Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Baroque Saint Peter's

A Pope's eye view of Bernini's Baldachino and Michelangelo's dome.


The great architectural historian James Ackermann in The Architecture of Michelangelo writes, “Almost every major architect of sixteenth-century Rome had a hand in designing the Basilica of Saint Peter; each in succession changed his predecessor’s scheme, yet the final product is a cohesive whole, formed more by the genius of the Italian Renaissance than by the imagination of any individual” (Ackermann, p. 193). He contrasts the remarkable consistency and coherence of Saint Peter’s with medieval monuments built over a similar length of time, churches like Gloucester Cathedral or the Lorenzkirche in Nuremberg, each with Romanesque naves and very different High Gothic choirs. He argues that it is a matter of the scale of the building. Each major architect’s work was simply too big to tear down or to alter radically. He also argues that this is a legacy of Bramante’s -- and especially Michelangelo’s -- much more organic and sculptural understanding of the classical architectural vocabulary. It was easy for the next generation of architects to build upon.
Michelangelo’s thrilling dome would not have been possible without Bramante’s conception of a centralized great domed church. Maderno’s nave seems to grow inevitably out of Michelangelo’s design. As much as Maderno’s façade and nave are faulted by critics, the great spectacles of Baroque Saint Peter’s would be inconceivable without them.

I use the word “spectacle” deliberately when talking about Baroque art. One of the most amazing of all Baroque spectacles appears on the ceiling of the Gesu.

Ceiling vaults of the Gesu in Rome.



Giovanni Battista Gaulli, The Glorification of the Name of Jesus.

A young and little known artist from Genoa named Giovanni Battista Gaulli painted it. It is “The Glorification of the Name of Jesus.” It is based on the famous passage from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians:

Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is a complex allegory of the Jesuit order showing the dazzling radiance of the Name of Jesus driving away the shadows of heresy. But who cares about the allegory? What a show! It’s as if the ceiling has opened up and the heavenly host are flying above our heads in the ceiling of the church. The masses of shadowy heretics appear to tumble down out of the ceiling on top of us.
The Baroque is the beginning of the theatrical aesthetic, and the type of theater of this ceiling is machine theater, special effects. It is no accident that early – and not so early – cinema looked repeatedly back to Baroque art. The spectacular theater of 17th century Baroque art, and the special effects aesthetic of today’s Hollywood product, both have the same end. They want to make ideas and conceptions as vividly real as possible. Neither is about reflecting reality. They are about making the creatures of the imagination fly out at us and over our heads.
Gaulli beat out competition from a lot of much older and more established Roman artists. That was because he had the support of the aging sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Bernini’s name is almost synonymous with the Baroque. He was there at the creation of the Baroque and he outlived it. It was Bernini more than any other artist who transformed the monument into a theatrical spectacle. Bernini had a background in theater. He staged special effects spectacles where tongues of fire or waves of water would drive people in the front rows out of their seats toward the exits in fear.
Bernini spent over 40 years of his life working on Saint Peter’s applying his genius for theater and for visual poetry to the great work of his predecessors on the church.

Bernini, the last great artist and architect to work on the church, is responsible for the context in which we see and experience St. Peter’s today. He is responsible for all of the major work on the interior.
Bernini’s work on St. Peter’s is not just a masterpiece of concept, it is a masterpiece of management. Bernini had thousands of people working under him, most of them skilled craftsmen. Most of the greatest sculptors and architects of the day worked for Bernini on Saint Peter’s: Alessandro Algardi, Francois Duquesnoy, Francesco Mochi, Francesco Borromini, and Carlo Rainaldi among others. Bernini skillfully managed a collection of very large and fragile egos to work together in something like his style, and in some cases to do their best work for him. He also managed the Papal bureaucracy with its officiousness, intrigues, petty turf wars, and inertia.

In 1623, the newly elected Pope Urban VIII (the same one who would put Galileo on trial) summoned the 23-year-old Gianlorenzo Bernini into his presence and famously said, “Your luck is to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, Cavaliere; but ours is much greater to have Cavaliere Bernini alive in our pontificate.” A long succession of popes would second those remarks until Bernini’s death in 1680.

Instead of discussing Bernini’s work on Saint Peter’s chronologically, I’d like to discuss it in the order that he wanted us to experience it. In all the decades that Bernini worked on Saint Peter’s, he always planned his work around the experiences of religious pilgrims arriving in Rome. He wanted to make the long journey to Rome worth the trouble, a reward for a long arduous journey, and the experience of a lifetime. He wanted to extend the idea of the pilgrimage as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of life into the heart of St. Peter’s.

Most of the pilgrim traffic to Rome arrived at the Porto del Popolo. In ancient times, it was the Porta Flaminia on the north side of the Aurelian wall. Behind the gate was the Piazza del Popolo.

Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The obelisk was made for Pharaoh Ramses II. The Emperor Augustus brought it to Rome and placed it in the spina of the Circus Maximus. The architect Carlo Fontana moved it to the Piazza in the 16th century.

For centuries, the Piazza del Popolo was a muddy and rubble strewn field. Carlo Rainaldi and Bernini together transformed the Piazza into a dramatic welcome for newly arrived pilgrims. Much of the present form of the Piazza is the work of the 19th century architect Giuseppe Valadier, but the almost twin churches flanking the Corso, the ancient main street of Rome, are the work of Rainaldi and Bernini. This area is also known as the Tridente for the three main avenues that fan out from the Piazza. The center between the churches is the Corso which leads straight to the Capitoline hill. To the left, the avenue leads to the Spanish Steps. The avenue to the right leads to the banks of the Tiber. Pilgrims to Saint Peter’s would take the avenue to the right to the Tiber.

At the Tiber, pilgrims would get their first beckoning glimpse of the dome of St. Peter’s on the horizon.

Saint Peter's from the Tiber with the Ponte Sant' Angelo in the middle distance.

They would come to what was originally the only bridge across the river to the Vatican, the Ponte Sant’ Angelo.



Bernini lined the Ponte Sant’Angelo with a series of larger than life marble angels holding instruments of Christ’s Passion. Most of these were delegated out to assistants, but Bernini himself carved the angels of the Inscription and the Crown of Thorns. These are late works of Bernini carved when he was in his late 60s. They show that Baroque expressionist style of his later years so loathed by classicists, and so beloved by 20th century expressionists (especially Oscar Kokoschka).

Bernini, Angel holding the Inscription.

The sensual yet genderless angel stands in an exaggerated contrapposto pose on a cloud. Drapery in Bernini’s hands, especially in his late work, becomes an abstract image of intense feeling. The molten drapery seems to have a life of its own as it swirls around the angel’s body. The angel expresses a very tactile sensual quality of pain, yet remains distant and unearthly.
Bernini turned the act of crossing the bridge into a religious meditation on death. Bernini knew the Castel Sant’ Angelo was built on the remains of Hadrian’s Mausoleum, as did most literate people in Rome. While crossing the Ponte and looking at the angels, we are put in mind of Christ’s suffering and death, and our own at the end of our lives.

When we cross the bridge and stand in front of the fortress, we look to our left and see St. Peter’s looming so clearly at the end of the Via della Conciliazione.

View down the Via della Conciliazione toward St. Peter's

This was not the view enjoyed by pilgrims originally. The Via della Conciliazione was a creation of Mussolini in the 1930s. Originally, pilgrims passed through a series of narrow streets through the Borgo Vaticano neighborhood.

Aerial photograph made before the Via della Conciliazione was built.




Pilgrims and visitors would emerge out of those narrow streets into the huge expanse of St. Peter’s Piazza, Bernini’s largest work for the church.





Two huge colonnades reach out in welcome from the great church to embrace a huge oval shaped piazza, and the throngs of pilgrims and visitors who gather there to this day. The colonnades screen and mark off the piazza without exactly enclosing it.

The Piazza has 2 focal points. The first is the Blessing Loggia on the façade of St. Peter’s where the Pope gives the Urbi et Orbi blessing on Christmas and Easter.



The second is the Papal apartments where the Pope appears in a window to bless the crowds in the Piazza every Sunday.



The top of the colonnade is lined with giant statues of saints, very roughly carved when viewed up close. The throng of the saints above echoes the throngs of people below. The Piazza was designed for throngs, and is best appreciated when it is being used for a major event like the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The church seems to reach out to embrace the faithful crowds

Funeral of Pope John Paul II

Bernini is responsible in one way or another for most of the decoration we see in Saint Peter’s. The interior of the Basilica is so vast that the center of it all, the high altar and tomb of Peter, would be lost in all the grandeur.



Bernini’s first major work for Saint Peter’s was also his most prodigious and important, the Baldachino over the high altar of Saint Peter’s. The Baldachino announces the altar’s presence to all the church.



At 98 feet high, the Baldachino is one of the most prodigious works of bronze casting in history. Bronze fittings from the roof of the Pantheon were melted down for this project inspiring the famous pasquinade, “What the Barbarians dared not do was done by the Barberini.” However, the original bronze doors of the Pantheon remain untouched and are still there to be seen. The great columns are hollow cast bronze filled with structural concrete. The roof is cast bronze and hammered copper around a framework of oak timbers.



The ciborium, a permanent stone canopy over the altar, was a standard feature of ancient and medieval Roman churches, including ancient St. Peter’s. It was a kind of small building within a building. Here is the 13th century ciborium over the altar of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. The sculpture of the martyred Saint Cecilia is by Carlo Maderno, the architect of St. Peter’s nave and façade.

Ciborium of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome

Bernini’s great ciborium for Saint Peter’s is a dramatic hybrid of sculpture and architecture. It uses architectural elements, but it is dynamic and dramatic like a great work of sculpture. The dark bronze sparkling with gilded spots unequivocally draws all attention to itself in the gold and white church.

The most famous and celebrated parts of the Baldachino, the twisted columns, are not Bernini’s invention. They are giant bronze versions of the twisted marble columns that once formed the shrine of St. Peter in Constantine’s ancient church. The twisted columns are known as "Solomonic" columns because the marble originals were believed by Medieval legend to come from Solomon's Temple. Bernini's giant bronze columns call to mind the two great bronze columns, Jachin and Boaz, that flanked the entrance to Solomon's Temple as it is described in the Old Testament.

detail of the columns of the Baldachino



One of the original "Solomonic" columns; so called because Medieval legend said they came from Solomon's Temple.


A 5th century ivory casket showing the original shrine of Constantine's St. Peter's.


True to the Counter-Reformation, the Baldachino is a restoration, and a variation, of an ancient and revered prototype. The columns are covered with all kinds of plant and animal life. Laurel branches twine around the columns. Laurel was associated with the god Apollo and with victory in classical times. There are also conspicuous bees. Bees are emblems of the Barberini family. The Barberini were the family of Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the work. If you look closely, you can find birds, lizards, beetles, and all kinds of other animal life.

It is the top that is very original. The Baldachino is part architecture and part sculpture with four great volutes coming together to hold up the bronze cross.

Angel and volute on the top of the Baldachino

Angels, who seem to hover more than stand, hold up garlands connected to the volutes effortlessly by a single finger. Below are great bronze tassels as though this canopy was a giant version of the canopies carried over the Sacrament at Corpus Christi processions; the temporary made permanent and monumental.


Bernini transformed the great crossing piers holding up Michelangelo’s dome into giant relic shrines.

One of the crossing piers of St. Peter's transformed into a relic shrine by Bernini

Despite warnings that he would bring down the dome, he hollowed out spiral stairs and small chambers in each to hold the most important relics of the church. Each resides in a tabernacle with a balcony in front. The marble spiral columns in those tabernacles are the original columns of Constantine’s shrine over Peter’s tomb. The relics are brought out and displayed on high holy days.

Displaying the Veil of Saint Veronica on a high holy day.

They are the Veil of Saint Veronica said to have a miraculous image of the face of Christ, the head of Saint Andrew, the lance that pierced Christ’s side, and a fragment of the True Cross. Below the balconied tabernacles are giant niches containing huge statues of the saints associated with each relic.



Francesco Mochi carved the colossal figure of Saint Veronica, long criticized as melodramatic, though Mochi was very fine sculptor who had some trouble with the large scale. Francois Duqesnoy carved the figure of Saint Andrew. Andrea Bolgi, a favorite pupil of Bernini, carved the rather dull figure of Saint Helena.



Bernini himself carved the magnificent figure of Saint Longinus holding the lance with an expression of dazzled enlightenment.

Bernini originally designed the Baldachino to be topped by a bronze figure of the Risen Christ, transforming the whole crossing and dome of St. Peter's into a kind of drama of the Resurrection and Ascension. The emotionalism of the colossal relic saints would have made better dramatic sense. Engineering considerations forced Bernini to forsake the bronze Christ for a cross.


Bernini’s last great monument for the interior of Saint Peter’s is the Cathedra Petri. Bernini was in his late twenties early thirties when he worked on the Baldachino. He comes back to it 30 years later to plan the view of the monument intended to be the dramatic finale of the whole work. He carefully composed the work to be viewed through the bronze columns of the Baldachino.

Drawing by Bernini of the proposed view of the Cathedral Petri through the columns of the Baldachino





The Cathedral Petri is Bernini’s most extravagant and theatrical monument in Saint Peter’s, conceived as a conclusion to the long dramatic progress that began at the Piazza del Popolo.





It is a great bronze shrine containing an early medieval chair once thought to be the throne of Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome. Four giant figures of Fathers of the Church effortlessly lift the shrine by single fingers. On the back of the great bronze throne is a relief of Christ instructing Peter to “Feed my sheep.” Above, a great gilded bronze and stucco host of heaven spills through the architecture and into the church. They accompany the Dove of the Holy Spirit breaking through the church to come in and meet us.

Saint Ambrose and Saint Athanasius from the Cathedra Petri.

The Fathers are Ambrose and Augustine, the 2 Latin Fathers out front and wearing miters. Behind them and bareheaded are the 2 Greek Fathers Athanasius and John Chrysostom. They are far from dignified tenured seminary faculty. They are as swept up in ecstatic emotion of the spectacle as are the angels themselves.

Critics continue to complain about the powerful sensuality of Bernini's sexually ambiguous angels. Bernini regularly read the mystical writings of Saint John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. I can't think of a better expression in art of those rapturously sensual spiritual transports described so beautifully by both of those great religious poets.






The dove is made not out of stained glass, but of transparent alabaster.

Like the Baldachino, the Cathedra Petri is a revival and a variation on ancient practice. In ancient churches, there was usually a throne for the bishop or the celebrant in the back of the apse behind the altar. Bernini’s monument proclaims the continuing presence of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome in his church.

This last piece meant a lot to Bernini. He deeply regretted that he could not be in Rome for the final assembly of the monument. He was in Paris watching his proposed designs for the Louvre dismissed by King Louis XIV.

All of Bernini’s great work for Saint Peter’s is a clarion call declaration of faith in the Petrine Doctrine of the Papacy, the idea of an unbroken succession of bishops going back to Peter, and to Christ Himself, and in the special status of Peter and his successors as chief of the Apostles.
Bernini was a true believing Counter-Reformation Catholic, attending Mass almost daily. He belonged to a religious confraternity dedicated to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyolla (which involve a lot of imaginative visualization).
He took his work for the Catholic Church very seriously. Bernini believed himself to be chosen by God as one of His instruments on earth for the defense and propagation of the Catholic faith.

And yet, at the very same time that these most spectacular proclamations of that doctrine in art were made, Protestant Christianity challenged the very idea of succession and primacy. The political, and even the economic power, of the Papacy weakened dramatically in Bernini’s lifetime. Bernini’s last monuments for Saint Peter’s were comparatively modest. Popes could no longer summon the funds for giant works in bronze.


His very last work for Saint Peter’s is the bronze tabernacle flanked by angels for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament.

The Sacrament Chapel of Saint Peter's designed by Carlo Maderno.





Bernini originally planned for four bronze angels to be holding up the tabernacle on their fingers as though it was weightless. The lack of funds forced him to scale back his ambitions.


Daily Mass in the Sacrament Chapel.

Bernini designed Saint Peter's to be used. He designed the building not to be a stage set, but a kind of participant in the sacramental life in Saint Peter's. That's true whether it is the daily back to back Masses in the Sacrament Chapel, or great once in a lifetime events like the Second Vatican Council.







Gianlorenzo Bernini, Self Portrait

8 comments:

IT said...

Spectacular, Doug. The only thing better would be if I could audit your class!

Ciss B said...

There's so much here I've never heard before about the basilica. Your pictures really set the text off so well too since many of them look like paintings with the light streaming in from sources often from the ceiling.

rick allen said...

Thanks again for an erudite and entertaining review. Most of us probably had some idea that St. Peter's Basilica grew in stages. You've done a great job deepening that understanding, and showing how exactly those changes reflected the changing world around them.

And though I can be something of a Luddite when it comes to modern technology (my daughter finally taught me how to "text" last week), I continue to be impressed with how beautifully artwork is displayed on a computer monitor. I suppose it has to do with the fact that the light shines out from the screen, rather than being reflected. In any case, your integration of words and images are very effective, and I hope, against hope, that your students appreciate the care you put into your presentations.

Counterlight said...

I must admit that I too am very surprised by how well art can be reproduced in digital pixels, and it's getting better.
Another thing I think is a godsend to art teachers is tourist photos posted online.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Doug, I'd love to take a walking tour through St. Peter's with you. To read your post is a good news/bad news experience. The good news is what I learned that I did not know before. The bad news is that now I know of all that I missed on my two visits to St. Peter's.

Critics continue to complain about the powerful sensuality of Bernini's sexually ambiguous angels.

I can only imagine what the critics say about Bernini's St. Teresa in Ecstasy. I know what I heard people around me say when I viewed the sculpture.

Thank you for a beautiful post. I second Rick in his hope that at least some of your students appreciate your teaching.

Rick+ said...

     Wisely, I saved this posting to read this evening when I had more time. Of course, I have to read your posting and then pause to look up things like the "Veil of Veronica" and "St. Andrew's head," not to mention watching about fifteen minutes worth of YouTube videos on how bronze casting is done. I am absolutely overwhelmed at the labor and detail of St. Peter's. I think it's overwhelming to me because St. Peter's is only something that could be created over a period of many lifetimes.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Wonderful! and what the others said ;=)

Anonymous said...

thanks bud, thsi is great for my assignment at the university :) owe you one