The Making of Saint Peter’s Basilica: Part II – Planning the Second Basilica

The Making of Saint Peter’s Basilica

History, Controversies and Genius at Work

By Francesco Bonavita, Ph.D.

Part II – Planning the Second Basilica

The ascendancy of the church was not always void of difficult moments. In 1300, the leadership of the Church suffered a major setback when Pope Boniface VIII decided unilaterally to institute a periodic Jubilee, an event that would take place every twenty-five years. Boniface VIII was one of the most controversial of all Popes, who put forward some of the strongest claims to temporal, as well as spiritual power of any Pontiff. He managed to alienate a considerable segment of European thinkers and often involved himself with foreign affairs. In his Papal Bull of 1302, Unam sanctam, Boniface VIII stated that since the Church is one, since the Church is necessary for salvation and since Christ appointed Peter to lead it, it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. These views and his chronic intervention in “temporal” affairs, led to many bitter quarrels with Albert I of Germany, Philip IV of France and Dante Alighieri, who wrote his treatise De Monarchia to dispute Boniface’s claims of papal supremacy.

Those who opposed the Pope saw the Jubilee as a ploy to sell indulgences and as a means to silence any papal opposition. In Dante’s epic Divine Comedy, Pope Boniface VIII is placed in the 8th Circle of the Inferno even before his death in 1303. The corruption of the Papacy reached its peak during the reign of Boniface VIII and within a few years of his death, from 1309 to 1377, the papacy moved to Avignon, France. In the absence of a vibrant papacy, the Basilica underwent a period of decline and neglect. With the advent of the return of the papal seat to Rome, leaders began thinking seriously about a restoration project for the Basilica. This initiative coincided with a new way of thinking about how men ought to live their lives on earth. This was the beginning of the Renaissance, which at the onset of the 15th century was spreading through central Italy. The leaders of the Church began to seriously consider replacing the Basilica in order to express a new world order. This was no easy project to undertake, as St. Peter’s Basilica was viewed as a holy ground.

To complicate matters, the old Basilica had a holy shrine around the tomb of St. Peter, which consisted of twelve pillars that had originated from the Middle East during the 3rd century. It is believed that they came from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, where Jesus had visited and prayed. In addition to being one of the most beautiful churches constructed up until that time, there were many areas of the old Basilica that were intimately connected to history. This made its demolition project a very complicated undertaking. The red marble floor piece with its circular design marked the exact spot where Charlemagne knelt to receive the coronation as a Holy Emperor. The majestic holy door had been entirely redone by Filarete in 1430, after the original one had been damaged by the Saracens. Filarete was a Florentine Renaissance artist whose bronze door depicts scenes from the New Testament and most notably, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s crucifixions. Similarly, the famous mosaic of the Navicella (The Little Ship), created by Giotto around 1305, occupied a large part of the wall at the entrance of the old Basilica. It was a work of art that would be difficult to part with. These, together with a multitude of treasures, constituted a substantial obstacle for the restoration project to move forward.

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Finally, in 1450, Leon Battista Alberti, the famous Florentine humanist, architect, inventor and scholar of the Renaissance, declared that the structure of the old Basilica was in danger of collapsing, thus recommending a new church altogether. In the eyes of the humanists, the old church was seen as a medieval structure and was looked upon as an anomaly. The Church, on the other hand, interpreted these recommendations as sacrilegious, which needed to be strongly resisted. Thus, the project went from one hand to another until Pope Julius II appeared on the scene.

Julius II was an ambitious Pope who became ultimately known as the “The Warrior Pope.” He believed that he was imbued with divine power that was infinite in scope, not only on a religious basis, but as it extended to social behavior and politics. He became obsessed with the idea of making St. Peter’s Basilica the most magnificent site in the world. To that end, Julius II also believed that in his quest to create this monument to the Church’s first bishop, his place in history would not only be important but revered. The Pope had a financial quandary. The amount of funding for the project was enormous. One method was to increase the type and payment for indulgences, although it meant offending members of the curia outside Rome. It can be said that the genesis of the idea began when Julius II began to plan his own tomb. He wanted his memorial to be colossal and for this purpose, he called upon Michelangelo to design the project. Although the Florentine artist was only twenty-three when he was recommended for this monumental task, his reputation had already been established, first with the Pietà, the David and then with the Tomb of the Medici family in Florence.

Much to his disappointment, Julius II soon realized that the old Basilica would not be able to accommodate his lofty project. This is when he decided to go ahead with the construction a new church. He commissioned the architect Antonio da Sangallo, who worked on a wooden model for eight years before presenting it to the Pope. Sangallo’s design, which can still be seen today at the Vatican Museums, is remarkably intriguing, as it measures approximately 16’x22’ in dimension.

Although Sangallo’s project envisioned a cupola, the two bell towers flanking the façade of the Basilica appeared to have detracted and obscured the beauty of dome. This may have been the reason why Julius II opted for Donato Bramante’s design. The work of Bramante envisioned a revolutionary concept based on a Greek rather than a Latin cross as a base. The dome would rest on a square and the Basilica would not have five naves, as had been suggested by Sangallo. Bramante was an established architect in his own right. His famous work at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, exhibited a remarkable dome in a perfect circular design resting on a cube. This geometrical effect gives the viewer an optical illusion of a cupola resting on a cubic structure. Pope Julius II gave Bramante full approval for this project. But as destiny would have it, the famous architect and painter died in 1514, before he could even get started.

Next week the series concludes with Part III – The Building of St. Peter’s Basilica

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