Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
The aspirations of patron Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) and his favorite architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) led to the extraordinarily magical construction of St. Peter’s Piazza. Also known as Piazza San Pietro, the area before St. Peter’s basilica was redesigned to its full glamour during the period of 1656 to 1667 by Bernini as part of the pilgrimage approach to the basilica. It stands today in the smallest country in the world, the Vatican City. The shape of the piazza was purposefully designed to symbolize St. Peter’s basilica, “the mother church of Christianity” and its embracing welcome to the world.
The piazza was named in honor of St. Peter. St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles and the first pope played a major role in Christianity. In the Bible, Jesus said to Peter, “You are ‘Rock’, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:19). Jesus was entrusting Peter to be the foundation stone of his Church.
St. Peter’s Basilica originated from the Martyrdom of Peter in 64 AD. There was a huge fire that destroyed the greater part of Rome. Emperor Nero held Christians responsible and ordered many of them to be executed. Peter was sentenced to crucifixion in Nero’s Circus, which was at the foot of the Vatican hill. He was crucified upside down because he did not feel he was worthy enough to be crucified upright like Jesus Christ. He was buried in a burial ground near the Circus, where pagans had also been buried. In 319 AD, Emperor Constantine the first Christian Emperor, at the request of Pope St. Sylvester I, built St. Peter’s Basilica above St. Peter’s Tomb by filling the Vatican Necropolis and part of the Circus. This original basilica was half the size of the modern one. The original basilica suffered much looting throughout the years during barbarian invasions and in the 15th century, the old basilica showed signs of collapse. Many patrons tried to repair the basilica but nothing was completed until 1506 when Pope Julius II decided to rebuild with the help of Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In 1605, Paul V rebuilt the façade, assigning Carlo Maderno as the chief architect.
Bernini’s talent was recognized by many nobles and patrons such as Pope Urban VIII, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, and Pope Alexander VII. As a result, when the decision was made to redesign the piazza on July 31, 1656, he was given the appointment as the architect of St. Peter’s by Pope Alexander VII. Peter’s major role in the Catholic Church is one of the main reasons why Pope Alexander VII felt it was necessary to redesign the open area before St. Peter’s basilica. The approach needed to fully represent the greatness of St. Peter’s and authority of the Catholic Church. Bernini’s main objective was to fully interpret the great meaning of the basilica and provide a sacred area where the faithful could come and be protected from the harsh outside world. Logistically and spiritually, the area required precise and creative planning. Bernini had to work around previously built structures and build both an opening that had a grand welcoming approach and an area which allowed “the greatest number of people to see the Pope give his blessing….” According to Bernini himself, his Baroque Neoclassical architectural design of the piazza allowed the faithful visitors to be embraced by “the motherly arms of the church.”
The general shape of the piazza is composed of an oval area, the Piazza Obliqua, and a trapezoidal area, the Piazza Retta. There is a clear central axis that leads straight to the basilica. At the center of the Piazza Obliqua stands the Egyptian Vatican Obelisk. Bernini used the obelisk as the centerpiece for the piazza. The 25.5 meters tall obelisk originally from Egypt was moved to Rome in the 1st century AD (37AD) and later moved to its current position in 1586 by Sixtus V. The obelisk in the piazza is an important element to the Catholic community. At the top of the obelisk, Constantine put a relic from the True Cross. It is also believed that the obelisk once stood in the same place where St. Peter was crucified, Nero’s Circus. There are many coat of arms and symbols representing the various patrons that played a major role in the basilica and the piazza. The most noticeable is the Chigi star representing the family of Pope Alexander VII. There are also pictures of mountains and star of Sixtus V. Surrounding the obelisk are stone-relief ellipses symbolizing a mariner’s compass with carvings of various winds. On either side of the obelisk lies a fountain. The designer of the façade Carlo Maderno designed one of the fountains, which contains the eagle of Borghese, and Bernini added the other fountain to provide symmetry. Bernini used these fountains as the foci of the oval made by his colonnades.
In the 16th century, the use of cobblestones was first adopted to pave the area of St. Peter’s Piazza. Cobblestones are actually also called Sampietrini, which literally means “little stones of St. Peter’s” and were first used in the piazza before the usage expanded to the rest of Rome. The pavement today is not the original cobblestones because in 1817, the obelisk was used to also function as a gnomon. A gnomon is a device that can be used to tell the day of the year. At noon the obelisk casts a shadow that lines up with various discs of white marbles, which had to be added. These marbles have figures of the Zodiac and represent the cardinal points of the compass.
The defining characteristic of the piazza are the 284 travertine thirty-nine feet colonnades, which frame the piazza. Bernini originally wanted to also add a third arm, terzio braccio, a triumphal arch, to connect the colonnades but the plan was not completed due to monetary limitations. The piazza is surrounded by these two colonnades, creating an elliptical shape that is 320 m long and 240 m wide. The Doric colonnades are four columns deep down the arms of the colonnades, which creates three continuous passages, two for pedestrian and one for carriage. This theme of three aisles was commonly used to represent the approach to the apse in churches. The passageways were used for various ceremonial processions and also provided shelter from sun, wind, and rain. Bernini’s talent is best exemplified when looking at the placement of the columns. The columns are “radially aligned, as though set along the spokes of a wheel whose hubs are points located between the fountains and the obelisk.”
The ingenuity of the exact placement of the column and the location of the center and foci allowed for a “visual elasticity between side and central elements” or a kind of smoothness in the connection between the side and central spaces of the piazza. Also Bernini’s colonnades had more strength because of his unique and unorthodox decision to put an Ionic entablature, the unit above the colonnades, on the Doric colonnades. This combination gave strength to the columns and gave a pleasing contrast to the slender Corinthian columns of the façade. Another unique design of Bernini was to build temple fronts ending with a portico in the middle of each of the two colonnade arms. The portico has a giant coat of arms of Alexander VII, mountains and oaks. These porticoes allowed the colonnades to be less monotonous but still have a natural flow.
Above the colonnades on the Ionic entablature lie 96 statues, 15 feet in height, each designed by Bernini. The statues include the most famous saints and martyrs of the church. Fifty two statues were finished during Pope Alexander’s time while the rest were finished during Pope Clement XI’s time. These statues welcome the pilgrims into the piazza and guide the pilgrim to the basilica.
Another component of St. Peter’s Piazza is the Piazza Retta. The colonnades from the Piazza Obliqua are connected to the corridors of the Piazza Retta with the use of pillars with oblique edges. The pillars allow a very smooth transition between the “curved geometry of the colonnades to the linear geometry of the corridors.” The corridors of the Piazza Retta line each side of the path leading to the basilica. The size of the corridors is very deceptive because although they look small, the length of the corridor is similar to the arms of the colonnades. The colonnade and the corridors contrast each other, and it is this contrast that makes each component very complimentary. The corridors create a very firm and focused emotion when walking up to the basilica, while the colonnade creates a very open and gentle path emerged with “light, atmosphere, and intermittent view of buildings beyond.”
Bernini designed the piazza using the Tuscan form of Doric because of the strength needed but also the emotion that was evoked from this style. Although the roots of the architectural designs chosen by Bernini, the trapezoid and the oval shapes, were already in the Renaissance urban schemes, his use of the idea, “shapes, sequences, and components” created a new era – his own era. The traditional Baroque style together with Bernini’s unique creativity allowed Bernini to create many optical illusions and various perspectives evoking various emotions depending on the approach to the piazza by using the colonnades and both the trapezoidal and elliptical shape of the piazza.
The approach of the piazza was carefully designed by Bernini. The pilgrim would enter the piazza after going on the Ponte dell’Angelo across the Tiber River, passing the Castel Sant’Angelo and then going through the narrow streets connecting to the ends of the colonnade. The Ponte dell’Angelo is lined with ten angels, each holding a relic form the Passion of Christ. This passage was to ready the pilgrims to a spiritual state after getting a glimpse of the great St. Peter’s Basilica before dwelling back into the narrow streets. Since many pilgrims came from all across the world and had traveled long distances, first seeing the basilica gave many pilgrims that extra energy to keep going. When the pilgrim reached the end of the narrow streets, the piazza with its open lighten space would feel heavenly. The approach allowed for a revelation experience for the pilgrim.
The Piazza Obliqua, the transverse oval component, allowed the pope to offer blessings clearly to the visitors in the piazza from more than one place. The pope would give Christmas and Easter blessings from the Benediction Loggia, which is in the middle of the façade, and could also give blessings from the window of his high private apartment in the Vatican Palace.
The Piazza Retta, with its wider side of the trapezoid towards the St. Peter’s façade, creates “a heightened perspective for a visitor leaving the basilica.” The low unparallel corridors that become further apart the nearer they are to the façade make the basilica seem shorter than it really is. The visual illusion from the shape of the Piazza Oblique and Retta causes the distance between the basilica and the far rim of the piazza seem shorter. Overall, this creates an optical illusion of St. Peter’s being closer to the viewer, and in turn the façade looks shorter and more proportional to its width.
Along with the emotional, spiritual feeling denoted by the shape of the piazza, Bernini also thought about the visual effects. He used the High Renaissance theme of “depth and illusion, solid and void, and light and dark.” Usually when looking at the sunlit columns, the viewer sees them as gradually row-by-row fading into the darkness. Furthermore, these rows of columns has a visual impact called stereoscopic, which means that closer columns pass the viewer’s eye faster than the rows farther away. The open columns with no solid background create an open airy area. Together, these effects create a sense of constant movement and create a sense of ease, which would not occur if it was a solid rigid circle.
The redesigning and building of the piazza represented a “monumental revival of the city’s ancient glories.” It provided a nurturing and sacred environment for the faithful, which at that particular period the Catholic Church “strongly depended for as its appeal.” The piazza transformed the Vatican City by creating a path that commemorated the triumph of Christ. Even rival architects, such as Stendhal, agreed on the beauty of the piazza. Stendhal commented on how the narrow streets of the Borgo accentuated the impact of the piazza; “the great open space was a revelation … which literally took the breath away.” Overall, the piazza provided a source of inspiration for both worshipers and visitors.
Before Pope Alexander VII and the building of St. Peter’s Piazza, nepotism and the Castro War had resulted in the weakening of the prestige of the papacy and reputation of the popes. The middle of the seventeenth century, during the time of Pope Alexander VII, marked a time of great economic decline and loss of population due to a major plague and malaria epidemic. The national debt had risen to 48 million scudi. However, Rome was still able to remain the center of the Catholic world, the primary place of Christian pilgrimage, and played a role in the culmination of the High Baroque art.
Pope Alexander VII was greeted with much joy and high hopes during his coronation. He was admired for his political experience and wisdom, and his modesty and integrity. He was very caring towards the poor, he would spend six to seven hours a day in audience to welcome and comfort the poor. However, his weakness was that he was not firm in his decisions and relied on the advice of others too much. This caused many abuses in the legal administration, contributing to the financial problems and the public’s complaints about the papacy and its authority. However, through all the problems the pope was facing, his great commitment to St. Peter made him hold in very high regard the task of completing the decoration of St. Peter’s and the remodeling of the open space in front of the basilica.
The task had been on the agenda of other popes but it was not until patron Pope Alexander VII that anything would be accomplished. Before the redesigning, the north end of the open area was very irregular, the south border had a “row of mean houses,” and the east end was filled with unsymmetrical clustering of buildings. The pope did not find the setting to be an appropriate place for faithful pilgrims to come and receive the blessing of the pope. Also the basilica’s façade was known to have awkward proportions, being too long for its height, but with the help of a clever design of the surrounding area, the problem was corrected. Exactly what the pope had hoped for, the redesigning of the piazza to fully honor St. Peter’s revitalized the papacy and the faith of the people.
St. Peter’s Piazza represents even more of the heart of the Catholic Church than ever before. More than 300,000 people have been known to congregate in the piazza. Every Sunday, the pope gives his blessings and at Easter and other special days, the pope extends his blessing urbi et orbi, which means “to the city and to the world”. The approach today has changed from the original plan of Bernini. The narrow streets with two rows of houses of Bernini’s time were demolished by Mussolini in 1936 and replaced with a boulevard called Via della Consiliazione that stretches across the Tiber River to the center of Rome. This change was not what Bernini had planned because it took away the narrowed curvy path which helped contribute to the revelation the visitor experienced upon arrival to the piazza. However, today from the Via della Consiliazione, many visitors approach the square, Saint Peter’s and the Vatican as a whole and are still able to experience the breathtaking view of what lies ahead of them and experience the uplifting feeling that Bernini’s original goal entailed.
For 54 years, Bernini worked in some way or another with St. Peter’s basilica and the surrounding area. Throughout his work, he always thought about how everything worked and accentuated the other in terms of the meaningful spiritual pilgrimage of the faithful visitors. His goal in creating the historical, uplifting atmosphere and feelings that was induced in visitors when they stepped into the piazza still remains today as many come from across the world to visit one of the most inspirational work.
VI. Personal Observations
In researching St. Peter’s and the history of Rome, I found it quite interesting to notice the shift in power and beliefs. Whether it was paganism or Christianity, the general theme was that the victor would allow the defeated to practice their beliefs as long as it was in private. It was interesting to read about the transition of Rome being the center of the civilized world and its inhabitants honoring the pagan gods to becoming the heart of the Catholic Church.
Personally as a Buddhist, I did not know much about the history of the martyrs of Christianity. Through researching, I learned so much and looked forward to seeing St. Peter’s Piazza through my eyes, someone that is not Christian but someone that appreciates the history and the spiritual importance of what St. Peter represented. Also, throughout the researching I began to form a passionate connection with the piazza and because of this, I understood more the importance of every detail Bernini designed. When I shared Bernini’s approach with the class as we went on our own little pilgrimage to the piazza, the class noticed the effects of light as they walked through the streets and then into the piazza. They noticed how in the streets, the only light source was above, which meant the pilgrims were drawn to look up, symbolizing looking up to God. It made my day to have them still be able to see the details of Bernini’s amazing talented work.
Most importantly, when I researched the piazza, it soon became apparent how important the theme of entryways was. Bernini’s son describes what Bernini had wanted to express in his piazza, “The Piazza and the cattedra are, as it were, the beginning and the end of that great church, and the eye is as much infatuated at the beginning on entering the piazza as at end on seeing the cattedra.” Bernini used the theme of entryway and exit ways by combining the two to form the piazza, where the pilgrim is doing both at the same time. As he/she enters the piazza, he/she is exiting the harsh world and as he/she is exiting the piazza, he/she is entering the basilica. Bernini’s path to the basilica contained many components of crossing the threshold, and each act of crossing the barrier had its own function and each induced its own set of feelings.
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