In 1506, Pope Julius II decided to rebuild the most important church in the Western world. He decided to pull down Constantine’s original church and start all over again. This decision was not at all popular, opposed by all but the most sycophantic of cardinals, and by the Roman public whose frequently stifled opinions were expressed in the fearless satires known as Pasquinades posted on the statues known as Pasquino and Babuino. The idea of tearing down a great church built by the first Christian Emperor of Rome, a living link to the city’s glorious past, was more than anyone could bear. The ferocious old Pope didn’t care a fig for anyone’s opinion. His was the only one that mattered.
Saint Peter's in the Renaissance in a 19th century reconstruction. The Sistine Chapel is right of center. The tower of the Borgia Apartments is just to its right. Caligula's obelisk stands where it always stood on the left of St. Peter's.
St. Peter's in 1533 drawn by Marten Van Heemskerk. The Sistine Chapel appears just behing the Papal Palace in its beginnings. The three story arcaded building to the left is the unfinished blessing loggia added by Pope Pius II. The fortified wall on the right was built by Pope Leo III.
By 1506, Constantine’s church was more than a thousand years old. It had been through a lot of history and showed the scars. In the 9th century, Arab raiders from North Africa sacked Rome and desecrated the church. According to legend, they scattered Peter’s bones on the floor of the old church. The church suffered badly from earthquake damage, and from more than a century of neglect during the long years of the Papal Schism. It carried the battle scars from many fights among the Roman noble families over the Papal succession. In the mid 15th century, the great architect and scholar Leon Battista Alberti made a survey of the church’s condition. He found that the south wall of the nave leaned six feet outward, threatening to collapse on the aisles. The attached roof-beams threatened to pull down the north wall with it. Some of those same beams had rotted and would collapse with or without failing nave walls.
Julius II was not the first pope to decide that St. Peter’s was beyond saving. Pope Nicholas V, the founder of the Vatican Library, decided late in his reign to rebuild the crumbling church. He had the Florentine sculptor Bernardo Rossellino make a new design. Rossellino’s design for a new St. Peter’s was very conservative, an enlarged version of Constantine’s original basilica complete with the central nave, four aisles, and transept. The only real difference would be in the greatly expanded choir. Work began on the new choir, but ended with Nicholas’ death. Rossellino’s choir remained unfinished when Pope Paul II appointed another Florentine, Giuliano Sangallo, to redesign it and continue the construction. Again, it remained unfinished with the pope’s death.
The popes of that era were pre-occupied with a major foreign policy question, the expansion of the Muslim Ottoman Empire into Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. They were also pre-occupied with Italian politics, with recovering control of the Papal States after they had been carved up among a host of mercenary soldier princes during the long years of the Schism as payment for services rendered. These popes cherished the ambition to unite Italy under their rule, or at least to become the dominant power on the peninsula. All of this was very transparently worldly with the most brazen nepotism and corruption. No one thought anything of Lorenzo de Medici “arranging” to have his second son Giovanni (the future Pope Leo X) made a cardinal at the age of 19, complete with benefices, incomes from church properties and congregations. Popes were princes of Italy as well as princes of the Church, armed with the anathema and the interdict.
Raphael, Pope Julius II
Pope Julius II aggressively pursued a nationalist policy in Italy; to drive out the French and the Spanish and to unite Italy under papal rule as a major player in international politics. He went so far as to put on armor and lead troops into battle against the princes who had carved up the Papal States. His most significant victory was his conquest of Bologna ending the rule of the Bentivoglio family.
Julius II decided not to repeat the mistake of Nicholas V. He decided not to wait until near the end of his pontificate to do something about St. Peter’s. He made his decision in the third year of his pontificate. He wanted to make a clean break with history, to begin anew with St. Peter’s. He wanted St. Peter’s to be the centerpiece of a new Rome, rebuilt as a world capital once again, this time as the capital of a global empire of souls. He wanted it from the beginning to be the largest church ever built. He wanted the project to be so large and so far along by the end of his pontificate that his successors would be bound to finish it.
Julius II hired an old man to make the first designs for the new church, Donato di Pascuccio, better known as Bramante. Bramante was a noted painter from Lombardy. He did not begin a career in architecture until he was in his mid forties; very old by the standards of the day. He was in his sixties when he was commissioned by Julius II to redesign St. Peter’s.
Bramante's plan for St. Peter's
Perspective drawing of Bramante's design for the interior of St. Peter's by Baldassare Peruzzi.
The design he presented to the pope was a radical break with history and tradition, probably encouraged by the pope himself. It was dramatically different from the conservatism of Rossellino’s earlier design.
Bramante proposed to replace Constantine’s ancient basilican church with a huge centralized domed structure. The tomb of Peter would no longer be at the end of a long apse, but in the center of the church under a huge dome resting on four immense vaulted halls, equal in length forming a Greek cross. The dome and vaults are Roman building forms, but resting a dome on a square space upon four arches is a Byzantine invention pioneered in the construction of Hagia Sophia.
Raphael, Marriage of the Virgin
Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to Peter. This painting in the Sistine Chapel uses the Albertian centrally planned domed church in the middle of a broad plaza to show the claim of the Roman Catholic Church of the unique authority of Peter and of the popes as his successors.
The idea of a centrally planned domed church was floating around in the theoretical literature and in the background of paintings for decades. It first appears in Alberti’s writings on architecture, where he says that the principal church of the city, the “temple” of the city in his words, should be an immense radial domed structure sitting on a high podium in the middle of a broad plaza. Artists painted this idea long before anyone built it.
Alberti proposed such a building type as a deliberate break with medieval church architecture, and its method of thinking of the building as kind of chain of distinct units or bays. Alberti wanted to think of the building sculpturally, rising around a central axis.
Bramante, the Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome
Bramante's drawing for the Tempietto. The dome was modified in the 17th century.
Bramante actually built such a building, though on a small scale, the beautiful Tempietto attached to San Pietro in Montorio in Rome. It was built over a spot once believed to be the site of Peter’s crucifixion, and paid for by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (who had their own designs on Italy). The building is composed around a central cylinder and topped with a dome. The peristyle of Roman Doric columns, with its triglyph and metope frieze, was inspired by the ancient Temple of the “Sybil” at Tivoli. Like the temple at Tivoli, the metopes contain images of sacrificial implements, this time those of the Christian Mass. It is a building that is composed sculpturally instead of by addition of multiple parts.
This building would inspire a lot of much larger buildings including Wren's dome for St. Paul's in London, Souflot's dome on the Paris Pantheon, and Walter's dome for the the Capitol of the United States.
Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s is an enormous version of the same principle. It is composed around the center, around the huge dome supported by four immense arms. The same basic motif is repeated in smaller form four times between the arms. The interior would have been a series of turns and transitions leading to the center; unlike the chain of bays in a medieval church.
We have only a commemorative medal struck by Caradoso on the occasion of the ground-breaking to show us what Bramante intended for the exterior elevation.
It is a series of units added around the central dome resting firmly upon the ground like a great classical building.
Drawing by Marten Van Heemskerk of the old Saint Peter's coming down and the crossing arches of the new Saint Peter's going up.
Ground was broken in April 1506, and Julius II himself laid the foundation stone at the bottom of a deep shaft dug for the southwest pier that today supports the dome. He blessed and laid the stone in a hurry, laying it crooked, because he feared the excavation might collapse in on him. Bramante was 62 when construction began on the new St. Peter’s.
Both Julius and Bramante, feeling their impending mortality, wanted to accomplish much as quickly as possible. The partial destruction of Constantine’s church was ruthless. Ancient mosaics, sculptures, icons, even revered altars were destroyed. Some of the ancient columns were pulled down and shattered on the floor. Michelangelo protested this destruction to no avail.
The Renaissance papacy was very rich. The Church was one of the great banking powers of Europe, despite the prohibition on usury regularly reaffirmed in synods and councils. The coffers of the papacy were filled with some of the first loot from Spain’s conquests in the New World. There was plenty of money for construction.
What worried Julius II was the willingness and ability of his successors to finance the project. Besides, trying to start crusades against the Turks, keeping out the French, and subduing Italian princes were very expensive. Julius II asked (and demanded) large financial contributions from all the European monarchs, including King Henry VII of England. Julius was responsible for creating the operation to sell indulgences, time off from Purgatory, to the common folk to finance the construction of St. Peter’s. It was this transparent corruption and exploitation of popular superstition that provoked the young Martin Luther, and many other conscientious people throughout Europe.
Another drawing of St. Peter's under construction by Van Heemskerk. The crossing arches are completed. Remains of the old church are in the foreground.
Soon, the four huge arches that would support the dome rose high above the site of Constantine’s apse. Bramante was obliged to build a temporary structure over Peter’s tomb that stood until 1592.
Pope Julius II died in 1513. Bramante died in 1514 aged 70. Both men lived long enough to see the crossing arches completed along with much construction of the interior. From here on out, all subsequent architects would be bound by Bramante’s basic scheme of a huge dome over the intersection of four enormous vaulted halls. This would remain true as the design of the church was modified again and again by 11 more architects, and the plan went back and forth between a centralized church and a more traditional one with a long basilican nave.
There is more of Bramante’s work to be seen at St. Peter’s today than we would at first imagine. His contribution is much more than the crossing arches. The basic scheme of the whole interior, immense barrel vaults resting on bays of arches between doubled giant pilasters is all his idea, even underneath the 17th and 18th century marble veneers and gilding.
Bramante gives us a preview of what he intended for St. Peter's in the interior of a small church in Milan, Santa Maria Presso San Satiro, that he built around 1500. The great passageway behind the altar is an illusion. It looks like it goes on for yards, but in fact, it is only a few feet deep. The small interior looks more vast and spacious than it really is.
Raphael, Bramante’s young friend from Urbino, gives us another glimpse of Bramante’s intentions for Saint Peter’s in the background of the famous School of Athens painted for Julius’ library. Bramante himself appears in the lower right playing the role of Euclid.