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.


June Butler said...

Wonderful post, Counterlight. The changes in the design for the interior and the facade of St. Peter's truly make the building a mish-mash. Still, it's an impressive mish-mash.

Counterlight said...

I agree. I have a hard time faulting Maderno. He did the best that could be done in an impossible situation. I actually enjoy his nave, especially the eccentric side aisles with their oval domes.

Ueber-G said...

The photos cannot do justice to the sheer size of the facade. None can since, aside from people, there is nothing to judge the scale. I remember crossing the Tiber (literally) and walking past the Castel Sant'Angelo and up the via della Conciliazione, the facade keeps getting bigger and bigger and yet you still seem so far away, even from across the piazza.

Counterlight said...

I remember doing that very same stroll, and watching as St. Peter's got bigger and bigger the closer I came. I remember walking across the Piazza to the entrance and feeling a little like a tiny krill shrimp about to be swallowed by a giant Blue Whale.

June Butler said...

A visit to St. Peter's is awesome in the true sense of the word. I gazed up at the dome, trying to take in all the details, until my neck hurt - twice - and still I didn't see all that I wanted to see.

Leonard said...

Thank you, I came back several times (just like in real time) I´m inspired way past awe....awe!


David G. said...

Very Nice as is everything you do.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!!