The Making of Saint Peter’s Basilica: Part III – Building the Second Basilica

The Making of Saint Peter’s Basilica

History, Controversies and Genius at Work

Part III – Building the Second Basilica

By Francesco Bonavita, Ph.D.

The work on the new Basilica was proceeding slowly, because, in addition to Pope Julius’ death, which occurred at around the same time as Bramante’s, the Sack of Rome in 1527 brought about by French troops, creating instability for the Church. Combined with lack of funding to continue the project, this did not bode well with the Vatican, whose ambition was to bring the work to a speedy conclusion.

Michelangelo had had a tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius II. When the work was resumed, the artist was summoned by Pope Paul III in an effort to put a finishing touch on the Basilica. In 1546, Michelangelo was 71 years old and had no plans to get involved, as he had already accomplished so much. The Pope insisted and even promised to remunerate him with a hefty sum of money, but Michelangelo refused any monetary compensation and decided instead to take on the project for personal spiritual reasons. Michelangelo’s project was much more economically sound than the one originally conceived by Sangallo. He worked at a frenetic pace, utilizing as many as ten thousand artisans. He refined Bramante’s plans and in the course of two years, the dome was erected and the basic structure of the Basilica was completed. For the creation of the dome, Michelangelo was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and the dome of Brunelleschi in Florence. The structure itself is made out of wood. Iron bands all around the dome were used to provide support and bricks covered the spaces. The artist himself, to ensure perfect results and to attain the desired effects, personally inspected the bricks – one by one.

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The dome of St. Peter’s from the interior measures approximately 140 feet in diameter, which is slightly smaller than Brunelleschi’s famous cupola in Florence and the Pantheon in Rome. What makes Michelangelo’s dome unique is that it provides ample light. It’s as if the ‘Glory of God’ filters through the cupola on any given day. Michelangelo’s work created a new standard and his work became the model for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, Les Invalides in Paris and the United States Congress in Washington, D.C. Although the lantern, which tops the cupola, was left unfinished, Michelangelo left behind specific instructions for subsequent architects to compete the work.

Upon completion of the Basilica, Michelangelo felt very strongly about leaving the house of worship bare. He voiced his opposition for any attempts to embellish the divine shrine because it would be in line with the simplicity of Christ himself. The artist’s wishes were not heeded, as every succeeding Pope was deeply committed to the notion that St. Peter’s Basilica had to reflect splendor on the grandest of scales. Thus, a young artist emerged on the scene, just a few years after Michelangelo passed.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was hardly twenty years old when his reputation as one of the greatest artists in Rome came to the fore. He was a universal man and had already created a whole series of statues for the Borghese Gallery. He was not simply a sculptor, rather he excelled in every imaginable artistic form. He was a painter, playwright, poet, interior decorator, architect and inventor. In short, he was a genius whose Baroque style left an indelible imprint on the city of Rome.

A prolific artist endowed with an uncanny ability to assemble hundreds of craftsmen, Bernini became the uncontested coordinator of St. Peter’s Basilica. For six decades, he worked for many Popes, most notably Urban VIII and Alexander VII, for whom tombs he created in their memory.

The first major significant work by Bernini is the so-called Baldacchino, which is a highly decorative canopy that embellishes the main altar of the Basilica. It is a majestic structure, measuring 66 feet in height and it stands perpendicularly above St. Peter’s tomb. It stands monumentally on four columns decorated in bronze and they combine sculpture and architecture, an important development for Baroque art. The canopy is resting on the four helical columns, each of which stands on a marble pedestal. On the canopy stand four large-size angels supporting a sphere, which represents the world redeemed by Christianity. The columns are shaped in a helical form that recall those of the original Temple of Solomon where Christ is said to have worshipped.

Upon completion of the decorative aspects of the Basilica, Bernini undertook to create the largest Baroque square in the world, in an effort to give the Basilica an eminent preamble before entering the holy grounds. The effects are astonishing, as the Colonnato, with 140 statues on top of the Doric style columns and adorned with Travertine marble, symbolically represent the arms of the Church, accepting every human being. The square is embellished with two symmetrical fountains and at the center lies the Egyptian obelisk that was brought to Rome by Caesar Augustus. The obelisk represents the continuity of civilization, in that, the unbroken cultural chain between the east and west. Supported by bronze lions and surmounted by the Chigi arms, the cross at the very top rises to 135 feet above the square. On the square itself, between the obelisk and the fountains, there are white discs, where one can stand on and see only one row of columns, rather than four, creating an optical illusion. The Vatican Obelisk is the only one in Rome that has not toppled since ancient Roman times.

The history of the two Basilicas are replete with many accounts that provide a narrative of amazing developments. With respect to the first Basilica, the coronation of Charlemagne in 799 AD at St. Peter’s, established the Church as having a clear spiritual mandate so that no political leadership could flourish without the sanction of the Vatican. The building of the second Basilica, on the other hand, created a spiritual crisis within the Catholic Church that ultimately led to the Reformation. In their fervent desire to erect the greatest house of worship, the Vatican coffers needed all of the financial resources they could access. In doing so, the Popes had to come up with creative schemes, even if it meant risking a bitter reaction from some quarters of the Church. In the final analysis, though, the Catholic Church survived its most severe challenge by virtue of great Papal leadership, as demonstrated by Nicholas V and Julius II.

Pope Nicholas V, a Renaissance man, was truly a magical time for the Catholic Church. He was a scholar and a humanist. He was well-read in Latin, Greek and Italian. He resolved the Schism that had been threatening the unity of the Church and invited nobles to the Papal court. He resuscitated the concept of the Jubilee, or Holy Year in 1450. Millions of people descended on Rome from all over Europe, on foot, horseback, oxcart and by ship. These pilgrims braved the long voyage in order to receive a pardon for their sins and in return, they helped to finance the building of the second Basilica. In short, he managed to establish St. Peter’s Basilica as the uncontested seat of Christianity.

Julius II, on the other hand, as controversial as he was, succeeded in moving forth the notion that the artistic genius was needed to convey the Christian message to the people. Bringing Michelangelo to the Vatican and ultimately endorsing the universal genius of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, accentuated the artistic expression to another realm, which was embraced by people from all walks of life.

St. Peter’s Basilica is not just a house of worship, it is a museum and a spiritual testament of mankind. It represents the power of creativity and of mankind in all its dimensions. One cannot predict whether the second Basilica will last twelve hundred years, as did the first, but what is certain is that the creative geniuses of Michelangelo and Bernini will outlive the test of temporal time and it will forever engage the minds and imagination of future generations.

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