Rita Scotti's book "Basilica")
to St. Peter's
this year's 500th anniversary of the foundation of the new St. Peter's
Basilica, there have been academic conferences, and some of the
greatest scholars in the field have published a fine volume of essays
on aspects of the basilica. But for the millions of common folk
all over the world who know and love St. Peter's, no one had come
forward to present the thrilling story of how the world's greatest
church came into being.
has filled this void with her new book "Basilica," released earlier
this year. A historical account that reads like fiction, "Basilica"
recounts the personalities, skirmishes and intrigues that got the
seemingly impossible project off the ground in 1506 and brought
it to completion 120 years later.
the book are fun and refreshing. Her portrait of the architect Bramante,
who dreamed up the project of putting "the dome of the Pantheon
on the shoulders of the Basilica of Maxentius, the last and largest
basilica built by the Roman emperors," as Scotti aptly phrased it,
brings the little-known genius to life.
has a great eye for architecture and explains it well. She helps
the reader to understand the importance of the enormous dimensions
of the basilica and to see how Bernini's giant canopy works in the
grand space of the church. It is a page-turner which will deepen
many people's appreciation of the great structure.
But as much
as I wanted to like this book, a growing discomfort dogged every
page. Besides several errors, historical and editorial, there was
a deeper problem. A first inkling came in Scotti's discussion of
the early Church, where she skimmed over the tradition of Roman
martyrs and the succession of Peter.
flirts with a mild form of the "sacred feminine," delving into the
mother/son dichotomy in biblical history, before declaring that
Emperor Constantine "blurred the distinction between Caesar and
God" so that "pagan and Christian became jumbled." These statements
seem more like a nod to Dan Brown than serious history.
the last chapters, the problem became clear. Scotti writes, "Religion
is illusion. No institution understands that more profoundly than
the Church of Rome. More than tenets and ethics, religion is mystery
and magic, the ultimate conjuring act, body and blood from bread
speaks of magic and conjuring, but words like Divine institution,
miracle and sacrifice hold no meaning for her. She writes without
a sense of Truth, nor the importance of the Vicar of Christ as the
keeper of the deposit of Truth given to us by Jesus Christ. Without
any understanding of the sacredness of this space, she cannot understand
St. Peter's Basilica.
by the art, the architecture and the tales surrounding the building,
Scotti remains tone-deaf to the voice and meaning of the basilica.
The chorus of architects, Popes and builders gave everything they
had to this church, not to dupe the faithful or feed their own power-hungry
ambitions, but, in the words of Michelangelo, for "the glory of
God, the honor of St. Peter and the salvation of the soul."
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne
University's Italian campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.