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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Irving Lavin



The legendary rivalry between Bernini and Borromini has been revived in recent decades by a veritable cabal of scholars bent upon "deflating" Bernini's "arrogant" artistic hegemony in seventeenth-century Rome and demonstrating that Bernini was "really" "only" a sculptor (although he designed many buildings and called himself "architetto"), whereas Borromini was the "real" architect (although he was also a competent sculptor). The ur-texts on the subject as it concerns the baldachin are a biography of Boromini written by his nephew Bernardo Castelli-Borromini and an appreciation by his erstwhile admiring friend and patron Virgilio Spada, which convey what can only have been Borromini's own bitter laments about how Bernini, architecturally inexperienced and insecure, unscrupulously exploited his subordinate's professional expertise.13 (In fact, both were then very young, and neither had produced any significant buildings.) Neither Bernardo Castelli-Borromini nor Virgilio Spada actually laid claim to the role for their hero in the design of the Baldacchino. But, taking up the cause, the modern protagonists seek, by tortuous and sometimes obfuscating means, to circumvent the plain facts of the case and arrogate to Borromini credit which even Borromini himself did not claim. (Among other things, it is astonishing how reluctant these writers are to quote the relevant statements by Borromini in their entirety and in their context.) Bernini, ambitious and exasperatingly self-confident, was, after all, specifically charged by Urban VIII with the creation of the Baldacchino and, as the documents show, Borromini was employed at St Peter's in a secondary capacity. The reprise of tendentiousness began with the otherwise exemplary work on the early drawings of Borromini by heinrich Thelen, and has reached a sort of reductio ad absurdum in a recent work devoted to the rivalry, which reaches the fantastic conclusion, baldly stated, that Borromini was responsible for the architecture of the Baldacchino, Bernini for the sculpture: "Im Entwurfsprozess fur das definitive Baldachinproject erscheint Borromini massgeblich fur die architektonische Durchbildung des monuments verantwortlich, wohingegen Bernini sich auf die plastische Dekoration konzentriert zu haben scheint."14

The plain fact is that there is not a shred of evidence - not a shred, visual or documentary - that Borromini played any role whatever in the design of the Baldacchino. The payment records show that he was employed at St Peter's in two capacities, as a carver of minor works in marble and wood, and to make large, detailed drawings as templates for other artisans to follow, including some beautiful metal gratings that are certainly his own creations; Borromini's obsessively precise draftsmanship and brilliant grasp of perspective and spatial relationships were ideally suited for the purpose of making detailed "demonstration" renderings. Bernardo Castelli repeatedly observed that Borromini's mentor, Carlo Maderno, appreciated his protégé's ability to make drawings "con grandissima diligenza e polizia" and employed him in his old age for this purpose. This in fact is exactly what the visual evidence confirms. All the known drawings by Borromini related to the Baldacchino are of this sort - not preliminary sketches or studies, but fully developed working or presentation drawings that served to visualize, not to work out, ideas. They are finely wrought "models" of decorative elements, obviously intended for approval and/or to serve as models for executing artisans, or elaborately rendered, spatially situated illustrations of projects for the Baldacchino itself, obviously intended to aid in judging the projected work in situ (Fig. 130).15 Such drawings, along with trial models progressively larger in size up to full-scale and actually built and mounted in place, formed part of the revolutionary creative process that we have seen Bernini developed for carrying out the staggering enterprises at St Peter's. The detailed drawings and models were of course especially helpful in aiding nonprofessionals, the pope and cardinals who governed the Fabbrica, to visualize the final work; but they also reflect Bernini's own obsession with proportional relationships in the immense environment of the church. On the other hand, all known drawings by Bernini are precisely of the experimental sort - rapid sketches of ideas in which, in the heat of creativity, he tries out various solutions to all the crucial problems to which, as we know from the sources, the baldachin project gave rise (Figs. 128, 129). Bernini never made detailed drawings for architecture; he left that work to assistants.

But by far the most eloquent, and authoritative, testimony to the fact that Bernini, not Borromini, was responsible for the design of the Baldacchino, is Borromini himself. In 1660-3 his good friend Fioravante Martinelli wrote an excellent guide to the artistic monuments of Rome, which he submitted to Borromini for comment. The margins of the manuscript are in fact filled with corrections, additions, and suggestions in Borromini's own hand. Throughout the manuscript, at every opportunity, Borromini took care to insert his own name whenever Martinelli had omitted or obscured his contribution to the work in question.16 On several occasions he also took care to downplay, sometimes quite subtly, Bernini's role. Crucial to my point is that Borromini added by far his most circumstantial and elaborate comment to Martinelli's remarks about the Baldacchino, which the author had attributed to Bernini. Borromini is at pains to qualify Bernini's role: he gives his master Maderno due credit for the idea of combining a baldachin with twisted columns but stresses that the columns did not support the baldachin (baldachins were frequently suspended from above); he notes that some attributed the inspiration to the pope (a conceit that Bernini himself promulgated); he makes the absolutely decisive point that the crucial design invention in the baldachin-ciborium merger - the oxymoronic entablature with an architectural cornice and frieze of canopy lappets - was specifically ridiculed as a chimera; and he reports also the criticisms that baldachins are not to be supported on columns but on staves, that the baldachin should not accompany the cornice of the columns, and that Bernini insisted in any case on retaining the supporting angels.17 These are, after all, the essential, boldly unorthodox and innovative features of the design of the Baldacchino. It is simply unimaginable that Borromini would have reported these inventions as criticisms and failed to report his role, had he been responsible: here, of all places, where the subject is one of the most conspicuous and famous monuments of Rome; here, of all places, in a venue where he had the opportunity to make a public statement (since the guide was intended for publication) through the voice of another, respected authority. At best, Borromini's silence on these points bespeaks his honesty and strict sense of fairness, as well as the mutual respect these two giants had for one another, despite the rancor and resentment that spoiled their originally friendly relationship. In any case, here, of all places, Borromini's failure to speak on his own behalf, as he did throughout the rest of the manuscript, speaks volumes. No wonder that none of the promoters of Borromini's authorship addresses this simple, obvious fact.


In 1952, J. B. Ward Perkins collected the remains and evidence concerning a considerable group of post-classical marble, spiral-form columns dispersed in and around Rome and in Naples that are clearly related to and imitative of the Solomonic columns in St Peter's. Two pairs of these columns concern us here - one at Cave, an ancient fief of the Colonna family in the periphery of Rome, the other at Naples - because of the particular ways in which they relate to each other and to St Peter's. The relationship is explicit in the case of the pair that now flank the high altar of the church of San Carlo at Cave, which Ward Perkins determined to be medieval (post-eighth-century) copies of the columns in St Peter's (Fig. 131).18 The columns rest on plinths bearing inscriptions that refer the pair to the same Jerusalem provenance as their models respectively,


The importance of the Cave columns in our context lies in their history. They were transferred to San Carlo when they were willed to the new Jesuit church by Marchese Filippo Colonna in 1639.19 They stood previously in the early medieval church of S. Lorenzo at Cave, to which they had been given by Marcantonio Colonna, who received them from Pius V after the great general's victory at the battle of Lepanto.20 The treatment of the columns as Solomonic relics triumphantly converted to Christianity, as it were, was clearly a reference to Constantine and St Peter's. The reference fulfilled the promise invoked at the outset of the campaign by the Holy League against the Turks, which Pius V had promoted. On 11 June 1570, in the Sistine Chapel, Pius had commissioned Colonna commander of the papal forces, personally handing him the standard of the Holy League bearing the inscription "In hoc signo vinces," the angelic message that appeared to Constantine himself on the eve of his battle with Maxentius.21 Marcantonio's gift to S. Lorenzo may have a further bearing on our understanding of the high altar at St Peter's. In its original form the altar was surely reflected in one of the earliest known depictions of the structure with spiral columns, an Early Christian medal with the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence on the reverse.22 S. Lorenzo fuori le mura in Rome, be it recalled, was also a foundation of Constantine. Marcantonio's gift may have been inspired by these associations, which add considerable weight to those that underlay Bernini's reclamation of the primitive type.

The connection of the Naples pair is indirect, but nonetheless compelling (Fig. 132). These flanked the high altar of the church of S. Chiara in Naples, until they were destroyed by fire in 1943. Small fragments remain, as does a cast of one of the columns that had been made earlier. The relevance of these columns to Bernini's Baldacchino begins with their origin. They are first recorded in an order of the ruler of Naples, Robert of Anjou, who together with his wife, Sancia di Maiorca, a devoted patron of the Franciscan order of the Poor Clares, was then patronizing the construction of the new basilica, dedicated, it must be emphasized, to the Corpus Christi, also called the Sacred Host, and the adjoining convent of the Clarisse (whence the commonly used denomination of the church as S. Chiara). On 24 October 1317, Robert donated two marble columns not attached to any edifice, but formerly lying on the grounds of S. Maria del Monte, to the Monastery of the Holy Body of Christ that he and his consort, Sancia queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, were building in Naples, and ordered that they be transported by ship from Barletta.23 Robert's and Sancia's interest in the columns, spurred by their own passionate devotion to the cause of Jerusalem, which included negotiating (and paying for) a permanent access to the Holy Sepulcher for the Franciscans, undoubtedly stemmed from several factors. The spiral design and sculptural decoration patently related them to the Constantinian columns at St Peter's; and these columns, too, were supposed to have come from the temple at Jerusalem, as reported by a Franciscan historian at the end of the sixteenth century.24 This association may have accompanied the columns from their resting place at S. Maria del Monte, a Benedictine abbey near which the emperor Frederick II built his awesome fortress, Castel del Monte, in the 1240's. Frederick had conducted a crusade to the Holy Land, and in Jerusalem in 1229 assumed the royal crown of the city in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is perfectly possible, indeed probable, that, in emulation of Constantine the Great, Frederick on his return to Italy brought the columns back with him as souvenirs of the Jewish Temple.25 Frederick had concluded a ten-year truce with the Sultan of Egypt, which provided access to the holy sites for Christian pilgrims. The truce ended in 1239, and the following year he announced his intention to build Castel del Monte, the design of which incorporates many features reminiscent of the fabled Temple of Jerusalem. In this very document Frederick fixes the prospective location of the castle with reference to S. Maria del Monte.26 The capitals of the columns, which are of separate blocks of marble, are carved with eagles, one of Frederick's primary symbols of imperial authority.27 Frederick must have known that the columns in St Peter's were associated with Constantine, with the Temple, as well as with the Sacrament. And he must have understood that Constantine's appropriation of the columns for reuse in the apostolic altar at St Peter's was a symbolically charged, Christian reenactment of the emperor Titus's victory over the Jews and removal of the Temple furnishings to the Temple of Peace in Rome, which his father Vespasian had erected to celebrate the suppression of the Jewish revolt.28 Frederick must have conceived his own act of transferal in this grand tradition of imperial cooptation, and following him so also Robert of Anjou and Sancia.

It is not clear where the columns were first installed at S. Chiara or how they were used.29 But shortly after the middle of the sixteenth century, following the decree that the Sacrament was to be displayed on the high altar of every church, two copies by the Roman wood carver Bartolomeo Chiarini (documented in Naples 1560-79) were added to create a ciborium over the tabernacle of the Sacrament.30 Presumably, at that time the columns were placed on marble plinths with reliefs that illustrated their relationship with the Jerusalem Temple and the supercession of the Hebrew sacrifices by the Sacrament, bearing inscriptions borrowed from the liturgy for the Feast of Corpus Domini: Melchizedek's offering of bread and wine (inscribed PANEM ET VINVM OBTVLIT), and the sacrifice of Isaac (IN ISAAC IMMOLATVR), Old Testament prefigurations of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.31 The Solomonic origin of the columns was repeated by the Franciscan historian Luke Wadding in his description of the four-columned high altar.32

The new arrangement is recorded in a medal commemorating an event of world-historical importance that took place in S. Chiara on 14 August 1571. In a solemn ceremony Don Juan of Austria received from the hands of Cardinal Antoine Perrenot Granvelle, Viceroy of Naples and papal legate to the city, the standard of the Holy League, blessed by Pius V. Don Juan was commander-in-chief of the Christian fleet in the victory at Lepanto on 7 October 1571. The cardinal is depicted seated on a faldstool consigning the standard to the kneeling Don Juan (Fig. 133).33 Given the known dates of activity of Bartolomeo Chiarini, it seems likely that the installation shown on the medal was actually occasioned by the investiture ceremony. The action takes place before the altar on which the Sacrament tabernacle (Luke Wadding's "tholos") rests; four spiral columns at the corners support a horizontal entablature, without any superstructure. Apart from the superstructure, the disposition approximated the original Early Christian covering of the high altar at St Peter's that had been dismantled around A.D. 600. By the same token, the arrangement and symbolism of the high altar at Naples strikingly anticipated the basic concept of Bernini's Baldacchino, with its reprisal of the Early Christian disposition of the high altar of old St Peter's.34

The relationship in form and content is too close to be coincidental, and opens new perspectives on the ideological content of the work at St Peter's.35 The Naples monument commemorated one of the most providential events in the entire history of the Church, and its imagery as recorded in the medal must have seemed providentially relevant when it came to reinstall the prototypical spiral-columned altar tabernacle at St Peter's. The circumstances of the epochal dedication at Naples of the European powers of the Holy League to the preservation and propagation of the Church under Pius V, served as a model and inspiration to their successors under Urban VIII in the Church's struggles with unbelieving enemies both in the East and in the North. The pertinence in Rome of the Naples monument and the event it celebrated was conveyed explicitly in the medal by Constantinian accent of the text inscribed on the architrave of the structure in the background: IN HOC VINCES. Both the Cave pair and the Naples pair were associated with Lepanto, and it seems that the Solomonic columns were seen, not only as relics of Constantine and the Temple of Jerusalem, but as insignia of Christianity's great recent triumph over the infidel. The propitious events that took place in St Peter's and in the Neapolitan church of the Corpus Christi, or Sacred Host, were thus seen in a world-historical context directly relevant in myriad ways in Rome, the Vatican, and St Peter's.36 In particular, the Naples monument dedicated to the Holy Sacrament suggests that the Constantinian and Sacramental ideology we have found in Bernini Baldacchino may have had heretofore unsuspected contemporary religious and political resonance.


While under Urban VIII and Bernini the sacrifice of Christ occupied the center of the ideology of the crossing, the subject of papal succession was the focus of the building's longitudinal axis. These two complementary and mutually interdependent themes, which reflected the combination of building types engendered by the addition of the nave, were developed in tandem: the first was embodied in the decision to treat the four crossing piers uniformly; the second in the decision to move the tomb of Paul III, which had occupied one of the piers, and pair in with that of Urban VIII in the niches flanking the altar in the apse.37 The tomb of Paul III, by Guglielmo della Porta, was originally a freestanding monument in a side aisle with four reclining allegories, two at the front and two at the back. Later, the tomb was moved to a niche in one of the crossing piers, and the figures of Justice and Prudence were placed at the base, while the other two, Abundance and Peace, were set on the pediment above. Retaining only the figures of Justice and Prudence, Bernini reinstalled the tomb on the south side of the apse, and conceived the monument to Urban as its matching partner in the corresponding niche on the opposite side (Fig. 134). The paired tombs evoke the basic typology established by Michelangelo in the Medici monuments in the New Sacristy at S. Lorenzo, Florence, with the deceased enthroned and pairs of allegorical figures below (Fig. 135). Following della Porta, Bernini made the effigy of bronze, the allegories of marble, and he complemented Paul's Justice and Prudence with Justice and Charity for Urban. Placed in the lateral niches of the apse, the twin monuments were thus coordinated in content as well as design. With the tomb of Saint Peter himself at the center of the crossing, they formed a coherent group of memorials that embodied the millennial papal succession initiated under Saint Peter, established under Constantine, and continuing ad infinitum.38

The particular choice of virtues for the two tombs, in part seemingly redundant, must be understood in the light of two medieval traditions of rulership and jurisprudence. As cardinal or moral virtues, Justice and Prudence were the chief attributes of earthly dominion - they characterized the good and wise ruler. Paul III was in fact the great militant pope of the Counter-Reformation, as his palm-down gesture of pacification suggests (Fig. 134). On the other hand, Justice and Charity, as attributes of Divine Wisdom, were proper to the spiritual magistrate, the Just Judge of biblical tradition.39 Although the tomb of Urban VIII was the first time Justice and Charity had been paired in isolation on a papal monument, they appeared often in relation to papal portraits; from the Middle Ages on, these virtues played fundamental roles in defining the extent and limitations of papal rule - the so-called plenitude potestatis.40 The point here, in the context of St Peter's as the seat of Christ's vicars, is twofold. The particular combinations of virtues, while perhaps appropriate to a specific individual, were primarily emblematic of the vicarious role inherited by all the successors of Peter as magistrates of the church. And, taken together, the paired tombs created a complementary contrapposto in meaning emblematic of the temporal and spiritual hegemony of the papacy.41 With these changes of location and focus, Bernini transformed the Farnese tomb from an unwelcome obstacle to the unified program then emerging for the crossing piers into a providential blessing in the apse.


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