Big Gamble; a Gift Museum
St. Peter's Marks 500 Years
27, 2006 (Zenit.org).- After
a week of anniversaries and birthdays, openings and commemorations
it seems clear that Rome has blossomed into spring. A date that
no Catholic in the world would want to miss is the 500th anniversary
of the foundation of St. Peter's Basilica which fell on April 18.
new publications and upcoming exhibits will commemorate the solemn
occasion of a half-millennium ago when Pope Julius II della Rovere
laid the foundation stone to start the construction of the "new"
St. Peter's designed by the brilliant Renaissance architect Donato
At the time,
the project caused much controversy because in order to erect the
new basilica, the millennium-old St. Peter's, traditionally held
to have been built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century,
would have to be destroyed. This seemed like sacrilege to many and
Bramante took the brunt of the criticism being dubbed by the papal
master of ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, "Bramante, Maestro Ruinante."
have revealed how far-seeing Julius II was to undertake this project.
The principal motivation for the new basilica was the structural
instability of the old St. Peter's. The underground springs around
the site, the addition of numerous side chapels punched into the
walls, and the wear and tear of 1,000 years had made the Constantinian
basilica unstable. Pope Nicholas V stated in 1451 that the building
was in danger of collapse and was planning major restructuring.
Julius II also
knew that the other cities in Italy had profited from the papal
absence in Avignon to construct far grander churches than St. Peter's.
The Duomo of Florence was the largest church in the world and was
crowned by Brunelleschi's mighty dome. Milan, Pisa and Siena all
had magnificent churches and by contrast Rome's great basilica looked
poor and run-down.
to restore the glory of the site of St. Peter's tomb as well as
evoke the authority of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter. Giles
da Vitterbo, theologian to Julius II, explained that the faithful
who entered the church would be "shaken and overwhelmed by the sight
of this huge building" and as a result, their faith would be confirmed
coin struck in 1506 by Cristoforo Foppa shows the original plan
for the new St. Peter's. It was intended as a Greek cross plan so
that the heart and center of the church would be the tomb of the
prince of the apostles.
design called for four great piers to support an enormous dome based
on that of the Pantheon. The building drew on the grandeur of Roman
architecture, the structures that had earned Rome the title of Eternal
City, to serve Christian purposes. The brilliant plan also reflected
new developments in history -- the discovery of the New World in
Egido da Vitterbo
described Bramante's St. Peter's as "mundus," or world. The theologian
claimed that "the Roman foundation and seat of the prince of the
apostles, along with the highest priests, instituted and dedicated
as a temple" was to be constructed for "the new propagation of the
church underwent many changes in the 120 years it took to build
it, Julius II and Bramante would be proud to see their project,
started as a single stone in the ground 500 years ago, flourishing
today as the parish church of the whole world and magnet for pilgrims
from all over the globe.
* * *
On April 21, Rome's birthday, the city gave itself a spectacular
gift -- a new museum. The museum houses the Ara Pacis, the altar
of peace built in honor of Emperor Augustus by the Roman senate
in 13 B.C. after his victories in Spain and Gaul.
stands by the Tiber River and is flanked by the Mausoleum of Augustus
where the emperor's ashes were laid after his death in A.D. 14.
It replaces an earlier structure built by Benito Mussolini in the
1930s. Plans for the museum now include a park, a fountain and the
creation of a pedestrian area all the way to the river.
was originally erected further away from the river on an axis comprising
an obelisk, the altar and the mausoleum. The obelisk, one of the
first two brought by Augustus after conquering Egypt, was set up
as a meridian and every Sept. 23, the emperor's birthday, it would
cast its shadow on the Ara Pacis, symbolizing the connection between
the birth of Augustus and the advent of peace throughout the Roman
This fact was
not lost on the Christians. It was during the Pax Romana, the era
of peace brought by Augustus, that Christ was born. The Church of
the Ara Coeli, on the Capitoline Hill, was built to commemorate
Augustus' role in the history of Christianity.
was lost until 1903, when it was rediscovered under a palace next
door to the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Archaeologists were
unable to excavate it, however, as the area was riddled with underground
springs and the building was in danger of collapsing.
an ingenious solution by bringing a giant refrigeration system to
the area and freezing the site until the monument could be removed.
He then moved the Ara Pacis to its present location to celebrate
in 1937 the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.
structure, damaged by decades of car exhaust, was more of an eyesore
than a monument to the past glories of Rome and in the 1990s, plans
for a new museum were prepared. The architect chosen was Richard
Meier, designer of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and famous in
Rome as creator of the millennium church in Tor Tre Teste, built
for the Vatican in 2000.
of Meier has had more than its share of polemics and detractors
call the museum "Rome's newest gas station." But Meier was all smiles
during the inauguration, marveling that 50 years ago when he came
as an architecture student to Rome, he never imagined that one day
he would be adding his work next to the great monuments of Rome's
recalls Rome's history as well as looks toward the future of the
Eternal City. He uses travertine and cement, the two preferred building
materials of Imperial Rome, lightened by tempered glass panels that
allow the famous Roman light to penetrate the edifice and create
striking effects (they also, thank heavens, keep out the traffic
Veltroni made an interesting point during the opening ceremonies.
He noted that a great city does not just rest on the laurels of
its past but lives in its present and looks to ensure its continued
glory in the future.
front of the monument celebrating the great acts of Augustus, Veltroni
spoke of the modern deeds of a city ready to reclaim its former
status of "caput mundi."
* * *
In Line for
has visited the Vatican Museums over the past couple of years knows
that the line to enter it can reach epic, if not tragic, lengths.
Visitors marvel at the queue which stretches a quarter-mile or so
along the walls of Vatican City from the entrance. On a really tough
day, the wait starts all the way back at the colonnade of St. Peter's
If it weren't
enough to have to stand outside pelted by rain or baked by sun,
the parasitic life that proliferates around the line makes the wait
an exercise in corporal mortification. Seedy characters offering
"no-wait" tours, pickpockets weaving in and around groups, and institutionalized
line-cutting all indicate that the Vatican Museums appear to bring
out the worst in people rather than the best.
In an attempt
to solve this problem, the Vatican Museums opened a new ultra-modern
entrance in 2000. This three-story structure, dug out of Vatican
property, succeeded in lessening the wait for a short while but
is now engulfed by the crowds which total about 17,000 to 23,000
But now the
city of Rome is coming to the rescue. Mayor Walter Veltroni has
announced plans to construct a new subterranean entrance on the
site of present-day Piazza Risorgimento. Similar to the Louvre,
the entrance will have a glass pyramid for illumination as well
as its own metro stop.
are collaborating with the Rome city planners in a team effort as
exciting as the project for the Via della Conciliazione, "the road
of reconciliation" built by Mussolini in 1929 as a grand entrance
to St. Peter's Basilica.
museums in this day and age has become a truly daunting task, and
even this new entrance is at least four years away. But I'm happy
to report that people still think that Michelangelo is worth the
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne
University's Italian campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.