Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year to All of My Readers!

A Counterlight encore presentation:

It's going to be a quiet and sober New Year's for Michael and I this year. We are both under the weather, and I am on an antibiotic that precludes any alcohol consumption.

We'll put on our tap shoes and go out and listen to the Lullaby of old Broadway next year.

The rest of you go out on the town and enjoy those sophisticated adult beverages.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all! And may the coming decade be so much better than the last one. God forbid that it should be any worse.

"May peace break into your home and may thieves come to steal your debts.

May the pockets of your jeans become a magnet for $100 bills.

May love stick to your face like Vaseline and may laughter assault your lips!

May happiness slap you across the face and may your tears be that of joy.

May the problems you had, forget your home address!

In simple words...

May 2010 be the best year of your life!!!"

(stolen from Mimi's blog)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflections on Saint Peter's Basilica

I am not, and never have been, Roman Catholic. And yet, I have always loved St. Peter’s since the days I first laid eyes on it in the pages of Time/Life Books when I was a small boy. My one and only visit there in 1988 only deepened the ardor of that love. I am struck by the fact that so few of my overwhelmingly Catholic students have ever heard of Saint Peter’s. I’m not sure what that means, if anything. My Methodist relatives frown on the size and extravagance of St. Peter’s, a prodigious work of vain-glory that brought on the Reformation. Asking if all that money could have been better spent is a fair question. It was asked at the time.
And yet, the construction of Saint Peter’s employed a lot of people for generations. Has any Papal encyclical or Reformer’s screed made as many people so happy as the work of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini on Saint Peter’s? “What a feast day you have made for the people! You have brought so much joy and here you are crying!” says the monk Andrei to the despondent young bell maker after he rings his newly made great bell for the first time at the conclusion of Tarkovsky’s movie Andrei Rublev.

It is hard to look at Saint Peter’s without mixed feelings. It is an imperial monument to the Papacy. Most of the inscriptions, including the one on the façade, are not Scriptural passages. They announce which Pope was responsible for the completion of each part of the great building to all of history. They all include the title “Pontifex Maximus” which began, not with Peter, but with the Emperor Augustus. Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque popes claimed to be heirs to the Roman Empire and keepers of Roman culture. It is hard to remember sometimes that where Saint Peter’s now stands began as a poor man’s cemetery on the city’s outer margins. If Saint Peter’s bones rest beneath the church, they do so in a pauper’s grave.

There was never anything quite like Saint Peter’s before, and there likely will never be anything like it again. The only thing remotely comparable that comes to my mind is the great temple of Ammon at Karnak in ancient Egypt. So far as I know, the Karnak Temple was the largest religious monument ever built. Like Saint Peter’s, it was built over many centuries in a series of stages. Unlike Saint Peter’s, the “mansion of the god” was mostly inaccessible to the public. Over half of the temple was exclusive to the Pharaoh and the Temple’s priests.

Of the great religious monuments of the world, Saint Peter’s is one of the most open and accessible. There is no restriction to believers or to “members in good standing.” There is no segregation by gender or any other status. The church’s most sacred places, the high altar and the Confessio beneath, may not be approachable to visitors, but they are entirely visible to them. Only the Pope may celebrate Mass at the high altar, but anyone can look at it. Visitors are welcome to come in and pray, or to gawk.
What was once an exclusive privilege of the noble and the wealthy is now possible for multitudes from around the world in an age of mass travel and reproduction. The great works of Michelangelo and Bernini that once delighted Very Important Guests now belong to millions around the world. I traveled there over 20 years ago as a poor graduate student in order to gawk. One of my best papers this year came from a young Nigerian Catholic who plans eventually to go to Rome to see Saint Peter’s. He probably will, and before I do so again. The Vatican may be notoriously secretive, but Saint Peter’s remains wide open even in the age of the suicide bomber.

And what do people really come to see? The religious come for the same reason that they have always come to St. Peter’s, to see Peter. They stay with the rest to marvel, not at the philanthropy or taste of certain past popes, but at the genius and skill of the people who built the place. The marvel of the place is not simply that it is so big, but that it is so excellent. It is hard to imagine a more exhilarating dome in all the world than the one Michelangelo designed and built for Saint Peter’s. I seriously doubt there was ever one that fine before it (not even the Pantheon), and there will never be its like again. The great bronze and marble prodigies that Bernini built have lost none of their power to thrill spectators after all these centuries, even in an age of special effects entertainment.

And then there is this caution from the Gospel of St. Luke:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

Great monuments, like their builders, are mortal. I’m sure that, in the eyes of God and the Saints, St. Peter’s is but a trifling thing. Only God is eternal. And yet I hope I never see the end of St. Peter's. We mortals want our buildings to be at least a little less mortal than we are. We are delighted to inherit great things from the past and to hand them on to our children. The durability of our monuments consoles us in the ever changing and perishable world of ten thousand things. Our monuments mark our path through time, and the paths of all those who came before and will come after. They challenge us to add to their number; “Future generations shall wonder at us…” They assure us that our ends are not the end of the story.

Now large magnificent and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will,
And to the growing and the weak
Your final transformations speak,
Saying to dreaming “I am deed.”
To striving “Courage. I succeed”
To mourning “I remain, Forgive.”
And to becoming “I am. Live.”

--W.H. Auden from “New Year Letter” 1939


A Note on Sources, and for Further Reading

-The most complete history of Saint Peter's in English for a wide audience that I'm aware of is probably long out of print. It is Saint Peter's: The Story of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, by James Lees-Milne from 1967. It is very much an official history complete with an Official Primatur from the Vicar General of Westminster. With that in mind, it is a very detailed, entertaining, and useful history of the building. At this point in time, some of the information has become a little dated by recent discoveries and revisions in scholarship.
-A good source for the history of ancient and medieval Saint Peter's is James Snyder's Medieval Art. It is a survey book, but one that spends a lot of time on the art and architecture of Early Christian Rome, and on Saint Peter's in particular.
-For the decision to rebuild the church and the development of Renaissance St. Peter's there's The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance by Peter Murray.
-The best account of Michelangelo's contribution to Saint Peter's is James Ackerman's The Architecture of Michelangelo, already mentioned twice in these postings.
-Another fine account is in Howard Hibbard's Michelangelo.
-The classic account of Bernini's work on Saint Peter's is Rudolph Wittkower's Bernini.
-Wittkower's Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 put's Bernini's work into its larger context.
-Howard Hibbard's Bernini
is also a very good source for Baroque Saint Peter's with lots of anecdotes from Bernini's operatic life story.
-My old professor, William Wallace, has a whole new book out on Michelangelo; The Artist, The Man, and His Times. A lot of my account of Michelangelo's role in the building of Saint Peter's is based on memories of Dr. Wallace's lectures.

My Nomination For Person of the Year

Time Magazine put Ben Bernanke on its cover. I would put this man on my cover. Abraham Lincoln turned 200 this past year. Lincoln, more than anyone, made what little that was positive over the past 10 years possible.

He was a deeply flawed man. He was self taught with maybe a year of formal education. He was from a poor isolated frontier family. He was a manic-depressive who believed that he could communicate spiritually with his dead sons. He married a compulsive neurotic Mary Todd. While he loathed slavery, he did not believe in equality for African Americans. He wanted an expanded version of James Monroe's Liberia, taking the African population of the United States and dumping them in Africa. He was willing to tolerate slavery to preserve the Union. The United States was to be preserved at the expense of African Americans. He could rule like a dictator when it was expedient to do so. He suspended Habeas Corpus and detained people without due process. Lincoln, more than anyone else, was responsible for the creation of the Imperial Presidency.

And yet, one of his fiercest critics, Frederick Douglass, became in the end one of his most ardent admirers and supporters.

Lincoln transformed the Declaration of Independence, with its famous opening paragraphs about liberty and equality, from a historic relic into a binding document. Lincoln understood the radical nature of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. As the historian James McPherson pointed out, most of the rest of the world in the mid 19th century looked like the Confederacy with its agrarian hierarchical society. No less a radical than Karl Marx appreciated the need for Lincoln to succeed in the war to preserve the union of the states. Marx campaigned tirelessly to win support for Lincoln's cause among the British working class. The British government, by contrast, was prepared to intervene on the side of the South, as was France under Louis Napoleon. Their textile industries depended heavily on cheap Southern cotton, kept cheap by slave labor.

Lincoln did the messy and dirty work of war and politics necessary to make the dream of universal enfranchisement based on universal human dignity into an attainable reality. He paid for it with his life.

Angels are above history and animals are beneath it. History belongs to us. It is not some abstract unfolding of idea, it is the creation of flawed mortals like ourselves. History is there to be made or broken. Historical inevitability is an illusion of memory. As a historian friend of mine always said, you can do all the structural analysis you want of why things happened; in the end, someone had to make a policy decision. How often history has turned on small random events like a missed phone call, a forgotten appointment, a lost letter, rain, illness, or a sudden death.

Lincoln did that work to make the present promises possible.

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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Gloomy Glum Old New York

Just look at all these miserable wretches.

That business about New York being America's most miserable place bothers me.

Are we really so miserable here? The weather's rotten this time of year. It's so damn crowded and expensive. And I was treated to the spectacle of a man brushing his teeth on the F train today. I've seen many things before on the subway, but not that.

So, why are so many people coming here? Are they just crazy?
Are all those loony tourists packed into Times Square on New Years' Eve there for a Moment of Silence?

Of course, there is all that gloomy music from New York composers like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins ("S'Wonderful!" a tune used frequently at funerals), The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and Cindi Lauper ("Girls Just Want to Have Fun;" it might as well be a Russian novel ending in murder/suicide). No one writes dirges like New Yorkers. Bartok and Mahler ain't got nuthin' on us.

We just couldn't get through a normal day without Xanax and Zoloft.

And everybody from Flo Ziegfeld to Tommy Tune, what a bunch of kvetchers!

I mean really, just look at these three sad sacks who wish they could be anywhere else in the world:

Sheesh! Cheer up, would ya?

No wonder Hollywood destroys this place a dozen times over every summer!

And what about the South, officially the Happiest Place in America? How about the Sunny South? Zippity do dah, zippity -ay! My oh my! What a wonderful day?

How about all those sunny feel-good novels written by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, William Styron, and Tennessee Williams? There's nothing like "The Glass Menagerie" to get me through a rough day.

Here's something from the South to perk you right up:

I can't imagine why anyone would want to leave the place.

So how 'bout a little smile?

Selma, Alabama photographed by Walker Evans in 1935

Could there possibly be something wrong with the basic premise of such a study to find the "happiest" place anywhere?

Nah! These folks are professionals!

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Apropos of nothing in particular:

Let's sing along,

I love this song, and I love Rina Ketty singing it.

And here's Django Reinhardt, Stefan Grappelli, and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1939 jazzing that tune up:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Counter-Reformation Saint Peter's

The Catholic Counter-Reformation dramatically altered St. Peter’s Basilica. The centralized “temple” designed by Bramante and Michelangelo was transformed into a more traditional basilican church with a long nave for liturgical processions. The transition from the old Medieval Church to the Renaissance Church to finally the modern Roman Catholic Church is reflected in the changing design of St. Peter’s.

The Castel Sant' Angelo, built as the Papal Fortress on the remains of the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian

In 1527, the most powerful ruler of the Western world, Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, defeated the French King, Francis I, for possession of Italy. Charles used mercenary soldiers and used them very cheaply. When the war for Italy was over, he left huge legions of German (most of them Protestant) and Spanish mercenary soldiers abandoned and unpaid in their encampments in central Italy.
They attacked an undefended Rome and began 2 weeks of looting and pillaging the city. Soldiers raped nuns and sold them into prostitution. They murdered priests and monks. They looted and desecrated all of the city’s churches including the unfinished St. Peter’s. It is estimated that perhaps as much as half the population of the city perished in the Sack of Rome. All of the Pope’s Swiss Guards died in the Sack; either killed fighting or hanged by the mercenaries on the bank of the Tiber opposite the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Papal fortress. Pope Clement VII was holed up in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and remained there for months after the Sack was over, a virtual prisoner of Charles V.

Ordinary Catholics in Italy, Spain, France, Southern Germany, Poland, etc. were shocked and outraged by the Sack of Rome. They blamed the Protestants for desecrating the Holy City. They also blamed the leadership of their own church. They blamed the corruption and cynicism of the Renaissance Holy See for allowing such a catastrophe to happen. In the wake of the Sack of Rome there began a grass-roots movement to reform the Catholic Church, to remake it to meet the Protestant challenge.
Without going into the long history of the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, the Jesuit Order, the Oratorians, etc., the Roman Catholic Church in its present form grew out of the wreckage of the old Medieval Latin Church. Like the nation states that emerged around it, the Roman Church became a more centralized, consistent, disciplined, and modern organization, no longer dependent on the will of thousands of unique local authorities with their own traditions and loyalties. Authority and power now focused more and more on Rome and its Bishop at the expense of national and local churches and their bishops. The Roman Catholic Church claimed continuity with the old Medieval Church, and especially with the Church Fathers and the ancient church of Constantine and the later Roman Emperors. In the wake of the Counter-Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the Church’s history and older traditions. Ancient liturgical practices were researched and revived. There were the first efforts to document Early Christian artifacts and remains, including the first explorations and mapping of the catacombs.

Western Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries was at war with itself. Europe was divided between Catholic and Protestant. Art and architecture became weapons used by both sides in a war for souls.

The emphasis on the centrality of Rome and revival of earlier tradition is reflected in the new church architecture to emerge out of the Counter-Reformation. Alberti’s vision of the centralized church as a civic centerpiece was replaced by a revival of the ancient basilican church plan.

Sant' Andrea, Mantua, designed by Leon Batista Alberti.

Curiously, it was Alberti himself who would be the inspiration for later architects to adapt the earlier Roman architecture of arches and vaults to the Christian basilican format. Alberti’s design for the Church of Sant’Andrea at Mantua, built for the ruling Gonzaga family to accommodate crowds of pilgrims coming to see a relic of Christ’s blood, would be the prototype for Counter-Reformation Roman churches, including Saint Peter’s. It is a huge uninterrupted hall topped with a barrel vault focusing on an apse lit by a dome. It is flanked, not by aisles, but by subordinate side chapels. It is a design in the best Roman tradition for holding huge crowds of people and focusing their attention on the altar in the apse.

Giacomo Vignola used Alberti’s design as inspiration for his plan for the new mother church of the Jesuit Order, the Church of Il Gesu.

Painting by Andrea Sacchi of the centennial celebrations of the Jesuit order showing the interior of the Gesu before the 17th and 18th century additions.

Plan of the Gesu.

Satellite Photo of the Gesu

The Gesu is a capacious church designed for crowds. It is designed for people to see the Mass and to hear the sermons. The church is designed around the needs of the new liturgical reform, especially its need to reach masses of people with Sacrament and Word.

Giacomo della Porta, the same architect who completed Michelangelo’s dome for St. Peter’s, designed the façade of Il Gesu. It is a variation of a classical temple front divided into 2 stories with the upper story narrower to accommodate a clerestory with buttresses for the nave. Classical form is adapted to a medieval format. In the center of the second story is a large window for papal appearances that would become a standard feature on all Roman churches, especially St. Peter’s. The Bishop of Rome is expected to visit all the churches in his diocese like any bishop. Every Roman church had this feature for the visiting Pope to bless the crowds gathered outside.

At the beginning of the 17th century, Saint Peter’s was largely finished except for the front door. Michelangelo’s work was mostly finished. The dome was finished. However, much of the nave of Constantine’s ancient church still stood together with the Renaissance buildings that grew up around the old atrium courtyard of ancient St. Peter’s. Michelangelo, following Bramate’s lead, planned to do away with the old nave and the atrium and turn that area into an open plaza. In the wake of Counter-Reformation liturgical reforms, the decision was made to return St. Peter’s to something like the traditional basilican plan by adding a nave to the east end. The remains of the ancient nave were carefully dismantled and documented, unlike the reckless destruction carried out by Pope Julius II and Bramante.

Floor Plan of St. Peter's showing the addition Maderno's nave and facade to Michelangelo's original plan.

Satellite Photo of St. Peter's showing the transition from Bramante and Michelangelo's original Greek cross plan to the Counter-Reformation Latin cross basilican plan.

Carlo Maderno was commissioned to design the new nave ordered for St. Peter’s. He was in the unenviable position of having to answer to a newly reconstituted Fabrica, the corporation responsible for construction on St. Peter’s. The Fabrica was remade as an organization of international architects that advised the Pope on matters of design and construction for the new church. It was notorious for its in-fighting, intrigues, and fickle decisions. In addition, Maderno had Michelangelo’s angry and powerful ghost looking over his shoulder at all times. Maderno tried very hard to stay faithful to Michelangelo’s intentions as much as possible. Some critics say he tried too hard to appease Michelangelo's spirit.

Maderno’s nave and façade are the most controversial additions to Saint Peter’s, almost universally panned by generations of critics. Michelangelo’s great dome, intended to dominate the exterior of the church from all angles, now gradually disappears behind the façade as we approach the church from the east. Maderno extended the east front of the church by three additional bays and added a large façade with a narthex below and a blessing loggia above.

Interior of St. Peters, Maderno's nave looking east.

Interior of St. Peter's showing the break between Michelangelo's church and Maderno's slightly wider and higher nave.

The arcades of Maderno's nave for St. Peter's.

South aisle of St. Peter's showing Maderno's broken pediments and blind windows.

One of the 6 oval shaped domes of the aisles of Maderno's nave for St. Peter's.

The façade Maderno designed for St. Peter’s has long been criticized as too wide and a clumsy addition to the church, with a lot of detail crowded in the center.

In all fairness to Maderno, the width of the façade was the result of a last minute decision by the Fabrica to add large bell towers. The outermost parts of the façade are the bases for bell towers that were never built. The ground beneath proved to be too marshy and improperly drained to support any more weight. If we can imagine the façade without those two large additions, then it is a little more proportionate and graceful. It is still very flat and unsculptural compared to what Michelangelo originally intended. He planned for a large columned portico of huge pillars holding up an extension of the attic story to project forward from the front of the church. Maderno clings as closely to that original plan as possible. The columned portico was cancelled by the Counter-Reformation demand that the blessing loggia be prominent and visible. Had Michelangelo’s plan been built, the Pope would have been lost in a forest of giant pillars as he made the Urbi et Orbi blessings. Maderno kept the giant Corinthian pillars flush with the façade wall as three quarter columns. The façade may not be aesthetically as satisfying as we would wish, but it is more functional.

Facade of St. Peter's showing the Papal Blessing loggia in the center.

The Blessing Loggia in use: Pope Benedict XVI making the Urbi et Orbi blessing for Christmas, 2008.

What the Pope sees from the Blessing Loggia.

One of the most prominent things visible to the Pope from the Blessing Loggia is the Egyptian obelisk in the center of Saint Peter's Square.

The obelisk dates from the 13th century BC, from the New Kingdom. It is made from a single piece of red granite from Aswan in southern Egypt. It was first raised at Heliopolis near present day Cairo as part of the Temple of the sun god Ra. Emperor Caligula brought it to Rome where it stood in the center of the spina of the Circus of Caligula and Nero just to the south of St. Peter's. Pious pilgrims have long referred to it as "The Witness" since tradition says that St. Peter was crucified on the Circus spina right next to the obelisk.

In 1586, the architect Domenico Fontana supervised an enormous operation to move the obelisk to its present location without breaking it. The print above shows the obelisk being removed from the location where it stood for centuries.