Monday, September 18, 2006

Piazza San Pietro: the Rhyme and Reason Behind Great Art

Jenne Driggers
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

Piazza San Pietro is most recognizable as the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the big open space that you can see packed full of people on Christmas and Easter. It is also one of Bernini’s most incredible creations. Bernini was charged with creating that space that is often a person’s first impression of the Vatican City. With the support of Pope Alexander, Bernini built one of the greatest Baroque pieces of all time.

Fabio Chigi was born in 1599 to a banking family from Siena. He was well educated, and joined the clergy in 1626. One of his most significant posts before he was made a Cardinal was envoy of Pope Innocent X to the conference of Münster, which resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia. Chigi felt personally responsible for the loss of papal political power that resulted from this treaty. After he was elected Pope, Chigi strived to strengthen the papacy, and regain that lost power.

Chigi became Pope Alexander VII on April 7, 1655 after 80 days of deliberation and held the papacy until his death in 1667[1]. Chigi chose the name Alexander after Alexander III, another Pope who had worked to keep the papacy politically strong, and the only other Pope at that time who was from Siena[2].

One of the key methods Alexander VII used to try to regain political strength was a show of building projects. He wanted to beautify the city and bring Rome back to the splendor that it had enjoyed during ancient times. The reasons that were most often quoted for the building projects were the need to relieve traffic problems, modernize the city to encourage visitors and tourism, and to build in honor of God and the saints. It is interesting to note that with the exception of a few buildings with relevance to the Chigi family, almost all of Alexander’s projects were along the route taken by visitors and state officials on their initial arrival in Rome at Piazza del Popolo to the Vatican. This implies that these building projects were meant to show papal power. Alexander also glorified his family by including his family crest on all of his building projects.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was one of the most influential and successful Baroque artists of all time. Bernini worked for several Popes before and after Alexander, and was beloved by most of them. His most significant title was “Reverenda Fabbrica”, the Architect to St. Peter’s, which he was given in 1629 by Pope Urban VIII1. Bernini also had a number of projects all over Rome that he completed under the commissions of Popes, or other wealthy patrons. Particularly during Alexander’s reign, even if Bernini was not in charge of a project, he would often still have a say in how the project was to be completed. Bernini was busy working on his many projects up to his death in 1680.

As with many of his papal patrons, Bernini had a very strong relationship with Alexander. Bernini and Alexander had fairly similar tastes in art which facilitated their friendship and their working relationship. Alexander would go to Bernini’s house, foundry or studio nearly every day to chat and discuss plans and progress for all of their projects1. Alexander’s agreement with and fondness for Bernini’s philosophy that “princes must build grandly or not at all” also contributed to their working relationship.

It is clear that Alexander was familiar with Bernini’s work and had him in mind for the architect to design Piazza San Pietro before becoming Pope, because Alexander commissioned sketches for the colonnades from Bernini on the day of his election in 1655. Carlo Rainaldi, another architect, had been making plans for the piazza during Innocent X’s reign, and Alexander did give some consideration to these plans, but Bernini won the final commission for the piazza. Two years of discussion and planning went into the piazza. Bernini had to create a piazza that was pleasing to his patron, Alexander, but also satisfying to the Congregazione della Fabbrica di San Pietro. This Congregazione was a commission of cardinals responsible for overseeing all work done to St. Peter’s including the piazza. Many versions of plans were discussed with the Congregazione, and finally the first stone of the piazza was laid on August 28, 1657. Five days later Bernini showed Alexander the final version of the plans, which reflected what we see today. A year later, on September 17, 1658 Alexander watched as one of the first columns was erected on the northern colonnade. In 1661, the southern colonnade was begun. By 1667 both of the existing colonnades were complete. At this time, Alexander was very ill, and he knew that he had stretched the papal finances very thin with his many building projects. Three months before Alexander’s death he postponed indefinitely the construction of the final colonnade, and instead gave priority to paving the piazza.

As with any major construction project, lots of thought was given to designing Piazza San Pietro which was subject to a number of requirements and considerations. One of the most fundamental purposes of the piazza is to be a place where mass can be said by the Pope. This implies that the area of the piazza should be large to hold as many people as possible. Since the former piazza was much smaller than Bernini’s creation, Bernini had to balance the need for grandiosity and a large open space with the number of buildings that would need to be demolished. Bernini chose to enlarge the piazza and remove the buildings to achieve a sense of awe, to hold large numbers of people, and also so that the piazza could serve as a parking lot for carriages.

Bernini had many other requirements handed down from the Vatican that he had to take into consideration while drawing up plans for the piazza. The piazza had to be oriented in such a way that the Pope’s traditional location above the central entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica be visible to as many people in the piazza as possible. Also, nothing should obstruct the view of the piazza from the Pope’s private apartments in the Vatican. It was also important that the original entrance to the Vatican be retained, where Bernini later added the Scala Regia leading up to the Papal apartments.

Much consideration was given to the basic shape of the piazza, while everything else was being kept in mind. After a great deal of discussion the Congregazione, Bernini and Alexander agreed on an elliptical shape. A trapezoidal component is attached to the ellipse which encloses the Piazza Retta directly in front of the basilica. This portion of the piazza was designed to compensate for an architectural mistake made by the previous Architect to St. Peter’s, Carlo Maderno. When designing and constructing the façade of the basilica, Maderno planned in space for two large towers, one on each side of the dome. It turned out that these towers were much too ambitious, and they were never successfully built (either by Maderno or later by Bernini). The lack of towers left the basilica looking much too wide for its low overall height. Bernini cleverly used the shape of the piazza and the colonnades that define that shape to create an optical illusion that helps the façade appear to have more traditional proportions. Since the straight portions of the colonnade flare out as they approach the basilica, the entire building appears closer to an observer in the main part of the piazza than it really is. Overall, Bernini did an incredible job utilizing previously existing elements in conjunction with considerations regarding the functionality of the piazza to create a very well-defined shape to his piazza.

The monumental colonnades surrounding Piazza San Pietro are the highlight of the piazza. There are 300 60-foot columns surrounding the piazza as part of the colonnades. While in general the Congregazione eventually allowed Bernini, who had the full support of Alexander, to construct what he thought best, the committee often did have an opinion to share. In the case of the columns, the Congregazione consulted with several other artists as to what style and size of columns should be used, which frustrated Bernini greatly. The Congregazione also indicated that it would like twinned sets of columns all along the colonnades. Bernini put this into his plans, but just a few days after construction began, he changed his plans again to the single massive columns that can be seen today. These columns are carved of travertine, and are Doric in style. While the Doric columns recall ancient classical times, the overall curvature of the colonnades is a distinct break from classical architecture.

The colonnades, in addition to being attractive decorations, were designed to be functional. The original proposal for the colonnades showed a second story, which would be partitioned into rooms and used to compensate for the buildings that were torn down to make room for the piazza. Alexander decided against the inclusion of the second story in 1656 after the first year of planning and discussion. The colonnades were designed to be wide enough for carriages to drive through, so that officials could travel under the cover of the colonnades to the entrance to the Vatican during state visits. The covered colonnades were also meant to provide space for people to gather, protected from either the hot sun or the rain, in a fashion very similar to ancient Roman porticoes [3].

While Bernini was planning and constructing the colonnades there was concern from the Congregazione that the Doric columns would not be decorative enough, and that they would clash negatively with the ornate decoration of Maderno’s façade of the basilica. However, the grandiose scale matches the largess of the basilica, while the simplicity of the columns allows observers to focus their attention on St. Peter’s Basilica, so the Congregazione found Bernini’s end result acceptable.

figure 1

One of the most important characteristics of Piazza San Pietro is one that does not exist, because the piazza was never finished according to Bernini’s design. No matter how many details in the design of the piazza changed, Bernini had always envisioned a third colonnade that would close most of the space between the ends of the two main colonnades. Supposedly the foundations for the third colonnade were laid, but whether they were or not, no significant construction beyond the possible foundations was ever started for that portion of the piazza. Figure 1 shows one of the medals that Alexander had cast to commemorate the building of the piazza. The medal shows where the third colonnade was originally meant to be, as of 1657 when the medal was commissioned. Even though the medal does not show the final plans for the piazza, it gives a good idea of what Bernini’s plans were. At the time it was such a “sure thing” that the piazza would be built with the third colonnade that mapmakers included the third colonnade in their maps that were drawn during the construction of the piazza.

One of the key reasons why Bernini wanted to build the third colonnade was to ensure that a person approaching the piazza and the basilica would not see the basilica from a distance, but would rather suddenly come upon it, and view if from close enough that it would be monumental. Preventing the viewer from seeing the basilica from a distance would also have served to retain the optical illusion created by the shape of the colonnades close to the basilica. When construction was stopped on the piazza, many buildings were crowded closely around the outer edge of the colonnades, including the Borgo that filled the space that is now Via della Conciliazione. Bernini, being an artist with a much larger vision, had always intended to clear many of those buildings and build a road leading up to the entrance of the piazza. Bernini knew that if someone were to approach the piazza along this proposed road, if there was nothing to obstruct the view of the basilica, the person would notice the awkward proportions of the façade left by Maderno, because they would not be close enough for the optical illusion to be effective. Forcing the person to come upon the basilica suddenly after passing between the colonnades would allow the person to appreciate the illusion. Since the road envisioned by Bernini was not constructed, and so the buildings near the piazza not removed, the illusion was not ruined by the lack of a third colonnade for many years. In 1937, Mussolini had Via della Conciliazione constructed, which runs along the axis of the piazza. This wide open road up to the piazza was so detrimental to the function and feel of the piazza that in 1950 two arms were built at the end of the road to narrow it, which helps to recapture the effect of the illusion and the enclosed space.

Even though the third colonnade had always been included in the design of the piazza and had been approved by the Congregazione, it was never built. Alexander had dug deeply into Papal finances to fund his many building projects, and toward the end of his papacy there wasn’t a great deal of money left1. While Alexander was sick in the short time before his death, he ordered that the construction of the third colonnade be postponed, and that priority be given to paving the piazza. After Alexander’s death in 1667, the Congregazione did not authorize the construction of the colonnade.

The entablature that lines the top of the colonnades is ionic in style. Bernini was criticized heavily while the plans were still being discussed for juxtaposing the ionic entablature and the Doric columns in his colonnades. While in the end Bernini was permitted to create what he thought was best, the style of the entablature is yet another place where Bernini and the Congregazione had fairly significant differences of opinion.

140 statues of various saints line the top of the entablature, each 15 feet high. The statues for the curved portion of the colonnades were completed shortly after the completion of the piazza, and were carved by students of Bernini. The statues along the straight portions of the colonnades were carved by various artists in the early 1700’s [4]. Also included along the entablature are several Chigi crests, some of which are just the mountains and the star, while the two in the center of the curved portions of the colonnades are the full Chigi crest with the oak tree included.

The obelisk that is at the center of the elliptical portion of the piazza was placed there by Pope Sixtus V in 1586. Rather than put the obelisk along the axis of the nave of the basilica, Sixtus V had the obelisk placed in line with the axis of a street that he wanted to build that would connect the basilica with the Tiber River. The obelisk was heavy enough that once Sixtus V had it in place, it was never to move again. Maderno designed the façade of the basilica to be a few degrees off from being perpendicular to the nave of the church, which makes it seem from the outside as if the obelisk is in fact lined up perfectly with the basilica. Bernini built the piazza around the obelisk such that it stands at the center of the elliptical portion of the piazza.

The northern of the two fountains was originally built by Maderno in 1612. Pope Clement X commissioned Bernini to redo Maderno’s fountain after the piazza had been otherwise completed. Later, to give symmetry to the piazza, Pope Innocent XI asked Carlo Fontana, a previous student of Bernini’s and Bernini’s successor as Architect to St. Peter’s, to make a matching fountain for the southern side of the piazza. While Fontana did a commendable job of copying the work of a master, the workmanship of the southern fountain is notably cruder than that of the northern Maderno-Bernini version.

Alexander authorized the original pavement of the piazza, but Pope Pius IX is the one who commissioned the paving as it is now. Included in the pavement are two markers where the four rings of columns line up and appear as one[5].

In the grand scheme of Alexander’s plans for beautifying and modernizing Rome, Piazza San Pietro is only one element in a series of monuments that lead visitors in grand style to the Vatican when entering Rome. The piazza’s purpose in this sense is to continue to show papal wealth, and to try to regain political power by impressing visiting state officials. Piazza San Pietro is also the main entrance to the Vatican apartments and to St. Peter’s Basilica. For the average visitor to the basilica, crossing the piazza was akin to experiencing a pilgrimage to prepare them before entering the holy church. The colonnades are massive, which helps the observer understand the might of God and the Church. An effect of the optical illusion created by the straight portions of the colonnades is that it feels as though it takes forever to reach the basilica: the illusion makes the basilica seem closer than it actually is, so a visitor thinks it should take a much shorter time to reach the basilica than it actually does. Even though the piazza is massive and beautiful, it is designed to have a certain simplicity, so that the attention of a visitor is always directed to the ornate basilica, one of the most holy sites in Christendom. Once the visitor has crossed the piazza, he is ready to enter the basilica and continue his pilgrimage to the high alter, which is believed to be built directly above the tomb of St. Peter, and to the Cattedra Petri. In addition to its purpose of forcing upon a visitor a time of reflection before entering the basilica, the piazza also serves as a gathering place for people to hear mass said by the Pope. Even though not all the work inside the basilica was completed when Bernini was planning out the piazza, he had a complete vision of how the piazza would work in concert with all of the other projects.

Bernini’s vision for the piazza was “to receive in a maternal gesture Catholics in order to confirm their belief, heretics in order to reunite them with the Church, and infidels in order to reveal to them the true Faith”. Also, in a well known early sketch of the piazza, Bernini shows the basilica representing the head of God, with the curving colonnades as the arms of God embracing people. It is impressive that walking through the piazza does in fact seem to evoke the emotions and the reflections that are intended.

Bernini created one of the most impressive one of the most impressive examples of Baroque art of all time, and he managed to do it with numerous restrictions and constraints. He had the support of the Pope, but had to contend with the Congregazione of Cardinals to achieve his artistic goals. The beautiful curving oval colonnades that evoke emotions of reflection and awe achieve the theatrical result that is the goal of so many Baroque pieces. This particular piece was so effective and so beautiful that it has never been significantly criticized, even during periods when it was popular to criticize Baroque art. Piazza San Pietro leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bernini was a master of his art.

[1] Milne, James Lees. Saint Peter’s: The Story of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Little, Brown and Company: Boston. 1967. p. 249, 267-278, 285, 288, 317, 321.

[2] Krautheimer, Richard. The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655 – 1667. Princeton University Press: New Jersey. 1985. p. 13-14, 32, 37, 40, 65, 67, 73, 80, 90, 93, 131, 140, 169-181.

[3] Menen, Aubrey. Upon this Rock. Saturday Review Press: New York. 1972. p. 123.
[4] Yarwood, Doreen. The Architecture of Europe. Hastings House: New York. 1974. p. 373.
[5] Simon, Kate. Rome, Places and Pleasures. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1972.