Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part XI

There was quite a bit of preparation going on everywhere around St. Peter's for a number of upcoming events, so it took some work to get around them. Rather than the usual way, our guide took us indirectly through the Treasury. No photography was allowed, but we saw several of the tombs of the popes. (I thought Paul VI's was interesting; it's just a plain slab, but it draws attention to itself for that very reason, as if you had been walking by a decorated wall and suddenly came to a completely blank section; all the others blend into the architecture, but that one sticks out in an obvious way.)

We also saw the tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden, which I was happy to see. Queen Christina is an interesting historical character. She was the polymathic queen who invited Rene Descartes to her court to organize a scientific academy. They did not get along well at all, and quarreled, it is said, over whether it was more important for her to study physics or Ancient Greek, so she mostly stopped seeing him, and he died of pneumonia not long afterward. In 1652, Christina began to study the Catholic faith, and she abdicated her throne in 1654, setting out for the Catholic countries of Europe; she then officially converted in Brussels. She soon came to Rome, which she would visit several times, and would die in Rome in 1689 at the age of 62. She asked to be buried in the Pantheon, but Pope Clement X decided to bury her in St. Peter's. You can see a picture of her sarcophagus here. I didn't even think to look for her monument in the church, but here's a nice picture of it from Wikimedia:

0 Monument funéraire de Christine de Suède - St-Pierre - Vatican (1)

So we finally came up inside St. Peter's; almost the first thing we could see was this:

You can see, of course, part of the inscription around the base of the dome, Christ's words to St. Peter, in Latin: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorum -- You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

A very old tradition says that St. Peter was executed at the Circus of Nero on October 13, in the Year of Our Lord 64. His remains were rumored to have been buried somewhere on the Vatican hill near the Circus. The Emperor Constantine ordered that the shrine that had come to be built to commemorate St. Peter's death and burial should be upgraded to a basilica, and St. Peter's Basilica -- now called Old St. Peter's Basilica -- began somewhere around 320 and took about three decades to build. The church grew in importance over the next few centuries, but also suffered the ravages of time; for instance, it was sacked and heavily damaged when in 846 a Muslim raiding party sacked it and a few other important buildings outside of Rome itself. Its fortunes the next few centuries were not all that much better, since the decampment of the Popes to Avignon led all the churches of Rome to be neglected for decades, so the church was in very poor condition by the fifteenth century. Some efforts were made to restore it, Leon Battista Alberti being one of the architects to try his hand at it.

Then Pope Julius II decided to tear the whole thing down. It was a shocking and controversial proposal: the church represented the continuity of the papacy, it was a symbol of the claims of the See of Rome to be in right authoritative succession from Peter himself and to be sanctified, so to speak, with the blood of Peter's martyrdom. And it was also a massive project. Julius seems to have decided to tear it down and rebuild around 1505. He would start the project, and it would continue through the papal reigns of Leo X, Adrian VI, Clement VII, Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV, Pius IV, St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, Sixtus V, Urban VII, Gregory XIV, Innocent IX, Clement VIII, Leo XI, Paul V, Gregory XV, Urban VIII, to be finished up in 1626 in the reign of Innocent X.

A great design contest was held, and Donato Bramante's design won. He had the idea of a Greek Cross:


It was to be topped with a dome inspired in part by the Pantheon and in part by Brunelleschi's dome in Florence. Over time, however, the design changed as different architects were put in charge of it. There was an increasing tendency to change the design from a Greek Cross to a Latin Cross, however.

The key early architect was certainly Michelangelo, in his seventies, who did not want the job but took it under pressure from Paul III. Up to him, the work had progressed very slowly, and there were many competing ideas playing off of Bramante's original conception. It was Michelangelo who unified all the previous ideas into one conception; he reverted to Bramante's Greek Cross plan, however. And it was Michelangelo, allowed a free hand, who really got the building going.

The most important contribution of Michelangelo, however, was to redesign the dome, taking ideas from all the previous suggestions and blending them together as only Michelangelo could do. He died before finishing it, however, and it has been a matter of controversy since whether the ovoid, rather than hemispherical, shape of the dome was actually Michelangelo's final intent or not.

The next major architect to be involved was Carlo Maderno, who was appointed in 1606 by Paul V. At this point, opinions were reverting back to a Latin Cross design, and there was also a general feeling that the new St. Peter's should be on the same ground as the old St. Peter's. So Maderno proposed the extension of the nave to meet both these requirements, which was built very quickly. It works beautifully, from the inside; it greatly amplifies the already significant space. The facade, which Maderno also did, is usually considered not to work quite so well.

One of the most visible things inside is the Papal Altar with its famous baldacchino:

Urban VIII appointed Gian Lorenzo Bernini papal architect after Maderno, and one of his first tasks was to design the baldachin or canopy over the Papal Altar, which only the Pope can use. Urban VIII trusted him completely: he was given a blank check, no budget restrictions at all. Bernini's design is essentially a freestanding bronze sculpture that fits neatly into the immense space beneath the dome while still allowing free view of the Cathedra Petri behind it. It took nine years to make and an immense amount of bronze that could only be obtained by raiding bronze from various sources, including the Pantheon.

It was Bernini who also created the bronze throne housing the Chair of Peter, which symbolizes the apostolic authority of Peter himself:

There are better pictures easily found online; as I mentioned before, there was a great deal of preparation going on, meaning that walking around the church was somewhat restricted and more crowded than usual, so it was difficult to take good pictures inside.

It was also Bernini who designed the striking tomb for Pope Alexander VII:

The tomb was in an odd place, right above a door, but Bernini made use of that very fact in a brilliant fashion. Notice Death itself in front, partly covered by the shroud, the skeleton with the hourglass. There are two women on each side, Charity and Truth; the one you can see from this angle is Charity.

Here is a mosaic, based on a painting by Raphael:

Vatican City, of course, has the most advanced mosaic workshop in the world, and one reason is that the major churches, like St. Peter's, have few paintings -- they use mosaics instead. But the mosaic-work is so well done that you can hardly tell that it is mosaic rather than painting if you just glance at it.

The most famous work of art in the basilica, however, is again by Michelangelo, and is so popular that they have to put it behind glass to preserve it:

And then we went out. Here is the view of St. Peter's Square from St. Peter's itself, followed by a series of pictures as we walked down and around the Square, which was itself cordoned off:

The masterstroke of Bernini's contribution to the basilica is certainly the two-part piazza, starting with a trapezoidal section near the entrance and then suddenly swinging open to a wide circular section that contextualizes the gigantic facade so that it is more easily taken in, and yet also somehow makes the whole thing seem even larger. Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno, Bernini, over a hundred and twenty years: this is what goes into building the world's basilica.

to be continued

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