Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
In the early 1600’s, many Catholic pilgrims would travel from all over the world to come to Rome to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, specifically to pay respect to God. Upon arrival, the streets were cramped, damp, and poorly lit. The first view of St. Peters for the pilgrims was the Bridge of Angels, an exciting point in the long pilgrimage. Until 139 when the Bridge of Angels was finished, no other bridges existed in Rome except the Ponte Sisto. From the Bridge of Angels, Castel Sant’Angelo would be immediately visible, and three main roads led to Piazza San Pietro: the Borgo Vecchio, the Borgo Santo Spirito, and the Borgo Nuoveo. Once one arrived at the piazza, one would be embraced by the “hands of God” which reached out to the pilgrims, thanks to the creation and design by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and Pope Alexander VII.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian constructed the Bridge of Angels, otherwise known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, between 134 and 139 AD. The travertine-marbled bridge spanned the Tiber River and in 1450 was widened after many pilgrims drowned while trying to cross the narrow bridge. Several houses and a Roman triumphal arch at the head of the bridge were also removed to widen the route. In the 16th century, the bridge was used to expose the bodies of the executed. In 1535, Pope Clement VII allocated the toll income of the bridge to erect statues of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul; four evangelists and patriarchs representing Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses were erected as well. In 1669 Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to sculpt replacements for the aging statues. This task turned out to be one of his last large projects. The design called for ten angels holding instruments of the Passion of the Christ, but only two statues were finished in Bernini’s own hand, the Superscription and the Crown of Thorns. Upon seeing those two statues, Clement IX decided to keep them for his own enjoyment because he believed the statues were too exquisite to be placed outdoors. The colossal statues of the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion served to remind pilgrims that the Catholic Church is the sole earthly arbiter of salvation. The angel’s express such despair at the tortures inflicted upon Christ that the pilgrims crossing the bridge were persuaded to meditate on Christ’s suffering.
The Castel Sant’Angelo was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. Originally, a pilgrim would first see this as a fortress (it only later became a castle) and stands as museum today. The tomb of Hadrian was constructed between 135 and 139 AD. Hadrian’s ashes as well as his wife’s and son’s were buried in the tomb after Hadrian and his son’s death in 138. Following this, the remains of succeeding emperors were also placed in the treasury room deep within the building. Originally, the mausoleum was a decorated cylinder, with a garden on top.
During Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, the Visigoth looters scattered much of the urns and ashes from the tombs. The original decorative bronze and stone statuary was thrown upon the attacking Goths when they besieged Rome in 537. One unusual survival is the capstone of the funerary urn, thought to be Hadrian’s, which made its way to St. Peter’s Basilica and was later reused into a massive Renaissance baptistery. Legend holds that an angel appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword, which represented the end of the plague of 590. This incident lead to the castle’s present name of “Sant’Angelo”. Pope Leo X built a chapel with a Madonna by Raffaello di Montelupo inside the fortress. In 1536 Montelupo also created a marble statue of St. Michael sheathing his sword to top the Castle that recalls the legend.
In order to provide a safe route for Pope Clement VII during the 1527 sack of Rome a fortified and covered corridor was built. This was named the Passetto di Borgo and connected St. Peter’s Basilica to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Later Pope Paul III built a rich apartment, inside the fortress, thus ensuring that in any future siege the Pope had a safe location to stay protected. The castle was used by the Papal state for other reasons as well: specifically a prison that Giordano Bruno was imprisoned inside for six years. Executions frequently occurred in the small interior square of the castle.
Unlike the route a pilgrim would have taken in the 1600’s, today the square is reachable after one crosses over the Bridge of Angels by the Via Della Conciliazione. Mussolini himself demolished the avenue leading to the square ceremonially on October 23, 1650. As pilgrims would continue to make his or her way to the piazza he or she would pass the opening of the piazza which was originally was intended to have a third arm or colonnade. Bernini decided to move the colonnades farther back in the space to allow an entrance court through which to come upon the full embracement of the oval. The third arm also would have shielded people from seeing the basilica and the grand piazza until they actually entered the piazza, which was Bernini’s intent. He wanted it to be a surprising embracement for visitors and guests. The fact that the third colonnade was never constructed made it possible for Mussolini to easily clear the way for the Via della Conciliazione.
According to the famous art historian Richard Krautheimer in his book, The Rome of Pope Alexander VII, he claims, “None of the great building popes, from Julius II to Urban VIII, not even Sixtus V, changed the face of Rome as much as Alexander.” Pope Alexander VII was born in 1599, a year after Bernini, with the birth name Fabio Chigi. His grandfather was Agostino il Magnifico, the wealthiest of all Romans, and was the banker who secured the papacy for Pope Julius II. He accomplished impressive tasks for the Medici popes; bankrolling their excesses and paying the enormous ransom that kept their papacies solvent. Fabio Chigi studied theology in Siena, which opened the door to his interest in visual arts and the precepts of architecture. Chigi was different from most popes: he desired more than money, loved to write poetry under the name Philomathus, and enjoyed in depth discussion on literature, art, and history.
On July 31, 1656, Alexander VII made known his intention to form a piazza in front of the basilica. Virgilio Spada, a member of the Congregation of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, delivered the message of the intention for the piazza. Spada announced that a portico would frame the piazza and Bernini, the pope’s favorite architect, would provide the design. Bernini was mentioned in Pope Alexander VII’s personal diary more than four-hundred times, the next highest person mentioned was Corona, only mentioned fifty-two times. Bernini’s responsibility for the Piazza San Pietro is known as the most conspicuous initiative of the period due to Bernini’s personality as an architect. Bernini’s used the space he was given to create an ever-lasting impression for future generations to come.
II: Physical Description
According to Bernini himself, “an architect proves his skill by turning the defects of a site into advantages.” Bernini’s most challenging task when designing the piazza was the shape because the piazza was so much greater in width than depth. This problem inspired the oval design. Bernini had originally imagined, a trapezoidal shape influenced by Michelangelo’s Campidoglio. This shape later evolved into a rectangle and finally into the oval design we see today.
The oval shape of the piazza with two impressive colonnades reaches out from the church and embraces its visitors, surrounding them with statues, columns, and the two identical fountains. The piazza actually comprises two huge circles architecturally designed that forms an oval. The reoccurring theme of th e piazza are the colonnades, which are four columns deep. They divide each arm into three continuous passages: two narrower pedestrian walkways and a wider passageway for a carriage path. There are 284 freestanding travertine columns, 88 pilasters, and 164 statues. The twelve-foot statues that line the inside of both colonnades each took two months to produce and included five basic steps. First a full-size wooden model was built, then a rough likeness was chiseled in stone. The unfinished statue would then be hoisted onto the portico for positioning, taken down, and then finally completed, raised up, and mounted.
At the center of Bernini’s oval stands the Egyptian obelisk of red granite, forty meters tall from the ground to the cross on its tip. Originally, the obelisk was moved in 37 AD by the Emperor Caligula to stand in the central street of the Circus Gai et Neroni that lay to the left of the present basilica. In 1586, the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana moved the obelisk to its current location in the center of the piazza. This obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome that has been standing since Roman times. During the middle ages, the ball on top of the obelisk was speculated to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar, but when Fontona removed the ball only dust was discovered. Today, the top of the obelisk is known for holding a piece of the Holy Cross.
On both sides of the obelisk, parallel to the basilica, are the two identical fountains. The fountain added by Maderno, which was northeast to the Basilica, added a complication to Bernini’s design. As his design was centered around the obelisk, Bernini chose to move Maderno’s fountain to make it even with the obelisk and sculpted a second identical fountain on the opposite side for visual balance.
III: Function and Impact
For a pilgrim entering the piazza, the colonnades would form a paradise—a kind of open-air entryway where the pilgrims would prepare themselves spiritually to enter the sanctuary. The earlier artists imagined an impressive avenue leading to the new basilica, but Bernini envisioned something different: an embrace. His solution was the ellipse, reaching out from the sides of the Basilica and designed “to receive maternally with open arms the Catholics and confirm them in their belief, to reunite heretics to the Church, and to illuminate the infidels to the true faith” (Marder, 125). The piazza had to introduce and welcome visitors and frame the new basilica. It also had to provide a gathering place for visitors to receive the papal benedictions given at Christmas and Easter from the Benediction Loggia located in the middle of Maderno’s façade. The Pope, on occasion, still offers his blessing from a window of his private apartment located on the uppermost floor of the palace block angled over the piazza.
The piazza was designed to enshrine the Corpus Christi; this is evident by viewing a manuscript from 1546 that depicts the train of participants marching across the piazza under a list of names of saints whose statues now appear in the piazza. The Feast of Corpus Christi was a very festive occasion that included decorated tents, banners, and garlands. The Pope led a vast train of attendants, clerics, and curial officials out of the palace, through the streets of Borgo, and back to the basilica. Today, the Vatican has been transformed into a site commemorating the triumph of the conqueror of the world, Christ. The new processional path, alluding to the circuit used on the Feast of Corpus Christi, leads from the papal palace, through the porticoes of the piazza, down the Borgo Nuovo, and back to Saint Peter’s along the Borgo Vecchio.
The intentional design was to be an appropriate forecourt, designed so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace. Bernini had been working on the interior of St Peter's for decades The purpose of the design of St. Peter’s Piazza was to welcome the pilgrims to Rome. The entire piazza was built for the people, so he or she could feel welcomed to coming to the church. The colonnades are symbolic of God opening his arms to the Catholics and inviting them into his church. The piazza would be the first embracement of the church, therefore, it had to leave a lasting impression, one of which a pilgrim would feel overwhelmed with joy that the pilgrim had traveled all this way at it was worth every minute and every step.
From the day the first stone was quarried into the piazza, St. Peter’s has had a tremendous impact on society and many generations of Christians. To have thousands of pilgrims travel from all over the world and still have thousands of tourists travel all around Rome and come to the piazza with amazement, is astonishing. One reason this monument continues to be influential to generations is because of it massive dimensions. There is nothing like it in the world; it was one of the first oval shaped piazzas and the design is absolutely incredible. This grand space is where people prepare themselves to enter the holiest place on earth, the Saint Peter’s Basilica, built directly above Saint Peter’s remains. The work of Bernini’s intellectually challenging architecture has made the piazza different from that of any other before or after. When standing on one end of the circle facing the other colonnade, the columns appear to the eye as if there is only one column aligned in a perfect row. Another reason a visitor today would still find this work amazing is because Bernini designed a sundial marker by the obelisk. From the obelisk toward the fountain on the right, are white marble discs used as sundial markers for the obelisk. Two dates are inscribed on each disc to indicate when the noon shadow of the obelisk will reach the spot. There are also four discs showing the points of the compass as winds (As winds? – Explain further). In every direction one turns in the piazza, there is some new historical fact to be unearthed and a important historical account to be discussed.
VI: Surprised or Interested Me
Throughout my research on Saint Peter’s Basilica, I learned a new perspective on art history that I had not been previously exposed to. One of the most interesting elements of my research was the path that an actual pilgrim would have taken in order to arrive at St. Peter’s Basilica. I loved researching the Bridge of Angels and thought that the design and the history of the bridge was very intriguing, the fact that this was the first bridge the pilgrims would have crossed to get to the piazza. It would have been the most excitement thus far on their journey, was extremely motivating to me because it allowed me to imagine what one would sacrifice and endure to give their life to God. Another aspect of my research that I found very interesting is the amount of planning and designing Bernini put into making the piazza. After looking at many of the earlier sketches, it is amazing at how much time, work, and money must have been given to create this grand piazza.
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