by Ennio Francia
(all rights reserved)

The Square


Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2


From Julius II to Julius III
Julius II

Bramante's death
Michelangelo's work
Sixtus V and the Cupola
Giacomo della Porta
Paul V and the lengthening of the Basilica
The work of Maderno
The Artists
From Paul V to Pius XII
Cracks in the Cupola
The Baldacchino
The Nave

Right aisle
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel
The Right Transept
The Apse
The Left Transept
The Left Aisle
The Choir Chapel
The Baptistery

The work of Maderno

The portico (227 x 43 x 64 ft.), designed with elegant grandeur by Maderno, was finished in 1612. To the left of the ambulatory, on a mosaic background and with a curtain of giallo antico, is the equestrian statue of Charlemagne, who was crowned here by Leo III on Christmas night 800. The statue is the academically correct work of Cornacchini. To the right of the ambulatory is the statue of Constantine, the founder of the basilica, by G. L. Bernini: a masterpiece of impressionistic sculpture, full of boldness and movement. The vault is decorated with stucco and medallions representing the deeds of the apostles, executed by G. B. Ricci after drawings by Ferrabosco. The bronze doors of the old church were adapted for the central doorway. The work of Filarete, finished in 1445, they have as their central theme the Council of Florence (1438) which strove for the union of the Orthodox and Roman Churches. To the left is the Porta della Morte by Giacomo Manz¨, and on the right the Door of the Sacraments by Venanzo Crocetti; each was the winner of an international competition provided for in the will of Prince Geroge of Bavaria, canon of the basilica.

Another reminder of the old Basilica is the famous mosaic of the Navicella, a much-restored and deteriorated work of Giotto. It can be seen by entering the atrium, turning one's back to the central doors and looking above the entrance portal. The last door on the right (facing the basilica) is the Porta Santa, which is opened for every Jubilee or Holy Year.

In a letter of 30 May 1613 to the Pope, Maderno speaks of "the high bell-towers, whose foundations are now being laid", of the fašade, the portico, the choir, the sacristy and the baptistery, and states that he has ready a printed engraving of Michelangelo's plan superimposed on his own, "to satisfy those who wish to see the unity of the two plans".

We should note that although he had been brought up in Milan, where the use of the elongated nave was usual (the plan of Santa Maria della Passione may be considered a precedent), Maderno was very concerned to respect as far as possible Michelangelo's centrally focused construction, and to make the elongation of the nave appear in continuity with the already existing architecture. This intention was in accord with the orders of the cardinals in charge of the Fabbrica, who rejected, among others, the project of Gigoli. It is also supposed (Hibbard) that when the idea (attributed to Michelangelo) of creating an autonomous portico, like that of the Pantheon, was abandoned, Maderno decided to transfer the front wall of the Basilica to beyond the portico. In the center of the fašade there opened the Loggia delle Benedizioni, at that time a very important element for the piety of Rome.

Maderno tried to reproduce a version of Michelangelo's design, some signs of which are visible in the wall contained between the lateral pilasters. It is pierced on both orders by doors and windows framed with columns, and also shows borrowings from Vignola, seen already in the fašade of Santa Susanna. As though the fašade was not enough by itself, it was radically and disastrously spoiled by the erection of the two lateral bell towers.

In the interior, on the other hand, Maderno succeeded in extricating himself from the formidable problems posed by a lengthening which was desired not for architectural reasons but for the sake of ceremonies. Its height, width, and illumination divide Maderno's contribution from that of Michelangelo. The elongated nave is in fact wider than the cross-vaulting of Michelangelo, as well as higher and better lit, with its six large lateral windows which admit a clear soft light into the Basilica.

Everything is harmoniously linked in the progression of the pilasters, of the archivolts and of the structural links to the central focus of Michelangelo, and even in the decorative themes, which differ from and yet are in strict continuity with the earlier ones. Look, for example, at the subtle differentiation of the geometric designs of the great vault and of the "roses" with which the surface is covered.

To obtain a similar continuity in the smaller naves, Maderno repeats the motif of the tabernacles of the old cross-vaulting in the first and second chapels of the side aisles. The central chapels are decorated with vaulted tabernacles and compound capitals, similar to those of the central altars of Michelangelo's cross.

The rather small space of the lateral naves was illuminated by means of elliptical openings topped with lanterns, and architectural solution already found in Santa Maria in Vallicella and in Gan Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

"It was over 100 years ago", begins the already quoted letter of Maderno to Pius V, "that the old Vatican temple, built by the great Constantine and the blessed Sylvester to the honour of God and of the Prince of the Apostles, was leaning". Leaning so much that nothing remained standing after the destruction began in 1506, except for some stumps of the foundation and some remains of the dividing wall. On 22 November 1614 the walls of the new Saint Peter's could be considered completed and those of the old Basilica completely demolished.

The most frequently recurring names in the pages of the archives, besides those already mentioned, are among the painters: Giovanni Baglione, G. B. Ricci, Ludovico Gigli, Federico Zuccaro, Ciro Ferri, Simone Vouet, Domenichino, Franceso Vanni, Giovanni Lanfranco, Pietro da Cortona, Andrea Sacchi, Girolamo Muziano, F. R. Romanelli, Carlo Pellegrini, Nicholas Poussin, G. F. Guercino, Valentin, Giuseppe Mazzola, etc.; among the sculptors, besides the two Berninis there are Algardi and his two pupils, Ercole Ferrata and Giuseppe Peroni, Andrea Bolgi, Borromino, Buonvicino, Stefano Speranza, Prospero da Brescia, Francesco Mochi, F. R. de Quesnoy; and with them, a whole series of stucco workers, led by Rocco Solaro, who left his signature on one of the panels of the drum.

How many miles of stucco are there in Saint Peter's shaped by Simone Doria, Giovanni Caslano, Giacomo Naldini, Martino Ferrabosco, Tommaso Caroni and Cosimo Fancelli! And while the masons were putting the finishing touches on edges, capitals and beams (among these artisans were Francesco Castelli, Antonio Possente, Balsimello Balsimelli, Giovanni Pagni, Matteo Albertino and Alessandro Sarti), the mosaic workers such as Angelo Sabatini, Matteo Cruciani, Cinzio Bernasconi and Guido Baldo Abatino were producing perfect copies of the painters' canvases.

Yet G. B. Soria and Bartolomeo de Rossi were considered little more than a master carpenter or a wood-carver, Rocco Solaro and Caldara no more than mosaic workers; Pomarancio considered himself simply a modest finisher of floral decorations and angels, Paolo Drei a capable measurer. Fabrizio Cristiani furnished the gold, Simon di Borgo the iron, Andrea Achi and Giacomo Brioschi the glass for the windows; Natale Parlato gilded the ribs of the cupola and Niccolo Faccalume, Baldassarre Bordogna and Battista and Michele Torregiani were the workmen who hoisted the iron ball to the top of the lantern.

Despite the inevitable (and not always counterproductive) rivalries, at times a link of affection and solidarity blossomed among the people employed in the construction of the new Saint Peter's - a world which has gone entirely unchronicled except for the eloquent images we can glean from the papers in the archives. There is a note from 1574 instructing the prelate in charge of selecting workers to "deal with the matter as though it were his own personal affair". On 26 October 1620 there died Geovannone da Monte Marciano, bell-ringer ad campanam magnam, who had served in the Basilica for 30 years. He was borne "with great ceremony, and accompanied by all the clergy and ministers of the church" from the hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia o the church of San Michele. It was an honor that was due since, as bell-ringer of Saint Peter's, he was a Palatine official and a member of the Papal Family.

From Paul V to Pius XII

Michelangelo's and Maderno's sections (the first and second "Volumes", as people called them) continued to be busy workshops, filled with painters, sculptors, carpenters, smiths and workers in stucco, mosaic and marble.

In 1605 the copper ribs of the cupola had already been replaced by lighter ones of lead. By 1607 the wall builders had not yet found a means of attaching the marble coverings to the walls; the foundations of the second Volume were immediately seen to be insecure because, as Fontana said, no new channels had been made to the Tiber to carry off water. Furthermore, several disagreeable events took place at that time, such as the brawl between Germans and Corsicans on 3 May 1605 while they were guarding the body of Clement VIII. There were also fatal accidents to workers falling from the scaffolding, and even storms and lightning which ruined parts that had already been completed.

Two months after his election, Paul V announced a Jubilee (14 June 1605) lasting three weeks, to avert war and the danger of plague. For this intention he organized a procession from Santa Maria degli Angeli to Santa Maria Maggiore, and Gigli informs us that there was "a very high wind, so hat that it was like a blast from an oven, bringing with it a blinding dust storm". In 1602 della Porta died and was followed in 1606 by his most expert assistants, Ottavio Mascarino and Prospero De Rocchi.

The work nonetheless continued at a good pace between 1614 and 1640. In fact, in 1612 (the first financial records are from September) excavations were begun for the construction of the campanili, the idea for which went back to Sangallo's project. The campanile on the Camposanto side, that is, on the left of the fašade, was completed between 1618 and 1621, and decorated with intaglio work by Carlo Foncelli, Domenico Veneziano, Agostine Radi, Cristoforo Lombardi and others. In the same year payments were made to Giorgio Staffetta for the excavations "currently in progress" for the foundations of the campanile on the Palace side.

Thirty years later, in 1643, a payment of 1,200 scudi was made to Lorenzo Bernini for the stucco statues "placed in the campanile". The excavations caused some subsidence, so that in 1640 it was decided not to build any more walls except for those of the bell towers, and later, in 1643, it was settled that the towers themselves should go no higher than the first order, i.e. the level of the statues. In June of 1645 the damage appeared so great that a commission was appointed to decide what to do. Its members, besides Bernini, were G. Rainaldi, F. Borromini, M. Longhi, Pietro Fontana and the Jesuit Antonio Sassi. The commission decided upon the demolition of the campanile, and it was razed in February 1646.

In place of the bell-towers, Pius VI installed two clocks with mosaic faces designed by Giuseppe Valadier. They are 13 feet in diameter. In the bell-chamber on the left are located the six bells of the Basilica. The largest, the famous "great bell" (campanone), is 24 feet in circumference and weighs over a ton. It was cast by L. Valadier.

More serious damage was done by Giacomo della Porta's modifications of Michelangelo's design for the cupola. Della Porta heightened the curves of the two shells by almost 14 feet, fearing that the spherical line proposed by Michelangelo would weigh too heavily on the drum. Precisely the opposite occurred. The weight was increased, the point of the thrust was changed, the buttresses which were to have received it were rendered useless, and the ring of the drum was left bearing by itself the entire weight of the immense structure (over 616,000 tons).

The external lines of the great ribs, to which Michelangelo had give a static function, now also weighed upon the drum, since in della Porta's modification they became merely decorative.

Very soon (by the time of Benedict XIV) cracks and fissures were so grave that they caused serious worry. In 1743 Giovanni Poleni and Luigi Vanvitelli were appointed to study possible remedies. They added six more rings of iron to the three used by della Porta, to contain the pressure which was threatening to split apart the sides of the cupola. "I restored the cupola of Saint Peter's in the Vatican", writes Vanvitelli, "inserting many supporting rings to prevent its collapse".

With the partial adoption of Vanvitelli's suggestions, "the horizontal pressures were effectively controlled, but the vertical pressures remained predominant" (A. Schiavo).

Another restoration was necessary under Pius XI, and required five years' work (1928-1933). Over 60 tons of crumbling travertine blocks were replaced, and 100 tons of cement and a ton of bronze bars were used.

Under Pius XII the most exposed part of the whole structure, the drum, was strengthened. The engineer Giuseppe Nicolosi, the architect of the Fabbrica, replaced the wooden frames of the large windows of the drum with metal ones, and "surrounded each window with a complex reinforced framework, in such a way that the whole drum contributed to the support of the cupola".

The baldacchino

Among the most important works which make up the architectural whole - so much so that they transformed Saint Peter's from a classical structure to a baroque one - are the Cathedra and baldacchino. By the time of Bernini's death in 1680 all the construction and enclosing of the Basilica was finished (it lacked only C. Fontana's transformation of the first chapel of the left nave into a baptistery; this was accomplished in 1694), and the decoration was almost complete.

On 1 November 1624, on the anniversary of the consecration of Constantine's Basilica by Saint Sylvester, the new Basilica was consecrated by Urban VIII. "It should be noted", we read in the manuscript of Francesco Speroni, a beneficed cleric of the Basilica, "that the main altar was not consecrated, having already been consecrated by Clement VIII on 28 June 1594; but it was raised higher by two steps, ob opus magnificentissimum ibi collocandum". The opus was the work Bernini was preparing and for which he had made successive models from 1622 to 1626: namely the famous baldacchino. The artist took his inspiration from the old one, but raised his to the height of 64 feet, all in bronze, with spiral columns which repeat the rhythm of those in the pergolas he had already placed in the tribunes of the four pilasters. The copper was taken from the ribs of the cupola (which were recovered with lead), and also, in large measure, from the bronze lattice of the portico of the Pantheon, as we are told by the commemorative stone inserted there. This work was officially inaugurated by the Pope during First Vespers of the feast of Saint Peter in 1633.

It was Alexander VII who entrusted Bernini - the man who boldly added the baroque character to the "clear and luminous" building of Michelangelo - with the glorification of the symbol of the Roman primacy, the precious relic of the wooden Cathedra, which was thought to have been Saint Peter's. The Cathedra is dealt with in another section.


The nave

A great deal has been written - and much of it with great petulance - about the pompousness and the theatrical quality of the Basilica. It is, however, a temple erected to God, under the marvelous vault of the Roman sky, with the travertine and marbles of Rome, on a Roman site, to the glory of a Church which is Catholic but also Roman. One can pray there very well. One has only to go into one of the chapels to feel oneself alone on the holy ground sanctified with the blood of Peter and of the first Christian martyrs. This is the site of the most ancient and sacred testimony, and this is the ground which itself witnessed the first professions of faith. Saint Peter's is a construction which contains the magic and splendours and the magnificence created by human genius in homage to the revelation which conquered paganism and built a new civilization which has sustained and comforted mankind for 2,000 years.

Placed against the last pilaster on the right side of the nave is the famous bronze statue of Saint Peter, seated on a throne of precious marble. The experts are now unanimous in attributing it to Arnolfo di Cambio (12th century). Its archaic quality is due to its having been inspired by the ancient marble statue at one time located in the portico of the Basilica and now in the grottoes.

The nave, covered by a magnificent lacunar vault adorned with black and white friezes and with gilded roses in stucco relief, is 147 feet high and 86 feet wide. At the level of the pilaster which is on a line with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and that of the Choir one can see the starting point of Maderno's architecture, higher and wider than the arm of the cross Michelangelo designed.

The 39 niches placed in the pilasters are occupied by statues of the founders of the religious orders. Of note are Saint Dominic by Legros (1706), Saint Francis of Assisi by Morandi and the Prophet Elijah by Cornacchini. The pilasters were exuberantly and imaginatively adorned with decorations designed by Bernini. In the medallions of the counter-pilasters are portraits of canonized Popes, alternating with emblems upheld by winged putti.

Maderno's extension is clearly identifiable, as we have said, at the point of the pilasters which mark the end of the arm of Michelangelo's cross; this is, on a level with the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the right and the Cappella del Coro on the left. At this point one can observe the greater height of the ceiling and the widening of the elongated body of the church.

Right aisle

The first chapel of the right aisle is the chapel of the Pieta, an early work of Michelangelo, made when he was 25 years old, and a masterpiece of composition and of expression. The sorrowful and pure face of the Virgin, the marvelous face of Christ, mark a high point in the history of the interpretation of human emotion. One could say that with this work Michelangelo ended his Florentine apprenticeship and began a new era in sculptural expression. The theme of the Pieta was very familiar to him, obsessed as he was with the idea of death. In fact, he was to die while still at work on the Rondanini Pieta (now in the Sforza Castle in Milan). Between the Pieta of his youth and that of his old age, there is the second in chronological order, that of the Duomo in Florence. The Pieta in Saint Peter's is the only work ever signed by the artist: the signature is visible on the band crossing the Virgin's breast to her left shoulder.

In May 1972 the Pieta was damaged by a mentally sick individual. Before the end of the year it had been restored by the Vatican Workshop for the Restoration of Works of Art, in collaboration with the Vatican Studio of Scientific Application and Research.

The second chapel is elliptical in shape and was designed by Bernini. Here we see the crucifix attributed to Cavallini (13th century), a work of great economy of form and forceful expressiveness. Across from the chapel, to the left of the aisle, is the sepulchral monument of Christina of Sweden, designed by Carlo Fontana. The bas-relief shows the scene of the adjuration of the eccentric Queen in the Cathedral of Innsbruck (3 November 1655).

The next chapel contains the mosaic of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a copy of the fresco by Domenichino (1629). In the old Basilica this martyr, captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, had an altar up to the 11th century. To the right of the altar is the monument to Pius XI (1922-1939) by Francesco Nagni, and opposite it the bronze statue of Pius XII, the work of Francesco Messina. The little cupola has frescoes by Pietro Berrettini da Cortona. The decorations round the windows are by Matteo Piccione and Francesco Vanni.

In the aisle is the baroque tomb of Innocent XII (1691-1700), with elegant lateral figures of Charity and Justice. It was executed by Filippo Valle from a design by Fuga. To the left is the mausoleum of the Countess Matilda, by Bernini - not one of his best works. In the bas-relief on the urn, done by Stefano Speranza (1635), we see the famous scene of the Emperor Henry IV being absolved by Gregory VII from his excommunication, at the castle of Canossa. Amid the general conventionalism of the work, carried even to the style of clothing worn by the Roman soldiers, the central part stands out for its composition and more natural quality.

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