by Ennio Francia
(all rights reserved)

The Square


Vatican City

Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2


From Julius II to Julius III
Julius II

Bramante's death
Michelangelo's work
Sixtus V and the Cupola
Giacomo della Porta
Paul V and the lengthening of the Basilica
The work of Maderno
The Artists
From Paul V to Pius XII
Cracks in the Cupola
The Baldacchino
The Nave

Right aisle
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel
The Right Transept
The Apse
The Left Transept
The Left Aisle
The Choir Chapel
The Baptistery

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel: Bernini's remarkable Ciborium, whose form derives from Bramante's famous tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio, was installed here to replace that of Baldassarre Peruzzi. It is of gilded bronze, skillfully enhanced by the contrast of the dark background and lapis lazuli. The two bronze angels which frame this wonderful composition within the arch of their curved wings are full of motion, despite their classic idealization. Behind the Ciborium is a fresco of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona. Above the right-hand altar is a mosaic copy of the Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Domenichino; the original is in the Capuchin church in Via Veneto. Opposite is one of the oldest organs in the Basilica. The little cupola in front of the chapel was painted by Spadarino and Nicola Tornioli. This chapel was the original site of Pollaiolo's famous monument to Sixtus IV, now in the Historical and Artistic Museum of the Basilica, situated next to the Sacristy and opened in the Holy Year of 1975.

Leaving the chapel, one finds in the aisle on the right the monument to Pope Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi (1723), with statues of Religion and Wisdom on the sides. The bas-relief by C. Melloni shows the reform of the calendar ordered by this Pope.

Above the altar at the end of the aisle we see a mosaic copy of the famous painting by Domenichino (1581-1641), the Viaticum of Saint Jerome. The aged saint receives communion from Saint Ephrem in the monastery of Bethlehem. Kneeling in the act of kissing the hand of the dying man is the profile of Saint Paula of Rome, one of the great Biblical scholar's favourite disciples.

Next we continue to the right, where we find the large Cappella Gregoriana, with the image of the Madonna del Soccorso (11th century) over the altar. The urn under the altar contains the body of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, brought here in 1580 from the Benedictine monastery in the Campo Marzio. The event is commemorated in one of the frescoes on the third floor of the Loggias of the Vatican Palace. Its precious marbles and gems make this chapel "the most beautiful and richest in the world", as people said at that time.

Next to it, at the entrance to the chancel, is the monument to Gregory XVI, in a static neoclassical style. The so-called "Gregorian" cupola, designed by Vignola and redone by della Porta, as was explained above, was decorated by Marcello Provenzale. We have no certain information about the ornamentations around the cupola. They are attributed to Nebbia, Calandra, Romanelli, Muziano and Pellegrini - Fontana ascribes them to Michelangelo himself. It is revealing to note that only 60 years after the work was done the artists' names were forgotten.

In the area to the right we see the monument sculpted by Pietro Bacci to Benedict XIV (1740-1758), the famous and learned humanist of the Lambertini family. This monument's charming impetuosity of form is typical of similar works of the 1700's. To the left is the altar of Saint Basil the Great, with a representation commissioned by Benedict XIV from P. Subleyras (1745) and carried out in mosaic. The event portrayed is the conversion of the Emperor Valens (732), who was inspired by the devotion with which the saint celebrated Mass. Under the altar table is the body of Saint Josaphat.

The right transept

On this spot were held the sessions of the First Vatican Council, which was begun on 8 December 1869 by Pope Pius IX and continued until 2 September 1870. The sessions of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and concluded under Pope Paul VI in 1965, were held in the nave of the Basilica. Mosaic pictures by various artists are situated above the altars. Among them (in the center) is the martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinianus by Poussin (1629); the original is in the Vatican Museum. The great French painter, who spent a great deal of time in Italy, painted this picture in a classical style at a period when the style of Caravaggio was prevalent and the fervour of the baroque was at its height. The Saint Wenceslaus to the right is by Angelo Caroselli (1630); Saint Erasmus on the left is by Valentino (1630). The chapel of Saints Processus and Martinianus was to have contained the statue of Religion by A. Canova. The Chapter of the Vatican intervened, however, on the grounds that the floor would give way under such an immense weight. It was not a very convincing reason. Canova, who was of a temperamental and easily offended nature, removed the symbols of the Catholic faith from the statue, and transformed it into an image of Protestant Religion. In 1817 he sold it to Countess Brownlow, who placed it in the Anglican church at Belton in England.

In the next area is the well-known monument to Clement XIII, one of the most celebrated works of Canova (1792), who introduced the neo-classical style into Saint Peter's with this work, as Bernini had introduced the baroque with his baldacchino. At the base of the monument are two lions: one is asleep, the other awake; the profound yet calm psychological contrast of the two is an example of technical perfection. Above, we see the sarcophagus with the statues of Religion and Genius, the latter, of an exact and coldly classical form, resembling a Christianized Apollo. They pyramidal construction - which fails to reach perfect stylistic or architectural unity - is completed by the figure of the kneeling Pope engrossed prayer. Opposite is the mosaic version of Giovanni Lanfranco's painting of Saint Peter walking on the waters. The next chapel is that of Saint Michael the Archangel, with reproductions of paintings by Guido Reni (Saint Michael overcomes Satan) and Guercino (Saint Petronilla). Here we can observe the consummate skill of the mosaic workers in reproducing colour and chiaroscuro.

On the right of the area there is the monument to Clement X (1670-1676) erected from designs by Mattia de Rossi. The bas-relief commemorating the opening of the Porta Santa for the Holy Year of 1675 is by Leonardo Leti. At the two sides are the statues of Mercy by G. Mazzuoli and of Kindness by S. Marcelli. Facing, the mosaic reproduction of Placido Costanzo's painting, finished in 1760, shows the miracle of Saint Peter raising Tabitha.

The apse

The luminous design of Michelangelo for the apse was overpowered by the formidable decorative sense of Bernini, with the later addition of Vanvitelli's gilded stucco, moulded by Maini. Bernini's ingenious creation glorifies the Cathedra which tradition once held had been used by Saint Peter.

With a covering of black and gold bronze, the Cathedra is supported by the colossal statues of four doctors of the Church: Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine for the Latin Church, Saint Athansaius and Saint John Chrysostom for the Greek Church. Their vestments, which billow in the wind, are gilded; the faces and hands are black. A spiraling flight of angels and clouds serves as a backdrop for the powerful and dynamic composition. In the Gloria the holy Dove appears, and light pours down through the Bohemian glass between gilded clouds. Here, as in the baldacchino, Bernini has adopted a pictorial solution and has superimposed it on the architectural.

Flanking the tribune on the right is the tomb of Urban VIII (1623-1644), the masterpiece of sepulchral art of the 1600's. This also is one of the glories of the great Bernini, who finished it in 1647, three years after the death of his Maeceas. Powerfully conceived and with breadth of form, the figure of the Pope appears in a rich cope, his hand raised in blessing; the white marble figures of Justice and Charity, sculpted with a Greek lightness of touch, seem to be less allegorical figures than real women, leaning with languid grace on the sarcophagus of black marble, from which was to be sadly spoilt in the mannerism of the 18th century.

On the left is the monument to Paul III Farnese (1534-1549) by Guglielmo della Porta. Here already there is a departure from the architectural model of the papal tombs of the 1500's, with the figure placed between alternating niches and pilasters. The figure of the Pope here dominates from above; his protective gesture is a marvel of power and decisiveness. Below, on a base of African marble, recline the figures of Justice and Prudence. Tradition asserts that Justice bears the features of Giulia Farnese, the Pope's sister, who was famous for her beauty. Originally the figure was nude, but in 1595 Cardinal Farnese, although he admitted that Justice should keep nothing hidden, had her covered - not quite skillfully enough to disguise the modest alteration - with a blanket of whitened metal; meanwhile old Prudence, severe and dignified, continues to exhibit her melancholy nudity.

In the aisle leading to the chapel of the Column stands the mediocre and pretentious monument of Alexander VIII Ottoboni (died in 1691), built from a design by Arrigo de San Martino; it is notable as the tomb which is richest in rare and precious marbles. Facing it one notices the mosaic of Saint Peter healing the paralytic, by Ludovico Cigoli. Next to the Alexander VIII monument one may admire the remarkable high-relief of Algardi, showing Saint Leo I meeting Attila. The Madonna della Colonna is one of the oldest and most venerable images in the Basilica. The ornamentation of the chapel is by Giacomo della Porta. The figures of Saint Thomas and Saint John Damascene in the pendentives of the small cupola are by Sacchi; Saints Januarius and Bonaventure by Lanfranco, transformed into mosaic by Calandra. These are the Doctors who wrote most about the Blessed Virgin.

In the aisle, on the right, we come upon another masterpiece of Bernini: the monument of Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1669), a work which belongs to the last period of the artist's activity. The Pope is portrayed kneeling between Justice, Prudence, Charity and Truth, by G. Mazzoli. The last of the figures, originally nude, was covered by a metal drapery by Bernini himself, at the command of Innocent XI. We can notice some defects of composition, and the various parts of the work betray the hands of several sculptors. Charity, were it not marred by its covering, would be an important work. Opposite this monument is the mosaic of the oil painting of the Sacred Heart appearing to Saint Margaret, by the Sienese Carlo Muccioli.

The left transept

The third arm of Michelangelo's Greek cross is focused on the south tribune, called that of Saints Simon and Jude, and contains, besides the immense vault decorated by Vanvitelli and Maini, three altars decorated with rare marbles.

Over the left-hand altar we see the mosaic copy of The Crucifixion of Saint Peter which Guido Reni painted for the Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane and which is now in the Vatican Museums. In a sarcophagus under the altar are the bones of Saint Leo IX (1054).

The right-hand altar is dedicated to Saint Martial, and has for its picture a mediocre composition of Spadarino, translated into mosaic in 1896. Below the altar are the remains of Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon as a Christian church.

In the center is a mosaic picture of Saint Joseph by Achille Funi; apart from that by Muccioli, this is the only modern picture in the Basilica.

In the area behind the large pilaster, above the altar "of the Lie", across from the Sacristy entrance, is the mosaic copy of a painting of Pomarancio (1607) showing the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, who had lied to Saint Peter.

Over the door to the Sacristy is the monument to Pius VIII, who reigned for little more than a year (1830). It was sculpted by Pietro Tenerani in a cold imitation of the style of Canova. There follows, on the right, the Cappella Clementina of Giacomo della Porta. Like the Cappella Gregoriana, this chapel is surmounted by one of the two minor cupolas. The ornamentation of the intrados and of the triangles is among the best in the Basilica, and is the work of Cristoforo Roncalli, Paolo Rossetti and Marcello Provenzale. The four Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Cyprian and John Chrysostom) are by Roncalli, also called "Pomarancio". Above the altar a mosaic copy of a painting by Andrea Sacchi (1625) illustrates an event from the life of Saint Gregory. The Pope cuts a cloth which has been touched to the relics of the martyrs, causing it to spurt forth blood. To the left of the altar is the tomb of Pius VII, the Pope who opposed Napoleon and was imprisoned by him; the tomb is the formally correct and cold work of the Dane Thorvaldsen. At the sides of the door to the chancel and the organ of the Cappella Giulia are sculptures of Wisdom, with a book and an owl, and Power with a lion skin.

Left Aisle

At the end of the left aisle is the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration, kept until 1798 in San Pietro in Montorio, whence it was removed by Napoleon; recovered in 1815 by Canova, it was subsequently put on view in the Vatican Museum.

In the aisle to the right we note the tomb of Leo XI Medici, in white marble, by Alessandro Algardi (1645-1646). It is constructed after the model of the monument to Urban VIII but on a smaller scale. The Pope, with a gentle paternal expression, extends his hand toward the faithful; below are the figures of the Majesty of the Kingdom and Liberality, composed and austere. The epitaph reads: Ostensus magis quam datus, and the words sic florui are written on the lateral friezes; and indeed this Medici's blossoming was short-lived - 27 days as Pope - like that of the wilted roses that decorate the monument. The bas-relief commemorates the abjuration of Henry IV of France (1593) in the presence of Medici while he was Clement VIII's Legate. Opposite is the mausoleum of Innocent XI, Benedetto Odescalchi, who dies in 1689 and was beatified in 1956. The figure of the Pope is composed and solemn; at his sides are the usual statues of Religion and Justice, by the Burgundian Paul Monnot. The bas-relief recalls the victory of John Sobieski, who liberated Vienna and saved Europe from Turkish invasion during the reign of Innocent.

In front of the Cappella del Coro is the small elliptical cupola whose decoration presents themes connected with recitation of the Divine Office. The mosaics are by C. Maratta, Ciro Ferri and G. Conti; the basin with the apocalyptic vision is by M. A. Franceschini (1717).

We next enter the magnificent and sumptuous Cappella del Coro, decorated with precious marble, its walls and vault covered with golden embroidery. The stuccoes of the roof, which illustrate the most important events of the Old and New Testaments, were executed by G. B. Ricci from the design of Giacomo della Porta. The choirstalls are a true masterpiece of the art of intaglio, although the work is little known because of poor lighting, which makes it difficult to see. The choir is the work of G. B. Soria, who was paid 15, 251 scudi for it. The previous Choir Chapel, built by Sixtus IV, contained Michelangelo's Pieta from 1505 to 1604. Like the corresponding chapel of the Blessed Sacrament on the other side of the Basilica, this chapel is enclosed by an enormous gate, bearing the arms of Clement XIII. It is one of the first known works of Borromini. Four great arches compose the chapel; on them are placed decorative figures of the style of Bernini, with their legs suspended in the air. Above the altar is a large mosaic with shining colours and of theatrical composition; reproduced from a unfinished painting of Pietro Bianchi (1740), it portrays the glory of Mary Immaculate. The figure of the Virgin was crowned by Pius IX with a diadem of nine stars made of gems, after the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

In the aisle, to the right: monument to Pius X by Enrico Astorri, with bronze decoration of the "liberty" style. The great Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito had participated in the competition to determine the artist for the tomb of the saintly Venetian Pope, but unfortunately his remarkable model was not chosen. To the left is the tomb of Innocent VIII (1484-1492), in bronze, by Antonio Pollaiolo. This is the oldest sepulchral monument in the basilica. The statue of the Pope is flanked by the four cardinal virtues in their niches; the three theological virtues are in the lunette. The technical perfection of the monument gives us an excellent example of the skill of the Florentine goldsmiths of the 1400's, and marks the beginnings of a style which would be successfully employed by the best artists even to our own day.

Next we approach the Cappella della Presentazione: over the altar is the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, from an original by Romanelli. The other lovely decorative works were done by the 18th century painter Carlo Maratta. Under the altar is the body of Saint Pius X. To the right of the altar is the place where the bodies of deceased Popes are kept until their final burial. To the left is the monument of Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), a fine work by Pietro Canonica which attains a great effectiveness in rendering the expression of the Pontiff's face in prayer. Opposite is placed the large bronze bas-relief by Emilio Greco, portraying and developing some themes of the pontificate of John XXIII already treated in the door made for the Cathedral at Orvieto.

In the aisle, on the right, we see the monument to Clementina Sobieska, the last baroque work in the Basilica. On the left is the large funeral stele of the Stuarts, an elegant creation by Antonio Canova. The two weeping angels with reversed torches, a symbol of extinguished life, are remarkable. "They are two angels", Stendahl comments, "whose beauty it is impossible to describe. Especially as evening approaches, the beauty of these angels is truly heavenly".

The Chapel of the Baptistery is the first on the left as one enters the body of the church. It is large, with an elliptical cupola, conceived by the great Lombard architect Carlo Fontana (1634-1714), with a stylistic autonomy which nevertheless conforms well to the structure of the Basilica. The mosaic decoration of the cupola contains references to the theology of baptism. In the basin of the cupola we see the triple baptism of water, of blood, and of desire (the last symbolized by Saint John the Baptist); in the corbels are the parts of the world which have accepted baptism. The mosaics are by F. Trevisani.

The basin of the font is the cover of a large sarcophagus said to have contained the remains of Otto II (973-983). The tomb of the Emperor was situated in the portico of the old Basilica, as Christians then, great and humble, all desired: to rest near the tomb of Saint Peter. The surrounding mosaics are by Maratta del Passeri and by Procaccini, that is, by the best mannerist painters of the 18th century.

At the end of the side aisle we see the back of the bronze door by G. Manzu. It bears a band in bas-relief commemorating the opening of Vatican II, and is dedicated to Monsignor Giuseppe De Luca, a friend of the sculptor and one of the most eminent Roman priests of the last decades.

Ennio Francia

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