Friday, August 15, 2008

Il Vittoriano: An Exercise in Hubris

Kevin Fernando
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

What is That Thing?

Very rarely does a building generate as much controversy and outrage as Rome’s Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. Upon observing it, it is easy to see why: it is obviously the sort of building that was meant to inspire our more visceral emotions. There is absolutely nothing subtle about it: the monument is an enormous structure, looming over Rome’s elegant cityscape like a Cthulhic monster. It is flanked by some of Rome’s most lovely trophies, (such as Trajan’s Forum and the Campidoglio), but its colossal size and flamboyant design dwarfs even these landmarks.

What function could a building so self-important possibly serve? The answer to this question, in short, is that the structure serves no practical function at all; it is merely a monument. When the building (known colloquially as “Il Vittoriano”) was first commissioned in 1885, the Italian government had lofty ambitions for the site. At its most superficial level, it was meant to be a memorial of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. But even a cursory glance at Il Vittoriano will reveal that it was intended to be more than just a simple memorial sculpture. The true reason behind its construction was to give the newly-united Italy an icon to rally around. Its architect, Giuseppe Sacconi, envisioned the site as a sort of cultural hub – something that would at once embody Italian identity and flaunt the power of the state. To this end, he did not desire something graceful and understated; such an aesthetic would not suit the government’s agenda. No: Sacconi wanted to create something that was monolithic, brazen, huge. In this respect, at least, he succeeded stupendously.

In others, however, he did not. Perhaps the grandest failure of Il Vittoriano is the unenthusiastic reaction it has received from the Italian populace since its creation. At best, it has been treated with a sense of dismissive endearment, viewed by Romans as the city’s ugly stepchild. At worst, it has been the target of endless mockery. Over the years, it has acquired a whole slew of humorous, derisive nicknames. Probably the most popular is “La Torta Nuziale” (the Wedding Cake), which is particularly appropriate, given the structure’s multi-tiered design and stark white color. “The Typewriter” is another popular epithet; it was first coined by American soldiers marching through Rome in 1944.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, all of this lampoonery is probably well-earned. With its grand staircases and soaring colonnades, Il Vittoriano may appear impressive to some. To others, it is an atrocity – an affront to good taste, and a brash contradiction of every architectural lesson that Rome ever taught. Art historians and scholars, in particular, have approached the monument with varying degrees of hate. To them, it represents everything that was wrong with late-19th century memorial architecture, which was typified by showiness and pretension – two things that Il Vittoriano possesses in excess. The monument’s most detestable trait is its gleaming white color: unlike most of Rome’s great buildings, which were constructed with soothing travertine, the monument was heft from pure-white marble from Brescia. Not only is this unforgivably gaudy, but it also causes the building to clash drastically with the earthy hues of Rome’s cityscape. In fact, only the direct intervention of Mussolini halted a plan to paint the structure yellow, in order to make it more congruous with its surroundings. This is only compounded by the clumsiness of the building’s architecture – “histrionic, monstrous and gross,” as critic Peter Davies describes it.

But never mind its artistic vulgarities: Il Vittoriano’s greatest offense, in the eyes of art historians, is what was demolished to build it. An entire slope of the Capitoline Hill was razed in order to accommodate its massive frame, and in the process, an immense wealth of art and history was lost. A medieval village, which had thitherto been very well preserved, was reduced to dust. Maybe the most regrettable casualty was Pope Paul III’s villa and fortification tower – a crucial piece of the Farnese family’s history, now lost forever.

Thus, Il Vittoriano is generally treated by art critics with contempt – and perhaps for good reason. Because of this, not many serious scholarly studies have been conducted on it, with most writers choosing instead to focus on monument’s various artistic evils. However, this paper will attempt to find a more intellectually-productive way of interpreting the monument. Il Vittoriano tells a story: the story of the Italian State, and its vain struggle to forge a national identity for its citizens. The following sections will recount this story, first by examining how the designers of the monument intended for it to inspire a sense of national fervor and solidarity. Second, we will consider the monument’s significance in the context of Italian imperialism and irredentism. We will then explore Il Vittoriano’s role as a “shrine to the state” and an icon of Liberal secularism. Finally, we will consider the role of Il Vittoriano in the context of Mussolini’s Italy, when it became an important convening point for Fascist rallies.

As a Symbol of Italian Unity and Identity:

As should be evident from its name, Il Vittoriano was erected to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy, who had died only seven years prior to the monument’s commissioning in 1885. By most accounts, he had a flamboyant personality – a trait that is echoed very clearly in Sacconi’s architecture. He was also a well-loved ruler, which is perhaps the only reason that the public did not balk at the exorbitant cost of his memorial.

However, Il Vittoriano was intended to be far more than just an empty remembrance of the dead king. To understand some of the other motivations behind the monument, let us consider the state of Italy at the time of its commissioning. In 1885, Italy was still a fledgling nation. Only 15 years earlier, Victor Emmanuel had seized Rome from the French and Papal Armies, thus unifying the Italian Peninsula under a single banner for the first time since antiquity.

But even though it had been united geographically, the country was almost completely bereft of a national identity. This was the fundamental problem of Risorgimento: it had united a group of people far too diverse to be subsumed into a single, collective identity. The regions that Emmanuel and his cohort had struggled so fiercely to unite were, in many respects, indisposed to unity. For centuries, they had operated independently from one another, each polity having its own unique culture, commerce, and form of governance. To complicate things, there was no such thing as an Italian “mother tongue;” there were eight major dialects spoken in Italy at the time of Risorgimento, with many other minor dialects also in circulation. The fact that these dialects were frequently incomprehensible to one another only broadened the gap between regions. The state, in essence, was trying to impose itself on a diverse body of people that were fundamentally indisposed to the concept of “nationality.”

In spite of these barriers, the need to define a national identity was absolutely crucial to the State’s survival, especially in the context of 19th Century European nationalism. Il Vittoriano arose from this need: its architects intended for it to be a cultural icon that the still-fractured people of Italy could unite around. In many ways, the monument can be seen as the ultimate expression of the State’s frustrations – yet another bold attempt to force italianità upon the people of United Italy, this time in the form of a giant marble monument.

The ways in which Il Vittoriano strives to exemplify italianità are varied and intellectually-complex. The basic way that Sacconi hoped to accomplish this was by alluding to the past glories of Classical Rome. This, he hoped, would tap into the collective memory of the Italian people, and inspire a pride in their heritage. He visualized the monument as a “three-tiered acropolis,” meant to recall the temples of antiquity. Its neoclassical style also alludes to Ancient Rome: the building’s terraced structure, elaborate reliefs and Corinthian columns all attempt to imitate Classical architectural conventions (albeit in a very melodramatic manner.) The reliefs, in fact, are a blatant visual allusion to the Ara Pacis, which was constructed during the zenith of the Roman Empire. In this way, the monument lays claim to the glorious heritage of the Italian people, functioning as a monolithic reminder of what they once were and what they should aspire to become.

Most of the Il Vittoriano’s themes, however, stretch beyond what superficial architectural trappings are able to communicate. From top to bottom, the monument is stacked with all sorts of symbolic figures that, when taken as a whole, weave together a highly-romanticized narrative of Italian history. Especially central to this symbolic narrative is the figure of Dea Roma – the goddess who, in ancient times, personified the Roman State. The entire bottom level of the monument is dedicated to her, and functions as a sort of pagan altar to the goddess. She appears at the very center of the bottom tier, clad in a toga and superimposed against a wall of golden tesserae. Flanking her on either side are two marble reliefs, which depict a procession of working-class Italian citizens, all dressed in Classical garb. They gather around the figure of Roma with an almost-filial submission, thus casting Roma – and by extension, the state – as a maternal figure who is to be respected and obeyed. It is a very communal image, one that was likely meant to inspire a sense of solidarity and civic pride in the viewer.

On the second level of the monument, the symbolic narrative continues. Much like the first tier functions as an altar to Roma, the second tier is dedicated exclusively to the deceased king, Victor Emmanuel. His enormous bronze equestrian statue, set atop a decorated plinth, dominates the platform. The scale of the statue is huge to the point of being oppressive. It was consciously designed to rival Trajan’s mythic equestrian, thereby making explicit the link between Victor Emmanuel and the emperors of old. In doing this, Il Vittoriano’s architects sought to transform the king into a sort of national hero – the very personification of Risorgimento, and an enduring symbol of Italian unity.

Elsewhere, the theme of Italian unity is celebrated in even more explicit fashion. On the structures topmost frieze, for instance, sixteen toga-clad figures stand, representing the sixteen disparate nations that Risorgimento had fused together. The theme is revisited once again on the pedestal that upholds the equestrian statue. Here, the great cities of Italy are also depicted as human figures, each dressed in medieval outfits suitable to each city’s respective region.

As a Herald of the New Empire

The fledgling Italian State wasn’t content with merely recalling the Roman Empire, however; they actively sought to emulate it. At the time of the monument’s construction, there was a belief among Italian nationalists that Italy was to be the successor of the Roman Empire. Using the phrase mare nostrum (“Our Sea” – the Roman name for the Mediterranean) as their mantra, they felt that Italy should reclaim the legacy of the Roman Empire by seeking to annex former Roman territories. The Italian State was also profoundly insecure over its lack of colonial possessions, and felt the need to assert itself among the other powers of Europe. Il Vittoriano dovetailed with this agenda perfectly: it was meant to be the vanguard of a new empire – one that nationalists hoped would equal or even surpass the Roman Empire.

This neo-imperialistic agenda most clearly manifests itself when we consider Il Vittoriano’s placement in Rome’s urban space. It was erected on the north slope of the Capitoline Hill, at the very nucleus of the city and directly adjacent to the capital of Classical Rome. The site was chosen carefully by the monument’s architects; it faces outwards towards the Via Flaminia, which had functioned as the main causeway for triumphal marches in ancient times. These geographical associations were by no means unintended: the government wanted to characterize Il Vittoriano as the epicenter of the New Empire. By physically usurping the old capital’s geographic space, Il Vittoriano further solidified link between the Italian State and ancient/Classical Rome.

Other features on Il Vittoriano help promote this imperialistic agenda, as well. The vertical axis of the monument, in particular, is rich with imperial symbolism. Here lie the two central figures of the monument: Roma and the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel. The two figures are a direct mirroring of Michelangelo’s Capitoline Square, which similarly hosts a statue of Roma and an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Again, we can see the link between Classical Rome and the new Italian State being made explicit. It is also no accident that Victor Emmanuel’s statue is positioned higher than the shrine to Roma. This was, again, a deliberate design choice by the architects, in order to demonstrate the succession of the old empire by the new. By placing Victor Emmanuel in a place of precedence over Roma, the monument is essentially trying to usher in the new era of imperialism.

This message is only further promoted by the prevalence of militant imagery, which is found scattered about the monument. Nearly every single prominent figure on the monument is portrayed in military uniform. Evidently, “peace” wasn’t something the architects were trying to channel with Il Vittoriano; they meant it to be a brash demonstration of the State’s military might. For the next few decades, the Italian government would use such military might to seize a handful of territories abroad, such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia. But the hubris of the monument would go largely unjustified, as Italy’s imperial strivings would turn out to be largely a failure.

As a Shrine of Secularism:

We have already touched briefly upon the pseudo-religious connotations of Il Vittoriano. Its temple-like configuration and use of iconography endow it with an almost sacred quality. Even its alternate name, Altare della Patria (“Altar of the Fatherland”) frames the monument as a place of reverence and ritual.

These religious overtones were no accident: by construing the monument as a “secular altar,” the State hoped to enshrine itself as an object of devotion and worship. Il Vittoriano contains all sorts of imagery promoting this quasi-religious dedication to the State and Italian unity. Through symbolism and icons, it establishes several cult figures. Victor Emmanuel, of course, is chief among these, as his statue is raised on a pedestal in an almost deific manner. However, other important figures of the Risorgimento are also present at the monument, albeit in more subtle and figurative ways. Specifically, the general Giuseppe Garabaldi and the radical philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini are both symbolically represented on the first terrace, by statues representing Action and Thought. In this way, the monument develops a sort of secular “Cult of the State,” complete with its own temple and iconic figures.

However, all of this intricate symbolism was meant to be more than just a bland reassertion of the state’s power; it was also meant to challenge the authority of the Vatican, which resided only a few miles away. At the time of Il Vittoriano’s construction, the Liberal Italian state was viciously anticlerical. They viewed the Church with great suspicion, fearing that it could exert a poisonous influence on Italian unity and national solidarity. Furthermore, during Risorgimento, the French papal armies had been one of the main obstacles to Rome’s reclamation. The Holy See had vehemently opposed Italian unification, for fear that it might lose control of the Papal States. Victor Emmanuel, in fact, was excommunicated not once but twice when he was attempting to seize the Papal States. This anti-papal sentiment manifests itself in several other monuments constructed around the time of Il Vittoriano, including a bronze statue of the accused heretic Giordano Bruno. It was erected in the Campo di Fiori, where he was burned for heresy in 1600.

Il Vittoriano makes several similar confrontational gestures against the Church. First is its location: the fact that it was built atop a former papal stronghold was a deliberate snub of the papacy. The Capitoline Hill was also the site of a short-lived Roman Republic that opposed the Church during the 16th Century – yet another correlation that was intended by the designers. Most important, however, is the building’s sheer scale. It was consciously designed to challenge St. Peter’s cupola on the urban skyline, thereby demonstrating the superiority of the State. Indeed, the monument may have well been regarded as blasphemous: it represented the systematic replacement of God and Church with State.

As an Icon of the “Monolithic State”:

Of course, no discussion of Il Vittoriano would be complete without considering the role it played in the context of Mussolini’s Italy. With the rise of Fascism, Il Vittoriano acquired an entirely new set of meanings. In many ways, it meshed perfectly with Fascist doctrines. It was, after all, an edifice wholly dedicated to the state, and Fascism is built upon the idea of a “monolithic,” intensely-nationalistic State. It also corresponded perfectly with the Fascist imperial agenda; under Fascism, the state became more obsessed than ever with claiming the legacy of Ancient Rome and forging a “New Empire.” Il Vittoriano was the perfect symbolic vanguard for this new empire, for reasons stated earlier.

Mussolini realized all of this: he was absolutely infatuated with the monument, and appreciated its propagandistic worth greatly. He selected the site as the staging ground for many Fascist rallies, and frequently gave speeches against the monument’s grandiose backdrop. The dictator was also obsessed with the monument’s upkeep, and would order large-scale cleaning operations so that the monument’s Brescian marble could glisten at its brightest. Il Vittoriano became, perhaps for the first time, what its designers had always intended it to be: the heart of the Italian State.

Mussolini made only one crucial modification to the structure, and that was the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It takes the form of a simple sepulcher, adorned only by a wreath and placed right beneath Dea Roma’s shrine. In constructing the tomb, Mussolini hoped to advertise Fascist ideals of manliness and virility. The tomb further promoted the paradigm of youthful males, surrendering their lives for the good of the state. This effectively turned the “Altar of the Fatherland” into an altar of sacrifice, where young men would be figuratively sacrificed to the Monolithic State (as represented by the monument itself.) In this way, Il Vittoriano found its most cruel and barbaric function, as it was manipulated into a piece of propaganda for the Fascist war machine. Nonetheless, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands to this day, and is likely the monument’s most revered area, as two guards constantly stand watch over it.


As we have seen, Il Vittoriano has served a multitude of different propagandistic functions since its creation. Even today, the Italian State tries to pass off Il Vittoriano as a site of immense cultural significance. The government regularly renovates the site, perhaps more so than it does any of Rome’s more beloved landmarks. Banners are often flown from the quadrigae, proclaiming the monument the “Altar of the Fatherland” and the “Center of Rome,” and so on.

However, in spite of its builders’ pompous intentions, Il Vittoriano has become little more than a target of public mockery – more of an embarrassment than a revered national icon. Notice the prevalence of phrases such as “sought to” and “strived to” in this paper, and you will realize that this has been a chronicle of attempts rather than successes. The overarching theme of Il Vittoriano is one of overwhelming folly and hubris; it is a reminder of the Italian government’s historic impotence, and its inability to sow together the hearts of a fractured, confused people into one cohesive identity. And this is the great irony of Il Vittoriano: it is ultimately a celebration of Italy’s disunity rather than its unity.


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Berresford, Sandra. Italian Memorial Sculpture, 1820-1940: A Legacy of Love. London: Frances Lincoln, 2004.

Davey, Peter. “Outrage.” Architectural Review. No 1196, October 1996. p. 25

Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kirk, Terry. “Monumental Monstrosity – Monstrous Monumentality.”

Kirk, Terry. The Architecture of Italy, Volume 1. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.

Smith, Denis Mack. Italy and Its Monarch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Smith, Denis Mack. Victor Emanuel, Cavour and the Risorgimento. London: Oxford University

Monday, August 11, 2008

Piazza Navona and the Fountain of Four Rivers: Bernini’s Return to Papal Favor

Katie Ho
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Piazza Navona was originally a stadium built by Emperor Domitian in 96 CE. Named Circus Agonalis, in antiquity it held a variety of events, ranging from foot races to mock naval battles. Eventually the stadium fell into disuse and was plundered during the Renaissance as a source of cut building stones. Later, the surrounding banks of seats served as firm foundations for newer structures. The open area, which extends 302 yards along the long axis and only 59 yards along the other, housed a busy marketplace from the 15th century until it was later moved to the Campo de Fiori. Pope Gregory XIII had already added the fountains at either end of the piazza: The Fountain of Neptune to the north and what is now the Fountain of Moor to the south. They were originally commissioned to Giacomo Della Porta, but the Fountain of Moor was redone by Bernini in 1653.

The architect of the Fountain of Four Rivers, Gianlorenzo Bernini, had had great success under his great patron, Urban VIII Barberini. Urban VIII, a great patron of the arts, faced much criticism for depleting the papal treasury in order to commission expensive pieces of art. By the end of his reign, Urban VIII had become extremely unpopular. So when he died in 1644, Bernini, Urban VIII’s favorite artist, was left extremely vulnerable. In addition, Bernini had a failure at St. Peter’s where he had been commissioned earlier to design and build two great bell towers. Even though he had the foundations checked prior to construction, as the massive bell towers were being erected, large cracks started to appear because of the weight of the structures. Construction was halted and the bell towers were then torn down completely because of the damage. This, in addition to his close relationship with the Barberini family, left Bernini in a state of public disgrace. Urban VIII’s successor, Innocent X Pamphilj, bore a great grudge against Urban VIII and the Barberini for leaving the papal treasury so depleted. He extended this grudge to include Urban VIII’s favorite architect, Bernini. Because of this, Innocent X chose as his favorite another prominent baroque architect of the time and Bernini’s rival, Francesco Borromini.

Borromini received some great commissions under Innocent X. He was appointed to design the Palazzo Pamphilj in the Piazza Navona, which is now used as the Brazilian Embassy. Later he was also commissioned to redo the small Church of Sant’ Agnese, also in Piazza Navona, which was adopted to be the Pamphilj private family chapel. In order to glorify the piazza where his family palace and chapel stood, Innocent X decided to commission a great fountain to stand in the middle of it. He wanted a design that would incorporate a great obelisk that was found broken along the Appian Way near the Circus Maxentius. Borromini had already been commissioned to engineer the water conduit that would direct water needed to the Piazza Navona. So even though Innocent X held a design competition for the fountain, it was assumed that Borromini would receive the commission. Bernini, on the other hand, was not even invited to submit a design. How Bernini actually won the commission is unclear, however one account credits Nicoló Ludovisi as the engineer behind it. A close friend of Bernini’s, Ludovisi had just recently married pope Innocent X’s niece, Donna Costanza Pamphilj. According to the account, Ludovisi asked Bernini to make a model of a fountain (and since Bernini was currently architect of Ludovisi’s own palazzo, he wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint his powerful patron). Bernini made a silver model of the fountain that was placed by Ludovisi in a room through which the pope would have to pass. Because most models were done in clay or wax, Bernini’s silver model captured the attention of Innocent X. It was said that Innocent, upon seeing the model, was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t help but stare at it for half an hour. Even though Innocent X recognized Ludovisi’s trick and the model as Bernini’s, he said, “It will be necessary to make use of Bernini despite those who do not wish it, since those who do not want his works need not look at them.” But because Innocent X had already laid eyes on the model, he was already awestruck by it and had no choice but to use it. After this it is said that Innocent X immediately sent for Bernini, offering the commission to make the fountain, which was accepted on July 10, 1648. Borromini, meanwhile, was extremely upset, not only because his rival had regained papal favor at his expense, but also because it was his idea originally to have a fountain with an obelisk and four rivers represented around the base.

Regardless, Bernini’s design of the Four Rivers Fountain is an excellent example of his innovative Baroque style. In the center of the fountain is a 120-ton obelisk that towers over a travertine base. Topping the obelisk is a bronze dove and olive branch, the symbol of the Pamphilj family. At the corners of the base are four allegorical male figures made of marble. They represent the four rivers of the four continents of the known world. The Ganges River flows through India, so the figure represents Asia. He is depicted with an oar representing the navigability of the waters. He is also accompanied by a palm tree and a serpent. The Nile River represents Africa and his shrouded head signifies that the source of the river was unknown at the time. He is also depicted with a lion beside him.

The Rio de la Plata, which flows between Argentina and Uruguay, represents America. He has a bag of coins spilling out beneath him,representing the riches of the New World. He is also shown with an armadillo, which was believed to be native to the area. However, its ridiculous appearance reveals how little was actually known of the New World.

The Danube, which flows from Germany through present-day Austria and Romania and empties into the Black sea, was chosen to represent Europe. He is accompanied by a horse.

If the obelisk is representative of divine light, then the poses of the figures can be reconsidered in reference to the Catholic Church. The Nile (with his shrouded head) and the Ganges (who is looking indifferently at spectators and across the Piazza) are both oblivious to the symbolic light of the obelisk. The Rio de la Plata acknowledges it, but raises his arm to shield himself from the blinding light. He is also shielding himself from the Pamphilj coat of arms, which hangs next to him. The Danube, however, faces the obelisk and Pamphilj coat of arms, and raises both of his arms in acknowledgement. This picture presents the concept of the authority of the Church over the four continents. The propagandistic message of this design asserts the supremacy of the papacy at a time of political unrest. This is exemplified by Bernini’s choice of the Danube to represent Catholic Europe, instead of the more apparent choice of the Tiber.

This choice that Bernini made is justified when considering the current events of the time. The area surrounding the Danube River was hardly a stronghold of the Catholic Church. Instead, there was a strong Protestant presence in the area. While this fountain was being designed, it was reaching the end of the Thirty Years War, which took place between the Protestants and the Catholics. After Urban VIII’s death in 1644, the Church was looking to elect a pope that would restore peace and reinstate Catholicism in the area of the Austrian monarchy. When the war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the Church lost certain districts, but gained Austria and Bohemia under the direct jurisdiction of the Church. This ultimately resulted in the collapse of a Protestant stronghold. Therefore, having the figure of the Danube holding the papal crest implies the submission of the area to the Church under Innocent X’s rule.

The choice of the Ganges and the Rio de la Plata to represent Asia and America, respectively, is also interesting. These two rivers were centers of Innocent X’s missionary activity, with the Ganges being a stronghold of Catholic missions in Asia and the Rio de la Plata running through Jesuit establishments in the New World.

Bernini, in his design, was deliberately appealing to Innocent X’s political ambitions. The design of the fountain was politically flattering for Innocent X. Bernini intentionally ventured away from traditional ideas in order to more completely meet Innocent X’s political aspirations. For example, the figure of the Nile River is typically paired with the Tiber River, as is the case with the figures at the Campidolgio. The use of the Danube to represent Catholic Europe, therefore, was innovative at the time. Bernini also caters to Innocent X by including the horse next to the Danube. The horse is a symbol of military power, but it still ultimately placed underneath the Pamphilj symbol of the dove and olive branch, which also symbolize peace. This emphasized Innocent X’s role as peacemaker. In the design of the fountain, Bernini was also able to incorporate the four natural elements. Water is represented both symbolically, with the four figures, and literally, with the gushing water beneath the figures. Fire is represented as a ray of light by the obelisk and the rocky base of the fountain represents earth. Air is represented by the apparent movement of the palm tree in the wind and also the grotto-like space underneath the base.

Although the structure is innovative in numerous respects, Bernini still holds on to many of his traditional Baroque techniques. As with his earlier works, Bernini’s design exemplified the Baroque tradition of dynamic movement in his sculpture. Each of the figures, with perhaps the exception of the Ganges, appear as if in motion. The entire fountain must be circumnavigated in order for a viewer to see all of the parts, as if it’s meant to be experienced scene by scene. The structure itself creates an illusion of instability. Not only is the towering obelisk entirely free standing, but also the base is cut through completely on both axes. Bernini received much criticism and people doubted its stability, especially because of his previous failure at St. Peter’s. In retaliation, Bernini approached the monument and, amidst the large crowd that had gathered, proceeded to inspect the structure and settle upon tying four pieces of twine to the tip of the obelisk and attaching them to the surrounding buildings. He then stepped back, looked at his work approvingly, and then walked away, leaving the spectators astonished. Despite the doubts of his critics, Bernini’s fountain has remained completely stable and hasn’t moved an inch since its erection.

Although the design of the fountain was Bernini’s, he didn’t actually carve most of it. As was customary for successful artists in the seventeenth century, Bernini had his assistants carve most of the structure. The four marble figures were actually done by his assistants Raggi, Poussin, Baratta, and Fancelli. Still others were assigned to carve the travertine base and the bronze dove that tops the obelisk. Bernini is accredited with actually carving only the palm tree, the lion, and the horse.

Completed in 1651, the Fountain of Four Rivers has long been considered one of the greatest public works done by Bernini. When Innocent X was inspecting the fountain before it was unveiled, Bernini informed him that it wasn’t yet complete. Disappointed, Innocent X turned to leave. At that precise moment, Bernini signaled for the water to be turned on. Innocent X was so surprised and pleased with the work that he proclaimed that Bernini had added ten years to his life (he in fact died four years later). Surprisingly, Bernini himself was not proud of the piece. It is said that years later, when he was being driven past the fountain in his carriage, he was forced to close the curtain as he muttered, “How ashamed I am of having done such poor work.” Nevertheless, Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers warranted praise from both his patron and the public, and continues to captivate viewers to this very day.

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Christain, Mary. "Bernini's 'Danube' and Pamphili Politics". The Burlington Magazine. Vol. 128, No. 998. May, 1986: pp.352-354.

Marchetti, Francesca Castria. Squares and Fountains of Rome. Milan: Mondadori Electa Spa, 2007.

Morrissey, Jake. The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

Pratesi, Ludovico, and Laura Rendina. Roman Fountains by Bernini, the Boroque Master. Rome: Fratelli Palombi srl, 1999.

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Wittkower, Rudolf. Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Boroque. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Il Gesu, Sant. Ignatius and the Church Triumphant

Daniel Reid
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

The Society of Jesus, composed of over 18,000 members, makes up the Catholic Church’s largest male religious order. Its members, commonly called Jesuits, are often referred to as the foot soldiers of the pope for their devotion to the defense and furthering of the Catholic Church. Today, the Jesuits are remembered particularly for their influential role in higher education and their worldwide missionary work. However their historical, cultural, and religious significance extends far beyond this scope. The Jesuit history is inextricably tied to the institutions, the cultures, and the times in which the order evolved. These connections are exemplified in many ways by the ironic Jesuit influence over the Catholic Church whose traditions it sought to defend during its early formation. Both molded by and helping to mold the Church, Rome, and the art and architecture of both, the Society of Jesus is integral to our understanding of European Art History.

In order to fully understand the Jesuits and their influence on Roman art and architecture, it is important to understand that the order was essentially formed as a reaction to a tsunami of change hitting Europe in the 16th century. The early 16th century was a time of great instability for the Catholic Church. They were suffering major losses to the Protestant movement. Nearly all of northwestern Europe had broken away from the Catholic Church and was moving toward Protestantism as their primary Christian sect.

The church responded in what is now called the period of Counter-reformation. It reacted directly with the Council of Trent, which met 25 times between 1545 and 1563 to address their problems. This council answered Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church with some internal reforms, such as the outlawing of simony (buying and selling of church offices) and pluralism (holding many offices at one time). In addition to bureaucratic reform, the church distinguished itself by further specifying and tightening doctrine about Biblical canon, sacraments, and salvation.

Perhaps even more important to the Counter-Reformation than the church’s direct response was the indirect reaction by groups like the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Society of Jesus was founded in the early 16th century by Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier, and six followers, all laymen. The society was recognized by Pope Paul III as an official religious order on September 27, 1540, which allowed Jesuits to become priests. In a move which gained favor with the church and which became a defining characteristic of the Jesuits, the order strongly stressed loyalty to Catholic doctrine and to the papacy. In addition to the three basic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to G-d which all Catholic priests must take, Jesuits take a fourth; loyalty to the Pope. In a telling example of this obedience, Ignatius Loyola is said to have written: “I will believe that the white I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”

Ignatius Loyola

In relation to their characteristic loyalty to the Catholic Church, the early Jesuits were famous for three main goals and activities; stopping the spread of Protestantism, founding colleges, and sending missionaries all over the world to gain converts and spread Catholicism. In order to fulfill their first goal, the Jesuits took every possible step they could to stop Protestantism from spreading. They were moderately successful in this goal, especially in Poland, Lithuania, and southern Germany, but did little to change the tide in the rest of Northwestern Europe. They attempted to do this by both glorifying the Catholic doctrine downplayed by Protestantism such as taking of the Eucharist, sainthood, and angels, as well as by taking an aggressive stance against heresy. While specifically seeking to differentiate themselves from Protestantism by these means, the church also answered Protestant criticisms indirectly with their next famous activity.

The Jesuit order was responsible for founding colleges throughout Europe (and later the Americas), which trained students in classical studies, sciences, and theology. These colleges set the precedent to the well-rounded, four-year liberal arts education stressed in colleges to this day. Schools were important to the early Society of Jesus for a few reasons. They were most importantly a way of countering the Protestant criticism of incompetence and corruption in church leaders by training more effective and honest priests. In addition, they served to keep the Society of Jesus alive through both the immediate revenue generated through tuition fees and the ability to attract donors wealthy enough to enroll their children in Jesuit schools.

Finally, in an attempt to make up for the church’s seemingly unstoppable losses to Protestantism in Europe, the Jesuits began an aggressive campaign to convert non-Christians around the world to Catholicism through missionary work. They traveled the globe, converting people in nearly every part of the world, a point of pride that ultimately helped create a surprising level of zeal and excitement among Catholics following the Counter-reformation; a zeal which would later be called the “Church Triumphant.”

We see all three of these goals incorporated into Jesuit art and architecture through a number of mechanisms. To attract Christians away from Protestantism, Jesuit art tended to glorify those Catholic beliefs rejected or downplayed by Protestants such as sainthood, angels, and transubstantiation of the Euchrist. These images tended to oppose the simplicity of Protestant art through the use of Baroque techniques such as movement, bright colors, emotion, and perspective. However, it is important to note that there were a number of other forces at work as well. To the Jesuit order, art’s primary goal was to further the Catholic faith. They saw art as useful as an aid to prayer as well as an agent of propaganda. Because art and architecture were tools of propaganda, the Jesuits sought to adapt them (acceptably, according to doctrine) to the communities in which they lived, so to better appeal to new populations. The Jesuits avoided any central church design as an inspiration for new churches. This meant there would be no official way to impose uniformity in their art or architecture. However, as the first major Jesuit church, Il Gesu still managed to set de facto trends for future Jesuit architecture.

Il Gesu was the first major Jesuit church, and in many ways, the most important one. The first church ever to be named after Jesus, Il Gesu’s first foundation stone was laid in 1550, just 10 years after the foundation of the Jesuit order. There were a number of complications following the initial church plans, and even when Michelangelo offered to design a plan for free out of devotion to the church, the construction was halted for a number of years. After securing a promise from Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (Grandson of Pope Paul III, who approved the foundation of the Society of Jesus) to pay for the building, construction began in 1568, 12 years after Ignatius’ death.

While not immediately apparent, Il Gesu’s façade was particularly innovative for it’s time. It is often described as the first truly Baroque façade. Many characteristics such as its mix of horizontal and vertical lines and the scrolls flanking its upper order became standard in the newly emerging Baroque era. Above the door, we see a shield with IHS (The name of Jesus abbreviated in Greek) monogrammed upon it. While IHS appears in other Catholic art, its use is especially pronounced in Jesuit churches, where the letters appear in an almost fanatical fashion, telling of the order’s particular veneration for the name of Jesus (for which the term Jesuit was first used). In addition, between the two orders, we see scrolled a dedication to Cardinal Farnese, the building’s financier, as well as the Farnese family crest near the top point of the façade.

Il Gesu Facade

The internal layout of Il Gesu is essentially made up of a single nave with no aisles, and flanked by interconnected chapels on either side. The church plan emphasizes open space and forces the focus onto the high alter from every space in the building. This layout is perfectly suited for preaching to large crowds and the celebration of mass, both of which are particularly important to the Jesuit order. While Il Gesu’s façade remains mostly true to its original form, the art within its walls is very different today than when it was originally decorated. As the first major Jesuit church, Il Gesu served as a desirable hub for emerging artists to leave their mark. Thus its artwork has evolved continually up to today.

Il Gesu Floor plan

As one enters the church, they are immediately met by the stunning ceiling fresco Triumph of the Name of Jesus, painted by Baciccio between 1676 and 1679 (about a century after the church was built). Baciccio, a relatively new artist at the time, was recommended by Bernini to paint Il Gesu. In addition to the ceiling fresco, Baciccio was also responsible for painting the church’s dome and apse. In Triumph of the Name of Jesus, we see Jesus represented as the monogram IHS, from which comes a blinding light. The light seems to break a hole through the ceiling, toward Paradise. It floats heavenward, surrounded by angels and saints, in contrast to heretics and sinners, who are being hurled back toward earth, away from the holy name of Jesus. Many heretics are made of three-dimensional stucco (added later by Ercole Raggi & Leonardo Reti), which project out of the painting, thus amplifying this illusion. This particular fresco and the stucco figures that accompany it serve a threefold purpose in the furthering of the Jesuit agenda. First of all, the use of Baroque techniques like movement, bright colors, emotion, and the contrasting of light and dark all add to the awesomeness and extravagance of the church, serving as a propaganda tool and helping to differentiate Catholic art from the much more plain art preferred by Protestants. In addition, it attempts to use art to incorporate drama, magnificence, and spirituality into daily prayer. Finally, and probably most importantly to the Society of Jesus, the fresco serves as a teaching tool in its focus on the contrast between sin and heresy in opposition to the veneration of the name of Jesus and the Catholic faith.

Triumph of the Name of Jesus

At the very front of the church, behind the high altar, we see the painting Circumcision of Jesus, commissioned by Cardinal Farnese in 1587 and painted by Girolamo Muziano. To Jesuits, the circumcision of Jesus is particularly important for two reasons. First, it was theoretically the first time Jesus shed blood on earth, thus foreshadowing his ultimate martyrdom. In addition, it was the moment in which he was given the name of Jesus, which once again, is held in particular veneration by the Society of Jesus. The prominent placement of this painting is a particularly good example of the Jesuits using art to glorify specifically Catholic themes as a method of differentiating themselves from Protestants.

At either side of Il Gesu’s transept lie two large and particularly important side chapels. To the left, we see the Chapel of St. Ignatius, originally built as a chapel dedicated to the crucifixion of Christ. Within this chapel lie the actual cremated remains of St. Ignatius. Behind a newly added painting of St. Ignatius lies a colossal silver statue of Ignatius Loyola, surrounded by angels. The statue standing now is actually a silver plated plaster replica, made after the original (by Pierre II Le Gross) was melted down to pay for war reparations during the French occupation of 1798. On either side of the altarpiece are panels representing different scenes from the life of St. Ignatius. Further to the side of each of these panels lie particularly interesting sculptures. The left sculpture, entitled Triumph of Faith Over Idolatry depicts a faith figure with a barbarian king, whom idolatry cannot seem to keep in check, prostrate at her feet. The right sculpture, entitled Religion Defeating Heresy depicts two somewhat ghastly figures representing heresy falling at the feet of a figure holding a cross, representing religion. In addition, to the right side of Religion, we see a cherub feverishly ripping pages out of a book that is apparently heretical. These two sculptures serve as teaching tools that remind the viewer of the triumph and supremacy of Catholicism over Idolatry and Heresy, or Paganism and Protestantism respectively.

Chapel of St. Ignatius

To the right side of the transept lies the Chapel of St. Xavier, originally a chapel dedicated to Christ’s resurrection. Above the altar lies a painting depicting and glorifying the death and martyrdom of Francis Xavier surrounded by (very inaccurate) depictions of Chinese natives while on a mission near China. Above the painting, we see a relief of St. Xavier being carried into heaven by angels. In addition, the silver reliquary at the bottom of the altar contains part of the skeletal arm of St. Francis Xavier, an important symbol of the Jesuit missions.

Chapel of St. Xavier

About a century after the foundation of Il Gesu and just four years after the canonization of Ignatius of Loyola, construction began on the Church of St. Ignatius. This took 26 years. It was originally designed by the Jesuit Mathematician Father Orazio Gracci and built as the church of the Collegio Romano, which has since moved. The church was financed mainly by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovici, the nephew of pope Gregory XV, his family name and crest both appearing prominently upon the church façade, which otherwise is very similar to the façade of Il Gesu. In addition to being an act of propaganda for the cardinal, the construction of the Church of St. Ignatius served to glorify the Jesuit order now that they had their own saint to honor.

Modeled after Il Gesu, The Church of St. Ignatius has an extremely similar floor plan to its predecessor. Like Il Gesu, it consists of a long single nave with interconnected side chapels. As a result, it emphasizes open space and is perfect for preaching sermons to large crowds. The interior is almost entirely baroque in its decoration. When we enter the church of St. Ignazio, we are greeted by a decadent, colorful, and emotive ceiling fresco. This fresco, entitled Triumph of St. Ignazio was painted by Andrea Pozzo after he won a competition for the commission. The work was so magnificent that Pozzo was later commissioned to paint the church’s false dome, its transept chapel, and its apse. The significance of this painting is particularly easy for art historians to analyze, because Pozzo tells us exactly what it means. He explains: “Jesus illuminates the heart of St. Ignatius with a ray of light, which is then transmitted by the Saint to the furthermost corners of the four quarters of the earth, which I have represented with their symbols in the four sections of the vault.” As Pozzo has explained to us, we see Jesus holding onto a cross in the middle and illuminating light, which flows into St. Ignatius. The light reflects off of St. Ignatius’ chest like a mirror to each of the four known continents. Europe is represented by a woman on a horse, riding upon a mass of heretics. America is represented by a women riding a jaguar and slaying a giant (personifying idolatry) with a lance. Africa is represented by a black woman (who is supposed to recall the queens of Ethiopia) riding a crocodile with an elephant tusk in her hand, and with an angel by her side defeating a giant with an upturned torch. Asia is represented by a woman on a camel, pushing two giants downward (who represent idolatry and heresy). Once again, Pozzo explains that the symbolic characters “are in the act of casting out the deformed monsters of idolatry or heresy or other vices.” Ultimately, the Church of St. Ignatius, and especially the ceiling fresco by Pozzo, serve not only to glorify Catholicism and the name of Jesusas Il Gesu does, but also to celebrate the Jesuit missionary work and the induction of Loyola Ignatius as the first Jesuit saint.

Church of St. Ignatius Façade

False Dome Painted by Andrea Pozzo

Triumph of St. Ignatuis painted by Andrea Pozzo

While the artwork within both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius helps us learn about the Jesuit’s influence on religion, culture, and history as well as the baroque art emerging during the Counter-Reformation, much of it also serves as an example of the “Church Triumphant.” This term refers to the new period of hope and assurance in the 2nd half of the 17th century following the pessimism of the church following the Protestant Reformation. While much of this zeal was caused by successes during the Holy Crusades against the Muslim Turks, a huge component of this surprising optimism was also instigated by the successes of Jesuit missionary work around the world. As Catholicism spread to nearly every part of the world, its new recruitment efforts gave Catholics a sense of triumph and pride. The ceiling frescos in both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius display this sense of the “Church Triumphant.” Triumph of the Name of Jesus displays the triumph of good over evil, which in many Catholics minds, analogued the triumph of Christians over the Turks. Triumph of St. Ignazio displays the triumph, extent, and grandeur of the Catholic missions, which ultimately represented the triumph of the church. Both Il Gesu and the Church of St. Ignatius stand today not only as beautiful Churches in the center of Rome, but as well as reminders and evidence of the history, the conflict, and the times in which they were built.

Personal Reflection
For me, Christian art has always been more of an interesting window into the past than something I can marvel at. I have tended to view the ostentatious displays of art promoted by the Catholic Church to be in many ways a slap in the face to G-d’s third commandment. However, the first time I casually walked into Il Gesu to research for my paper, I was astounded in many ways, not necessarily by the religiosity of the art, but by the sheer artistic and illusionistic brilliance. I was able to see into the socio-political and human side of Christian art in a way I never had before. The intense illusionism of Baccicio’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus as the ceiling seems to literally open to the heaven as heathens fall out of the painting toward the floor amazed me. Later, when I visited the Church of St. Ignatius, I was in for an even bigger surprise as I gazed up at the surprisingly realistic false dome painted by Andrea Pozzo and harkened back to my memories of M.C. Escher illusions. The foresight it would take to create such a grand illusion in only a few years mesmerized me. Later, as I further research the actual history of the Jesuit order and these early churches, I was able not only to take interest in the historical evidence the art gives us, but in the human energy, capital, and faith that went into every piece as well. It was somewhat humbling to walk into the first and most important Jesuit church and surround myself with centuries of art and architecture all created by famous and aspiring artists looking to make their mark in a church with so much spiritual and artistic significance. Overall, this project helped me gain an appreciation for the history and diversity of the Christian faith, something I have never before been particularly interested in.

“Church – St. Ignatius of Loyola – Rome.” Rome: Ristampa, 2002.

Church of St. Ignatius Official Website.

Barthel, Manfred. The Jesuits: History and Legend of the Society of Jesus. William Morrow & Company. 1984: New York.

Engass, Robert. Bernini, Gaulli, and the Frescoes of the Gesù. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1957), pp. 303-305

Engass, Robert. The Painting of Baciccio: The Church Triumphant (1964). Chapter 3. pg 54-67.
Grove Dictionary of Art. Selections on “Il Gesu,” and “Jesuits”

Mitchell, David. The Jesuits: A History. Franklin Watts. 1981: New York.
“Rome: The Gesù.” Supema. 1997: Rome.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bernini: contributions in St. Peters under Urban VIII

Jenny Wang
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Gian Lorenzo Bernini is seen as one of the most influential and talented architect of the 17th century. His genius was found at a very young age, and his dedication earned him the respect of many popes of the Roman Baroque. Pope Urban VIII, also known as Maffeo Barberini, was Gian Lorenzo’s greatest patron. Maffeo Barberini took an immediate interest to Bernini’s talent when the two met during Bernini’s commissions at the Villa Borghese. Barberini was a cardinal then, and he made Bernini a papal knight by the time Bernini was 23. A year later, Barberini was named Pope with a landslide of 50 out of 55 votes; Barberini was only 55 at this time, very young for a Pope. When he received this title, Barberini summoned Bernini to tell him: “It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.” Barberini and Bernini were so close Bernini visited the Pope whenever he wanted, accompanied him to the bedside, and drew the window curtains for him. Bernini acquired a huge number of commissions during Barberini’s reign of 21 years, and he was one of the most richly rewarded and highest paid artists in the world.

The main event during Barberini’s papacy was the Thirty Years War, a clash of Catholicism with Protestantism which had grown out of the Holy Roman Empire to spread throughout Europe. Barberini’s main objective throughout his papacy was to restore Catholicism in Europe; he had a lot of set plans for the church, the papacy, and how they were to be seen at the time. Barberini was a fervent supporter of Catholic missions across the globe. He created dioceses and vicariates in pagan countries, founded the Collegium Urbanum in 1627 (its objective to train missionaries to go abroad) as well as a college for the Maronites on Mt. Lebanon in 1625, and he also attempted to reinstate Catholicism in England. Because of this as well as his reputation as patron of the arts, the Roman people heartily welcomed his pontificate. While most of Barberini’s actions are attributed to his commitment to restoring Catholicism in Europe, he also had personal agendas. Due to the fact he was young and his family was not from Rome (and only modestly wealthy) he felt the need to truly establish his legitimacy as pope, develop his family name, and make sure all the Roman people understand he had been “chosen” to be Pope.

Under Urban VIII, Bernini produced great pieces of art with important messages. Pope Urban VIII carefully detailed the symbolism behind each commissioned artwork to prove the legitimacy of his papacy and the Barberini family name. Unfortunately for Barberini, support of his pontificate slowly trickled away by the end of his reign due to his excessive nepotism and accumulation of large debts. Bernini was a central figure in ensuring the continued support of the Roman people even at the end of Barberini’s papacy.

The Baldacchino
The original altarpiece over St. Peter’s tomb was erected in the Thanksgiving of 324 AD by Constantine, the first Roman Christian Emperor. Saint Peter was the first Pope, and the altar served to both venerate him as well as display the most important relic of the church: St. Peter’s body. Historically, the baldacchino was a temporary structure, and it underwent many transformations before Bernini’s final design. The entire church of St. Peters had actually been rebuilt, starting in the time of Pope Julius II (1506) with the exterior finally finished in 1617. Originally Pope Gregory XV had commissioned Maderno to construct the full-sized model of the baldacchino, but he died before the project was finished. Urban VIII gladly took over the project of installing the permanent baldacchino, an enormous undertaking to highlight the connection between papal power and the imperial benevolence of Constantine. Within five days of Maderno’s death, Urban VIII had appointed Bernini as the chief architect of St. Peters. Bernini started work on the baldacchino in 1624; it was his first grand architectural endeavor. Bernini had a distinctive take on architecture: he believed the good architect combined the beautiful with the necessary but the best architect was the one to turn necessities and defects into beauty. Bernini believed strongly in basing architecture in antiquity, although he did feel bending the rules was necessary sometimes.

Bernini’s baldacchino (1624-33) drew from one important idea of Maderno’s: the twisted columns, not staves, supporting the altar. However, the original Maderno design had angels at the foot of the columns, and Bernini made an important change by moving the angels to the top because columns stand independently and need not to be held up by angels. The twisted columns, also called Solomonic columns, recall the columns of the original Constantinian altar as well as the twisted columns in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. This symbolizes the union of the Old Testament (under Solomon) and the Christian rule of Constantine.

The bronze used in the columns came from the Pantheon’s porch; Urban VIII had ordered the bronze supports to be dismantled to be used in St. Peters. His stripping of 927 tons of Pantheon bronze in 1633 elicited the quote "Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini" (What wasn't done by the barbarians was done by the Barberini). Each bronze column was hollow-cast in three pieces; the shafts cast in three pieces and joined separately. Bernini used the lost wax process, where the mold is sandwiched between a heat-resistant core and cover. The wax is the primary sculpting material which made up the positive image against the negative encasing material. Bronze is then melted and poured down into the channels where the wax was; the wax then melts and is drained so the metal can take its original shape. A myth also mentions the use of the lost lizard process, where Bernini would use real animals such as lizards, fruit, leaves, and bees in the wax to capture more realistic details. Because the columns are hollow, it was not enough to secure and stabilize the structure. Thus each shaft’s cavity was filled with concrete to increase its compressive strength.

Bernini raised the columns to rest upon marble pedestals carved with the family crest and portraits of Urban VIII’s niece and her newborn son. Raising the columns made the papal symbols on the bronze especially visible, allowing Bernini to cast symbols to compliment his patron. Even though the Christian vine leaves were customary at the time (representing the Eucharist), Bernini picked vine leaves that looked similar to the laurel leaves of the Barberini family crest to be shown on the columns. Instead of butterflies, Bernini put in the “Barberini bees”. Bees were revered at the time for their attraction to the sweetness of “holiness”, so this replacement showed the sanctity of the structure as well as the connection of the Barberini family with the baldacchino. At the top of each column the Barberini sun is also depicted.

The canopy Bernini designed was especially a phenomenon of its time, violating the rules of what architecture was supposed to be. It was customary for the canopy to be made of a separate element that the structure; usually it was cloth or silk. However, Bernini also made the canopy out of bronze with bronze tassels, so it looks ephemeral yet very durable. The tassels also show the three bees of Barberini and the cherub, alternately. The originally crowning feature of the baldacchino was to be a figure of the Risen Christ. A change was made, very late in the construction, to replace the Risen Christ with an orb and cross. Historians argue this change may have been due to structural concerns, which were mostly iconographical; Bernini may have strayed from the original plan because he wanted to switch out the Eucharist symbol with a more general symbol of the religion.

The angels atop the superstructure look to be airy and graceful despite the fact they are twice life size and solid bronze. They reach out to support the structure, formed by S-shaped curves, with a garland of flowers, holding the canopy distinctly above the columns as to not connect the two. The “ribs” of the superstructure rest on the columns much less heavily than earlier versions and look as if it were “lifted” from the columns. This structure also helps carry the viewer’s eye straight up into Michelangelo’s dome, uninterrupted. The Barberini family crest is displayed prominently in the center of the superstructure, and pairs of putti lean over the rim at the top. These putti each hold a great amount of symbolism and emphasize holiness on earth through papal power. One holds St. Peter’s keys, reinstating the fact St. Peter was the first Pope; another holds the papal tiara directly below the apex of the dome, connecting the power of the papacy with the light of the heavens, reminding the viewer St. Peter was the chosen one of Jesus to build the church; and the putti on the back side of the baldacchino hold a book and sword, symbolizing St. Paul.

The baldacchino was not formally unveiled until the feast of Saint Peter in 1633. The baldacchino had cost more than 200,000 scudi in the making (one scudi could buy four loaves of bread), and it was a stunning success. The baldacchino was the perfect art form to demonstrate the goals of Urban VIII for the church. The Catholic Church at the time of the baldacchino was primarily concerned with keeping Catholicism strong and to spread it throughout Europe. The baldacchino accentuates just how holy the papacy is, for St. Peters is the first pope and all popes are chosen by God; this served to restore faith in both the Pope and remind the viewer of just how powerful Catholicism is. Urban VIII was readily able to incorporate his family symbols (bees, laurel leaves, sunbursts) into the baldacchino, effectively melding himself into the very structure of the holiest altar in the empire. The symbolism Bernini used in the baldacchino is subtle enough as to not detract from the structure itself, but prevalent enough to be noticed and remembered. The columns remind the viewer of the column of Trajan, recalling times of prosperity; the bronze canopy, innovative for the time, garnered Urban VIII the respect of viewers and architects alike. The placement of the putti with a papal tiara and the keys of Peter solidify the connection of the Barberini family with the papal heritage and continue the idea of the Barberini family as the chosen family.

Cathedra Petri

Cathedra Petri is the oak throne of St. Peter in the St. Peters basilica; it is framed by the baldacchino’s columns and forms the climax for the viewer of the nave. This was possibly Bernini’s most complex experiment with the dosage of light. Bernini was commissioned to build a reliquary—a type of container for relics—as to house the ancient wooden chair believed to be used by St. Peter himself. This chair symbolizes the recognition of St. Peter as the first Pope, and the seat will forever be his. The throne is composed of red jasper, black Sicilian marble, masses of bronze, some gilt, stone, iron, marble statuary, yellow glass, and golden stucco clouds. Before Bernini’s design, completed in 1666, was in place, an ancient wooden chair held the place as early as the 8th century; but the ivory plaques depicting the Labors of Hercules were added later.

The base of the chair is made of colored marble. The Doctors of the church stand on either side of the throne and are made of gilded bronze; St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are to the right as the father and Doctors of the Latin church (west) and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom are to the left as the doctor and father of the Greek church (from the east). The doctors serve as a bridge, showing Catholic unity across Europe; together the doctors miraculously seem to “hold aloft” the chair itself, showing the work of the doctors in supporting the church. There are three bas-reliefs on the throne: ones on the sides show the life of St. Peter, including the scene of the Washing of the Feet and the Handing Over of the Keys. The clearest bas-relief is on the back of the throne which depicts Christ as the Good Sheppard letting St. Peter take care of his flock of sheep (pasce oves meas). The top of the monument, commonly known as “Glory”, is framed by a stained glass window featuring the dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) in midst of 12 rays (symbolizing the 12 apostles). While Bernini often used hidden windows in his work to ensure the proper light to shine upon his work, the Glory is a different approach. The original light from the window was too strong, so Bernini softened it with yellow glass and added the dove to inspire the sense of holiness in its viewers.

This structure serves very well to show the strength of Catholicism across uncommon lands, people, and culture. United in faith, both east and west understand the importance of the reliefs on the throne: these panels represent the right of papal succession and the divine blessing of God given to the Pope to care for his people. The setting of the throne is also important; after the viewer has taken in the baldacchino, they look beyond the high altar to see a holy light streaming in from the stained glass window with the Holy Spirit at the center, framed by a golden stucco of angels. This scene shows God watching over the Pope he has appointed, and he ready to welcome St. Peter, and his descendants, into Heaven.

Tomb of Matilda

Countess Matilda of Canossa, who lived 1046-1115, was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages and a benefactress of Holy See. Her family had extensive possessions in middle and upper Italy. Even though Matilda’s father was a support of the German emperors and moved against the Papacy in the factional struggle, Matilda remained faithful. While her most known donation is the lands known as the Patrimony of St. Peters, she is also “credited with many religious donations, foundations, and constructions of former territories” (Holman, 638) as well building abbeys, churches, hospitals, and cathedrals. She became a close friend of Pope Gregory VII, supporting him in his struggle against Henry IV. In 1082 she also sent part of Canossa’s famous treasure to Rome to help the Pope with his war efforts; after she died, she bequeathed her possessions to the church. After Henry IV was excommunicated, Matilda was still sporadically at war with him until 1106 (when he died); sometimes she would even wear armor and lead the troops. Matilda was truly the epitome of the medieval female and was put on par with St. Helena and Empress Placida.

Urban VIII was a great admirer of the Countess; he owned a portrait of her and had composed a poem singing her praise. He commissioned Bernini to design a funeral monument for Countess Matilda in 1633 “as an example to other princes” (Holman, 653). The statue of the Matilda is not by Bernini, however, but by his student Andrea Bolgi. In the sculpture, Matilda is commandingly holding a baton as well as the papal tiara and keys. Having Matilda pose in this stature, Urban VIII was showing his support of religious war. The bas-relief below her monument is by Stefano Speranza, depicting the scene of Henry IV kneeling before Gregory VII in Matilda’s castle in Canossa. Henry IV had waited barefoot for 3 days and 3 nights to see Pope Gregory VII until he was finally let in on January 28th, 1077. This reinforces the triumph of Catholicism and the papacy over Protestantism. The angel on the right supporting the inscription is also by Bolgi, and the one on the left is by Bernini’s brother, Luigi. The crown and coat of arms have the motto “TUETUR ET UNIT” (Protects and Unites).

The body of Matilda was originally housed at Polirone, but Urban VIII wished to have her remains transported to Rome. The body was stolen in the dark of the night and arrived in Rome in March 10th, 1634; it was laid to rest in the second pier on the right isle of St. Peters. The monument to Countess Matilda, accessible to the general public, is visibly the only tomb in St. Peters not dedicated to a former pope. This dedication of space in the basilica exemplifies the idea truly church-loving individuals can rise to the level where they are venerated with the popes. Urban VIII wanted to foster a deeper sense of connection with the Church for the average attendee, and Matilda was the perfect role model.

The four piers of the transept support the dome of St. Peters, each containing a niche holding a statue. The transept forms strong diagonals with the baldacchino, making it visually pleasing and naturally drawing the attention of the viewer. Above the statues Bernini formed staircases on the balconies, framed by twisted columns, to show the four most important relics of St. Peters. In each balcony angels are carved, holding the relic. The sky in which they fly is made of yellow marble and the clouds are purple marble.

Bernini only designed one of the statues, St. Longinus, and the others were commissioned to his students. The other statues are of St. Veronica (Francesco Mochi), St. Andrew (Francois Duquesnoy), and St. Helena (Andreas Bolgi). St. Longinus is of the traditional Roman soldier who pierced Jesus on the side while on the Cross using the Spear of Destiny. In medieval tales, the blood of Chris cures Longinus’ blindness; he then realizes Christ truly is the son of God and instantly converts to Christianity. St. Veronica was a woman from Jerusalem so moved by Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha she offered him her veil so he could clean his face. St. Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great, and St. Andrews, brother of St. Peter, was martyred on a diagonal cross. St. Peters houses the Spear of Destiny, the veil of Veronica, a fragment of the True Cross discovered by St. Helena, and the head of St. Andrews, respectively.

Finally finishing his sculpture of St. Longinus in 1632, Bernini redesigned his sculpture 22 times (many times discussing ideas with the Pope himself). Bernini’s sculpture stands roughly 15 feet tall. St. Longinus is depicted with his arm thrust out, holding a spear, as he seems to come into realization of the true name of Christ. His figure extends so much it seems to occupy the entire niche; his left leg is stretched out and his right leg is at the edge of the pedestal, as if he is going to jump out of the space he is in. His cloak is falling back and his hair is ruffled, as if blown by some spiritual force of the revelation. Just like Bernini’s David, St. Longinus is in action—his muscles are striated, giving it a texture the other smooth statues do not have and making him seem more three-dimensional and realistic. He looks towards the altarpiece, which helps complete his story and lets the baldacchino recapture the viewer’s attention.

Flanked by four compelling statues in a single moment of realization, the transept is a strong reminder of the sanctity of the church, which contains several category one relics. Urban VIII used the transept as a tool for communicating with the public audience: he reconstructs the story of our four saints, places them next to the holy altar of St. Peters, and freezes each statue in a moment of revelation as they look up at the altar and heavens. Viewers recognize how sacred the Catholic history is, how powerful and everlasting their faith is, and realizes the example set by these four figures that have changed history.

St. Peters is an amazing fusion of papal propaganda and artistic mastery; everything about the church is carefully constructed with symbolism and intent. Bernini succeeded in making St. Peters one of the most powerful and grandiose churches of its time. In the 16th century when the pilgrims or commoners came from miles away to pray, they would first walk through the piazza. There, they were transfixed by the size and grandeur of nearly a hundred statues around them. Walking up the stairs, they would see the relief of Christ handing over St. Peters the keys to heaven as well as the pedestrian statues of Constantine and Charlemagne. Surrounded by two key figures of Christian history and the knowledge of what sacred relic were inside this church—St. Peter’s body—they would have been in awe. Once inside the church, the huge monuments still looked proportional. It was only as they approached the baldacchino from the nave would they realize the size and holiness of the altarpiece. Looking up into Michelangelo’s dome they would see the beautiful light of heaven. Framed perfectly by the baldacchino would be the Throne of Peter, the “glory” of the golden angels atop it, and the hidden stained-glass window where holy light seem to appear from behind the dove. Surrounding the baldacchino would be the four other main relics in the church, symbolized by the statues of the saints below, reminding them of the sacrifice made by Jesus for faith. Visiting St. Peters would have been the experience of a lifetime, and Urban VIII took the opportunity to create a lasting impression in the minds of its viewers.

The propaganda in St. Peters is only thinly disguised. Urban VIII had a very specific message for Bernini to portray before any of his work even started. The theme of papal succession, legitimizing Urban VIII’s reign and the Barberini family name, is a prominent feature of the church. The Barberini family symbols are everywhere in the church, allowing the churchgoer to forge a connection between the family and the papal power present in St. Peters. Even the most hesitant Romans would eventually come to associate the bees with the Barberini name with St. Peters basilica. It would seem ridiculous for any of the viewing subjects to question the legitimacy of Urban VIII’s right to the throne; he was the one who finished the church to make it one of the most beautiful and the holiest places on earth, where only the Pope can conduct ceremony at the high altar. St. Peters was Urban VIII’s way to give thanks to the people, give them something to take pride in, and show himself as the “chosen” pope by God to make this church. Even now, tourists and natives alike know Urban VIII’s name because St. Peters basilica has become a part of his history and vice versa.

Despite the massive size of the church, Bernini made sure all his works looked fitting in its setting—no one architectural piece dominated the entire space. Perhaps his greatest feat in the church was his ability to always have the big picture in mind; he was able to carry out the plans of Barberini with taste. He glorified the Barberini family, the papacy as a chosen instrument of God, and shed good light on Urban VIII’s reign. Yet as he was incorporating these explicit messages in his work, he was still able to capture the feel of the church and give the Roman people a holy space they would rejoice in. As quoted by Rudolph Wittkower, “Bernini never lost sight of the whole.”

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Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Rome, §V, 14(ii)(b): St Peter's: Decoration: 1504 and after."
Grove Dictionary of Art Online. 10 July 2008.

Irving Lavin, Bernini and the Crossing of Saint Peter's. New York: New York University Press,

Rudolph Preimesberger and M. Mezzatesta, "The St Peter's baldacchino and other works for Urban VIII, 1623-44," The Grove Dictionary of Art Online. 1 July 2008.

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Holman, Beth L. “Exemplum and Imitatio: Countess Matilda and Lucrezia Pico della Mirandola
at Polirone”. The Art Bulletin. Vol. 81, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 637-664

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Rome Worthy of Il Duce’s Attention

Genesis Han
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

In 1861, after years of unrest between individual cities states, Italy finally became a unified country. However, this new cobblestone nation was without identity and in political shambles until Fascist leader Benito Mussolini came to power. As Prime Minister from 1922-1943, Mussolini united Italy, more specifically Rome, into the image that the world sees today. Connecting the new Rome with its glorious past, Mussolini took advantage of his vehement charisma and power over propaganda to breed his Fascist ideals into the heart of Italy through his public projects.

Born on July 29, 1883 into a humble family from Predappio, no one expected Mussolini to be a figure to change the history of the nation. Although receiving good grades in school, he developed a defiant and boisterous nature which followed him even when he became certified as a schoolteacher. Mussolini initially embraced his socialist background of his father, Alessandro Mussolini a blacksmith and socialist activist. In 1902, unable to find a job, he moved to Switzerland to find a job and expand his political horizons. Unsuccessful, he moved back to Italy and became a political journalist. In addition, he volunteered for military service. After joining the war effort in 1915, he came to the stark realization that socialism caused more problems than it solved and continued as the editor-in-chief of his own paper Il Popolo d’Italia. Similarly, many Italians saw the fallacies of socialism as the solution to all the post war problems, setting the stage for Mussolini’s rise to power.

During the years after WWI, Russia’s Bolsheviks revolution gave much confidence to Italy’s socialist party; however the populace had a waning confidence in a revolution which led to the party’s disintegration. Following the war, Italy experienced an economic backlash that translated to an increase in unemployment and inflation lowering the confidence in the socialist part. This was not helped by the property distribution issues caused by veterans came back demanding their land. Seeing the weakness and disorganization of the liberal government set up after WWI, militant socialists took it into their own hands and used a series of worker insurrections to gain power. This social uproar through labor militancy acts and the occupations of the factory by the Red Guards did not sway the socialist party leaders to escalate the revolution onto a Bolsheviks scale. However, it was the continued economic disintegration which caused socialism to lose support; Italy was left with a desperate need for leadership.Fascism emerged as way out of a Bolshevik-like revolution in Italy. By 1922, the economic recession united 300,000 members by blaming socialism for the nation’s problems. But, not all Fascist support was voluntary. Through intimidation and violence, the squadristi, or blackshirts, gained territorial support and were even sponsored by landowners, businessmen, and the police who were often targeted by socialists. The blackshirts were often hard to control because of their radical nature, making them a threatening force to Mussolini’s authority. Later, the major squad leaders recognized his political initiative and backed him as the leader of the Partito Nazionale Fascista. With their support, Mussolini quickly climbed to the top, placing the fascist party in the election, and by all means, worked to eliminate any competition.

The fascist party staged a coup and experienced its greatest victory on October 28, 1922. Threatening civil war, an army of 30,000 squadristi marched from Milan to Rome through “the path of ancient greatness” to take the country’s capital (Scott 646). However, this group that may not have even marched was less than intimidating because most were ill-armed. Regardless of the number of men, King Victor Emmanuel conceded to avoid bloodshed and asked Mussolini to form a government. Mussolini became Italy’s youngest prime minister at the age of 39 and held office for 21 years. As an act of glorification of Rome and himself, Mussolini later described this event as a march of 300,000 men, led personally by him on horseback. This exaggeration serves as a testament to his charisma which is seen as a major theme throughout his political career in his speeches, commissioned artwork, and especially his personality. He quickly gained the support of many nationalists; Mussolini declared himself Il duce in 1926 and strategically imposed his own hyper-nationalism to create a new Italian identity.

Mussolini with his ideals and political ardor revived the city of Rome, creating a grand spectacle for the rest of the world. He desired to transform the decaying city by “destroy[ing] the old to create the new and uncover the glories of the imperial past” (Painter 3). With the start of several construction projects, historical Rome rose out of the ground and the slums were torn down. In addition, identifying his own dynasty with Emperor Augustus’, he stressed the idea of romanita and recycled Roman history for his own political purposes. His obsession with Augustus brought focus and grandeur to a troubled nation, which united the people with a sense of pride to the youth, a new generation of Italians. Mesmerized by the Duce’s oratorical skills, Italians were captivated by and gave way to the fascist idea of the revival of the Italian strength, youth and energy. Winning the public, Mussolini incorporated these fascist ideals into the reconstruction of Rome.

Tearing down the slums, liberating ancient monuments, and improving the city for the modern age, Mussolini effectively used social projects to proclaim the essential fascist messages. During the late 1920s, several public construction programs of repristination that gave “older sites new fascist imprints” (Painter 7). The transformation began with excavation and demolition of the Imperial Fora. Although unveiling the key Roman Fora of Trajan, Augustus, Caesar, and Nerva, parts of these were left buried by the creation of a thirty meter wide street, Via dell’Impero, connecting the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia, Mussolini’s headquarter. But more was unveiled than lost. The superimposition of the beautiful ruins and the modern use of this street embody the notion of romanita as well as a surge into an energetic city center. On October 28, 1932, Rome celebrated the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome and the opening of Via dell’Impero. Running through the Imperial Fora, statues of the Roman emperors, and later, the four maps, this street became the site of many fascist celebrations and parades similar to the triumphal processions that took place in Roman times. Processions ended at the Piazza Venezia where Mussolini often gave speeches off the small balcony towards the roaring crowd. The glory of ancient Rome ordained the successes of Mussolini’s Rome, legitimizing his governance, as these grand parades caught everyone’s attention. Just the completion of this massive project and archeological feat empowered the fascist wave through Italy – however, the biggest propaganda piece was not added to the street until two years after the opening.

Though ordained with past artworks, Mussolini unveiled of the four maps in April 1934, on the anniversary of the founding of Rome and Fascist Labour Day, to further the idea of Fascist self-definition through its portrayal of past and present imperialism. Posted on the side of the Basilica of Maxentius, each map is about 4.6 square meters, held by two imperial eagles and made of different colored marbles to easily distinguish the sea, the Roman Empire, and the unconquered areas. The maps are arranged chronologically, depicting the 8th century BC, 146 BC, 14 AD, and 98-117 AD, so that when viewed together, one could understand the expansion of Rome throughout history. Shown in white marble, ancient Rome would move further to bring civilization and light into the peripheral lands shown by the black marble. These propagandistic maps affirmed the fascist regime in their own imperialist attitude and a fifth map, revealed on October 28, 1936, proudly displayed Mussolini’s grasp into Ethiopia. Adding to its use as a commemoratory piece, the fifth map was dedicated to fascist martyrs. Mussolini was able to impart fascist ideals even in the smallest of details while leading Italians to draw parallels with the glories of the past with the ones of their new Duce.

Mussolini continued to reconstruct Rome into a fascist center until WWII, extracting the grandeur of ancient Rome for his own agenda. Mussolini’s identification as the new Augustus, justified the need to canonize the ancient emperor. In celebration of Augustus’ 2000th birthday, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore was created with the restoration of the Ara Pacis and mausoleum. Followed by the construction of the Exhibit of Fascist Revolution and the EUR, Mussolini’s belief “that the glories of the past [should be] surpassed by the glories of the future” were stressed by the museum’s simple but bold architecture and the sports arena’s support for Italian strength and fitness (Painter 77). From the repristination of the monuments of Augustus to the fascist architecture of the EUR, Mussolini’s public programs exhibited the solidarity and strength of his political party and reign.

Mussolini’s use of propaganda increased as Italy entered WWII on the side of the Axis. He continued his captivating speeches, uniting Italians. Although feverishly cheering at the sound of Mussolini’s voice projecting from the balcony of Piazza Venezia, many of the people could not hear his speech about joining the war effort. Furthermore, he held a grand celebration to welcome Adolf Hitler when he visited Rome and was showed around Via dell’Impero. Ironically, German troops marched down this very street when occupying Italy at the turn of the war.

Finally, Mussolini was overthrown in July 1943 when the Grand Council of Fascism withdrew confidence in him. When executed in 1945, many of the fascist symbols such as the piccone and fascio, which represented his political projects and the idea of strength in numbers, were taken down from buildings and art around the city as well as the fifth map on the side of the Basilica of Maxentius. Likewise, many of the names of his public works were changed from their fascist façade as a symbol of removing fascism and restoring a greater Italian purpose. Via dell’Impero became Via dei Fori Imperiali and Foro Mussolini became Foro Italico. These anti-fascist sentiments unified Italy more than Mussolini was able to achieve with fascism. Though in some cases destructive, one can not ignore the amount of resources Mussolini poured into the transformation of Rome in order to create propaganda to legitimize his government and project him and the fascist revolution.
Works Cited
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