graven with dedications to Augustus and Tiberius. On its summit was a bronze sphere believed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. When taken down, the sphere proved to be solid. Nevertheless, Sixtus had a bronze cross put in its place (in 1740, after repairs, a piece of the True Cross was inserted in one of the arms). Solemnly the pope had the heathen spirit of the obelisk exorcised. 'Impio cultu dicatum' he carved upon the base as a reminder of what the needle once represented, and 'Ecce Crux Domini fugite partes adverase' in proud defiance of Luther and the reformed Churches.
Fontana now became the pope's most privileged architect and was entrusted with the raising of three other obelisks at strategic focal points of the city. After Sixtus's death, however, the tables were turned on him. He was accused of having falsified the basilican building accounts. If not positively dismissed from the post of Assistant Architect to St Peter's, he was advised to retire. Greatly offended he withdrew to Naples where he was received by the Spanish Viceroy with much acclaim. There he worked as regal architect and there, refusing ever to return to Rome, he died. In the Holy City which treated him first as a hero and then as a common peculator, he is chiefly remembered not for his several palaces and monumental buildings, but for the removal and re-erection of the great Egyptian obelisk in front of St Peter's façade. The operation captured the imagination of Christendom and was reflected over the next fifty years in countless town planning ventures in European cities, as well as in painting and literature. Even Shakespeare in his defiant sonnet addressed to Time may have had Fontana's classic achievement in mind when with typical English paradox he exclaimed:
'No, Time, thou shalt not
boast that I do change.
When the great pope, whose unquestioned authority had suppressed all banditry and lawlessness in the Papal Sates and whose slightest frown had filled his subjects with awe, died in 1590 form a surfeit of melon accompanied by too much white wine mixed with snow water, the traditional rioting, pillaging, and looting broke out in the city with enhanced violence. With wonderful consistency, the Romans' proclivity to turn against their benefactors was once more asserted in this posthumous act of revulsion. The people dared not disobey Sixtus in his lifetime; so they snapped their fingers at him the moment the breath was out of his body.
It was the greatest pity that the reign of the zealous builder was so short and that the style of architecture which characterized it was not better. The love of overlaying surfaces with a plethora of polychrome marble and superfluous detail is sadly exemplified by the Cappella Sistina added by this pope to S. Maria Maggiore. The huge chapel, practically the size of a church, was spared neither expense nor loot from the pagan monuments of Rome. Sixtus, like many men of low origin raised to pinnacles of authority, believed good taste to derive from over-ornamentation and the Almighty's commendation to be won by the spoils of his enemies.
Sixtus V lived just long enough to see St Peter's dome completed, but for the lead covering, on 21st May 1590. In the following year the lantern was put in place by Gregory XIV, who reigned for only ten months. He had the grace to inscribe upon the rim of the eye under the lantern the concise Latin phrase, which may be translated: 'To the glory of St Peter and Pope Sixtus V in the fifth year of his pontificate, 1590.' The crowning cross was raised into place by Clement VIII. He had two caskets of lead filled: one with fragments of the True Cross and relics of St Andrew, St James the Great, and Popes St Clement, Callixtus and Sixtus; the other with seven Agnus Dei, which are medallions of the Holy Lamb made of a mixture of was from the paschal candle and dust from the bones of martyrs. These precious objects were solemnly blessed, venerated and censed before being enclosed within the two arms of the cross. Between sunrise and sunset of one day, the cross was then lifted on pulleys from the ground and, amid the pealing of bells, hoisted into the position from which it has never been shifted. In 1594 Clement VIII also had the dome covered with lead and strips of gilt bronze laid along the edges of the sheets.
Clement VIII (1592-1605) was a Florentine of shining piety. He was painstaking, hardworking and far too indulgent of his nephews. Like most members of the Aldobrandini family, he was the friend of learning and piety. He was an intimate of Tasso. He hastened the work begun by Sixtus V on the Vatican Palace and resumed that on St Peter's Basilica. He got Della Porta, who was still official papal architect and much in favour, to build the Cappella Clementina at the south-east angle of Michelangelo's Greek cross plan, as a pendant to the Cappella Gregoriana at the north-east. Luckily Clement reigned for thirteen years, during which time he was able to put the finishing touches to the partially completed projects of his predecessors. He was just the right man for the job. He was not one to originate great ideas of his own, but his tidy, competent mind rejoiced in tying up the ends left undone by others.
Having erected the great cross over the lantern and covered the dome with lead, Clement turned his attention to the decoration of the inner dome. He confirmed Gregory XIV's engagement of the Roman artist Giuseppe Cesari, on whom he heaped honours and whom he made Cavaliere d'Arpino. For the spaces between the sixteen gilded stucco ribs d'Arpino designed cartoons for six rows of variously shaped compartments, which diminish in size as they approach the lantern. The Saviour, Our Lady, the apostles, saints and angels are represented. These adequate but uninspired paintings were translated into mosaics of which the colours are soft and dominated by powder blue and gold; but the significance of the subjects is lost in their great distance. Above them on the soffit of the lantern God the Father emerges from clouds, rather splendid but agonizing to look at from below. Under the drum and around the circular frieze Clement put in gold mosaic letters, four feet eight inches high, Christ's dedicatory words, which were to determine the divine tradition of papal sovereignty: 'Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni coelorum.' (Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven) For the great spandrels over each of the crossing piers d'Arpino enlisted two pupils, Cesari Nebbia and Giovanni del Vecchi, to compose cartoons. The four Evangelists are the result. They are gigantic and dull. The only comment any guide book has found to make upon them is that St Luke's pen is seven and a half feet in length.
Construction and decoration of the crossing had now reached a stage when something had to be done about the confession. In Pope Gregory XIII's reign, the pavement of the new basilica had been laid and the crypt below was already taking shape. It was no longer thought suitable to retain the meager old presbytery and to leave exposed the twelfth-century altar of Callixtus II over the Apostle's tomb. Clement at once ordered the demolition of Constantine's apse and the removal of Bramante's protective walls round the old presbytery. Della Porta then made a new altar which enclosed without completely destroying that of Callixtus. For the purpose he used a table of white marble in one piece brought from the Forum of Nerva. This he raised on seven steps. According to an eyewitness a fall of masonry during the construction of the new papal altar caused an unexpected crack to appear in the ground. Della Porta claimed to discern through it an altar older than Callixtus's and, what is more, the very cross of gold laid upon Peter's bronze sarcophagus by St Helena. The pope, who was at once notified, bustled to the site accompanied by three cardinals. By means of a torch held by the architect, the party were sure that they too saw these things. Clement and his companions were so awed by the spectacle that after a confabulation His Holiness forbade the sepulchre to be disturbed further and commanded the aperture to be filled with cement in his presence.
There are excellent reasons for doubting this picturesque story. In the first place, it is most unlikely that St Helena's gold cross and the bronze sarcophagus escaped the Saracen depredations of 846. If they did, and if they were truly seen by Della Porta and Pope Clement VIII, then they must have been rifled and destroyed since. In fact, no untoward events have taken place during the subsequent three and a half centuries up to our own day in which such a disaster could have befallen the sacred treasure of a sanctuary so hidden and well guarded. Futhermore, no mention of the cross and sarcophagus was made by Bernini when in the 1620s he dug the deep foundations for the baldacchino. Nor indeed were there any signs of them when Pope Pius XII's excavators reached the area below Callixtus's altar in the 1940s.
In 1594 Pope Clement VIII was able to celebrate his first Mass at the new high altar. Ever since this date the altar has been reserved for popes officiating in St Peter's on great festivals. Della Porta's next duty was to dig the horse-shoe shaped area below the new pavement level in front of the high altar. The purpose was to form the confession which exists today. From the confession he provided direct access to the niche of the Apostle's shrine. Covered with marble veneer, it is now known as the Niche of the Pallia where the scarf-like vestments (the Pallia) are kept before being sent by the pope to newly-consecrated archbishops. Behind the shrine Della Porta constructed an underground chapel (the Cappella Clementina) approached from the circular corridor of the Grotte Nuove and connected with the Vatican Palace. It enabled the pope to resort to the holy of holies undisturbed for private prayer and meditation.
Della Porta lived long enough to fulfill most of Pope Clement's tidying-up process. He died only two years before his master at the age of sixty-nine. Even so, his death in 1602 was brought about prematurely by a disagreeable, if somewhat ludicrous, incident. Della Porta was a jolly man who liked good living. He had been staying with Cardinal Aldobrandini in the cardinal's sumptuous villa at Frascati. Disregarding the tragic warning in the death of his previous master, Pope Sixtus V, he had drunk too much wine and eaten too much of that fatal fruit, melon. On the homeward journey to Rome in his host's carriage, he was seized with violent intestinal pains. Being a man of much delicacy, he did not like to ask the cardinal to stop the carriage so that he might get out and relieve himself. Instead, he endured great agony. He was corpulent and plethoric and on reaching the Porta Giovanni he died of what the news sheets termed 'suffocation' owing to the jolting of the carriage. He was buried the very same day in the grave of his wife and son in the church of the Aracoeli.
With Della Porta's death came the final severance of the link between the office of St Peter's Chief Architect and Michelangelo. Della Porta had played an important role in that office. Originally a sculptor and maker of stucco reliefs, he had learned architecture under Vignola's tuition at St Peter's. And Vignola had worked with Michelangelo. It fell to Della Porta to put St Peter's dome, more of less in accordance with Michelangelo's design, upon the drum which the great master had left all but complete in 1564. In other respects, he deviated hardly at all from Michelangelo's projects for the basilica, which he helped fulfill by a great deal of decoration and the completion of the huge Gregorian and Clementine chapels. Cautious, scholarly and reflective, he was the last of that band of architects belonging to the short counter-reformation era which preceded the long era of the Baroque. Inevitably, his successors had very different ideas to his. Little did the conservative Pope Clement VIII realize what he was doing when he appointed Carlo Maderno in Della Porta's place.
On Clement VIII's death the curtain finally came down on the Roman High Renaissance. The Michelangelo tradition was expended. The great master had been dead now for forty years. There was no one alive who even remembered him, and henceforth his message could conveniently be misinterpreted. Della Porta, to whom was committed the onerous and not altogether enviable duty of completing the dome, had already left the scene, his mission faithfully accomplished. The conservative Clement, who never so much as contemplated departing an inch from the great master's plan for St Peter's, was followed for a brief interval of less than one month by the last of the Medici popes, Leo XI (1605). This upright and strict pontiff, the intimate friend of St Philip Neri, was a child of the Counter-Reformation. And his reign was far too short to have any bearing upon the architecture of the basilica. His accession and the business of electing yet another pope merely prolonged the pause in building brought about by the death of Della Porta in 1602.
This pause had very important consequences. It gave to the Fabbrica to take stock of the situation of St Peter's. The authority of the Congregazione della Fabbrica di San Pietro, which Clement VII established, had always been somewhat equivocal. Michelangelo, who was in constant disagreement with this body, would appeal to the popes to reverse whichever of its decisions he disliked. The popes, in their awe of the old artist, usually complied by over-ruling the Fabbrica, habitually composed of heterogeneous members drawn from different countries. This international composition was an obvious weakness. It made agreement upon important issues very difficult to achieve. Strong-minded popes like Sixtus V were inclined to brush aside its deliberations with impatience and impose their own decisions. The Roman Curia too had grown to resent the interference of a cosmopolitan committee in charge of what it now regarded as an essentially Roman place of worship. A preponderance of foreigners had been all very well in days when the structure of St Peter's was largely maintained by funds derived from the sale of indulgences overseas. Since this once lucrative source of revenue had dried up and the funds for maintenance were now found in Rome, the case was different. Clement VIII, aware of its shortcomings, reorganized the Fabbrica altogether. He suppressed the international body and constituted a new one under the more fulsome title, La Congregazione della Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro. The new Fabbrica was composed of a prefect, who was the Cardinal-Archpriest of St Peter's, several other cardinals, an economist and a few lay officials. In this guise, subject only to a few modifications brought about in the eighteenth century, the Fabbrica functions today. Perhaps the most important result of Clement VIII's reforms was the establishment of the Sampietrini, upon whom the whole physical welfare of the basilica depends.
The Sampietrini are a specialist body of maintenance men constantly on the spot. An illiterate mason called Zabaglia suggested to the Fabbrica in the year 1600 that the repairs of the immense acreage of St Peter's ought no longer to be entrusted to casual labourers. With that body's consent, he trained thirty young workers to be experts in all the building and decorative crafts. Soon he had mustered an efficient force of masons, carpenters, painters, stuccoists, glaziers, gilders and plumbers. The young men married, founded families and brought up their sons in the trade. The Sampietrini have long been a devoted hereditary corps. They are a race apart, a large clan of dedicated men who have developed their own rules and customs. Almost from infancy they are taken in hand and trained in the craft to which they have a natural bent. Their workshops are hidden in the bowels of the basilica, from which they emerge like pigeons from nesting-boxes. St Peter's walls are riddled with cavernous chambers, approached by numerous narrow, twisting stairways, called 'snails', which give secret access to the most vertiginous platforms. The Sampietrini are as lithe and agile as acrobats. They soon learn to climb to any height, to run along cornices and roofs, to balance themselves on precipitous capitals, and to scamper like squirrels over the dome and lantern. They think nothing of lowering themselves into the aisles from vaults a hundred feet above the pavement level. By these means they are able to inspect and repair the most inaccessible parts of the structure, to hand the great rolls of damask down pilasters for ceremonial celebrations, and, when required to light the thousand oil lanterns on the dome up to the cross with incredible speed and precision. On rare occasions - St Peter's feast day is one of them - the Sampietrini are in their element and the spectators in their lasting debt. No other sight is more inspiring than the illuminations during a fine twilight. When the sun has gone down and the first stars begin to prick the violet canopy of the Roman sky, brilliant points of light appear at intervals upon the bulk of the great basilica. Then the points run together into strips until the clear outline is defined by a twinkling constellation of gold.
And this is not the end of the spectacle. Suddenly a magical thing happens. The diffused light from the oil lanterns is intensified by innumerable red plumes of curling fire. By indescribable means the expert Sampietrini - today there are hundreds of them - have lit their torches simultaneously. Crouched on various strategic parts of the colonnade, façade, lantern and even the arms of the cross, they have been waiting ready to strike. The first deep note of St Peter's solemn bell proclaims the night. And then a single snake of flame slithers over the dome and shoots a tongue from the top of the cross. At this signal each Sampietrino in one concerted movement strikes his set of torches. In a matter of seconds St Peter's appears to be a glowing furnace.
The election of Camillo Borghese as Paul V (1605-21) in May 1605 opened a new era in the history of Rome and, because Rome was still the fountain head of the arts in Europe, so too in the history of Western art. If the full maturity of the baroque style, the cradle of which was without question the Holy City, did not become apparent until the reign of Urban VIII, the infancy, to us who may look back upon the extraordinary phenomenon, is distinctly apparent in that of Paul V. This promise of marvels to come is seen less clearly in the architecture and painting of the reign than in the changed attitude of the Church, which was determined by the pontiff himself. Borghese's accomplishments may not have been more distinguished tan those of many a previous renaissance pope. True he was very cultivated and loved learning for its own sake; and next to learning, art. His piety may not have excelled that of several counter-reformation popes, yet his ecclesiastical interests were pre-eminent. He was naturally industrious and rather taciturn. The presence of this tall, handsome man with hard lines round the mouth and strained gaze of intensely myopic eyes was forbidding. It did not suggest the happy hedonism which is so readily, and often mistakenly, associated with the great princely patrons of the baroque age. These qualities were on the other hand conspicuous enough in the Borghese cardinal nephews, of whom the affable sybarite Scipione was, as Bernini's bust of him testifies to perfection, the incarnate exemplar. Yet if nepotism, to the limitless extent of enriching his relations out of the papal exchequer, was Paul V's chief failing, family interference in matters of state was by no means permitted.
The image of the jolly Cardinal Scipione Borghese gives a far truer picture of the change that had come over the Catholic Church than that of the naturally dour pope. The baroque style, remember, was essentially ecclesiastical. The new phases in the Church's fortunes, which the baroque style reflected, admittedly did not allow any relaxation of dogma, or much easy complacency. The enemy still watchful at the gates was no less powerful and menacing than it had been during the reformation and counter-reformation phases of disaster and recovery. Heresy was a hungry and ever-present monster crouching ready to pounce. Anti-papal propaganda was everywhere rampant. The Venetian Republic was a nest of disaffection stirred up the English envoy Sir Henry Wotton, one of the most insidious Protestant instruments that ever operated in a Catholic land. Nonetheless the attitude of the Church had changes. It set out to win, not to repel. Instead of a gloomy, rebarbative front, it assumed a milder, more cheerful aspect. The severe, disciplinary measures adopted by the Council of Trent had long ago done their work. The somewhat preposterous and philistine directives to artists as to what they should and should not create were now overlooked. Christian art no longer needed to exclude pagan connotations, nor to forbid the representation of everyday, commonplace incidents. The homely cat and dog were allowed to creep back into the forefront of paintings of the Annunciation. Dwarfs and buffoons once more played incidental parts in Last Suppers, and humble wild flowers were permitted to grow at the foot of the Cross on Calvary. The exteriors, even of quite unimportant churches, were designed to impress and delight the populace with a grandeur which was often make-believe. The interiors became stage settings in which counterfeit perspectives and ingenious lighting effects were focused upon sculptural scenes of the most exotic, and sometimes erotic (if sublimated) kind. Tremendous emphasis was put upon ceremonial and pageantry. Churches became theatres as well as houses of prayer. They were intended to dazzle as much as to edify the simple.
There was much wisdom in this novel step taken by the Church. In concentrating upon the blessings to be reaped from observing the Christian dogmas, rather than the penalties to be incurred through disregarding them, the Church successfully diverted souls from the stark and narrow paths of Protestantism. Above all, it sought to demonstrate the glory and benefit of the Sacraments in the most attractive manner of which commissioned artists were capable. There is no doubt that opportunity gives birth to talent and genius. The policy, adopted by Paul V and followed by his successors, of re-establishing the divine authority and emphasizing the mystique of the Catholic Faith by means of art caused a trail of the brightest meteors across the baroque sky, in Caravaggio and Cortona, Bernini and Borromini.
Paul V was a great builder more out of political motive than love of architecture or innate taste. In the latter quality he seems to have been conspicuously lacking, to judge by the Borghese Chapel in S. Maria Maggiore, which he embarked upon at the beginning of his reign. It is an over-decorated, highly concentrated medley of polychrome marbles, still in the costive manner of the Roman late cinquecento. The style of the chapel shows no sign of the free rhythm and flow of the architecture soon to emerge. Paul was also a faithful restorer of churches and the creator of several monumental fountains about the city. He recalled that under the Emperor Trajan Rome boasted no less than thirteen hundred fountains fed by eleven aqueducts crossing the Campagna. The Acqua Paola on the Janiculum Hill, with its streams gushing from five triumphal arches, is the grandest and best known of the several living waters which he harnessed from Lake Bracciano and the springs of the distant hills. He took the colossal pine-cone from the domed canopy of the fifth-century cantharus in Constantine's atrium, and placed it on its present platform within the hemicycle of the court of this name. As though in expiation of this action he got Carlo Maderno to construct on the north side of St Peter's Piazza the splendid fountain which later in the century was practically rebuilt by Bernini and duplicated on the south side by Carlo Fontana. A powerful plume of water is made to shoot into the air and descend upon a mushroom ledge, thence into a wider upturned basin of Egyptian granite, and again into a hexagonal pond. Upon the veil of spray from the falling shower the evening sun paints a perennial rainbow. Of the twin fountains the northern is better preserved because more sheltered from the wind. Queen Christina of Sweden on her first entry to Rome was struck dumb by astonishment at its beauty. She supposed it had been specially turned on for her benefit, and begged the pope, after she had glutted her admiration to turn it off in order to prevent a waste of water.
Paul V was barely elected before he confirmed the privileges and constitution of the Fabbrica, adding to the Congregation eight cardinals whom Leo XI just had time to create during his twenty-seven day reign. For two years this august body deliberated how it was to proceed with the building of the basilica and whom it was to employ. At the time, the unfinished new building was still separate from the old by the divisional wall erected in 1538. In front of the medieval church a preposterous jumble of Gothic and Classical appendages, quite unrelated to each other, remained: on the south side of the palace of the archpriest and on the north the three-storeyed benediction loggia continued to deteriorate. In September 1605 during a storm a large block of marble from a cornice crashed to the pavement close to the altar of the Madonna della Colonna where Mass was being said. By a miracle none of the worshippers was injured. But there was panic and the people were seriously alarmed. The incident determined the Fabbrica to demolish every part and appendage of the old basilica still standing. The pope felt obliged to agree. He stipulated, however, that all the relics of the saints must be moved to safety and, whenever possible, the old monuments be preserved in the crypt, or Grotte Vecchie, constructed for the purpose between the pavements of the old and new basilicas. Certain works of art found their way to other churches, like the eighth-century mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi which was set up in S. Maria in Cosmedin, and even to private chapels. The pope also insisted that records should be taken of any monuments that had to be destroyed. Accordingly, two canons were deputed to superintend the openings of tombs and the translation of remains. The work was done with the utmost reverence and solemnity. The archivist of St Peter's, Iacopo Grimaldi, an enthusiastic antiquarian, made an inventory and some invaluable sketches of the monuments as they were being dismantled. For more care was taken now than by Julius II and Bramante a hundred years previously, when the ancient treasures were smashed to pieces without the slightest compunction, and without record. What Paul V salvaged was a fraction of the works of art lost under Julius II.
The decision to complete the demolition was not received with some opposition. The learned Cardinal Baronius, who was Vatican librarian and the Church's greatest living historian, was loud in his condemnation. He bitterly denounced the impiety of sweeping away a building which enshrined the history of thirteen hundred Christian years. Needless to say, his was a voice crying unheeded in the wilderness. The work of demolition was undertaken with feverish haste by night as well as by day as though to forestall possible last minute regret and counter-decision. Indeed, when the turn of the campanile came, the structure was loosened at the base in such a way that the tower was made to collapse in an avalanche of rubble.
Before hands were laid upon the first tile of the old church various ceremonies were performed according to the ritual agreed upon. There was something tragic about the solemnity which attended the dismantling of the doomed basilica. On 28th September 1605 the archpriest transferred the Blessed Sacrament into the Cappella Gregoriana of the new building. All the cathedral canons took part in the procession. Next, the chapels were deprived of their consecration like poor old clergymen divested of their priesthood. Their relics were removed and their altars taken down. The tombs of the saints were opened and the corpses disinterred. With much pomp and ghastly remains, some bursting from decayed coffins and shrouds, saw the first light of day after a whole millennium. St Veronica's handkerchief, St Andrew's head, the holy lance, the fragments of the True Cross were likewise removed from their ancient resting places, and reverently carried away.
On 18th February 1606, Ash Wednesday, the work of demolition of the old church began. A squad of labourers first attacked that part of the roof which adjoined the front. They took down the marble cross which crowned the apex, the venerable cross put in position by Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine as the symbol of Christ's absolute triumph over paganism. On the base the workmen read the one word carved in Greek letters: Agrippina. So the base of the statue of the infamous Nero's mother had for centuries been carrying the cross of Christ. Next, the tiles, several of them dating from the reign of Theoderic the Great, a few even from Constantine's, were hurled to the ground. Then the beams of oak, once brought from the Abruzzi forests by order of Gregory the Great were either hacked to pieces by the axes, or, so strong were some of them, re-used in building the Borghese Palace.
On 26th March the picks assaulted the walls, quickly razing them down to the foundations. One by one Constantine's columns of the nave were lowered, the most precious, a couple of black African marble and the largest monoliths of the sort in existence, being kept for re-erection in the new portico entrance. On the capital of one was carved the head of the Emperor Hadrian. It came originally from his mausoleum. In a clumsy attempt at preservation, a workman broke it. On 15th November the last sung Mass took place in Rossellino's choir, the Tribuna di San Piero, in the presence of a vast congregation. Then it too was pulled down. The bronze tomb of Sixtus IV was opened and the body of that pope disclosed. It was found clad in a chasuble of gold brocade and the pallium. The head wore a mitre and the feet sandals embroidered with a cross. From the finger a splendid ring was taken to the Treasury. Likewise the coffin of Sixtus's nephew Julius II, was opened, and the remains, which had been desecrated by the Constable of Bourbon's troops, were reinterred in a new grave beside the bones of his uncle.
Long before the last vestige of the medieval basilica had disappeared, the Fabbrica was engaged in a heated discussion how the new one was to be finished. Indeed, ever since Paul V's election the question had been debated. The pope professed that he wished to abide by Michelangelo's scheme. So too at first did the Architect in Chief, Carlo Maderno, whom Clement VIII had appointed to succeed Giacomo Della Porta in 1602. Maderno, in claiming to keep to the Greek cross plan, nevertheless wanted to break the harmony of Michelangelo's contour by flanking it with numerous projecting chapels - a proposal which received a good deal of criticism. The prevailing opinion in the Congregation of the Fabbrica however was that the space occupied by the old basilica, as well as by those ancillary buildings, baptistery, sacristy, and so forth, not hitherto under one roof, must be entirely covered by the new. It was a conscience-saving view, a way of making amends for sacrificing Constantine's historic basilica. The Fabbrica felt that so long as the whole sacred area was embraced by a new consecrated church, all would be forgiven by the shades of those saints and martyrs who had contributed to the making of the historic building which they were about to sweep away. A secondary, but hardly less cogent reason was the belief, which had gained ground during the Counter-Reformation, that the Greek cross plan was a pagan innovation but the Latin cross plan a tradition of the Christian Church in that it represented the crucified body of the Savior.
Early in 1607 Paul V took it upon himself to summon a concourse of ten eminent architects to advise the Fabbrica how to proceed. Amongst them, Maderno sat as the pope's nominee. The outcome was a recommendation of the Latin cross solution. The overriding argument on this occasion was the necessity of more space to accommodate under cover the multitudes assembled for functions at which the Pope as head of the Church officiates. The recommendation received practically unanimous endorsement by the cardinals. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, a man of far greater artistic discernment than any other member of the Curia, was the single dissentient. Paul V, impressed by the majority view, gave way. Thereafter, he never swerved from his decision. How far Maderno honestly disapproved cannot be ascertained. He has always been held the chief protagonist of the Latin cross plan, because he carried it out. In fairness to him, a letter which he wrote on 30th May 1613 should be remembered. It bears out that the decision was forced upon him by the pope and cardinals and that he accepted it with reluctance. There is irony in the fact that for three and a half centuries he has borne most of the blame.
Whether reluctant or willing, Maderno was commanded to draw up plans for a prolongation eastwards of Michelangelo's nave. In great haste he complied, and in no less haste his plans were adopted by the Fabbrica.
Carlo Maderno was a nephew of Domenico Fontana. He had been apprenticed in youth to a stuccoist. He arrived in Rome from his native Lake of Lugano about 1580. On the appointment by Sixtus V of his uncle as Architect in Chief to St Peter's, opportunities came to him. He was ten in his early thirties. He helped Domenico in the raising of the various obelisks about the city. When his uncle fell into disgrace in Clement VIII's reign, Maderno continued to work under the brother Giovanni Fontana, who stayed on as architect to the Fabbrica. Giovanni was a specialist in fountains and the nephew copied his style and imbibed his spirit. Giovanni retired in 1607, which happened to be the opportune year for Maderno to spring to the fore. The nephew was already much in favour with Paul V, who had watched with approval the development of his distinctive style.
Maderno had shown originality in treating the façades of churches. At S. Giacomo degli Incurabili, the upper stage, within great scrolls made to embrace two orders and a central loggia under a shell-headed niche, was considered a startling and beautiful innovation. So too was the façade of S. Susanna (1603) with a lower order of columns half embedded in the wall surface, a flimsy pilaster at each corner and a balustrade made to run up and down the pediment. Maderno was deliberately transposing weak and strong elements, and making experiments hitherto untried even by Michelangelo. Such daring solecisms were unconventional, to say the least. They certainly lent his façades a new rhythm, which was revolutionary and baroque. Likewise his additions to the Palazzo Mattei introduced animated surfaces of bas-reliefs, busts within roundels and perspective arches. These features shocked the diehard critics, who accepted the lifeless counter-reformation classicism as the only standard of correct architecture. Pope Paul, on the other hand, was thrilled by them.
On 8th March 1607 work was begun on digging the foundations of the nave of St Peter's in the presence of the Governor of Rome and a gathering of architects. On 7th May the cardinal-archpriest laid the first stone which the pope had previously sanctified. By the summer a wooden model of Maderno's completed scheme was available for inspection. It received Paul V's unstinted approval. By now the building activity was bewildering. Relays of carts were dragging loads of tufa from the quarries near Porta Portense. The carriage of travertine from Tivoli was such that the Santo Spirito road to the Vatican was worn into deep ruts. The wagons were frequently overturned. Whole tree trunks from the hillsides were brought for the scaffolding. Seven hundred labourers were permanently employed. When we realize that in the following year the façade was actually begun to the accompaniment of a pealing of bells, and that in 1612 plaster models of the colossal statues were set on the parapet to test their appearance and scale, the speed of the work seems almost incredible. By December 1614 the stucco vaulting of the nave was completely decorated with roses, and in 1615 the divisional wall in the nave taken down. By Palm Sunday the last vestiges of rubble had been carted away. When revealed, the overall length of the new basilica was 211 ½ metres, or thirteen metres more than the combined length of Constantine's basilica and atrium. Whereas the western apse of the old church had just embraced the site of the present baldacchino, the east entrances stood on an imaginary line drawn between the two existing water stoups of Maderno's nave.
In fact Maderno extended eastwards the single bay of Michelangelo's arm by three more, namely those arches between coupled pilasters which give access to the aisles. In the nave ceiling the break can be seen where Maderno's extension begins. The aisles and the chapels they lead to are also his. The aisles are very satisfactory. Immensely high openings, in the form of giant portals under segmental heads on Cottanello marble columns, separate the three bays. Over each portal head a blind window is tightly jammed in a thoroughly mannerist fashion. The windows are made of boards painted with counterfeit panes. Overhead, each compartment is lit by an oval cupola on a drum divided into separate tabernacles holding statues of angels. The soffit of each dome is decorated with scenes in mosaic. These little cupolas are among the most beautiful of Maderno's architecture. The same cannot be said of the two large rectangular chapels of the Blessed Sacrament and Choir, both approached from the aisles. The first, to which additions were made by Bernini (the lovely gilt bronze ciborium on the altar inspired by Bramante's Tempietto), and Borromini (notably the grilled screen) contains so many individual works of art that we must try and overlook the excess of decoration. The second, devoid of individual works of high merit, was made merely ornate and ugly by the Borghese pope's successor, Gregory XV, and is a medley of mud and mustard. Maderno should not be held responsible for the present appearance of either chapel.
Francesco Milizia writing in 1768 when the baroque style was at the nadir of depreciation was extremely critical of all Maderno's architecture at St Peter's. The nave and aisles come in for some very severe strictures Firstly, Milizia complained that Maderno's extension of the nave was not in a straight line but inclined slightly to the south. This is certainly true, and how many people notice it? 'He appears to have lost', Milizia wrote unfairly, 'whatever knowledge he might have possessed, even that of drawing a straight line.' Maderno indeed made the kink deliberate, and deserves high praise for having done so. He thus rectified a fault of Sixtus V and Domenico Fontana, who had not set the obelisk axially with Michelangelo's east arm of the church. Secondly, Milizia noted that Maderno's three nave bays were slightly narrower than Michelangelo's single bay. This also is an indisputable fact. Again, how many people notice it? Maderno purposely made the disparity in order to distinguish between Michelangelo's Greek cross unit and his own addition. The difference was a drawing-board one, and it can offend nobody. Thirdly, Milizia stated that Maderno's aisles were 'not wider than one of the many altars which are in them', which is just not true. No further exculpation therefore is called for. And fourthly, 'Even the elliptical cupolas', he went on, 'are not exempt from error being placed on four arches, of which two are wider than the others, so as to appear inadequate to support cupolas.' If the pointed ends of the elliptical cupolas had been supported on the wider arches and not, as they are, on the narrower, there might have been some substance in this complaint. As things are it is hard to see to what exactly Milizia took exception. I have recounted these somewhat frivolous complaints made a distinguished architectural critic merely as an example of the total inability of the neo-classical age to detect merit in the baroque choice of evolving forms and tensions in architecture.
Wolfflin, on the other hand, saw in the longitudinal nave of St Peter's the triumph of the baroque conception of 'space directed towards infinity'. The earliest attempt at this effect had been made by Vignola in the Gesu. Maderno consummated it. No longer was the old renaissance aim to achieve fixed spatial proportions acceptable to architects. Now the objective was to create the illusion of infinite distance and to spot-light the holy of holies by means of the dome. Gradations of light, supplied by the unconventional windows in the nave vault, and shadow, where there are no windows, are calculated to draw the pilgrim to the Apostle's shrine further and further down the long vista, barrel-vaulted to suggest the illimitable sky. On either side of the nave unfathomable depths of darkness within aisles and side chapels accentuate the silent mystery of his fearful passage towards the longed-for goal. This scene of drama is indeed experienced within St Peter's if Maderno's intentions are properly understood.
When we consider the actual façade we find it difficult not to be censorious of both Maderno, who was responsible for its design, and the Fabbrica which chose it. Even the most impartial critics are agreed that it is a mistake. Some are of the opinion that it is a disaster. At all events the failure was due to two things, hurry and muddle. Paul V was so desperately anxious to proceed with the building that he chivvied the Fabbrica into accepting a design without careful enough forethought. Of the ten architects who had submitted designs for the façade in 1607 Maderno was chosen because he had, so to speak, inherited the post of Capomaestro of St Peter's from the Fontana brothers, and also because he showed some respect for Michelangelo's existing fabric. In a paradoxical sense he showed too much respect, which led to his design being neither Michelangelo's nor truly his own. Since Maderno's prolonged nave was a basic infringement of Michelangelo's plan for the new basilica, he was obliged to drop the great architect's scheme of a Pantheon-like portico of double columns, because it would have overemphasized the already inordinate length. Instead he allowed his façade to be conditioned by Michelangelo's lateral elevations, but with a difference greatly to its detriment as I shall try to show.
A dispassionate view reveals at once that the façade is too congested, too over-weighted and too broad. Windows, mezzanine openings and balconies are crammed between the columns and endowed with heavy detail. The most objectionable feature is the deep and heavy attic storey. Maderno's self-vindication would doubtless he that it is a continuation of Michelangelo's pre-existing attic. It is true that where Maderno has continued the original attic along the side elevations of the nave he has been successful, because he reproduced Michelangelo's detail exactly. On the façade attic he has made alterations to the openings which go a long way to detract from the design. These alterations are the split pediments of the central openings and the entablatures of the end openings, which he has accordingly thrust into his cornice as though they are supporting it. Maderno would in fact have done better to follow Michelangelo's attic faithfully. In 1923 a young Roman architect, Florestano di Fausto, put forward a serious proposal to slice off the attic altogether, merely leaving the end bays with Valadier's beautiful cresting over the clock faces. Fausto evidently disregarded the fact that the nave would have projected above the pediment, unless it were somehow concealed. His bold suggestion was, needless to say, rejected.
In fairness to Maderno we must remember that the end bays, which project beyond the aisles, were not intended by him to be part of the façade. After the façade was begun the Fabbrica decided in 1612 that bell towers would look well at either end. Maderno had originally meant to build a detached clock tower near the site of the present entrance to the Scala Regia. He left a design which shows a graceful baroque affair with a cupola of scrolled supports to the lantern. The detached clock tower never got further than paper and the 1612 pair of towers no higher than their bases because the difficulty - to say nothing of the expense - encountered in digging the deep foundations required was deliberately shirked. The architect admitted only just in time that the bases already built would not be firm enough to carry more than their own weight. Paul V took fright and positively forbade continuance of the towers. And here Maderno is to blame for not first ascertaining that the muddy soil on this part of the Vatican Hill could not carry high structures without very careful preliminary drainage. The pair of towers was to have flanked the façade, without forming part of it. They would have given the proportion, as well as the verticality, which the composition now lacks. How exactly the shortened façade would have been treated at either end is not known.
The faults of the lumpish façade we now have are so glaring that Milizia dismisses Maderno with the savage remark, 'that [here] he studied to do his worst'. Recent critics of the architect have been more charitable. They rather incline to excuse him from full responsibility for the finished façade because of the numerous problems he had to encounter. These indeed were formidable. Nevertheless, a more imaginative and less heavy-handed architect would have found some happier way of resolving them. A contemporary observed that Maderno was not partial to painting and too partial to stucco work. That there was nothing of the painter in him is apparent in the total want of pictorial quality in his architecture. Like stucco work, on the contrary, it is plastic and rounded; but like that material, when handled by the most proficient master lacking genius, it can be both colourless and rather dull.
Maderno was prouder of the portico, or vestibule of the basilica than any of his constructions. He had its authorship specifically mentioned on his tomb. It is certainly an impressive entrance with its five great doorways to the church, the three central ones framed by pairs of antique pillars, and with it end vistas, through screens of Ionic columns, of Constantine and Charlemagne's equestrian statues, both of course added at later dates. The central bronze door by the fifteenth-century Florentine, Filarete, was saved from the old basilica. The architect was obliged to add strips of bronze to the top and bottom in order to heighten it. Between the doors three venerable inscriptions on marble were likewise saved and re-erected. They are the Jubilee bull of Boniface VIII granting plenary indulgence to the pilgrims of 1300. Charlemagne's funeral inscription for Pope Adrian I, and an act of donation dated 720 of some olive gardens for the upkeep of lamps before the Apostle's shrine.
The great tunnel vault of the portico was stuccoed by G. B. Ricci to Maderno's design, the central panels displaying the Borghese pope's coat of arms and recounting scenes in the life of St Peter. The ribs and arabesque reliefs are dull gold, or rather mustard (I suspect nineteenth-century repaint) upon an exiguous white ground. The plethora of gold detail is easily assimilated into the vault owing to the great height of the portico. In a lunette over the central opening into the portico is Giotto's heavily restored mosaic, the Navicella, or St Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee. This famous but mutilated mosaic, survived the depredations of successive renaissance popes, not on account of its artistic interest, but the affirmation of papal dogma which it represents. The Navicella was re-affixed in its present situation by strict command of Paul V, who had anxiously watched it being dismantled from the Archpriest's Palace adjoining the old forecourt.
Maderno's last work for the basilica was probably the horse-shoe shaped confession under the dome, which Della Porta had begun digging in front of Clement VIII's high altar. The purpose of the confession was to give access to cardinals and privileged persons from the church to St Peter's resting place. The marble balustrade, on which ninety-five oil lamps of gilded bronze with fronded stems are kept perpetually flickering, and the double ramped staircase are Maderno's. The steps were made from parts of the architrave of the old basilica, and doubtless still retain Constantinian molding on the undersides. They descend to the level of the existing crypt where Canova's oversize figure of Pius VI is lined with mosaics by Ricci. Paul V made Maderno lavish upon floor and walls of the confession an inordinate amount of precious marble intarsia, still in the style of the late cinquecento, which the pope mistakenly believed did exceptional honour to the simple fisherman from Galilee.
Maderno did not retire from the post of Chief Architect before his death in 1629 at the age of seventy-three. But long before this date he became incapacitated by illness. He suffered so severely from kidney trouble and stones that he was barely able to work, and was always accompanied by a close stool. He was a patient, good-natured man, and popular with all who had dealings with him.