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

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

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Bernini's final work for St Peter's was devoted explicitly to the theme that had been implicit in much of what he had done before, the Holy Eucharist. The Sacrament altar is in certain respects the most astonishing of all these creations, by virtue above all of its utter simplicity: it is a bronze tabernacle in the form of a peripteral tempietto, flanked by two kneeling angels (Fig 249, 250, 251, 252, 253, 254). Bernini evidently felt compelled to distill to its quintessential elements the central mystery of his faith.

The project evolved in three phases. Begun under Urban VIII, it was taken up again under Alexander VII, and finally completed under Clement X. Important insights into the development and significance of this unexpected creation and the process that led to it is provided by a heretofore unpublished study by Bernini for the first altar of the Sacrament in New St Peter's commissioned by Urban VIII (Fig 255).222 The drawing corresponds to the records of payment for the work Bernini designed in 1629. Figures of Peter and Paul stood on pedestals at the ends of the altar, while at the center small angels knelt around the base of the peripteral tabernacle covered by a cupola. Executed in temporary materials, the altar was initially erected in a chapel decorated by Gregory XIII with an altarpiece that incorporated a venerated image of the Madonna. In 1638 this provisional work was transferred to a large side chapel in the nave designated as the New Sacristy, where the niche behind the altar had been decorated with a great painting of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona, commissioned in 1628 and completed in 1632. Cortona's painting shows the Trinity at the top of the composition, with a large celestial globe below (Fig 251). In the drawing, the composition sketched in the niche behind the altar shows no hint of the framed image of the Madonna in the center of the Gregoriana altarpiece in the Gregorian chapel, but is quite compatible with what became Cortona's design. The two works were executed in tandem, and the drawing indicates that Bernini's altar, though installed temporarily in the Gregoriana, was designed to be placed in front of Cortona's Trinity, with which it was intended to harmonize from the outset.223 The main variations in the drawing concern the height of the altar: at first there is a low plinth on which the tabernacle alone rested; then a higher plinth is introduced, with the tabernacle flanked and perhaps lifted slightly off the surface by two or more kneeling angels (the documents speak first of two, then of four).224 In this form the apostles would flank Cortona's altarpiece, the angels remaining well below, and the level of the tabernacle would be calibrated so that only the semicircular cupola would appear just beneath the heavenly globe in the painting.

The temporary altar remained in site for decades, and when the project was resumed under Alexander VII the attitude toward the Sacrament had changed and the altar underwent a significant development that is recorded in a series of drawn and terra-cotta sketches. The tabernacle grew in size and importance, and the figures of Peter and Paul were shifted to become the central pair in a ring of apostles standing on the entablature of the colonnade. The high plinth was retained and the sacramental presence was exalted by raising the tabernacle still higher, at first by placing it in the hands of four, much-enlarged kneeling angels, who also held the candles that were important to the Eucharist devotions (Fig 256). In this form the altar struck a parallel between the Eucharist and the seat of its administration, the Cathedra Petri, sustained by the Fathers of the Church in the great reliquary altar in the apse, which Bernini was then executing for the same pope. In this elevated position the Sacrament tabernacle, rather than appearing as a subordinate altar furnishing, as in the drawing, would now appear to be equated with the celestial globe immediately behind, in Cortona's composition.

Bernini's final design was an amalgam of this second version with the original project. The tabernacle remains elevated, while its central core is elongated by the introduction of a tall drum beneath the cupola. The kneeling angels, relieved of all ancillary duty, replace Peter and Paul at the extremities of the altar. The supporting role of the angels who bore the tabernacle in the second version is now played by the angels in Cortona's Trinity, who seem to embrace Bernini's tabernacle as well as the globe behind (Fig 249, 257). Taken together, the Sacrament altar and the Trinity now function effectively as a coordinated whole. Divine grace descends from the Trinity through the universe, to be embodied in the Eucharist on the altar. In the final version the angels become, exclusively, devotees. The decision to "defunctionalize" their role recalls Alexander VII's insistence that the colonnades of the piazza have no other purpose than to serve in celebration of the Corpus Domini. So also Bernini's angels perform no other service than to kneel in perpetual adoration of the Holy Sacrament.

The angels, in fact, embody the celestial nature of sacramental devotion.225 The liturgy of the Church, especially regarding the Eucharist and especially in its original meaning of thanksgiving, is conceived as a mirror of and participation in the liturgy celebrated in heaven by the angels and saints. The angles in heaven, to whose status human nature aspires, are engaged in adoration of the Eucharist - not occasionally but perpetually intoning their joyous acclamations. Bernini's angels make this vision visible and audible through their gracious smiles and delicately parted lips. With their great wings and aureate glow the angels recall the golden cherubim who guarded the Old Testament Holy of Holies. According to some, the angelic hosts included the sublimated souls of just men made perfect, and Bernini's angels seem to reflect their human origin and inspire emulation of their devotion. The creature at the left has long, flowing hair and is fully clothed in the tunic of a subdeacon, with hands pressed together; the head, blank-eyed in ecstasy, inclines inward toward the tabernacle of the host (Fig 250). The other, with short, radiant locks, one muscular arm and shoulder bare, and hands crossed at the breast looks outward and down toward the altar with sharply focused pupils (Fig 251).226 This distinct, complementary contrast of spiritual natures - contemplative and active - seems to retrieve, in angelic terms, Bernini's demonstration at the beginning of his career of the psycho-physiognomic expression of extreme moral states in his "portrait busts" of the Blessed (female, wearing the tunic of subdeacon) and Damned (male, nude) Souls (Fig 258a, b).227 Through their inner - and outer - worldly-directed emotions and actions, the angels intone an acclamatory hymn: their contrapuntal voices reciprocate with impassioned serenity the two chief modes of Eucharistic devotion embodies in the allegories perched over the very entrance to the Sacrament. Corresponding to Faith, the joined hands of the contemplative angel were the expression par excellence of the act of adoration, prescribed in the rubrics of the Mass and serving even in a juridical sense in the solemn pledge of fealty. The crossed arms of the active angel, corresponding to the figure of Religion holding the Cross, were an expression of supplication, this attitude being adopted by the celebrant during the prayer Supplices te rogamus of the Canon of the Mass. 228

By definition, angels are present and participate at the altar of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Indeed, the key to understanding Bernini's altar lies in the fact that the Mass is above all the communal act of the church, where heaven and earth meet. Hence the altar and the Mass are the place and time when angels are present together with the faithful in the performance of this ritual offering and devotion. The Mass is, after all, a celebration, and what it celebrates is nothing less than the paradoxical redemption of mankind through Christ's death. In their form, Bernini's shimmering creatures display mankind's highest aspirations to perfection, and in their expression they evoke the joy that unites humanity and the angels at the Resurrection. Their effulgent and flamboyant drapery seems to consume their very essence in a pyrotechnical display of pure, coruscating energy. Both the fiery nature of these ethereal creatures and the ardor of their love are fused into the golden bronze of which they are made, itself purified and formed in fire. Whereas the wind-blown angels of the Passion on the Ponte Sant'Angelo are epiphanic, the angels of the Sacrament are devotional, eternally fixed in the ecstatic bliss of their visio dei. In this sense they seem literally to reflect the Pseudo-Dionysius's description in the Celestial Hierarchies of the shining and enflamed garments that cover the nudity of the intelligent beings of heaven, as symbolizing the divine form.230 The ardor of their devotion to the Sacrament is epitomized and announced by the emblematic flames and palm fronds of victorious martyrdom emblazoned on the gates to the sanctuary. (Fig 249).

As with the bridge angels, many autograph preliminary studies, drawn as well as sculptured, testify to the painstaking labor that lay behind these quite different, chiaroscuro effects (Fig 259, 260) 231 In these sketches, Bernini sought deliberately not only to defunctionalize the figures, but also to "dematerialize" them. The continuous, predominately linear definition of form in the bridge angels is here replaced by a flickering pattern that arises from the juxtaposition of discrete parches of light and dark. (It is no accident that the single preserved autograph drawing for the drapery of a bridge angel is in pen and ink, whereas all the drawings for the sacrament angels are brush and wash.) On the bridge the white marble reflects the spiritual movement and solar luminosity of those who bear witness to the salvific sacrifice. On the Sacrament altar the gilt bronze embodies the fiery substance and passionate bliss of Eucharistic devotion. In both cases the materials become as transcendent as the images they represent. Evidently, Bernini's ultimate choice of medium in visualizing the Sacrament was light: following a millennial tradition according to which light was the visual manifestation of divinity, he imitated God's own act of illumination at the end of the first day, after creating the heaven, the earth and the sea (Gen. 1:1-3). Taken together, the altar, the figures, the tabernacle, and the Trinity fresco behind evoke, through a setting for the earthly liturgy of the church, the heavenly liturgy that celebrates all creation.

Since the early Renaissance there had been an ever-expanding tradition to reserve the Eucharistic Host on the altar. The Host was placed in an architectural container that might, in a sense, be described as a reliquary whose form reflects its ideal prototype, the Holy Sepulcher. The decoration often also includes allusions to Old Testament antecedents such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple for Jerusalem, and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Angles, in various acts of devotion or exaltation, were a standard part of the representational repertory. And Christ was commonly depicted in reference to the Passion or the Resurrection, which might take the form of a figure of the risen Christ placed atop a centrally planned tabernacle. Bernini's altar refers to all these hallowed traditions but also breads with them in nearly every respect. I have not encountered an earlier instance in which, on a monumental scale, a free-standing tabernacle is flanked by two angels kneeling in attitudes of prayer. In the nearest precedent, which Bernini certainly knew, a sacrament altar of the early sixteenth century in S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, there are kneeling angels, but they serve as candelabra-bearers (Fig 261). 232 In plan, Bernini's altar is a subtle adaptation of his design for the façade of the church of S. Andrea al Quirinale, where the convex entrance "tabernacle" protrudes at the center of two flanking, concave wings (Fig 262, 263). The curving wings of the altar end in diagonals, as do the colonnades of the piazza except that here the extremities serve as pedestals for the pair of angels kneeling in adoration, who are placed diagonally with respect to the altar itself. They thus appear in three-quarter view, intermediating by their postures and the directions of their glances between the worshiper-celebrant before the altar and the Sacrament itself. In this way, the angels initiate the spatial and conceptual continuum in which the Sacrament proceeds from the divine grace of the Trinity to the spectator.

Bernini's tabernacle follows that of S. Croce in referring to one of the most famous and widely imitated buildings of the Renaissance, the so-called Tempietto designed by Bramante to mark the spot of Saint Peter's martyrdom not far from the Vatican, in the courtyard of the Franciscan convent adjoining the church of S. Pietro in Montorio (Fig 264). Apart from its role as a paragon of Renaissance architecture, Bramante's Tempietto entailed several associations appropriate for a sacrament tabernacle. In its design it had assimilated the classical peripteral temple to a centrally planned domical structure commonly associated with the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem - hence its relevance at S. Croce - as well as being used in temporary catafalques erected in the churches as funeral commemorations.233 At St Peter's the reference to the Tempietto served to relate Peter's death to that of Christ himself, and had already been cited by Bramante in his design for the cupola of the church. The celebratory nature of the repository of the Sacrament is expressed through the differences between it and its monumental prototypes. The tabernacle is more elaborate, its fluted Corinthian order and sumptuous materials - gilt bronze inlaid with azure lapis lazuli - recall the lavishness of the biblical description of the Holy of Holies and Saint John's vision of the celestial Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations. On the pediment of the temple door, the flanking allegorical figures of Faith and Religion convey the fundamental paradox of Catholic belief and doctrine, referring both to the tomb of Christ and to his triumphant resurrection. Crowned with figures of the apostles the tabernacle's colonnade recalls the semicircular colonnades of the piazza S. Pietro, so that the phalanxes of saints celebrating and guarding the processional way culminates here, in the apostolic guard of honor flanking Peter and Paul at the Holy of Holies. Bestrewn with the stars from the arms of Clement X, the cupola becomes a veritable Dome of Heaven. The sacramental theme of death and resurrection would have been the predominant image of the entire basilica in the crown of Bernini's first design for the Baldacchino over the high altar (Fig 125). Now, half a century later, Bernini repeated in miniature essentially the same figure, for essentially the same reason, atop his sacrament tabernacle.

Although relatively small and difficult to discern in detail from below, the risen Christ is one of Bernini's most remarkable creations, unprecedented in its combination of four heretofore unrelated features (Fig 254): the shroud of death is cast aside to reveal the nude body in its entirety along the right side; the Lord is shown without the wounds of the Crucifixion; the figure is carried aloft on a cloud; and while the right arm is raised heavenward, the face is inclined down to the right. The nude, perfect body is the glorified state of the New Adam to which he returned at the Resurrection - a clear recollection of Michelangelo's famous nude, Risen Christ, in S. Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. 234 With the apostles ranged about the tabernacle-tomb below, the cloud-borne Christ evokes the theme of the Ascension. The uplifting gesture of Christ's right hand - which echoes that of Christ in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco (Fig 265) - and the direction of his inclination suggest the Lord's salvific action on behalf of those whom he saves at the resurrection of all souls on the last day. With the force of a heaven-bent explosion the figure embodies, as does the Eucharist itself, the entire process of salvation from Christ's death to the Last Judgment. In this context, the relation between Bernini's tabernacle and Pietro da Cortona's composition becomes critically significant because the Last Judgment, the ultimate act of the divine drama, is commonly represented as taking place under the aegis of the Trinity.235 The relationship here recapitulates that which Bernini originally envisaged at the high altar, with Christ rising from the crown of the Baldacchino to take his seat at the Last Judgment in the dome, beneath the beneficent God the Father in the lantern (Fig 125, 115). The lantern fresco, painted by Cesare d'Arpino following Michelangelo's image in the Sistine Chapel ceiling of God creating the sun and moon, shows the Eternal Father creating the "lights in the firmament of the heaven" (Gen. 1:14,15; Fig 266).236 The providential coincidence of this religio-historical drama cannot have escaped the participants, least of all Bernini and Clement X himself: the pope under whom d'Arpino had begun the work of bringing the great dome over the tomb of the apostles to completion also bore the name Clement (VIII, Aldobrandini, 1592-1605), and was also identified by stars in his coat of arms. Inspired by divine clemency, the popes had vaulted the earthly image of the Heavenly Jerusalem with its celestial canopy.


It would be a grave error to confine our perception of Bernini's work at St Peter's in a narrow Petrine, or even ecclesiological, framework without considering its relation to the urban and social domain of the city as a whole, and to the inner, spiritual domain of the artist himself.


The building was always the centerpiece of a worldview that was itself centered on the city of Rome, from which the pope spoke, as Christ's vicar, urbi et orbi. The conscious and explicit development of this programmatic relationship, initiated in the Renaissance, culminated in the seventeenth century, especially under Alexander VII, when Rome acquired three epithets - two contemporary, Roma moderna and Roma allessandrina, the third applied a posteriore in our own time, Roma barocca. The coincidence and significance of these new views of the city - chronological, papal, stylistic - were essentially the theme of one of the great books of recent urban history, Richard Krautheimer's The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655-1667 (1985), consideration of which provides important insights into the nature of this epochal development of what can now with particular justification properly be called "modern" history. 237 Contemporaries used the term "Modern" chiefly in the Petrarchan sense of postmedieval and in contrast to the ancient city, whereas for Krautheimer, Alexander's extravagant campaigns of building and embellishment epitomized the transformation of the chaotic and squalid medieval town that survived from antiquity into the splendid new capital of the Christian world.

Alexander was by no means the first pope with a passion for building, nor was he the first to regard Rome as a projection of himself and his office. But whereas Sixtus V, for example, still conceived of the city in largely symbolic terms - the avenues connecting the patriarchal basilicas were seen as a star-shaped pattern reflecting his family emblem as well as the star of Bethlehem - Alexander's view was functional, in that he believed the city and its monuments served an urgent, contemporary ideological and strategic purpose. Indeed, perhaps Krautheimer's main contribution was to perceive a comprehensive significance underlying the building mania that has always been regarded as Alexander's chief strength - or weakness, depending on whether one give greater importance to its effect on the city or its effect on the papal treasury. Krautheimer realized, first of all, that Alexander was not just a Maecenas in the popular sense of a vulgar Renaissance tyrant bent on a vulgar display of wealth and power, but a man of rare intelligence and refined taste who, moreover, followed the work personally, participating in the most minute details of planning with a passion that can only have been born of an innate gift and cultivated interest. In a sense, I suspect that this last may have been one of the mainsprings of Krautheimer's own interest, arising from his study and ultimate publication of the passages dealing with art and artists from Alexander's personal diary.238 This document is in itself utterly extraordinary: I am not aware of a comparable personal record of any previous pope. (Fabio Chigi, from a great Sienese family, must have taken as his model the famous Commentaries of his compatriot predecessor, Pius II, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini.) No less astonishing, however, is the amount of time and effort Alexander devoted to these matters. Bernini and Alexander were together constantly - consulting, discussing, planning, designing - often for long periods on a weekly basis, sometimes even more often. In this respect, too, Alexander was unprecedented, and Krautheimer perceived that, not only was the pope mad about architecture, but his madness encompassed the whole of the city. His improvements not only focused on the obvious, major places and monuments in the heart of Rome but also extended to the outskirts, the disabitato, to use the term Krautheimer preferred, although it was often populated by the poor, the dispossessed, and vagabond gypsies. I myself came to appreciate from the book that the Cathedra Petri was only the last stop on a physical and conceptual pilgrimage that began at the Porta del Popolo. The sharpness and comprehensiveness of Alexander's vision is attested in many subtle ways beyond, or underlying, the works themselves - for example, the new accuracy and comprehensiveness of the maps of Alexander's Rome, and the lists of his works compiled and portrayed in illustrated series of engravings. But perhaps there is no better indication of both the intimacy and the comprehensiveness of Alexander's vision than the fact that he kept in his private chambers a model of the city. (It is interesting to speculate where his miniature Rome fits in the history of city models;239 it was, I suppose, as complete and accurate as the maps of Alexander's Rome, and it is the first model I can recall that was made for the purpose of urban planning. Evidently, the pope not only thought about the city in a modern, comprehensive way; he also had a modern, comprehensive way of representing it - a new kind of "three-dimensional" urban consciousness, one might say.)

Just as Alexander's vision was global, so is Krautheimer's, as he extends the normal purview of architectural history itself, and this in two senses. He is at pains not only to consider individual buildings but also to relate them to their contexts, their immediate surroundings as well as their interlocking connections with other works throughout the city, and even beyond. Moreover, architecture itself is no longer conceived of in terms of permanent structures, but includes city squares and public spaces of all sorts - marketplaces, theater sets and ephemeral spectacles, gardens, streets, and tree-lined allees - everything we tend to call, for want of a still more comprehensive term, the built environment. A vast panorama is deftly captured in what is, after all, a relatively brief text.

Considered thus, Krautheimer's book draws a thin line between the genres of building history and urban history. The ten chapters carry the reader through a sequence of ideas, beginning with the career and character of Alexander VII: his family, his education, his learning, his wit, his financial nonchalance, his love of architecture. The second chapter deals with what Krautheimer calls the urban substructure: the pope's efforts to widen and straighten the city's messy tangle of medieval "ways," partly to make them grand and beautiful, and partly to accommodate the growing traffic problems created by that monstrous newfangled conveyance, the horse-drawn coach; and his campaign to clean up that equally messy and unsightly markets that encumbered public spaces of high visibility, such as the Forum and the Pantheon, by confining the vendors to less conspicuous locations and/or providing new, more efficient accommodations. Chapter 3 deals with the pope's architects and some of their major projects. The central figure , of course, is Bernini, followed by Pietro da Cortona; Borromini, Krautheimer observes, was such a difficult character that Alexander wanted as little as possible to do with him! Chapter 4 explores the contemporary notion of "teatro," not in the narrow sense of a spectacle, but in the large sense of any global, encompassing idea, especially as the term applies to churches and the spaces before and around them. Cortona's S. Maria della Pace, Bernini's S. Andrea al Quirinale and St Peter's, including both the square and the Cathedra, are cases in point. Chapter 5 concerns overall planning and opposition, primarily the careful control Alexander exercised, at vast expenditures of his own time and energy, over his projects and those of other patrons (who sometimes resisted) throughout the city. Chapter 6, entitled "Prospects," deals with unrealized projects that give us some idea of what Alexander might have achieved had he lived longer and had more money, but which also testify to the colossal scale of what he did manage to carry out. Chapter 7, called "Roma Antica and Moderna," deals with the treatment of classical remains, showing that, although ancient works could be treated cavalierly on occasion, the principal objective was to integrate them into the modern city so that they, too, could contribute Ad Maiorem Gloriam Dei. Chapter 8 is devoted to the Piazza del Popolo as a deliberately theatrical - that is, emulating contemporary stage designs - reformation of the principal entrance to Rome from the north. The piazza was the prelude to a whole series of works intended to embellish and aggrandize the processional way through the city to St Peter's and the Vatican. Chapter 9, "The Reverse of the Medal," is devoted to the seamier side of Rome, the part that the kind of audience Alexander had in view was not supposed to see. Alexander's Rome may have been beautiful, but for many people it was not a very nice place in which to live.

Together, these chapters amount to a recitation of the main types of monumental urban and architectural projects undertaken under Alexander's direct or indirect control. Although richly informative, awash with stimulating observations, and written in Krautheimer's inimitably lively, informal style, they are essentially repetitions of the same theme: Alexander's passion for building and the grandeur of his ideas, as aided and abetted by his favorite artist-entrepreneur, Bernini. From a formal point of view, the accent is on the perspective vista, the dramatic focus, and majestic scale. Except for chapter 9, there is nothing about what we would today call the urban infrastructure - utilitarian projects (other than public markets) such as sewage and sanitation, ordinary housing, and the like. When Alexander said, "Let nothing built in honor of the Virgin be anything but great," it matched Bernini's statement when he reached Paris to redesign the Louvre for Louis XIV, "Let no one speak to me of anything small," 240 And Krautheimer gives a corresponding vision of grand ideas on a grand scale that defined Rome as a special place with a special role to play on the world stage. True to his subjects - Alexander VII, Bernini, and Rome - Krautheimer did not write microhistory!

If all this sounds very Baroque, the architecture of Krautheimer's book is itself rather Baroque. In fact, this sequence of contrapposto-like repetitions and variations on a dominant theme creates an increasing feeling of suspense, as one wonders what, in the end, is the point. The point appears dramatically in the last chapter, "City Planning and Politics: The Illustrious Foreigner," wherein Krautheimer presents what he considered to be the guiding principle - the "political" motivation - that lay behind Alexander's urban enterprises, which were concentrated primarily along the principal ceremonial route through the city and were intended primarily to impress the illustrious foreign visitor. Here it is important to bear in mind that, in a bibliographical note, Krautheimer explicitly disclaims competence as a historian, declaring his dependence in such maters upon von Pastor's History of the Popes and other standard works on the period. And his political motivation turns out to be the standard one, familiar to all students of Italian Baroque: the victories of the Protestants and the rise in the industrial and mercantile power of the North; the establishment and hegemony over European affairs of the great national states, especially France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs - all these factors had led to a drastic diminution in the real power of the Church, in the face of which Pope Alexander adopted what might be described as a policy of "overcompensation," seeking to aggrandize and embellish the physical power of the city to make up for the loss of political power. He sought to convince the world that the papacy remained a factor to be reckoned with, by transforming Rome into a great modern city, or at least the appearance of one. 241 This perception of a "diplomatic" rationale underlying and motivating Alexander's architectural mania may be Krautheimer's most original contribution in the book.

Paradoxically, then, the modern city was created, not from any fundamental shift in attitude or values, but as an act of deception. At bottom, from a strictly are-historical point of view, the ultimate argument of Krautheimer's book is rather conventional. The effect is to "instrumentalize" the Baroque, which becomes an art of propaganda and representation rather than the expression of a new worldview, which the idea of modernity would suggest. This conception of the Baroque as an artificial, bombastic, overcompensatory reaction to the challenge of Protestantism, as an art of rhetoric, display, and theatricality, coincides with the equally conventional, absolutist conception of political consciousness in the seventeenth century. 242 Alexander's was preeminently an urban renewal program conceived as "of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite."

There was another side to this medal, however, no less important, in my view, than the obverse. Alexander's new urbanism had what I would call a subversive, underground aspect, of which Krautheimer caught glimpses but the implications of which he did not fully grasp. The point begins with the fact that the urban population of Rome was, after all, a very powerful force - moral, economic, and political. In this sense, Rome was like many other cities in Europe, where there was growing consciousness of and concern for social problems that had no doubt long existed. Krautheimer is aware of this background to the extent that he devotes his next-to-last chapter, "The Reverse of the Medal," to a remarkable document written in 1656-9 by an absolutely minor and otherwise insignificant administrative employee, one Lorenzo Pizzati from Pontremoli, in which he details the execrable conditions of everyday life in the city and the pitiable state of its underprivileged population, along with drastic and utopian suggestions for alleviating them. For Krautheimer the report simply reveals an underlying reality for which Alexander's urban program was a kind of cosmetic cover-up for the benefit of visiting dignitaries. However, the improvements were surely meant for the edification of the people of Rome as well, and not only as embellishment. For example, more than once it is reported that an important function of the vast expenditures for the Piazza S. Pietro was as a public work program to provide employment for the indigent, especially the unskilled. 243 I think a good case could be made that this attitude originated with Bernini himself, who certainly promoted it. A primary source is a remarkable document prepared circa 1657-8 by Bernini in response to objections to his project, in which he eulogizes Alexander's efforts to deal with precisely the problems of homelessness and unemployment described by Lorenzo Pizzati. In response to criticisms of the "uselessness" of the piazza colonnades, Bernini replied - in a wholly modern spirit of social welfare - that, on the contrary, the work they provided for the poor and unemployed was the most efficacious charitable use for public funds for the public good. Explaining the piazza project, Bernini wrote:

He [the pope] quickly applied opportune remedies to the evils, and, compassionate toward poverty - which not only wandered unemployed about the city but languished under the oppression of a famine that increasingly elicited his pity the more it afflicted the people - he turned to distributing large quantities of gold, although the scarcer harvest limited the torrent of this devout munificence. Moved by wholehearted Charity, this most generous pope saw clearly that simply to open the Treasury for the common good was to promote idleness and nourish vice. Whence the very antidote one applied to restore health could be the potent toxin to poison it. He therefore repressed that flame of Charity, not to extinguish it, but so that it might be more greatly dispersed to the benefit of his subjects, whence he thought to begin a great construction, through which to encourage labor among the homeless, and by the expenditure of a large sum of money to alleviate the immediate need. 244

When it is said, rightly, that Alexander's program nearly ruined the papal finances, it was not merely a spendthrift vanity, it was also the result of what today would be called a program of public works for social welfare and rehabilitation, the cost of which was ultimately beyond the reach of the economic system on which it was based. The proof of this point lies in the fact that Alexander specifically opposed outright gifts to the poor, not only because it engendered dependency on the dole, but also because it was an indignity; instead, he favored helping the poor by providing work for which they could be paid and so retain their Christian pride. 245

The great weight and import of the populace is also evident from a fundamental source that is overlooked in Krautheimer's Roma alessandrina: an official document, deliberately compiled at the pope's behest. I refer to the apostolic visitations commanded by Alexander VII to all the churches and dioceses of Rome. Apostolic visits had a long history, to be sure; and earlier in the century Urban VIII had ordered one that fills three very substantial volumes. But none of these precedents even remotely approaches the scope, depth, and systematic coverage of Alexander's effort to gather and organize information about what ultimately mattered, the spiritual conditions of the people of Rome. Alexander's apostolic visitation - which continued throughout his reign - has been described as the most comprehensive in the modern history of Rome. 246

My reasons for emphasizing this reverse of the medal are two. I am not concerned simply to reveal the existence of this social substructure of the city and its problems in Alexander's Rome; they had existed for a long time. What is important to understanding Alexander's modernity, and the scope and meaning of his vision for the city, is the fact that he was aware of their existence; he perceived the conditions in the city not only as a physical but also as a social and moral whole; he sought to grasp them by studying them carefully and in detail, and to do something about them in a conscious and comprehensive way. I do not want to overstate my case. Alexander was a product of his age, not ours. He had his own defects, he failed to realize many of his projects, and many of the projects he did complete failed to achieve their purpose. But just as his urbanistic projects on the obverse of the medal bore fruit in the subsequent history of architecture and urban planning, so did his ideas on the reverse. Alexander was the first pope in modern times to make a serious effort to end the tradition of nepotism, and his effort was a direct inspiration for Innocent XI, who actually did finally break the tradition. 247 A similar spirit underlay another great project of unification and consolidation with which Bernini became involved, effecting a new principle of what would come to be thought of as state-sponsored social welfare. The myriad private and selective charities of the city were subsumed into a single, comprehensive institution devoted to all the poor, under the aegis of the papacy. The entire indigent population was given shelter at the Lateran palace of the popes, no less, which, it was reported in 1676, Bernini was supposed to refurbish for this purpose. First broached by Lorenzo Pizzati in his diatribe of 1656-9, the idea was taken up under the succeeding popes by an Oratorian priest, Mariano Sozzini (1612-80), and was championed by Bernini's nephew, Francesco Marchese (1623-97), who was also an Oratorian. The project was actually carried out under the great reforming pope Innocent XII (1691-1700). Marchese was mainly responsible for the program, and he must have been instrumental in the institution's decision to take Bernini's last work, the bust of the Savior (see Fig 267), as the model for the sculpted insignias that were placed throughout the city on those buildings whose rents were devoted to the great cause (1694-5). For a variety of reasons, financial as well as social, the project was short-lived, but it engendered a sequence of institutions and programs of social welfare whose history can be traced thereafter down to our own time. 248 The obverse and reverse belong to the same medal, after all. Alexander's collective awareness of his distinguished aristocratic visitors from abroad was part and parcel of an equally collective awareness of his ordinary, often underprivileged, subjects at home. In this sense, too, he helped to transform Roma antica into Roma moderna, and Roma barocca.


The spiritual pilgrimage at St Peter's that Bernini envisaged from his earliest youth - "Oh, if only I could be the one" - reached its ultimate goal in the passage over the Ponte Sant'Angelo and the Sacrament altar. The feelings and ideas expressed in these works held deep personal significance for the now aged artist. Contemplating his own death during this same period, he created two works of what might be called devotional eschatology, with a view to achieving a "good death." 249 In his eightieth year he carved the recently rediscovered sculpted, half-length bust of Christ (Fig 267), whose pose evokes the Last Judgment and makes a particular point of alluding to the chest wound. 250 Nearly a decade earlier he had distilled in a spectacular, angel-filled apparition known as the Sangue di Cristo (Blood of Christ), an inner vision that must have guided and inspired him through all the divagations of his life's work, including St Peter's (Fig 268). This famous composition, in which the Virgin intervenes between the Eucharist and the Trinity, was a veritable emblem of Bernini's sense of his personal raison d'etre and his mission as a creative artist: he kept a large painted version of it before his bed until the end. 251 Often described as mystical - too often, in my view - the scene is a clear and impassioned articulation of Bernini's mode of preparing for death in accordance with the precepts of a medieval tradition codified in a famous text, the Ars moriendi. The Art of Dying had been revived toward the end of the sixteenth century, notably by the Jesuits, who had institutionalized the tradition in the Confraternity of the Good Death (Bona Mors), of which Bernini was a long-standing and faithful member.

He undertook the design late in 1669, partly no doubt in commemoration of the great Florentine Carmelite mystic Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi, whom Clement IX had recently canonized, and partly as a sort of votive expiation for the failure that year of a major project to refurbish the apse of S. Maria Maggiore, mother of all churches dedicated to the Virgin, including tombs for both Clement IX and his predecessor, Alexander VII. 252 With a view to both these causes, Bernini had the composition reproduced in a large, resplendent print by Francois Spierre, to be promulgated as an independent devotional image. 253 The print was carefully scaled so as also to fold neatly into the small octavo format of a devotional tract composed by the artist's beloved nephew and counselor in the "art of dying," the Oratorian father Francesco Marchese, which provides the work's full ideological context. Published in 1670 as work on Ponte Sant'Angelo was nearing completion, the theme of this volume, itself a modern version of the Ars moriendi, was epitomized in its title: The Only Hope of the Sinner Consists in the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 254 The theme of the engraving is epitomized by two inscriptions in which the blood of Christ's sacrifice is conceived as an offering on behalf of the sinner: one is from Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, "The blood of Christ, who offered himself without spot to God, will purge our conscience"; 255 the other quotes the new saint named after the Virgin and her first namesake, Mary Magdalene, both of whom had worshiped at the foot of the Cross, "I offer you, eternal Father, the blood of the incarnate word; and if anything is wanting in me I offer it to you, Mary, that you may present it to the eternal Trinity." 256 As if emergent from the whiteness of the paper, God the Father, with an expansive gesture that also echoes Michelangelo, dispels the threatening clouds and creates by fiat the exultant event that takes place between Himself and the world below. The gesture echoes that of God the Father in Michelangelo's Separation of the Sky and Water (the second day of Creation), where also only the sky and sea are visible (Fig 269). 257 But Bernini introduces a significant change that suggests a reciprocal movement: God the Father turns his left hand up, as if raising the Crucifixion heavenward, and his right hand down as if commanding the descent of the salvific blood. The reference to Creation may also allude to the commonly held view that the New Dispensation was foreordained. Christ sheds his blood in luminous streams that pour from the wounds in his hands and feet to form an infinite ocean inundating the earth. The Virgin receives the effusions from the chest wound and offers them to the Father on behalf of the sinner. This spectacular tour de force of aerial perspective and foreshortening revives and conflates a number of late medieval devotional traditions in a new synthesis.

Conceived as a cloud-borne vision with the Virgin kneeling as advocate before the Crucifixion, the composition follows the traditional mode of intercessory illustrations of the Ars moriendi, of which one of the primary injunctions was that the believer preparing for a "good death" should contemplate "holy images, especially the Crucified Christ and the Virgin." The prescription for divine intercession might be illustrated as a heavenly apparition above the deathbed: under the aegis of the Trinity, the virgin mother as Queen of Heaven offers her breast and pleads for the moriens on bended knee, while Christ on the cross points to his chest wound, for it is as sacrificial and sacramental son that he transmits her appeal to God the Father (Fig 270). 258 None of these features is present in Bernini's composition, in which, moreover, the vision is conceived as appearing not within the picture to the moribund on his deathbed, but through the picture to the viewer. One cannot repress the suspicion that the whole image was conceived to be seen exactly as Bernini saw it at the foot of this own deathbed. Whereas the artists of the Ars Moriendi represented the death scene, Bernini isolated the vision and made the viewer of the engraving - imaginary moriens, disconcertingly suspended between the apparition above and the flood below - its witness. It is clear that while retaining essential elements of the Ars moriendi imagery, Bernini departed radically from the medieval tradition, which had focused on what might be called the external mechanism of intercession. He focuses instead on the inner, sacramental medium of salvation, that is, the Eucharist itself, corresponding to the mottoes inscribed below and to the title of Father Marchese's book in which they are explained.

The Sangue di Cristo incorporates three fundamental innovations - the ocean of blood, the chest wound of Christ, and the action of the Virgin - that together express the essential conception embedded in these texts: the Eucharist as a reciprocal offering to and by the sinner, and the only means by which universal redemption may be achieved. Metaphors expressing the generosity and ubiquity of the blood of Christ had frequently been cast in liquid terms, like the Fountain of Life, the flood of Noah, the sea, a river of blood. The idea was illustrated in Botticelli's Eucharistic depiction of the Crucifixion titled by Vasari "Triumph of the Faith," where the liquid descends from the Cross to form a cleansing river of baptism (Fig 271).259 This motif expressly illustrates the account of Christ's death given in the Gospel of John, discussed earlier.260 Among the many interpretations of the miracle, the one associating the effusions from the chest wound with the Virgin Mary and the Church is most important here because it underlies the third innovation of Bernini's composition, the role of Christ's mother. The streams from the chest wound descend not to the ocean but to Mary's hands, where they disappear (Fig 272). Mary kneels, arms and hands extended, palms turned up to receive the effusions, which, commingled within her body to become the Eucharist, she also offers up to the Trinity - exactly the process of receiving and offering that takes place at every Mass.261 But the ocean of universal salvation in Bernini's engraving is unique, and specifically complementary to the hardly less extraordinary portrayal of the chest wound: instead of the usual single cascade of blood, two clearly distinguishable streams gush forth. This quite unprecedented act entailed the amalgamation of three related but heretofore distinct interpretations of the Virgin's role in the work of salvation. As Mother of Christ, Mary was the intercessor par excellence with her son, who could refuse her no request for mercy. In Rome this theme was associated above all with a particular class of images in which the Virgin lifts both hands upward in a gesture that suggests both an appeal and an offering to heaven. The type was familiar from the classic Byzantine Crucifixion composition, in which the Virgin standing beneath the Cross gestures in this way, and had been isolated in Rome as a famous icon known as the Madonna Avvocata (Fig 273).262 Any Roman viewer would recognize the allusion in Bernini's figure. In response to Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi's invocation, the Virgin had become, not simply a mother and advocate, but the unique conduit for humanity's unique hope for salvation. This role she performs in her capacity as Mater Ecclesia, the Mother Church, a common epithet that alludes equally to the institutional church and to the Virgin as mother and spouse.263 It was precisely in this capacity that the Virgin-Church participated in what might be called ecclesiological depictions of the Crucifixion collecting the blood from the side wound in an emblematic chalice.264 In some cases, the institutional nature of the Sacrament is emphasized, as when Ecclesia, on the dexter side of the cross, is contrasted with Synagoga on the sinister side.265 In some cases, the Virgin and Ecclesia might appear together, thus identifying Mary as compassionate intercessor with the Church as the administrator of the sacraments (Fig 274). In one notable instance, Ecclesia gathers the water and blood in her chalice, while a personification of Charity inflicts the lance wound (Fig 275).266 While the blood and water were frequently shown as two adjacent streams, I have found no precedent for Bernini's absolutely distinct, gushing spouts, one to each and of the Virgin - whose two breasts, it should be recalled, were traditionally understood as the Old and New Testaments, conjoined in her body.267 The identification of the Eucharistic chest wound with the Church on the most popular level, as Ecclesia in the original, Greek sense of "community," was specifically relevant to the ecumenical ideal conveyed by the ocean metaphor in Marchese's text and Bernini's composition. The formulation concerning the Eucharist given in the Catechism of the Council of Trent stressed that the water mentioned by John was identified with the word "used in the Apocalypse, to signify the people, and therefore, Water mixed with wine signifies the union of the faithful with Christ their head." 268

The third manifestation of the Virgin associates her with the actual function of the Church in the administration of the sacraments, Maria sacerdos, the Virgin as Priest. 269 The concept of Mary-Ecclesia as equivalent to the consecrated male priest received its first explicit formulation by the eighth century from the Pseudo-Epiphanius: "equivalent to the priest and indeed the altar, she gives Christ our celestial bread in remission of our sins." 270 The principle is illustrated in a dramatic vision in a Flemish engraving of the early seventeenth century. Mary appears in this sacerdotal capacity, cloud-borne, kneeling before an altar and offering the chalice and wafer to God the Father and the Holy Spirit above (Fig 276). 271 In this context it is significant that the closest antecedent I have found for the Virgin's gesture is that of the priest, Saint Dominic, in Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary, where it carries essentially the same meaning: Dominic receives the Rosary from the Virgin and offers her the devotion of the faithful (Fig 277). Bernini's Virgin fuses all these characters in a single persona, and the symbolic chalice is replaced by Mary-Ecclesia's own hands, bathed in the humble and charitable sacrifice she shares as compassionate co-redemptress. The portrayal of the Madonna was a direct visualization of the most famous of all accounts of the Virgin's role as Eucharistic conduit in the process of salvation, Bernard of Clairvaux's sermon on the Nativity of the Virgin, called De aquaeductu. The title itself makes the point, which is defined explicitly in the final paragraph, to which Marchese himself alludes:

But, my brother, whatsoever thou hast a mind to offer to the Lord be sure to entrust it to Mary, so that thy gift shall return to the Giver of all grace through the same channel by which thou didst obtain it. God of course had the power, if He so pleased, to communicate His grace without the interposition of this Aqueduct. But he wanted to provide us with a needful intermediary. For perhaps "thy hands are full of blood" (Is. 1:15) or dirtied with bribes: perhaps thou hast not like the Prophet "shaken them free from all gifts" (Is. 33:15). Consequently, unless thou wouldst have thy gift rejected, be careful to commit to Mary the little thou desirest to offer, that the Lord may receive it through her hands, so dear to Him and most "worthy of all acceptation" (1 Tim. 1:15). For Mary's hands are the very whitest of lilies; and assuredly the Divine Lover of lilies will never complain of anything presented by His Mother's hands that is not found among the lilies. Amen. 272

The underlying principle was expressed in Saint Bonaventure's treatise on the Incarnate Word, in terms that seem perfectly illustrated in the Sangue di Cristo:

One cannot reach the benefaction of this sacrament without the protection of the Virgin. And for this reason as this holy body has been given to us through her, so it must also be offered by her hands and received by her hands as the Sacrament, which she procured for us and which was born from her breast. 273

In the Sangue di Cristo, Maria Maddalena's first appeal is to the Father, then to the Virgin, and ultimately to the Trinity. Perhaps the most profound insight into the ultimate meaning of Bernini's image and Marchese's text is hidden, that is, to be found in the omission of the Holy Spirit from the Trinity evoked by the saint. The omission is certainly not inadvertent, since the Holy Spirit is a central step in the heavenly ladder of the saint's offering as reported by her biographer, Vincenzo Puccini, referenced in the citation itself, by the saint herself in her Colloqui and by Marchese himself in the text of his book. 274 This is indeed the Hidden God secreted in potential in every altar - many of which are actually inscribed with Isaiah's famous phrase, Vere tu es Deus absconditus, Deus Israel salvator ("Truly, thou aret a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior"; Is. 45.15) - and whose presence is effected through the sacrament of the Eucharist offered through the Church.

The Sangue di Cristo thus incorporates into one comprehensive image of intercession an explicit and intensely personal expression of the human drama of the event described in the gospel, as well as its vast Eucharistic-ecclesiological legacy. The evangelist bore witness to the essential, complementary distinction inherent in the miracle of Redemption that took place on the Cross: the sacrificial blood of Christ's death, which brought the promise of salvation to all mankind; and the sin-cleansing fluids that poured from his chest after death as the sacraments bringing salvation to those who seek it through the mediation of his church. At St Peter's, the same love wound completes the Passion sequence on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, fulfilling the Old Testament in the New. The way is thus opened to the ministrations the faithful will receive upon entering the embrace o the church dedicated to Christ's vicar, to receive at its altar the Sacrament administered by his successors.

The spiritual ideas and comprehensive mode of thought evident in the Sangue di Cristo composition extend their reach far beyond St Peter's, especially through the reference in its powerful Mariological content to Bernini's project for the apse of S. Maria Maggiore. Having in mind the ancient temple associated with the Vestal Virgins, he envisaged a semicircular colonnade that would have resonated across the city with those of the Piazza San Pietro and the Tempietto of the Sacrament altar. In this way, all Rome would have been enveloped in the universal embrace of the Church and the promise of salvation it offered. The thought was an urbanistic counterpart to the Corpus Domini procession emanating from St Peter's, and to the greatest of the medieval processions, that of the Assumption of the Virgin, which Alexander VII sought to revive. Starting from S. Giovanni in Laterano, the cortege followed the miraculous icon of Christ as it was carried through the center of the ancient city to its "union" with the icon of the Virgin at S. Maria Maggiore, paying homage on the way to the Madonna Avvocata.

The idea of unity, artistic as well as spiritual, might be said to have preoccupied Bernini all his life - at St Peter's since his childhood encounter with Annibale Carracci and the prospect of a future Baldacchino to provide the new building with a central focal point. In artistic terms his pursuit was epitomized in what he considered his greatest achievement: having surpassed the conventional boundaries between painting, sculpture, and architecture, and succeeded in merging all three in a new kind of unity - a kind of Trinity-in-art, as it were. 275 The conjunction of the visual arts as variants of one overarching principle had been part of the vocabulary of Italian art theory since Vasari described Disegno (meaning both drawing and conceptualization) as their "father." Federico Zuccari had spoken of God as "the true Design, and true author, and perfect and divine Painter, Sculptor and Architect," and had portrayed Disegno as a God the Father-like figure with a "halo" of three interlocking circles that replicated the personal emblem of the "divine" Michelangelo. 276 Bernini emulated Michelangelo in many ways, including his facility in all three visual modes and in regarding his genius as a humble and inadequate instrument of God's will. 277 In this sense, the conjunction of the arts of design was assimilated to the traditional theological metaphor that identified God as the original creative, multimedia artist of the world, Deus Artifex. Although Bernini was no theoretician, he was profoundly indebted to this ideological heritage, which attributed a profound spiritual significance to the visual arts. He changes - transmuted would be a better work - the essence of the relationship, however. His predecessors had conceived of the link between the arts as a common procedure that operated on the two levels implicit in the ambivalence of the word "design." For Bernini, the relationship among the arts was not procedural but substantive: painting, sculpture, and architecture were not simply linked but literally fused, melded into one another to create an unprecedented kind of unity, both material and visual, requiring a special name: a "bel composto." 278 God the Father's fiat in the Sangue di Cristo creates the spiritual equivalent of this infinitely adaptable and efficacious medium. Bernini's personal invocation of divine charity is confluent with his conception of the nature of his art and with his vision of universal redemption.


  Clement VII
Leo XI
Paul V
Gregory XV
Urban VIII
Innocent X
Alexander VII
Clement IX
Clement X
Innocent XI
Ippolito Aldobrandini
Alessandro Ottaviano de'Medici
Camillo Borghese
Alessandro Ludovisi
Maffeo Barberini
Giovanni Battista Pamphilj
Fabio Chigi
Giulio Rospigliosi
Emilio Altieri
Benedetto Odescalchi



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