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(Review of Rita Scotti's book "Basilica")

Tone-deaf to St. Peter's

By Elizabeth Lev

To commemorate 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.

Rita Scotti 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.

Elements of 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.

Scotti also 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.

Scotti then 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.

Finally, in 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 and wine."

The author 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.

While fascinated 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."

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at




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