Bernini at St. Peter's
by Irving Lavin, ©2005

This section from the book "St. Peter's in the Vatican, edited by William Tronzo, © Cambridge University Press 2005
is in copyright. No reproduction of any part may take place without
written permission of Cambridge University Press.

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Singularis in Singulis, in Omnibus Unicus

Irving Lavin


Perhaps the most profound insight into Bernini's conception of his work at St Peter's is provided by a passage about the juvenile artist in Filippo Baldinucci's biography, published two years after Bernini's death at age eighty-two in 1680.

It happened one day that he found himself in the company of Annibale Carracci [Carracci died in 1609; - Bernini was born in 1598] and other masters in the basilica of St Peter's. They had finished their devotions and were leaving the church when that great master, turning toward the tribune, said, "Believe me, the day will come, when no one knows, that a prodigious genius will make two great monuments in the middle and at the end of this temple on a scale keeping with the vastness of the building." That was enough to set Bernini afire with desire to execute them himself and, not being able to restrain his inner impulse, he said in heartfelt words, "Oh, if only I could be the one." Thus, unconsciously, he interpreted Annibale's prophecy and later brought it to pass, as we will relate in due course when we tell of the wonderful works he executed for those places.1

The source of the anecdote can only have been Bernini himself, and although it implies a kind of providential intervention in the completion of St Peter's on the artist's behalf, its art-historical significance lies in what it suggests about Bernini's underlying motivation in the work. It seems that, stimulated by the insight of one of the artists he admired most, Bernini from the beginning had in mind a vision, however vague and inchoate, of the church as a whole. In fact, drawings made half a century later show him realizing exactly this dream. As if in fulfillment of Carracci's prognosis, Bernini studies the visual relationship between two of the most magnificent art works of modern history, the view through the Baldacchino to the Cathedra Petri in the apse (Fig. 108). This is not to say that Bernini had a preconceived scheme for the projects he would carry out at St Peter's. But Carracci's remark, which applied to the specific problem of relating the high altar to the apse, represents a way of thinking that Bernini would develop into a comprehensive worldview, unified by certain threads of form and meaning common to everything he designed. Bernini was of course an employee of the papacy, and nothing happened without the initiative and/or approval of the authorities, including a supervising committee of the College of Cardinals, and often the pope himself. But Bernini was an employee of a unique and exalted sort. That he was able to realize his vision was due to the not less providential longevity of his responsibility for St Peter's. His hegemony began informally soon after Urban VIII became pope and became official in 1629 when, on the death of Carlo Maderno, Urban appointed him architect of St Peter's. Over the remaining half-century of his life Bernini was responsible for everything done at St Peter's, serving no less than six popes (see Appendixes 1 and 2). Perhaps even more remarkably, and owing as much to his brilliant if volatile personality as to his talent, he maintained almost without interruption close personal relations with all of them. There is probably no example in history of such continuous (and continuously innovative) creativity, on such a scale, on a single project, over such a long period, by a single artist (Figs. 109, 110)

Four important caveats are in order before we consider this unexampled spectacle of creativity. First, the discussion that follows is woefully incomplete, if only because it deals with the monumental works that are still to be seen in St Peter's. Bernini designed many works, small and large, that are left out of account, from church furnishings and liturgical vestments, to vast temporary decorations for canonizations; even huge bell towers, one of which was actually built but soon dismantled because it was deemed unstable. Second, although discussion will proceed in roughly chronological order, it is to a degree misleading, since many projects overlapped and others were planned and carried out in fits and starts over many years, even decades. Third, a veritable army of artists and artisans carried out these works, some of them gigantic, and although under Bernini's supervision they achieved a remarkable harmony of style, his personal participation in the execution varied greatly. Individual artistic personalities are often discernible. I have not attempted to disentangle these problems of authorship, but I am convinced that at least in some instances - notably the statues in the crossing piers and the angels of the Ponte Sant'Angelo - Bernini condoned, or deliberately encouraged, these individual differences, both for concerted expressive effects and in order to manifest the human comprehensiveness of the concepts and beliefs the woks embody. Finally, although certain elements required for the outfitting of a church, even such a special one as St Peter's, were predictable, Bernini obviously could not have premeditated some eventualities and projects; these had to be integrated into the overall scheme after the fact, as it were. Partly in response to such contingencies, and partly of his own volition, Bernini's vision evolved in detail; but it remained constant in essence. Through all the manifold vagaries of time, persons, places, and things, one and only one mind was at work at St Peter's during the long period in which the building was brought to completion. Despite the vicissitudes of unforeseen developments and a situation fraught with conflicting interests, Bernini was able to impress his conceptual and visual stamp on the greatest building in Christendom and create the salient image of an entire epoch:2 "singularis in singulis, in omnibus unicus" (Fig. 111).3


Two major decisions, taken at an interval of a century, established the fabric of the mother church of Western Christendom as we know it today. The first, made early in the sixteenth century, was to bring down the venerable but tottering and by then inadequate Early Christian basilica. The old building had been erected in the early fourth century by Constantine, the Roman emperor who first recognized Christianity. The aim was to replace Old St Peter's by a centrally planned structure built over the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul.4 The new design expressed above all the commemorative nature of the church, its concentric and symmetrical geometry evoking an ancient sepulchral tradition that had come to express the ideal, eternal perfection of the Christian martyr and of Christ's church, here manifested in the person of Saint Peter and in his office as the Vicar of Christ on earth. The second decision, made in the early seventeenth century, was to add a longitudinal nave, which thus restored to the building a semblance of its original basilical form. The determination to add the nave was not so much owing to the failure of the Bramante/Michelangelo plan to fulfill its intended purpose (the reason given by the later generation) as the reflection of a profound change in values that radically altered the relative importance attached to the building's primary functions. In the wake of the Reformation the attitude of the Church had taken an extroverted and aggressive turn, which entailed a shift of emphasis in the liturgy from commemoration toward the practical aspects of performance and involvement of the faithful. In this new spiritual culture the earlier building made inadequate provision for the sacristy and for the canon's choir, and was wholly unsuited to the ceremonial processions that played an ever-increasing role in ecclesiastical devotions and celebrations. The same underlying spirit also reaffirmed the venerable traditions of the church, not only by returning to the basilical form of the original building, but also by recognizing the value and importance of its physical remains. A meticulous record of the Early Christian building was made before it was demolished, not merely as a historical record, but to ensure that many of its features might be translated into the new church. The problem of furnishing this hybrid structure, combining two complementary but contradictory ideological and functional traditions, confronted the newly elected Urban VIII - who had strongly opposed the demolition of the old building - and his chosen impresario. Reconciling the merger of centralized and longitudinal building types in New St Peter's, and the corresponding merger of commemorative and liturgical values, became a fundamental, driving principle of the church's conceptualization and design.

The same merging and problems attendant upon it were inherent in the Cathedral of Florence, the illustrious predecessor of St Peter's as the largest church in Christendom and, as I believe, the prime model for both phases of its construction. At Florence the identical designs of the transept arms and choir created a centrally planned core around the high altar at the center, which in turn was the focus of the nave (Fig. 112). The Duomo was the single most important example to be emulated, and surpassed, not only with respect to its unexampled size and blending of central and longitudinal building types, but also in its devotion to Christ. Despite, or rather in a sense owing to its dedication, S. Maria del Fiore, its two main interior furnishings were Christological: the high altar, where Bandinelli's marble choir commemorate the sacrifice (1547-72, Fig. 113); and Brunelleschi's famous cupola, where Zuccari and Vasari had painted a vast fresco of the Last Judgment (1571-9, Fig. 114).5 At St Peter's this principle had already been adopted in part with Cesare d'Arpino's mosaic decoration of the cupola (Fig. 115): a Deesis composition including the apostles and angels holding the instruments of the Passion, which also alludes to the Last Judgment (1603-12).

(Figs. 116, 117)


Although adding the nave solved some problems, it created others that came to the fore when the new structure was completed and ready to receive the requisite furnishings. The most essential components and the first to be attended to were the high altar and the choir. In the traditional basilica the high altar was placed at the entrance to the apse, and the choir for the attendant clergy was installed around its perimeter. In a central plan structure, was the high altar placed at a distance from the apse, such a solution was possible only by including a choir with the high altar at the center of the crossing, thus substantially blocking the view down the nave. This was the solution adopted at Florence when Brunelleschi surrounded the high altar with a low polygonal choir, after an earlier version had been rejected as too obstructive. The difficulty can be recognized in the fact that Brunelleschi's choir, which was built of wood and intended to be only temporary, in fact remained in place for more than a century, with no final decision being taken. Then, under very different circumstances, the Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici replaced Brunelleschi's choir with a much more elaborate and monumental marble enclosure. His intervention was counter-current. Contemporaries remarked on the irony of Cosimo's act of high-handed, aristocratic class-consciousness, in sharp contrast to the new open policies of the mendicant orders, which were then systematically updating their churches by demolishing the old choir screens that excluded the faithful from religious functions and blocked the view down the nave to the high altar.6

The difficulty was precisely the same at St Peter's, and the dilemma must have been intensely relevant for Bernini as well as for Urban VIII, who came from Tuscany and was thoroughly familiar with the situation in Florence. Early in Urban's reign the elements of a coherent plan emerged that sought to reconcile the centrality of the crossing as the commemorative location of the tomb of the apostles, with the longitudinal focus inspired by the new nave. Although analogous proposals were made, the kind of encumbrance imposed by the choir at Florence was ruled out, in favor of a solution involving two altars, the isolated high altar dedicated to Peter and Paul over their "confession," or subterranean burial place, and a second altar placed toward the apse for papal functions involving the cardinals and associated with a choir. The dilemma inherent in the size, form, and function of St Peter's was such that no solution for a permanent choir was ever achieved: to this day, when required for special occasions, temporary structures of wood are installed in the apse with seating for the College of Cardinals. But the idea for two major altars, one in the crossing and the other in the apse, remained a permanent feature of the church.


The solution in favor of two altars at St Peter's was adopted early in the reign of Paul V, when the drastic decision was taken to move the high altar to the apse.7 Thereafter, and continuing under Gregory XIV, the two altars were given contrasting forms of covering reflecting their different functions. The high altar in the apse was covered by a traditional architectural ciborium surmounted by a cupola, distinguished in this case by wings consisting of the precious twisted marble columns reputedly brought from Solomon's Temple of Jerusalem by Constantine the Great and installed at the high altar in the apse of the original basilica (Fig. 118, cf. Fig. 127). With the removal of the high altar to the apse the altar over the tomb became largely celebratory; it was marked by a series of what appeared to be, and actually were, temporary installations conceived as portable baldachins supported on four staves carried by standing or kneeling angels (Fig. 119). The idea of imitating a processional baldachin on a monumental scale served two purposes. The slender, open design permitted maximum visibility of the proceedings at the altar and beyond, toward the apse. But the disposition must also be understood in reference to the grand ceremonial papal procession of the Corpus Domini, which in some respects culminated the progressive magnification of the Sacrament during the Counter-Reformation as the theological heart of church doctrine (cf. Fig. 160). It had long since been decreed that the Sacrament be displayed at the high altar of every church, and Paul's baldachin was surely meant to evoke the honorific and celebratory message of the Corpus Domini procession, in which the pope paraded the sacramental Host from the basilica through the streets of Old Rome and back again, under a tasseled baldachin carried by acolytes. By the end of the sixteenth century, altars devoted the Sacrament had multiplied and grown to huge proportions. At S. Maria Maggiore the centerpiece of the mortuary chapel built by Sixtus V is a bronze sacrament altar with four over-life-size angels carrying the tabernacle (Fig. 120). Around 1600, Paul V's predecessor, Clement VIII, erected a huge bronze sacrament altar in the transept of the pope's episcopal seat and the cathedral of Rome, S. Giovanni in Laterano (Fig. 121); these columns, too, were supposed to have come from the Temple of Jerusalem, brought back filled with earth from Mount Calvary by Empress Helen, mother of Constantine the Great. Emulating these illustrious precedents, Paul V planned to cast the processional baldachin at St Peter's in bronze, creating a majestic, permanent "temporary" display, a kind of angelic celebration of the three distinctive features of the St Peter's altar - the commemoration of the apostles, the celebration of the Sacrament, and the sanctity of the papacy. At opposite ends of the typological and topographical scale, the isolated baldachin served as a light, open structure to mark the tomb altar without blocking the vista toward the apse, where the ciborium appeared as an architectural monument in conjunction with an architectural setting.


Urban VIII and Bernini approached the dilemma of St Peter's in a fundamentally new spirit of consolidation and unification, seeking to encompass and subordinate under a dominant theme the disparate legacies of tradition and the contributions of their predecessors. This powerful new inspiration motivated two epoch-making decisions: the preeminence and centrality of the crossing was reaffirmed by returning the high altar to the tomb; and the altar was to be marked by a structure that would meld the heretofore distinct types of celebratory baldachin and commemorative architectural ciborium. (For Bernini's conception the term "baldachin," which normally refers to a nonarchitectural covering, is literally a half-truth. Wanting a better name, I have retained the Italian for Bernini's monumental version.) Visually, the effect was to reconcile, in permanent form on a colossal scale, the conflicting values of minimal structure and open visibility with architectural permanence and monumentality (Figs. 122, 123, 124).

Bernini's initial design consisted of four spiral columns supporting semicircular ribs that intersected diagonally; from the apex, crowning the whole structure, rose a figure of the Resurrected Christ holding the bannered cross (Fig. 125). Standing on the columns are angels who seem to carry a tasseled canopy by means of ribbons strung through loops on its top and secured to the ribs. The columns replace the staves of the earlier baldachins, their spiral form alluding to the Solomonic marble columns. The angels suspend the canopy of the baldachin from above, divine replacements for the ropes on which "floating" but stationary baldachins were hung from the vault above the pope in ceremonies when he was seated enthroned (Fig. 126); and the crossed ribs recall those which had conjoined the marble columns in the Constantinian shrine (Fig. 127).

This astonishing amalgam of ephemerality and monumentality fused the processional character of the Sistine with the architectural character of the Lateran sacrament altars. The powerful, spiraling movement of the columns has its animate continuation in the angels, who perform the celebratory work of covering the altar, and culminates in the figure of Christ, who rises to take his place in heaven, as depicted in the dome above. One "material" key to the solution was the use of bronze, not normally associated with either the baldachin or the ciborium types, which permitted the vast scale and the daring structural engineering the project demanded. Bernini's Baldacchino was certainly the greatest enterprise of bronze casting since antiquity, and in this sense, as well as in its sacramental content, the project took up Paul V's homage and challenge to the Lateran sacrament altar - the greatest legacy of antiquity in this respect, and a particular model to surpass because of its provenance from the fabled Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. Beside emulating these predecessors, Bernini's use of bronze was a practical necessity, to achieve the Baldacchino's unexampled fusion of forms. But the amalgam also had particular significance as a material because of its continuity, fluidity, and transformability in the crucible of fire.8 Associated with this quasi-alchemical process was an almost mystical sense of the spirit that animates all creativity: the matrix of a bronze cast was actually called the "anima."

After further deliberation, Bernini's initial idea had to be modified because it was feared that the weight and lateral thrusts of the superstructure might cause the columns to give way. In the final solution three major changes were made that resulted in an even more egregiously "impossible" design. The load was lightened by substituting for the complex, drapery-swathed figure of Christ, the simple, regular configuration of the globe-surmounted cross. The semicircular ribs were transformed into spring-like, curving volutes that served to raise the center of gravity and make the thrusts upon the columns more vertical. Finally, the canopy was lowered to coincide with the tops of the columns so that a continuous band could serve to tie the columns together (Figs. 128, 129).

Each of these changes entailed a shift of meaning. The resurrected Christ was replaced by the traditional symbol of Christianity's promise of universal salvation. Palm fronds, symbols of victory, grow from the crossed ribs, which take the form of a crown - the crown of martyrdom in memory of Christ's sacrifice and those of Peter and Paul whose relics sanctify the high altar. Each of the ribs consists of three volutes, which differ in design and function. The largest, central volute rests directly on the inner corner of the column's impost entablature, whereas the two lesser, flanking scrolls curl up at the corners of the baldachin and seem to bear no weight - on the contrary, their spring-like coils suggest buoyancy. Wreaths of laurel held delicately by the angels with the tips of their fingers disappear beneath these spiral volutes and serve the ambivalent function of sustaining both the volutes and the canopy; conversely, the central, larger volutes disappear between their neighbors as they rise to the top. The superstructure of the Baldacchino is thus quite literally a mystery-bound affair, in which a triune summa of honorific markers - processional-carried and stabile-suspended baldachins, and architectural ciborium - is achieved by the angels who have alighted to conjoin - mysteriously, imperceptibly - heaven and earth. Considered thus, it is easy to see why, according to a critic of the project, Bernini insisted that "in any case, he wanted it to be sustained by angels."9

The same commentator also perceived and railed against the device that is the key to Bernini's solution in "architectural" terms, insisting that "baldachins are not sustained on columns but on staves," and that "the baldachin does not run together with the cornice of the columns." Bernini's entire design was created in order to make precisely those impermissible things happen: the cornice continues uninterrupted around the structure, while the frieze between the columns consists not of metopes and triglyphs proper to architecture but of lappets and tassels proper to a cloth canopy. This deliberate elision of the conventional grammar of design - a sort of visual "ain't" - makes a virtue of necessity, since only thus could baldachin and ciborium truly merge while retaining the essential integrity of both. No wonder Bernini referred to himself as a "bad Catholic" (preferable to Borromini, a good heretic) and believed that the great challenge of the architect was to make disadvantages appear to have been invented on purpose, and to "surpass the rules without breaking them." In the final analysis Bernini's Baldacchino is exactly what the same detractor called it in derogation, a "chimera," a perfect, inextricable, and indissoluble fusion of three heretofore distinct categories of visually significant thought: the immediacy of the processional baldachin, the animated suspense of the hanging canopy, and the monumental stability of the ciborium. The task of accomplishing this unreasonable fusion is assigned, quite properly, to the angels, whose garland swags disappear from view to work their magic in privacy, as it were, at the crucial juncture of all three elements.

The change in the design and symbolism of the crown entailed a shift in emphasis from the sacrament itself to the universal dominion of Christianity as an institution, and in turn to the role of the papacy in the administration of that legacy. At the same time, insignia of the papacy in general and of Urban VIII in particular were introduced all over the Baldacchino, which is literally strewn with Barberini emblems: the sun, laurel, and the famous bees. What is important about this phenomenon is not its testimony to the personal egotism and ambition of Urban VIII - the usual cliché - but to the pope's view of the nature of his office and its role in the mission of the Church. A literally wondrous instance of the coincidence of the human and divine upon which the faith rested was the bee - a traditional symbol of Divine Wisdom - three of which formed the Barberini coat of arms. The vicariate of Christ was not only bestowed on Saint Peter by the Lord himself; its succession was also determined by an act of divine will, which inspired every papal election by the college of cardinals. In one way or another, all of Urban's emblems alluded to the intervention of divine will on earth. But this intervention had become direct and visible at his election when, upon his winning by a single vote (in a second ballot upon which he had himself insisted to confirm the previous count), the Sistine Chapel was invaded by a swarm of bees!10

These considerations of material and design in turn help to illuminate the relationship between the bronze "anima" of the Baldacchino, its triune composition of celebratory and commemorative markers, and the Trinitarian theme that has often been noted in the spiritual ascent from the sacrament at the altar: the resplendent dove of the Holy spirit on the underside of the canopy, the resurrected Christ seated in judgment in the cupola, God the Father in the lantern above (Figs. 115, 124). The consonance of material, form, and meaning coincides with the great visual drama of the Baldacchino itself: massive in scale and ponderous in proportions, it fairly writhes in a powerful paroxysm of movement and energy to its own climax, and beyond toward the vault on high.

Finally, it is important to realize that the revolutionary design of the Baldacchino was accompanied by a no less significant procedural revolution in the execution of the work. The idea of erecting a monumental architectural, or quasi-architectural, baldachin-ciborium over the high altar in the vast reaches of the new basilica posed quite unprecedented problems of scale and proportions, which were confronted in quite unprecedented ways. Under Bernini's direction Borromini produced detailed perspectival drawings - unlike any seen before - specifically intended to visualize the relationship between the proposed structure and the building itself (Fig. 130). And an equally unheralded procedure was followed in three dimensions: detailed models of various sizes up to the final, full scale were created and installed in situ so the effect could be judged.11 No work of this kind and at this scale had ever been premeditated to this degree and in this way. Implicit in this method is a new, "wholistic" conceptual mode - the Baldacchino was not an independent piece of church furniture, as it were, but an integral part of the building itself. This attitude was adumbrated by the scale of Maderno's temporary baldachins, but now fully articulated in fully monumental form. Yet, the elaborate planning procedure notwithstanding, the biographers report that Bernini himself, speaking precisely of the matter of scale and proportional relationships, said that the Baldacchino had succeeded "per caso," by chance. The explanation of the paradox is implicit in the biographers' observations that because the scale of the undertaking was unprecedented there were no established standards, and ultimately no rule to guide the eye other than the mind and genius of the artist, whose judgment "happened" to be right.12


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