Saturday, October 9, 2004

Michelangelo's Contributions to Saint Peter's

Helen Wu
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
St. Peter's has carried its richness in history for centuries. It is known to be the tallest most worshiped church in the world. However, this church is a result of the laborious reconstruction since the Constantine, and has been renovated over some 120 years of continual work under a succession of 18 popes and 12 brilliant architects. Among them, Michelangelo Buonarroti had contributed his crowning achievement as an architect, commissioned by Pope Paul III in 1546. It was perhaps the last big project before his death, and unfortunately, he was not able to see the finished project. Interestingly, the first project commissioned by the French Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas, which made him famous at the age of 25 was also placed in St. Peter's, namely the Pieta, a marble piece of Madonna with dead Jesus on her lap. Michelangelo had finished it as promised in 1500, the year of Jubilee. He was not only a sculptor and architect during his lifetime (1475-1564), but a magnificent painter and a poet. He was considered the supreme genius of the Renaissance art. Some facts about his life can help us understand aspects of his art.

Michelangelo was born in a noble family in Tuscany. His father Ludovico di Buonarotti had sent his son to a stone carver family because his wife was constantly ill. He had hoped that his son becomes a scholar in literature, and the news of Michelangelo wanting to become an artist had made him awfully disappointed. Against all odds, Michelangelo was able to follow his passion and his geniality had soon been revealed. He was recommended to attend Lorenzo the Magnificent, and was surrounded by scholars such as Polynesian poets. He had also started studying human anatomy, and frescoes paintings. In 1495, he began to work as a sculptor and he practiced copying many of the masterpieces on his own. Later on, he had received commission on many significant art work from many different Pope. In fact, he had been a hard working man all his life. Even before his death, he was carving his sculpture in a cardboard cap while ignoring the pain from his illness.

II. Description
The word 'Pieta' means 'mercy' in Italian, and it is an artwork depicting Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ after his cruxification. The subject of this particular artwork is originated from the north of Alps, and has been created in many different forms and shapes by different artists and painters. Traditionally, the pieta portrays the pain connected with the idea of redemption. However, Michelangelo merely a twenty-three year old presented a stand out masterpiece of Madonna and Christ that was never attempted before. Instead of making Madonna an old sorrowful lady caressing over her dead son, a young, a rather celestial Virgin Mary radiating an acceptance of pain. Her head leans slightly forward over the lifeless body of Jesus, and her eyes looking down with slight suffering. If one looks closely, the most intense expression of her sorrow was not through her lips but her hands. Notice that she merely uses one hand namely the right hand to hold up Christ's upper body. This implies her strength and muscularity of her body which is hidden under a beautifully carved long drapery. The figures are out of proportion partly due to the difficulty of the positioning of Christ, an adult man on a woman's lap. In addition, if Jesus were to be in human scale, the Virgin would be sixteen feet tall when standing up. The body of Jesus is that of a perfect male figure, the muscle, the vein, and the nerves all depicted through Michelangelo's meticulous and creative handcraft. Every part of Christ's body is in its exactitude which must not be surprising to us considering his Excellencies in mastering the human anatomy. The marks of cruxification is limited, with a wound on his side, the small nails did not go through his feet. Hence it must be interesting to note the contrast between perfect human bodies like Jesus to an oversized body like Mary. Clearly, Michelangelo did not loose his mind when it comes to choosing the ideal size for Mary in comparison to Jesus. Perhaps it is the subtle enlargement of Mary that makes us feel the power of motherhood hovering over her dead son, thus intensifies the earthly nature of what a perfect mother figure should be. Her youth and beauty signifies the preservation of eternal youth as a virgin. Michelangelo had summarized the innovations of 15 century predecessor like Donatello, and issued a new style for the High Renaissance in the 16 century.

The Pieta now displayed behind a glass case in St. Peter's

St Peter's dome is designed by Michelangelo. Unlike the Pieta, Michelangelo began the dome project at the age of 72. The most important theme that he tried to come across is the simplicity and divinity of St. Peter in the presence of light. The pointed cupola reveals the mystery of the universe, the miracle of reconciliation between God and man. Shining above, the Eternal city, and the silver grey dome radiates love of God. Most of the work was done on the lower part of the dome. He modified Bramente's Greek cross model of the interior to make it a more unified space. Around the base of the dome, he placed a colonnaded walkway next to the big windows lined up one next to the other. One top of each window, an alternating frame of triangle and semi-elliptical shapes is often used in his design. Just as a foot note, one can also observe such design on the Palazzo Farnese which he helped to design for the Farnese family. On the top of the column that is tied to the dome by beams, but no roofing between the intervals of the column. This is often used in Gothic buildings and he created huge semicircular walls echoing inside the dome to support the weight of the dome. He also replaced the sharp corners of the columns underneath the dome that supposedly support the weight of the dome. The double columns with large pediments break the wall mass over the windows. He made diagonal walls on the four corners of where the columns resided. The dome is on a high drum to give visibility of its massiveness. He had also thickened the exterior walls of the dome. From the outside, he used colossal order, meaning huge flat pilasters around the building's curves and corners to create the rippling, muscular surface. From far away, it creates a step-like movement of the cornice. The oval shaped dome that we see today was not an original intend of Michelangelo's. Regardless, the dome still symbolizes cosmological power for St. Peter who was buried underneath.St. Peter's
Exterior of the church

III. Function
The Pieta was meant to be displayed in the St. Peter's Basilica, and was commissioned by French cardinal Jean Bilheres who wanted it for his own tomb to give grandeur to the northern European iconography. Under the contract of agreement to finish building and be unveiled in the Holy year of Jubilee, 1500. It had served its purpose of being shown to a massive group of people, such as the thousands of pilgrims at the time, who will go home and spread their news. Undoubtedly, Michelangelo had then established his reputation for the gifted artistic ability, and became quite famous. The Pieta a stone carved symbol of divine beauty had touched many people's heart. Up to this day, it still serves as a model that conveys the audience about what perfect pain is like for a mother who lost her son.
As far as the dome is concerned, Michelangelo wanted people's first reaction as they walked into the dome is astonishment. People may be overwhelmed to see the amount of light that appears at the top of the dome and will lead and draw the audience's attention slowly toward the dome. However, the sensation must only last in an instant, because he didn't want people to feel secluded from the massiveness of the dome, rather be a part of the dimension of pure contemplation.

IV. Patron
Michelangelo had had lived in Florence, his birth place, in most of his early years. The nonstop political unrest in Florence plus the invasion of the French King Charles VIII in 1494 had caused Michelangelo to move out of Florence. In 1496, Michelangelo had summoned to Rome, and the French King's envoy to the pope, Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas had special religious interest, doubtless to King, on the ancient basilica of St. Peter's basilica, namely St Petronilla, the legendary daughter of St Peter and the patroness of the dauphins of France. The Cardinal wanted his tomb and with the statue of Pieta at this place. Perhaps he was under the influence and connection between the French dauphin patron and his own French nationality.
For the dome, Julius II was really serious in the recreation and reconstruction of the dome in 1505, which had been previously fallen into pieces. Nevertheless, many artists who made the design of the building were in total disagreement and all of them died before the construction could actually begin. It wasn't until Michelangelo who was at the time appointed by Pope Paul III, who desperately wanted the construction to begin and to be finished. Pope Paul III had always favored Michelangelo, not only because he helped to design part of his palace, but he also admired his character. In his mind, Michelangelo is a tough, hard working, and talented artist. Indeed, at the age of 72, Michelangelo had worked day and night on the project mostly because he wanted to satisfy his own inner spiritual resolution to move closer in faith and love to God. Thus, he had asked the pope to not pay him at all. Indeed, the money on this project was short because of the war in Parma. The construction still had to stop simply because he didn't have enough to pay the rest of the workers. Therefore, people in later generation regards Pope Paul III as the hero of the dome construction where in reality, Michelangelo was the one who had continued the project unconditionally.

St. Peter's

V. Conclusion
There has been many copies of Michelangelo's Pieta even in the present days. It still possesses divinity and realism as many people recognized and appreciated. St. Peter has also been a prominent design of church domes all over the world. However, it remains to be the tallest dome in the world because people wanted to preserve the uniquness and devotion to the faith of St. Peter. Today, pilgrims from all over the world are visiting St. Peter's to show their devotion and faithfulness while others are just there to enjoy the maginificent artwork of the church.

VI. Personal Observations
The most surprising thing I found in doing this Michelangelo research is that Micehlangelo died on Feb 18, 1564, which is the day of my birthday. Nevertheless, I was also impressed about the fact that he was a great poet. Here is a great poem he wrote at the end of his life journey. I thought I would share:

"Giunto e gia 'l corso della via mia" (The voyage of my life)

The voyage of my life at last has reached across tempestuous sea,
in fragile boat the common port all must pass through to give cause and account of every evil, every pious deed.

VII. Bibliography
Bull, George, "Michelangelo", Penguin Books, 1995.

Hibbert, Christopher, "Rome", Penguin Books, 1985

King, Ross, "Michelangelo", Penguin Books, 2003

Paoletti, John and Radke, Gary, "Art in Renaissance Italy", Laurence King, 1997.

Vicchi, Roberta, "The Major Basilicas of Rome", Poligrafiche Bolis, 1999.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

S Maria in Trastevere

Anna Schneider
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
The church of S. Maria in Trastevere is located in the heart of the Trastevere neighborhood, near Ponte Sisto. There have been religious meetings on this site for almost two thousand years; early Christians had a legend that an oil spring (fons olei) issued from the ground at this spot and flowed all the way to the Tiber, making this spot portentous. Pope St. Julius I built a church of this name here shortly after the time of Constantine, making it one of the oldest churches dedicated to Maria. The structure that exists today is not St. Julius’s basilica, though. Pope Innocent II tore down that building in 1140 and replaced it with his own, which (with a few renovations) is what one can visit today.

S. Maria in Trastevere

Pope Innocent II was born Gregorio Papereschi, a member of a rich and influential Italian family. At the papal election in early 1130, he got the minority of the vote of the College of Bishops, while his rival Anacletus II got the majority, creating a schism in the Catholic Church. Innocent fled to France, where he was confirmed as the rightful pope at the Synod of Etampes in late 1130, but Anacletus held sway over Rome. Innocent had significant support throughout Europe, especially in France and in the Holy Roman Empire—in the following years he presided over the crowning of the monarchs of both countries, and he was friends with Abbot Suger of St. Denis. In 1133 the Holy Roman Empire went to far as to invade Italy to assist Innocent in reaching the papal throne, but the operation was not able to oust Anacletus. Anacletus died in 1138 and the College of Bishops elected Victor IV to replace him. Victor was not as tenacious as Anacletus, though, and Innocent was able to persuade him to back down and let Innocent assume the papacy. The 10th Ecumenical Council, in 1139, finally laid the dispute to rest by declaring all of Anacletus’s acts to be null and reaffirming Innocent’s authority. Shortly after the Council, in 1140, Innocent started reconstruction of S. Maria in Trastevere as a demonstration of power. S. Maria in Trastevere was chosen because Anacletus had been the bishop of this church, and erasing his church was an important strategic step in erasing his memory.

II. Description
S. Maria in Trastevere is constructed on the basilica floor plan, with a central nave, an apse, and chapels along the sides. It is done in the Romanesque style, popular in the late 1000s and early 1100s, which is characterized by rounded arches, sturdy stonework, and heavy lines. The façade was added in 1702 by Carlos Fontana and features statues of Sts. Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius, who are buried inside and who were important in the early history of this church. On the ceiling inside is a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin that was done by Domenichino in 1617. The beautiful Cosmatesque marble floor is from a 19th-century restoration. Madonna della Clemenza, a 7th-century icon, is displayed in a chapel near the altar.

Midway up the apse is a series of seven mosaics by Pietro Cavallini dating from 1290. They tell the story of the life of Maria: Nativity of the Virgin, Annunciation, Nativity of Christ, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation at the Temple, Death of the Virgin, and, in the center of the apse, Donor in Adoration of the Virgin. Cavallini was an important figure in the early Renaissance, and the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone was heavily influenced by his work. These mosaics are colorful and emotional, and represent Maria as a pretty young woman with delicate, elongated features.


Above the Cavallini mosaics, in the conch of the apse, is a large mosaic that was completed at the time of Innocent II. From left to right, it depicts Innocent II (holding a model of the church to identify him as the donor), St. Lawrence, St. Calixtus, Maria, Christ (centered on the axis of the nave), St. Peter, St. Cornelius, St. Julius, and St. Calepodius.

The figures of Maria and Christ are at once both very traditional and very experimental. First of all, the men’s faces are all done in the Romanesque style—they are shown straight on and have short thick lines, heavy eyebrows, and small expressionless mouths. In contrast, Maria’s face is shown with a slight side view, and she has an elongated nose and lighter, more emotional features in the Byzantine style; she looks more like Cavallini’s Maria than the contemporary of the other figures in her mosaic. Although it has been proposed that Cavallini restored her face, analysis of the mosaic’s structure shows that this could not have occurred. Rather, it appears that Maria’s features are copied from the icon of S. Maria Nova, which was 500 years old in Innocent’s time. (Remember S. Maria Nova, she’ll turn up again later.)

Despite the ancient reference made by Maria’s face, her pose is highly innovative. She is displayed as sponsa, the bride of Christ: she shares his throne, wears his crown, and embraces him. This “synthronos” pose begins to appear in several places in the early-mid 1100s, from Solomon and wife in a French bible to an illustration in the Song of Songs at Cambridge to a similar miniature in a German manuscript, but there is no strong evidence that this mosaic was influenced by any of these sources.

Christ holds an inscription saying “veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum,” and Maria holds one saying “leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplesabitur me.” These are both paraphrases of the liturgy of the Feast of the Assumption festival, which is itself a paraphrase of the Song of Songs.


The nave is lined with mismatched marble columns, 11 on each side. Eight of these (S 5/6, N 3/4, N 5/7, N/S 8) have capitals that are spolia taken from the Baths of Caracalla. They feature the faces of either a young woman whose long hair is covered by a veil, or an older man with a full beard. In the volutes are small, androgynous, playful figures holding their fingers to their lips. Many of the capitals have been damaged over time, but all these figures are clearly discernable on S 5/6.

III. Function
By now you should be curious about what ties the main mosaic together. What could connect early icons of Maria, creative synthronos depiction, and the Song of Songs? The answer lies in the Feast of the Assumption. This festival began in Rome by 757 CE, and continues in some Lazio towns even today. It involves a midnight procession on August 15 in honor of the death of Maria. In Innocent II’s time, a host of clerical and secular officials would walk around Rome carrying the acheropita, an image of Christ not made by human hand. Icons, revered paintings of holy figures, were very important in Catholic worship at this time, and were treated almost as humans. The procession started in S. Giovanni Laterano, went to first to S. Maria Nova (where prayers were said and the icon’s feet were washed), continued to S. Adriano (where the icon’s feet were washed again), and passed S. Lucia in Orphea to end at S. Maria Maggiore. There was an important icon of Maria at S. Maria Nova (remember?), and the icons of Christ and Maria may have bowed to each other there.

Clearly, a main theme of the Feast of the Assumption is Christ’s devotion to his mother. This is reflected in the synthronos theme and in the inscriptions. Christ’s inscription translates as “…I will place in thee my throne,” which in the liturgy refers to Christ placing his throne in the heavenly city of Jerusalem. Liberties have been taken with the translation in the design of the mosaic, though. The depiction is of the slightly modified phrase “I will place thee in my throne,” of Christ honoring his mother by taking her into his throne in the most prominent part of the mosaic. This design supports the Cult of Maria, which was very popular at this time in the Catholic Church.

Innocent II chose to include in this mosaic many allusions to well-known Roman ceremonies and widely held beliefs. This was a smart choice for a pope trying to consolidate his power, because he knew that anyone who entered the church would see the mosaic and recognize its references and agree with his overall statement. Also, there is a more subversive side to this mosaic. When Anacletus was bishop of S. Maria in Trastevere he had the icon of Madonna della Clemenza in a very visible location. By emphasizing S. Maria Nova and relegating Madonna della Clemenza to a much less prominent place in the church, Innocent removed a reminder of Anacletus from visitor’s minds.

IV. Patron
Innocent II was by no means original when he chose to appropriate part of one monument and incorporate into his own. Spoliation had been occurring for centuries. The Theodosian Code of 438 CE put public monuments under the emperor’s protection; the emperor had the power to stop anyone else from damaging monuments, but he could also authorize the removal of spolia for special cases. In the 8th century, after the fall of the empire, a document called the Donation of Constantine was forged, which retroactively gave this same power to the pope. Most popes had a difficult time enforcing their control in that age of barbarian invasions, and in fact the Catholic Church did more looting than any invading force. Innocent realized, as many did, that using spolia was a cheap and easy way to advertise one’s position as Pope, and at this time there was not even a Roman Senate to object.

It is difficult for modern viewers to know what significance medieval churchgoers would have assigned to the three figures in the capitals. Considered in the context of the mosaic, the male/female pair could have referred to numerous religious examples of sponsa—Maria and Christ, Maria and Joseph, Solomon and wife, Adam and Eve, etc. Each of these interpretations would have reinforced the mosaic’s message of divine purity of the depicted partnership. On the other hand, the faces could have been intended to contrast with this message. Many viewers would have recognized the capitals as having come from the Baths of Caracalla, and might have thought that the male figure was the much-despised emperor Caracalla. Very little was known about him by this time because he was put under erasure, but sources say that he slept with his stepmother Julia. People familiar with these sources would then have seen the female figure as Julia, and this unholy union would contrast severely with the divine pair in the mosaic.

There are also several possible interpretations of the third figure. Generally, holding a finger to one’s lips meant the same things in the Middle Ages that it does now: silence or secrecy. It could be the silence of personal prayer or the secrecy associated with imperial power. Or, more abstractly, it could be the misleading ideas and self-deception (as the Catholics saw it) of the false worship conducted by the ancient pagan cultures. Medieval observers would have mixed and matched all these interpretations as they saw fit, but always with the conclusion that worship of Christ and Maria was right and holy.

V. Conclusion
As stated earlier, the synthronos theme was just becoming common when Innocent II commissioned the apse mosaic, and it was continued throughout Europe in the following decades. More than one hundred years later, this mosaic was so influential on Cavallini that he directly copied the style of Maria’s face for his own mosaic series. Even today, the beautiful rich colors and clear piety of the mosaic have persisted and inspire reverence in visitors to S. Maria in Trastevere.


The spolia columns are very interesting to the modern scholar, since we have access to information that people in the Middle Ages did not. In the Baths of Caracalla, the three figures did not symbolize any of the things I have proposed so far: they were in fact the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis/Osiris, and Harpocrates/Horus. Egyptian gods were popular at the time of Caracalla, and Serapis was associated with the Library of Alexandria, so it would make sense for the ancient Romans to depict these gods on the capitals of their bath library. Isis was the goddess of fertility, her husband Serapis was the god of death, and their son Harpocrates was the god of the sun. Harpocrates was often depicted as a child with his finger to his lips, which implied childhood in Egyptian culture—nothing to do with silence.

VI. Personal Observations
I enjoyed learning about the Feast of the Assumption ceremony. It is fascinating to visualize hundreds of people parading through the streets of Rome behind a small and deteriorating painting, singing and praying and expressing their religious fervor. Such a festival was hard to imagine before coming to Rome, but now that I am here I understand how it could have happened. I can still walk down the same narrow and crowded streets, even though it would be impossible to precisely emulate their reverent fervor in the midst of motorbikes and postcard vendors.
A modern Feast of the Assumption ceremony in the US

VII. Bibliography
Kinney, Dale. “Spolia from the Baths of Caracalla in Sta. Maria in Trastevere.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 68, No. 3. (Sep., 1986), pp. 379-397.

Kitsinger, Ernst. “A Virgin’s Face: Antiquarianism in Twelfth-Century Art.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 62, No. 1. (Mar., 1980), pp. 6-19.

Monday, October 4, 2004

Hadrian's Villa: A Roman Masterpiece

Nate Somers
Honors in Rome -- Summer 2004

I. Introduction

Set among the rolling hills in the countryside of Campagna, Hadrian’s Villa graces an area larger than Pompeii with its many pools, baths, fountains and majestic classical architecture. The Villa’s chief architect, the Emperor himself, reinvented the idea of classical Greek architecture in Roman society. But before we examine the scope of Hadrian’s influence we must first become familiar with Rome and her faithful Emperor, Hadrian.

In 117 AD, Rome’s power and grandeur stretched further than ever before. The expansionist emperor Trajan led Roman armies across the Danube in the North and the Euphrates in the East. This is the climax of the Pax Romana, and during these years the Roman Empire enjoyed peace and order throughout its far-reaching states. Innovation and invention were at peak levels with the introduction of new marbles, gems, and other raw materials.

Now enter Emperor Hadrian, a successful army general, learned scholar and philosopher. As commander of the Eastern Army, he came to power after the son-less and dying Trajan adopted him. Though controversy predictably erupted among senators, it was quelled by Hadrian’s unanimous military support and fear of civil war.

Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in AD 76, Hadrian quickly showed an aptitude for academics. He had an incredible memory that allowed him to learn geometry, arithmetic, literature and art at their highest levels. He had a fascination with all things Greek and was said to speak Greek more fluently than Latin, and in some cases demanded that his servants speak in Greek. Said to write speeches for Trajan, he was an eloquent and convincing speaker trained in the art of rhetoric – a quality that brought him success and political influence.

As Emperor, Hadrian spent almost half of his reign travelling the empire. From Britain to Syria, from Athens to Alexandria he founded cities, built roads and temples, erected monuments and heard the concerns Roman populace. This was tremendously important for our purposes. These travels shaped the way Hadrian wanted his Villa to take form.

In AD 118, building and remodelling began on a Republican Villa thirty kilometres outside Rome. While Hadrian was away, intense construction took place until about AD 125 when he returned. We know Hadrian moved his official residence to the Villa at this time based on letters he wrote, and was there until AD 128 when he left for his second major trip. More building took place once again and the Villa was completed in AD 133 or 134. Hadrian would remain at the Villa until he passed away in AD 138.
The Villa was probably inhabited for some time after Hadrian’s death based on the discovery of portraits of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But sadly, as with many of the ancient Roman ruins, the Villa was quarried for the following fifteen hundred years. The twelfth century church Santo Stefano beyond the Villa’s southern boundary was almost entirely constructed with Villa marble, as was the church of San Pietro in Tivoli. Today almost no original art or statuaries remain, centuries of looting by treasure hunters has scattered it all over the world.

Fifteen hundred years of quarrying and almost two thousand years of weather leave the modern viewer struggling to imagine how Hadrian’s Villa would have stood and functioned. But fortunately for us, modern scholarship and research has been able to recreate an accurate picture of this ingenious Emperor’s awesome Villa.

II. Description

Set in the valley below Monti Tiburtini, Hadrian’s choice of location is interesting. Traditional villas, even through the renaissance, were located up on hills where the climate is cooler and the elevation gives the owner perspective as well as protection. Hadrian’s Villa would have been brutally hot in the summer, wet in the winter and without any sort of sweeping view. So why would he choose this site?

Opinions vary, but the most accepted view is that Hadrian’s architectural plans were plain too ambitious to fit on a hillside. The more than thirty massive buildings if placed on a hillside would render walking cumbersome and construction near impossible. The Villa’s tremendous water consumption also meant it had to be close to and below an aqueduct. In fact, Hadrian’s strategic and abundant use of water would more than make up for the warmer temperatures. The site also boasts numerous important building resources including travertine, lime, pozzolana (a type of sand) and tufa. Also worth noting is that the Villa is only 17 roman miles (28 kilometres) from Rome, much closer than had he decided to build up on a hillside.
Two southeast-northwest valleys, almost parallel and five hundred meters apart, define the length of the site. The valleys’ streams, now dry, are bordered by red tufa cliffs, giving the Villa separation and privacy. Between streams, the land is variable and irregular as is common in the Campagna region.

The irregular land therefore dictated the layout of Hadrian’s Villa. Unlike most villas of his age, there is no main or central axis. Rather, the uneven terrain forced the creation of several axes and though most buildings are symmetrical and some buildings are orthogonally related, there appears to be no central organization. Thus, if one were to look at just an aerial overview of the site, it would appear confused and poorly planned. But this was not the case.

To physically describe a site larger, and in some ways more complex, than Pompeii is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we will focus on the Villa’s most innovative or unique structures, thereby capturing the importance of Hadrian’s Villa.

The first building we will discuss is the Pecile. It was built to represent the Greek Stoa Poecile in Athens which hosted the greatest Greek paintings. Hadrian’s Pecile probably served the same purpose with its dimensions measuring 232 by 97 meters. If one were to walk around the quadriportico seven times, he would walk two roman miles. This is in accordance with the rules of ambulatio, defined as the doctor recommended distance one should stroll after lunch. It was originally surrounded by four, nine meter walls with a colonnaded interior. These columns, along with the outer walls, supported a wooden roof. Installed in the center of the quadriportico lies a large rectangular pool measuring 100 by 25 meters. It is important to realize that while visiting the Pecile, there would have been four isolating walls, creating peaceful solitude for residents or guests.

Exiting the Pecile in the Northeast corner, one will walk into the Philosophers’ Chamber used for large meetings. This apsidal structure was once covered by a large vaulted ceiling, still somewhat intact today. Underneath the vault are seven niches, each one hosting a different philosopher’s statue. The entire structure was faced in marble, none of which remains today. Also lost, is the coffering that once decorated the ceiling.

Leaving once again to the northeast, we will enter the most famous structure at the Villa: the Maritime Theatre (photo 3). According the Epistles by Pliny the Younger, it was quite common to build a Villa within a Villa. The Maritime Theatre, also descriptively called the Island Enclosure, is exactly that, only on a grand and revolutionary scale. No comparable structure had been built before this. The large circular enclosure, forty-four meters in diameter (very close to Hadrian’s Pantheon at 43.5 meters) has its main entrance facing north, just as the Pantheon. Just inside the outer wall and surrounding the moat is a ring of forty unfluted Ionic columns. To cross the moat in Hadrian’s day, one would have stepped over wooden draw bridges that could be retracted, now we step over on a cement bridge. Running on a north-south axis, the island contains twenty-two defined spaces. The Room enclosures alternate beteen a semicircular plan and a square plan, an innovative layout unique to Hadrian’s villa. The island includes such facilities as: a lounge, a library with symmetrical side rooms, heated baths with a frigidarium, three suites with heated floors, washbasin, a subterranean art gallery, and a large fountain down the long axis. Connecting the baths to the moat is a stairway suggesting that the moat was also used as a natatio, or swimming pool. Researchers are confident that Hadrian himself designed the island based on his love for architecture, its similarities with the Pantheon and Pliny the Younger’s writing on the subject.

The Hospitalia and Imperial Triclinium form the heart of the Villa, housing and containing offices necessary for imperial business. The white and black mosaic tesserae paving, though some of the best preserved mosaics in the Villa, suggest that this was not in any way occupied by the emperor himself. However, the large atrium suggests that this was the main entrance to the Villa. Central to the function of the Villa, this area contained a library, rooms and many meeting rooms for the many magistrates and bureaucrats.

Just east of the Imperial Triclinium is the Piazza d’Oro (photo 4). As the name suggests, this is one of the most elaborate and ornate complexes on the grounds. Though centuries of looting and quarrying left it almost bare, during the 18th Century it was here that some of the most important art was found. Imperial portraits, meticulously carved friezes and intricate marble flooring were all found here. Most impressive however was the extensive use of water. At the rear is a large semicircular nympheum from which water poured out of seven niches. The water flowed out of yellow marble set upon purple marble platforms. The water then flowed into the fountains of the central chamber and then flowed down into more minor fountains below. Here in this court, one would be surrounded by lush gardens, impressed by fine statuary and refreshed by the sound of running water.

Just beyond Piazza d’Oro is the Canopus (photo 5). This long pool, measuring 119 by 18 meters, was built to remind Hadrian of the Canal built between the Nile and Alexandria, one of his favourite cities. The pool was colonnaded and each column was structurally linked to the next with alternating straight and semicircular marble (see picture titled Canopus). At the end is a large nympheum in the form of an exedrae called the Serapeum and would have been used as a dining room. Hadrian’s Villa was known for the parties thrown at the Canopus; it was the place to be.

And, finally, the all-important Roman baths. There are the Small Baths and the Grand Baths, however, again the nomenclature is misleading. The grand baths were larger, less refined and thus used by servants, guards and other middle class workers. The Small baths were sophisticated and one of the most luxurious areas of the Villa. Let us further examine.

The façade is a Republican vestige incorporated into Hadrian’s new Villa. Oriented north, a common theme for Hadrien, one enters into an obviously atypical Roman structure. The octagonal chamber with walls that alternate between flat and concave surface continue Hadrian’s architectural theme. Overhead is a dome ceiling and below are the remnants of opus sectile mosaic. The divergent curvature of this room and the surrounding rooms create an artistic rather than functional environment. The circular planning of the baths is consistent with the other Hadrianic structures, such as the Maritime Theatre, but again is unique. We have no knowledge of any other Villa during this time of similar style. In fact, if one compares the layout of the Villa with its many divergent axis and pools to the floor plan of the Small baths, he will discover that they are strikingly similar, almost as if the baths were a model of the Villa itself.

Left out of this section was Hadrian’s art collection. Thousands of statues, portraits, mosaics, and frescoes have been completely destroyed or stolen from the site. From what we have regrouped into museums today (a good chunk of it’s in the Capitoline!), it is apparent that Hadrian boasted one of the most extensive and varied private art collections of all time. No original art remains at the site today, thus when visiting the Villa, one must keep this in mind and try to imagine the grandiosity of Hadrian’s Villa.

III. Function

Hadrian, the most powerful man in the world, needed a Villa worthy of his title.
A proper villa is a place for restful leisure, or otium. Based on Pliny the Younger’s extensive writing on the ‘proper villa’, we have a good idea of what a wealthy Roman would expect from his Villa. Key to a villa is the setting. Mountains, sea, climate and seasonal winds all come in to play. Nature is sculpted by gardeners, watermen and architects, transforming the raw into the refined. Villas can for the most part sustain themselves, with farmlands (which interestingly, both commoners and aristocrats worked), ample firewood, cattle, wineries and granaries. Jet fountains and pools, distinguishing and sustaining features of any villa, are artfully incorporated into the landscape and design of the Villa.

The overall layout of a villa, contrary to renaissance villas, is asymmetrical. Each buildings function will determine its relative position. Baths face south-west to capture the heat of the day. Temples often face north. Residential areas will open up in the direction of the summer breeze. Libraries and work areas capture an intended view. Every detail is taken into consideration and each building deliberately placed. Indoor activity takes place on the ground floor, although there are usually upper levels, as is definitely the case in Hadrian’s Villa. Every room is designed for a specific purpose, suites for reception, dining rooms, bathing rooms, reading rooms, and working rooms. All rooms have their associated staff and kitchens. Courtyards provide light and space for gardens and fountains. More secluded satellite areas are reached by colonnades. Theatres and Gladiator arenas provide entertainment for all. If one’s wanting an isolated contemplative area, step into the quadriportico, or into a satellite courtyard. No surface goes undecorated. Frescoes cover dining room walls often painted to give the feeling that one is outdoors. Mosaics cover the floors. Statues, carvings and portraits are placed throughout the villa.

Hadrian’s Villa in terms of its function is not very different from other imperial villas. Functionally, Hadrian needed a Villa from which he could run the empire. What sets Hadrian’s Villa apart is the unique architecture and enormous size.

IV. Patron

Emperor Hadrian, the patron, wanted a Villa as impressive as his empire was. Because he conducted official business from the Villa, many guests of stature and leaders from other states would need to visit the Villa. Thus, Hadrian needed the Villa to impress not only himself, but the many guests. Taking advantage of his newly strengthened lines of communication, he was able to acquire rare and valuable materials from all over the empire. Artisans, watermen, gardeners and architects were all kept on the Villa as full time staff. Hadrian no doubt completed his goal of creating a powerful impression on all his visitors; his visitors are today still amazed by the size and grandeur of the Villa.

V. Conclusion

Hadrian’s Villa had an enormous impact on the design of renaissance villas. During the renaissance, the villa as an architectural conception was revived. The only problem for the renaissance architects was that in their search for otium they did not have many examples of Roman villas. They were forced to draw on writings by Pliny the Younger, Cicero and Horace. The extraordinary influence exerted by Hadrian’s Villa on renaissance villa and landscape design derives from the fact that its owner and creator was known through these surviving writings.

Many prominent renaissance architects visited and sketched the Villa. Bramante and his design for the Belvedere Court is an obvious example. Known to have visited Hadrian’s Villa, he designed the magnificent Belvedere Court for Pope Julius II. The Belvedere court with its gardens, fountains, areas for spectacles, accommodations for the display of statuary, and long passages linking separate structures all remind one of a peaceful roman Villa. But more convincing still is Bramante’s interplay of straight and curved lines, a unique feature to Hadrian’s Villa but certainly not to renaissance architecture.

Another good example of Hadrian’s renaissance influence is Raphael’s design of Villa Madama. Set on the slope of Monte Mario, this villa enjoys a wide view of the Tiber valley. Raphael, like the Romans, worked with the land to produce a seamless intersection between nature and buildings. This villa had a circular colonnaded courtyard, entrance facing north with passages to a secret garden. Circular courtyards were unprecedented in fifteenth century architecture. What makes this courtyard even more unique is that it was colonnaded. Among the available ancient sources for these renaissance architects to draw from, there are two at Hadrian’s Villa: the Island Enclosure and the Circular hall.

Thus, because of the lack of written history and surviving roman villas, Hadrian’s villa became a key resource for renaissance architects. From the above examples and the many more, we can see that Hadrian had a disproportionate influence on renaissance architecture.

VI. Personal Observations

In researching this topic I had to do general research on Roman villas. The amount of thought, time and a resources that went into just designing a villa blew me away. The way Roman’s respected and incorporated nature into their villa experience, with water, gardens, views, and even down to the direction of seasonal winds, really gave me an appreciation for their architecture.

VII. Bibliography

Adembri, Benedetta. "Hadrian's Villa". Electa: Milan, 2000.

MacDonald, Willam. "Hadrian's Villa and It's Legacy". Yale University Press: New Haven, 1995.

MacDonald, Willam. "Hadrian's Circles".

Websites Referenced:

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Shedding Light on Caravaggio

Keli Holzapfel
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction


In the late 16th century, the Baroque style was starting to emerge. This period is characterized by open compositions with elements, often times placed diagonally, that encourage the illusion of movement. A loose and free technique was consistently used among artists. Artists also tried to create a sense of unity among the different elements or figures.
Along with this new style, in the early 17th century, there was a revival in naturalism. Here the aim was to reproduce nature without any improvements. This was brought about by a new interest in the natural sciences, such as biology, anatomy, physics and astronomy. One important follower of this new interest in the natural sciences was Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.

Also during this time the Counter Reformation was influencing the subject matter and its representations in art. It encouraged a renewal in the interest in martyrs. In the depiction of these martyrs, the Catholic Church encouraged the images to be visually and emotionally appealing so as to encourage piety and faith in heretics as well as to inspire present worshipers. With these representations of horrifying scenes of martyrdom, the Church wanted to reach the largest audience possible in order to regain Catholic worshipers. As a result, this time period is marked by the patronage of the Catholic Church and Catholic nobility in Rome.

A popular figure of influence in Rome at the time was Saint Filippo. At this time he created a religious atmosphere of the simplicity of faith and mystic devotion. He also exemplified humility, realism and was characterized as not only emotionally profound, but also as lacking of class consciousness. His popularity in Rome was felt in throughout society, and several of Caravaggio’s patrons were involved in Saint Filipo’s inner circle of the Congregation of Oratory. Saint Filippo died five years after Caravaggio arrived in Rome, and most likely influenced the young Caravaggio during this short time.


In 1571, Michelangelo Merisi was born in Caravaggio, a small town in the region of Lombardy, which later became his namesake. At a young age he started to work under the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. Here he was influenced by Lombardy art, which is characterized by a realistic style with careful drawing and an interest in still-life. During this time Caravaggio’s paintings reflect this style, in which he painted mostly still life.
In 1592 he arrived in Rome. Although not confirmed, it is suggested that before his apprenticeship with Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino, Caravaggio fell ill and was taken to the Hospital della Consolazione. It is here that Caravaggio was first introduced to the Congregation of the Oratory and Saint Filippo, which later influenced his religious paintings. As mentioned above, once in Rome Caravaggio worked for Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino. It is through this artist who was gaining popularity, especially with the Pope, that Caravaggio’s work was shown to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Soon after Cardinal del Monte took Caravaggio into his home, supporting the realism portrayed in his paintings. At this time Caravaggio continued to paint still-lifes with half figures, but started to include low-life genre scenes as well. Cardinal del Monte encouraged Caravaggio’s unique style of detailed realism, reflecting his own interest in observation of natural sciences. Through Cardinal del Monte Caravaggio not only continued to be introduced to other powerful figures in Rome, for example to Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, but also received his first public commission at the Cardinal's recommendation. On July 23, 1599 Caravaggio signed the contract to paint The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. On September 24, 1600, Caravaggio received his second public commission to paint The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which he received through the recommendation of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani. Later, after rejecting the sculpture of Jacob Cobaert as the altar piece for the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio was commission to paint the altarpiece on February 7, 1602, of which the subject was St. Matthew and the Angel. From his first public commission in July 1599 to fleeing Rome in May 1606, Caravaggio obtained six public commissions that included five altarpieces and four lateral paintings. Also during this time Caravaggio built up a reputation for himself throughout Rome. He wandered the streets, clothed in a black cloak and always carrying a sword. He constantly engaged in fights, being easily provoked, and often was seen with a gang of artists whose motto was “Without hope or fear.” During this time what is known about Caravaggio’s personal life is depicted through his voluminous police record.

In May of 1606, after losing a tennis match, Caravaggio argued with the victor and ended with Caravaggio fleeing from Rome as a murder fugitive. He first fled to Genua, then Zagarola, Naples, and Malta. In Malta he painted the portrait of the Grand Master of Knights. Later Caravaggio insulted a member of their order, and was again forced to flee, but this time to Sicily. After several commissions here, he returned to Naples and was ambushed by the Knights and wounded. At this point, he decided to sail back to Rome in hope of a pardon. Along the shore he was unjustly imprisoned by the Spanish Guard, and when they realized he was the wrong man and released Caravaggio, his transport with all of his belongings was gone. It is recorded that he then ran along the Porto d’Ercole in the summer heat in search for the transport and collapsed. He later developed a fever and died on July 18th, 1610, just short of receiving a pardon to enter Rome, decreed by the Pope on July 31st.


Caravaggio’s first public commission was for the Frenchman Matteu Contrel (Matteo Contarelli in Italian), who was appointed Cardinal in 1583. Contarelli bought the chapel in the French National Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to be his burial site. In 1565 he commissioned Girolamo Muziano to paint the walls, altarpiece and vault with six scenes of the life of St. Matthew, his patron saint. In 1585 Contarelli died, leaving the responsibility of decorating the chapel to the Crescenzi family. Later in 1587, the Crescenzi family hired Jacob Cobaert to sculpt the altarpiece, and in 1591 they commissioned Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino to paint the frescoes on the vault. During this time it is possible that Caravaggio, who was under the apprenticeship of Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino, worked on these frescoes. Muziano died in 1592, never having completed any work on the chapel, and with increasing commissions from the Pope, Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino also neglected to finish his work. Cobaert too failed to complete the altarpiece until 1602. In 1599, after over thirty years of an incomplete chapel, the priests at San Luigi dei Francesi appealed to the Fabbrica di San Pietro to take over the responsibility of finishing the chapel, claiming that the Crescenzi family was refraining from finishing the decoration of the chapel in order to live off the interest of the money that was left for this purpose. On July 23, 1599, the Fabbrica di San Pietro, with the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, commissioned Caravaggio to paint the lateral walls of the chapel with The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Included in this contract were guidelines requested by Cardinal Contarelli before his death concerning the figures in the paintings and their placement within them. Later, with the rejection of Jacob Cobaert’s sculpture as the altarpiece, the priests commissioned Caravaggio on February 7, 1602 to paint the altarpiece of St. Matthew and the Angel. The first version of this was deemed inappropriate, causing Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani to intervene, calming an angry Caravaggio. Giustiniani bought the original piece, and commissioned Caravaggio to repaint the St. Matthew and the Angel that is now in the Contarelli Chapel.


Caravaggio’s second public commission was for Tiberio Cerasi. Cerasi was born in 1544 and practiced law in the papal court. Eventually he left this position to pursue an ecclesiastical career. In 1556 he acquired enough wealth to buy the post of Treasurer General to the Apostolic Chamber, putting himself in charge of papal expenditure. This also put him into contact with Marchese Vincenzio Giustiniani, who was the Depositary General to the Apostolic Chamber and in charge of receiving and disbursing funds. Through this connection, Marchese Vincenzio Giustiniani recommended Caravaggio to Cerasi to paint the lateral walls of his chapel. On September 24, 1600, Caravaggio was contracted to paint two cypress panels just over two meters high for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In the contract he was specified to provide figural drawings (called bozzetti) to the patron before painting. The first paintings of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter were rejected and acquired by Cardinal Sannesio. Today the only original of The Conversion of St. Paul remains in existence. Caravaggio then finished the two paintings of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter that can be viewed in the chapel today.



The Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel are all situated in the dimly lit Contarelli Chapel. To see these paintings, the viewer had to make an effort to go directly to the Chapel in able to discern the specific details and subject matter of each painting.

The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew appear on the lateral walls of the chapel, while St. Matthew and the Angel is placed in the middle of the two paintings as the altarpiece.

In the Cerasi Chapel, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter occupy the lateral walls. This Chapel is also dark, again requiring the observer to physically walk over to the painting in order to properly view them. It is also important to note that Caravaggio took into account that these paintings were to be located on the lateral walls. As a result, he painted them to be seen from an angle, not from straight ahead. He also created diagonals in these paintings toward the altar of the Chapel, drawing the viewers attention from his paintings to the altar.


The commission for the Contarelli Chapel works marks the beginning of Caravaggio’s religious paintings, and continued not only with the Cerasi Chapel paintings, but to Caravaggio’s death. Each one exemplified his new innovative techniques of chiascuro and tenebrism. Chiascuro is an Italian word designating the contrast of dark and light in a painting, creating spatial depth and volumetric forms through slight gradations in the intensity of light and shadow. Tenebrism is a term signifying the use of strong chiascuro and artificially illuminated areas to create a dramatic contrast of light and dark in a painting. Along with the use of chaiscuro and tenebrism, Caravaggio’s paintings showed a new religious intensity and psychology. His religious scenes make devotion more human and accessible to the worshiper. To create a more emotional appeal, he used dark colors to create his forms instead of the soft tints of earlier painters in order to convey the realness and flesh and blood of the his figures. All of these characteristics, as well as symbolism and carefully planned composition, all emerge in Caravaggio’s paintings in the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel.


In The Calling of St. Matthew, the background is dark, creating a dramatic highlight of the figures in the painting from an outside light. The outside light is from an unknown source and falls more directly on the figure of St. Matthew. Christ and St. Peter are standing on the right side of the painting. Christ has his arm stretched outward toward Saint Matthew, his hand in a pointing gesture that perfectly imitates the pointing gesture painted by Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. The beam of light leads the viewer’s eye from the figure of Christ to St. Matthew. St. Matthew repeats the pointing gesture of Christ questioningly at himself, with an expression of shock clearly shown on his face. Caravaggio chose to paint this scene when St. Matthew is in-between is new life as an Apostle and his old life as a tax collector. This juxtaposition can be seen by the fact that his other hand is fondling a pile of gold at his side, and there is even a coin stuck in his hat. This represents his mindset: half of his mind is occupied by the sin of his life centered around money and the other half of his mind, shown by his surprised gesture and his focus on Christ with the light highlighting him, is turned toward the salvation from Christ. This theme of sin versus salvation is further conveyed by the composition of the other figures in the piece, especially with the figures arranged around St. Matthew. The two figures on his right notice the Christ and are looking into the light away from the money on the table. They have a chance to be saved. On the left of St. Matthew, the figures are concentrating so much on the money, they do not see the light, and thus miss salvation. The old man standing, leaning hunched over further shows this through his use of spectacles. The use of spectacles in paintings was a device used to signify short-sightedness. In this painting, the short-sightedness is due to money, and the man cannot see past mortal richness to reach eternal enlightenment.
Another feature of this painting is the comparison between Christ and St. Peter, and St. Matthew and his cohorts around the table. St. Matthew and his friends are dressed in bright modern clothes. This places them in a certain time frame compared to the dark robes of Christ and St. Peter, which humble and somber, are almost timeless. The men around the table are also wearing shoes unlike the barefoot Christ and St. Peter. It also shows the importance of material goods to the men at the table instead of the humble and divine focus of Christ and St. Peter.
The placement of St. Peter is also important in this painting. There is uncertainty whether St. Peter was added in later, or was meant to appear in the painting from the beginning, which has also sparked several theories about his positioning. One is that he was placed there to appease the instructions given to him by the patron to have Christ and his followers in the painting. Another theory is that St. Peter is placed in front of Christ in order to make the figure of Christ more obscure. The last theory of the position of St. Peter is that he is placed in-between the figure of Christ and viewer to signify that to reach salvation and Christ, the viewer must first go through the church, which is represented by St. Peter.
The surroundings of the painting also hold meaning as well as controversy. The window above Christ has a frame in the shape of a cross, which is well placed symbolism for the religious painting. Behind the men around the table, on the left side of the painting, there is a dark strip of paint. This could be the corner of a building, showing that the men are actually outside of Roman Palace, and not in the interior of a building. Another marker of whether the scene takes place inside or outside is that the window has a shutter that opens towards the viewer. These make it seem as though the scene is taking place outside. Others believe that it is an interior due to the fact that the men are gathered around a table, and the light from outside of the painting is shining into the darkness of the room. No one knows the correct interpretation.
One last key features of this painting is the technique in which the figures are painted. The colors used by Caravaggio create voluminous figures that seem to invade the viewer’s space, especially when the light falls on them. It is also interesting to note that the figure of Christ seems to be striding forward, yet his feet are pointing toward the viewer.


Similar to The Calling of St. Matthew, the background of St. Matthew and the Angel is dark. The figures of St. Matthew and the Angel are highlighted with a light from an unknown source, again creating a more dramatic effect. The subject of the painting is St. Matthew, in a moment of inspiration from the angel above him, writing his part of the Gospel. Since the Gospel is one of St. Matthew’s greatest achievements, it is placed in the most important place as the altarpiece. In a moment of inspiration, St. Matthew is sitting on the edge of his bench. The bench itself is almost falling of the edge of the painting into the viewer’s space. St. Matthew is deep in thought as he writes with the angel above him, ticking off the genealogy of Christ on his fingers. Both figures are fully swathed with drapery. The figure of St. Matthew himself is that of a mature philosopher. Unlike the first version, this version of St. Matthew is more similar to Caravaggio’s other portrayals of the saint.
The composition of the painting is vertical. The viewer is drawn from the angel above and then down to St. Matthew writing the Gospel. The exact position of the angel is unknown. Although the angel looks as though he is coming out toward the painting, and thus closer to the viewer than St. Matthew, St. Matthew is actually turning away from the viewer to look at the angel. This gives the impression that the angel is on the other side of St. Matthew.
The position of the angel above St. Matthew exhibits the hierarchical relationship between the angel and St. Matthew. The true divinity of the relationship is shown by the tilt of the angel’s head toward St. Matthew and the tilt of St. Matthew’s head toward the angel. Both are fully involved in this transcendental moment. It has also been hypothesized that Caravaggio painted the figure of the angel based off of theater actors who hang from wires.


After stopping work on the first version of this piece due to difficulty in painting his first large scale work with multiple figures (the original can be seen underneath through the use of x-ray technology), Caravaggio painted The Calling of St. Matthew and then successfully continued work on The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The subject of this piece is the execution of St. Matthew in the temple he converted into a Catholic Church. Continuing the use of a dark atmosphere with a light from an unknown source focusing on the main subject of the piece, Caravaggio created dramatic effects with light as well as using the light to make his figures appear to be in three dimensions. The main focus of the painting is on St. Matthew, laying helplessly on his back with the half nude executioner standing above him with his sword raised. Caravaggio chose to portray the exact moment before St. Matthew’s death, and perhaps showing the moment when the executioner pauses briefly before swiftly bringing the blade upon St. Matthew. St. Matthew is elevated off the ground on steps, and the columns in the back of the scene can barely be discerned. The figure of St. Matthew has his hand raised in defense and is also wounded. The curve of the angel over St. Matthew’s head is juxtaposed with the sharpness of the executioner. Here, Caravaggio creates three lines of movement that draw the attention of the viewer not only to the main action of the piece, but also to a cross. The three lines of movement are from the arm of St. Matthew, the sword of the executioner, and the palm of the martyr being lowered by an angel on a cloud. It is interesting to note here that the angel is precariously lowering the palm, the symbol of a martyr, on a cloud due to the fact that the angel cannot yet fly.
Around the executioner and St. Matthew chaos is ensuing among those in the presence of this murder. These people, with terrorized expressions, are fleeing the scene. The light falls on random parts of these people, for instance part of a hand, adding confusion to the piece and emotionally drawing the viewer into the subject matter. This helps to frame the focus on the murder. The murder is further framed by the use of half nudes in the bottom corners. It has been suggested that these were men about to be baptized by St. Matthew, before his murder, and that, if the painting were to be extended below, there a pool of water present. In the back of the painting, there are modern figures dressed in contemporary clothing as well as a self-portrait of Caravaggio. The modern figures serve to remind the viewer to remember the sacrifices made by those in the past, and that they should continue to observe these sacrifices in the present.
The man in the back can be identified as the self-portrait of Caravaggio by other self-portraits as well as the dark hair, big nostrils, and arching thick eyebrows. Although the exact reason Caravaggio placed himself in this work is unknown, it has been remarked that he is King Herticus in the painting, and thus marking the beginning of his fatalistic and tragic portrayal of his own self image. The placement of a self-portrait in this painting could also be taken from the Renaissance artists, for whom it was common to paint their self-portrait in their paintings as their signature. This could be the influence of Raphael, who did practice this type of signature in his paintings. Since the x-rays taken from the first attempt of this painting shows that Caravaggio must have studied some of Raphael’s work due to the similar technique used, it is very likely that Caravaggio copied this device.


Caravaggio painted a first version of The Conversion of St. Paul, but, for reasons that remain unclear, he painted also second version of it. The first version of this piece is not only in an extremely different style, but the portrayal of the subject and figures in the piece are completely different in the two versions. In the second version, the one that now hangs in the Cesari Chapel, the subject is of St. Paul as he is receiving the light of God after being thrown off his horse. The figures in this painting are kept to a minimum. Only St. Paul, his horse, and the groom of the horse are present. This is meant to keep the focus on St. Paul, as well as to convey the extremely personal and intimate moment that St. Paul is experiencing. His arms are stretched upwards, receiving the light of God, in a position of helplessness on his back. This pose is reminiscent of the pose of St. Matthew in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Also, as is characteristic of Caravaggio’s paintings, the background is very dark despite the fact that the scene is recorded as taking place mid-day. The only source of light is that from God. For the first time in the depiction of this scene, Caravaggio paints the light of God with no figural personification. This helps to give the painting a sense of divinity and heightens the highlighting of the ecstasy exhibited by St. Paul.
Caravaggio has chosen to show the scene without any action. The horse above him is calm, showing very little movement. In fact, this painting has almost no movement at all. The only other movement besides the movement shown by the horse is the up-stretched arms of St. Paul. The use of the horse in this painting could be a device used by Renaissance artists to help fill up the space in the painting as well as frame the main focus of the painting. The enormous rump of the horse helps to lead the viewer down onto the figure of St. Paul.
The expression on St. Paul’s face is one of both ecstasy and divine acceptance. His eyes are closed, signifying both the physical blindness he will experience for the next three days, as well as his previous spiritual blindness to the enlightened of God. The figure of St. Paul is also that of a young man with no distinguishing features. He was a great sinner, he persecuted the Christians, yet by the mercy and power of God, he has been chosen and converted to the path of enlightenment. This gives hope to even the greatest sinner that he too can be forgiven by God if he leaves his sinning for the path of enlightenment. On the edges of the light that is shining down on St. Paul, Caravaggio painted little white dots on the edges so that they will sparkle in the presence of real light, heightening the divinity of the light and creating a more emotional response from the viewer. The enlightened of St. Paul is juxtaposed with the figure of the groom. Although this figure does have a small amount of light on him, it is clear from his stance and position in that painting that although he is lighted, he is not enlightened. The purpose of this painting is to show through the divine intervention of God on the sinner Saul, anyone can be saved and enlightened through the His divine will.


In contrast to the inaction of The Conversion of St. Paul, The Crucifixion of St. Peter is shown in the middle of movement. Following the example of Michelangelo, Caravaggio depicts this scene as the cross is being raised. He paid special attention to the way in which he portrays this movement, attempting to make it look realistic. It is possible that he used models in order to do this, which is can be seen by the straining muscles of the men lifting the cross. For example, one of the worker’s bulging veins and the redness of his hand is depicted as a direct result of raising the cross. Another executioner exhibits a bulge of flesh where his jacket cuts his waist as he pulls the rope.
As is typical in Caravaggio paintings, the background is dark, with a source of light falling on the main subject, which is St. Peter. The executioners around him are not lit at all. Instead they serve as an unattached physical mechanism raising the cross and pushing St. Peter closer to his death. They also help to frame the painting, drawing the viewer’s attention to the figure of St. Peter. The large rear end and dirty bare feet of the executioner on the left help to draw in the attention of the viewer, since the Cerasi Chapel is dark, and once the viewer is close to the painting, draw his attention to St. Peter.
The figure of St. Peter is made more dramatic by the light shining down on him. He is being crucified upside down (he claims he is not honorable enough to die in the same way as Christ), yet shows extreme calmness and serenity. He looks down, toward the altar of the chapel. St. Peter himself is portrayed with monumental massiveness, even for his old age. He is accepting of his death, and the scene, without an audience, releases an intimate vibe, appealing to emotions of the viewer and inviting them to participate in the extreme faith in the salvation of God shown by St. Peter. The main theme of this painting is faith, which can also be seen by the symbolism of the rock placed under St. Peter, signifying St. Peter as the rock of faith with which the church was founded.
Caravaggio also used an illusionism in this painting. Although it looks as though St. Peter is being crucified on an upside-down cross, he is actually only attached to one board. There is no cross beam. Instead, his left arm is stretched along the same board as his body.

III. Function


The paintings in the Contarelli Chapel were meant to continue the honoring of Cardinal Contarelli’s patron saint, St. Matthew, and to allow the general public to see the highlights of the Saint’s life and death. In painting the scenes of the calling, martyrdom and inspiration for the gospel of St. Matthew, Caravaggio did much more than just simply portray St. Matthew in an honorable fashion. He brought the sacred scene into the space of the viewer, helping them to identify with the scene taking place. His voluminous figures and often architectural positioning caused the viewer to feel as though the figures were coming out of the painting. This is most notably seen with St. Matthew and the Angel, in which the bench St. Matthew sits on is tilting off of the edge of the painting into the viewer’s space. The dark atmosphere of all of the paintings, along with the highlight of the figures from a light source outside of the painting, creates a highly dramatized effect. This contributes to the emotional response felt by the viewer. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the painting was meant to portray the salvation of St. Matthew from his life as the tax collector. Although his life started out in sin, once he followed Christ, he was saved. This conveys a message of hope for the sinful viewer as well as the forgiving nature of God. In The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the viewer is reminded of the sacrifices that were made by St. Matthew in the name of Christ. The men on the left-hand side in modern dress among those who witnessed St. Matthew’s martyrdom represents the need for those in the present to recognize and remember the sacrifices made by those in the past. In St. Matthew and the Angel, the divine inspiration of God is portrayed. With St. Matthew in a moment of sudden inspiration with the angel, the divinity and power of God is seen as he writes one of his most important accomplishments of his life, his part of the Gospel. Along with the different messages conveyed by each painting, the viewer was meant to feel a deep religious response as they interpret the scene in all its realism and darkness. The final effect was that of the common person experiencing the divinity of God through the medium of painting as a way to make the supernatural tangible.


The same is true for the Cerasi Chapel. Although the patron had to approve of the design of the paintings, there was no other intended viewer of the scenes except for the public. In these paintings, The Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, the minimal amount of figures in addition to the saint were meant to signify the deeply personal experience felt by the saint. There is no audience shown, just the saints in their state of divinity. In the Conversion of St. Paul, the inaction of the picture magnifies the experience of St. Paul as the light floods over his body. His outstretched arms signify his acceptance of his salvation. Here the viewer also sees the horse, who takes up a large part of the composition. First the viewer’s eyes are drawn to its enormous rear, and then following the outstretched arms, to the figure of St. Paul on his back with his eyes closed in ecstasy. The horse also looks fairly calm, as if it is was not the horse that threw St. Paul to the God, but instead it was through the power of God that St. Paul is now helplessly laying the ground. The message conveyed here is the power of God, as well as the arbitrary nature in which God chooses Saul to become St. Paul. The viewer notices that St. Paul is conveyed here as a young man, who has no distinguishable features of a saint. He also was a Roman soldier persecuting the Christians before his conversion. Together, these facts give hope to the viewer for their own salvation. If God can forgive someone who was killing his followers and looks like a common youth, than he can also forgive the sins of the viewer who most likely is someone from the general public stopping at the church.
On the opposite side, the viewer sees a scene in action and movement. From a distance, the viewer is drawn to the dark painting, and first comes upon the large rear end of an executioner with very dirty feet. At first this seems like a joke, until the viewer is led from the executioner to the main focus of the painting, which is St. Peter’s crucifixion. In The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the main message conveyed to the viewer is faith. Not only is there a rock placed boldly in the front plane of the painting signifying St. Peter as the rock of faith with which the Catholic Church was founded, but St. Peter himself is looking toward the altar. Even in the moments before his death by crucifixion, he still is showing faith to God. All the figures around him are very mechanical, and uninvolved in the emotional part of the painting. This is a very intimate scene showing St. Peter’s faith in his last moments before death. As in the other paintings by Caravaggio, the background and atmosphere are dark, except for a light from an unknown source highlighting St. Peter on the cross. This draws the viewer’s attention to the act of raising the cross, and then to St. Peter and his calm and serene demeanor as this brutal crucifixion is occurring. Again, this calm expression in the face of death further emphasizes St. Peter’s faith, exemplifying to the general public what is true faith.

IV. Patron

For these particular works, Caravaggio had significant freedom in how to paint each individual picture. At the time of his first public commissions, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the original patron for these pieces had died thirty years earlier. Although Contarelli did leave outlines for the paintings, Caravaggio only loosely followed them. He only really followed the guideline for the subject of the painting, for it was the wish of Contarelli to have scenes of his patron saint in his chapel, and the general situation of the moment portrayed.
For St. Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio was commissioned by the priests of San Luigi dei Francesi. His first portrayal of this piece was rejected. To the priests, the painting failed to show St. Matthew as dignified. They felt he was shown as common and illiterate, with the angel basically writing the Gospel instead of the angel purely inspiring St. Matthew. This portrayal was considered unbefitting for the saint, and Caravaggio was forced to paint another version of St. Matthew and the Angel. In this new portrayal, he represents the Saint with the dignity required by the church, showing St. Matthew more in a moment of inspiration from the angel.

Although the patron was alive for his second public commissions, Cesari had little stipulations for Caravaggio’s paintings for his chapel. His only requirement was for Caravaggio to show him a drawing of the scene before he painted it. However, it is interesting to note that Caravaggio painted both of these scenes, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and later completely started over. It is unknown whether these were rejected by Cerasi or if Caravaggio simply decided to repaint them after seeing Annibale Caracci’s Assumption as the altarpiece.
In all of his paintings, the present movement towards naturalism can be seen. Caravaggio paints his figures realistically, leaving out any idealization of the Renaissance. This caused much controversy and debate, as well as induced a plethora of criticism from the classicalists. They called Caravaggio unimaginative, stating that he only knew how to copy from nature. They also criticized his use of dark atmosphere/background, stating that he used this device to hide his inability to paint due to his lack in classical training. Although these criticisms were prevalent at the time, many more people of the time found his style to be unique and innovative, spreading his style throughout Western Europe as well as in Italy both during his life and after his death.

During Caravaggio’s youth, and during his first couple years in Rome, Filippo Neri was very popular all over Rome. His humble, mystic and simplistic view of the relationship between God and the worshiper appealed to all classes in society. He was later sainted after his death, and possibly had influence over Caravaggio. This influence can be seen with the simplicity shown in Caravaggio’s paintings as well as the directness of the subject matter. Along with the ideas of St. Filippo, the ideas of St. Ignatius also could have influenced the way that Caravaggio portrayed his religious scenes. The ideas of St. Ignatius, written in Exercita Spiritualia, encouraged the supernatural to be made tangible to the senses. In Caravaggio’s works, this can be seen through the appeal of the divine to both the intelligence and the spirituality of the viewer, helping the viewer to understand the painting on a deeper more religious level than with previous styles.

V. Conclusion

Caravaggio’s revolutionary technique and subject matter influence painters both within Italy and abroad, especially in Western Europe. He left in his wake a school of painters, these artists called Caraggeschi, who tried to imitate his tenebrism, chiascuro and realism, a style later known as Caravaggismo. Not only did they emulate his style, but also started painting the same type of low-life genre scenes as Caravaggio. Most notably he influenced the works of Velazquez, Guercino, and Georges de la Tour to name just a few.

Although these painters were able to imitate his style, they did not master Caravaggio’s emotion or the religious psychology found in his paintings. These elements are what separate Caravaggio from his followers and provoke the interest of viewers today. His unique interpretation of religious scenes, combined with the sharp light penetrating a dark atmosphere and realism found in the paintings of the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel compel the viewers to closely examine his work as well as experience the scene taking place. There is a mysterious mysticism that one can almost physically grasp, appealing to the emotion, senses and intellect of viewer, sparking interest in both Caravaggio and all his work.

VI. Personal Observations

I was surprised to find that in both the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel that many of the first versions of Caravaggio's paintings were rejected. It shocked me that a painting by a master such as Caravaggio would be rejected, especially when he was continually commissioned, even throughout his exile from Rome.

The most intriguing part of my research consisted of the comparison between the two St. Matthew and the Angel paintings. I personally found the first painting to be more appealing and emotional, and was thus very interested in the reasons for its dismissal. It seems strange that the priests rejected it due to the indecorous figure of St. Matthew, seemingly represented as low class and illiterate. To me, the figure of St. Matthew seemed wise with age, and his pose was neutral. I was not offended by it at all. It was also very interesting to compare it to the painting that was accepted, especially to compare the different representation of St. Matthew as well as a completely different composition. In the first St. Matthew, there is debate on whether the figure, considered to be a socratic figure, is that of St. Filippo. This is due to St. Filippo's image as the Christian Socrates, as well as the extremely different portrayal of St. Matthew in Caravaggio's other two paintings on the lateral walls. The figures of St. Matthew in these two paintings are similar to each other. In the final version of this piece, Caravaggio goes back to this representation, making St. Matthew look similar to the other two paintings.

VII. Bibliography

Beguin, Sylvie, et al. Dictionary of Italian Painting. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1964.

Beny, Roloff and Gunn, Peter. The Churches of Rome. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1981.

Bersani, Leo and Dutoit, Ulysse. Caravaggio’s Secrets. Cambridge: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.

Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. New York: 1983.

Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Tennessee: Kingport Press, Inc., 1986.

Macdonald, William. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1965.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. Hong Kong: Plaidon Press Limited, 1998.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 2002.

Voss, Hermann. Baroque Painting in Rome. San Francisco:
Alan Worsy Fine Arts, 1997.

Waterhouse, Ellis. Italian Baroque Painting. London:
Phaidon Press, 1962.

Websites C/caravaggio/caravaggio23.html jcjpc/vol6is3/st-paul.html

Bernini's work at St. Peter's

Julia Mattson
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Historical Background

In 1624, at the age of twenty-six, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) entered the Fabricca, the construction project of St. Peter's. Maffeo Barberini had just been elected pope, and became Urban VIII. After five years of working on designing a new canopy for the Vatican Confessio, Bernini was appointed the official “Architect of St. Peter’s” and continued to execute papal commissions in and around the church for over fifty years. St. Peter’s can therefore be viewed not only as a testament to the authority and power of the Catholic Church, but a monument to Bernini himself.

Before delving into Bernini’s contributions to St. Peter’s – the basilica and piazza, it is insightful to note the way in which Bernini intended the pilgrim to approach St. Peter’s Basilica. In Bernini’s time, the only bridge that spanned the Tiber between the old city of Rome and the Vatican vicinity was Ponte Sant’Angelo. Pope Clement IX ordered the modernization of this 1,500-year-old bridge in 1667, and not only did Bernini add rows (on either side) of angels carrying objects of Christ’s Passion, but he lowered the high balustrades so St. Peter’s could be viewed a half-mile from the west. It was Bernini’s intention that the pilgrim receive a golden vision of what lay before him before crossing the bridge, turning left, and plunging into the dark tunnel-like Medieval Borgo streets that led up to Bernini’s magnificent piazza of St. Peter’s. It was in these dim, restricted streets that Bernini expected the pilgrim to reflect upon life and death, humbling himself before entering the “symbolic heaven” represented by Bernini’s ninety-six saints and martyrs that each sit upon individual 39-foot travestine columns.

Today it is impossible to enter St. Peter’s from the way in which Bernini had in mind. The aforementioned narrow streets were bulldozed between 1936 and 1950, replaced by Via della Conciliazione, a wide and expansive street better suited to modern traffic and lined with 20th century obelisks that would have shamed Bernini. Also, the Ponte Sant’Angelo is inaccessible to buses, the transportation by which the modern-day pilgrim visits the basilica – as opposed to by foot or even on one’s knees. Nonetheless, St. Peter’s Basilica is an incredible testament to the Catholic faith, and Bernini’s work at St. Peter’s exemplifies - as well as defines - his sheer artistic genius.

II. Bernini's Projects

Equestrian Statue of Constantine the Great

On the wall opposite the main doors at the extreme right of the atrium is Bernini’s equestrian statue of Constantine, constructed between 1662 and 1668. Constantine is portrayed at the instant that led to his ultimate conversion, after his vision of “In Hoc Signo Vinces” (or, “By This Sign Though Shalt Conquer”) encircling a cross, and before subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber in 312 AD. Ten years after this victorious battle, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, began his initial construction of the original St. Peter’s. This statue of Bernini's employs the Baroque idea of a charged space, of capturing a given moment; both horse and rider are gazing up at the cross above, responding to the image they see. The horseman's clothes are blowing in the wind, set against a backdrop of drapery that is seemingly filled with movement. Constantine's horse is on its hind legs, with the hair of its mane and tail exaggerated. This concept of theatricality, of flowing movement arrested at a single point in time, is one that is entirely of the Baroque era. It has been said that the finished statue was so unwieldy and large that a door of Bernini's studio had to be torn down in order to remove it.

Bas Relief on Main Portal

High above the main doors to the church is a bas-relief designed by Bernini with the words Pasce Oves Meas, or “Feed My Sheep.” Depicted in the relief is an image of Christ confronting the kneeling Peter, and gesturing towards His “sheep” – that is, Christ’s people for Peter to care. This refers back to a biblical passage in the book of John where Christ instructs the apostle Peter to look out for members of His flock. Implied in Bernini's bas-relief is the Catholic belief that papal authority was a divinely ordained responsibility, and that the pope could be traced back through unbroken succession to Saint Peter, and to Christ himself. This symbolism and idea of heavenly authority, as well as the emphasis on firmly establishing authority itself, is one that is repeated throughout the entire church.

Tomb Monument to Countess Matilda

Inside the church, on the second pier of the right aisle, is a tomb-monument of Countess Matilda of Tuscany. Designed by Bernini, the work was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1633, who wished to venerate one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. Countess Matilda was an 11th century noble-woman who owned large amounts of property in Northern Italy. Upon her death, she bequeathed these vast estates to the Holy See. It is logical that Urban VIII would have wanted to call attention to this action given the much-diminished secular power of Rome, and by commissioning a tomb-monument to be created and placed in the Vatican basilica, he set the woman as an example by which he desired contemporary princes to follow.

This element of propaganda is further obvious in the front of the sarcophagus. Here there is an image depicting a scene that took place in 1077, with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV - who ruled Germany, Italy, and Burgundy - kneeling and humbling himself before Pope Gregory VII in front of Matilda's castle in Canossa. This is significant in that it represents the highest peak of papal supremacy in international affairs. It is important to recognize why Pope Urban VIII would want to refer back to the glorious days of ultimate authority of the pope.

Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament

The Capella del Santissimo Sacramento (Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament) was constructed in 1973-74, and was one of Bernini's last works. His preliminary sketches for the altar design involved rings of angels holding up the 'tabernacle for consecrated wafers of the sacrament' with the mere touch of their fingers. In the end, however, Bernini chose a much less elaborate design, with the tabernacle resting on a firm base and a bronze angel on either side. The angel on the left has her eyes closed, and is in complete adoration. In contrast, the one on the right has her eyes open and is gazing at the viewer, inviting him/her to participate in the action at hand. This is an artistic technique that was used often by Bernini and other Baroque artists, where one figure is completely involved in the depicted scene, while another invites the audience to take part in what is going on within the work itself.

Baldachino and Transcept of the Basilica

Baldachino comes from the Italian word "baldacco", which refers to a silk cloth that was used to make canopies above important places and people. In Bernini's bronze canopy, he employs twisted marble columns called "solomonicas" which were thought to have come from Solomon's Temple. Bernini adopted the style for his baldachino because Constantine used them in his original church, and several of the first columns are still preserved in the modern-day basilica.

In working on the baldachino, Bernini was aided by his father and numerous other sculptors and craftsmen. Finding enormous quantities of bronze necessary to construct the columns was an overwhelming task, and part of the bronze used was plundered from the roof of the porch of the Pantheon - lending to the often quoted phrase, "What the barbarians didn't do, was done by the Barberini."

Digging the foundations for the enormous shafts required to support the columns - each 10 feet square and 14 feet deep - proved to be a difficult problem. Bernini himself proclaimed that "the work came out well by luck," as any slight error in the building of the structure would have proven to be disastrous. The finished baldachino was unveiled on June 29, 1633 at the Fest of St. Peter. It served not only as a canopy, sanctuary, and visual framework for St. Peter's chair (which will be discussed later), but symbolically mediated between heaven and earth - identical to the function of the church.

If we recall Bernini's choice of twisted solomonic columns and recognize that, in his time, these columns would have invoked images of Jerusalem itself, then it is of utmost significance that Jerusalem was the site of Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascent to heaven. This is because, through elements within the crossing of the church (at the intersection of the nave and transepts where the baldachin rises beneath the dome), the baldachin is established as Jerusalem. Bernini himself suggested the altar below the baldachino represented the Crucifixion, the triumphant cross above signified the Resurrection, and Michelangelo's dome at the top was symbolic of Christ's ascent to heaven. In addition to this, Bernini also pointed out the triple nature of Christian divinity that was embodied in the form of a great dove underneath the canopy (Holy Ghost), cross above the baldachino (Christ the Son), and mosaic by Cesari d'Arpino in the summit of the dome (God the Father).

While working on the canopy structure, Bernini was commissioned to assemble four prized relics with four figures of saints associated with these relics in the four surrounding niches supporting the dome. The first of these relics, now regarded as more symbolic than authentic, is the kerchief St. Veronica used to wipe the perspiration from Christ's face as He carried the Cross to Calvary. It is said that the impression of Christ's face was miraculously imprinted on the kerchief.

The second relic is the fragment of the True Cross, brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Helena, Constantine's mother.

Thirdly, the skull of St. Andrew (St. Peter's brother) who was thought to be martyred in Greece on an X-shaped cross was once acquired by the church, but was brought back to Greece in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.

Lastly, there is the relic of the lance of St. Longinus, the Roman centurion who stabbed Christ's side, only to realize Christ's divinity after inflicting this fatal wound.

Each of the four saints faces the awe-inspiring baldachino, and the figures stand below balconies that contain angels in their bas-reliefs, balconies which serve as displays for the three remaining relics that are brought out on Easter and Good Friday. Of there four sculptures, only St. Longinus was carved by Bernini (the other three were done by Bernini's assistants). This 14.5-foot tall statue constructed between 1635 and 1638 was one of Bernini's largest, and the artist made at least twenty-two models in preparation for it. Important to note are St. Longinus' outstretched limbs - his arms and legs are elongated and spread out, and artistic technique that would not have even been considered in the Renaissance time. The idea of "knowing how to draw a straight line but choosing to draw a curve instead", of breaking out of a single block in thought, was inherently Baroque in nature.

St. Peter's Chair or Cathedra Petri

Bernini's vision for the Cathedra Petri, or Chair of St. Peter's, included that it be visible from the entrance of the church at the end of the 600 foot nave, framed by the baldachin columns with rays of sunlight streaming down the central aisle along the east-west axis. The bronze chair, completed in 1666, encases the wooden one that was supposedly used by St. Peter himself. One of the church's most venerable relics, the throne has been in both the old and new St. Peter's for many centuries. Recent tests, however, have dated the wood from the chair to the 9th century AD, and studies have established that the chair was donated by Charles the Bald on his coronation in 975. Nonetheless, great prominence is appropriated to this treasured reliquary; the chair is placed in the exact center of the main apse and seems to float above the altar.

Surrounding the chair, at each of the four legs, are four saints that contribute to the spectacular Baroque setting. In the foreground are giant statues of St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, their robes appearing to be blown in the wind, representing the Latin branch of the Catholic Church. Situated at the background are statues of St. Athanasius and St. Chrysostom, signifying the Greek branch of the Catholic Church. The four saints in the background and foreground have their fingertips linked to the Chair by loops of drapery and are interpreted as being in communion with the chair, as opposed to supporting the chair itself. This is a crucial distinction, as the chair supports itself, significant when taking into consideration the attitude of the Church as being self-sustaining.

Above the chair is an oculus encircled by angels and cherubs through which light floods in. The dove of the Holy Spirit is illuminated at the center, and here light itself becomes a structural element - similar to the way in which Bernini uses water in his magnificent fountains.

Tomb of Alexander VII

Across the left wall, diagonal from St. Longinus is the tomb of Alexander VII, completed in 1979 after seven years when Bernini was eighty years old. According to Baldinucci, one of Bernini's biographers, Bernini undertook this commission "on account of his gratitude to the memory of the prince...notwithstanding his age and the decline of his strength which made him daily less capable of such work." Small parts of the monument were carved by Bernini (including Alexander's face and hands), but it can be certain that the entire work was under his rigid control and direction.

One major disadvantage that would have discouraged many an artist was the large niche in which the tomb monument was to be placed - the niche contained a doorway in the center of the rear wall. Bernini, however, used this obstacle as an asset, and used the door to represent a tomb entrance. Death was often represented as a skeleton holding an hour glass for the living, indicating time's passage. Bernini was the first to utilize three-dimensional skeletons, and this idea might have originated from a memorable mass conducted at Il Gesu (the Jesuit church Bernini attended during much of his adult life) in 1639. In this unusual service, Jesuit fathers constructed mechanical skeletons - some holding swords and crowns to symbolize the dominance of death over this present world, others grasping Adam and Eve after their initial sin of consuming the forbidden fruit. These figures from the memorable mass may have left an impression upon Bernini's mind. as Alexander's tomb monument involves a similar 3-D skeleton, emerging from the symbolic tomb.

Surrounding Alexander VII's tomb are four allegorical figures: Prudence, Charity, Truth, and Justice. This imagery is noteworthy when keeping in mind the desired impact the patron (Alexander VII) intended the viewer to have. That is, the fact that Pope Alexander VII is surrounded by virtues and is carved in a kneeling position makes him appear quite pious. Alexander's successor, Pope Innocent XI, had a severe view towards nudity, and forced Bernini's statue of Truth to be covered up with a bronze cloth and painted white.

Tomb of Urban VIII

The tomb of Bernini's beloved patron, Urban VIII was commissioned in 1628 (by Urban himself), almost twenty years before his death. The funerary monument holds many resemblances to that of Alexander VII, including a giant sarcophagus forming the base for a bronze figure of the pope, with allegorical figures on either side. Here, there are two white marble figures that represent Justice (on the right) and Charity (on the left). On top of the sarcophagus is the Genius of Death writing the name of the Pontiff on an unrolled piece of parchment. In usual Bernini fashion, there is much theatricality to the work, and Urban VIII's tomb remained the most important model for papal tombs until the end of the Baroque era.

Colonnade and Piazza

Commissioned by Alexander VII in the summer of 1656, Bernini's Colonnade may very well constitute the most successful architectural work known to mankind. Taking into consideration all barriers Bernini had to work around, St. Peter's Piazza is yet another example of Bernini's skill and creative perfection. Entering St. Peter's Piazza, the pilgrim is confronted with a "symbolic heaven", with 96 of Bernini's saints and martyrs situated above individual travestine columns. The viewer is enveloped by the spaciousness, yet is not overwhelmed. Bernini described his Colonnade as the arms of the Mother Church "stretching out to receive Catholics, so as to confirm them in their faith, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and infidels to enlighten them in the true faith."

In designing the Colonnade, visibility was of a major concern. The transverse oval design provided maximum amount of unobstructed views of the windows from which the pope gave his blessings urbi et orbi (to the city and the world). One of these windows was of the Benediction Loggia above the portico of St. Peter's (from which the pope gave his blessing on Easter and other special days), the other one (for other occasions) was in the papal apartment high in the Vatican palace to the north. By swinging the colonnade as far toward the papal apartment as possible and providing a longer horizontal axis, the visibility factor was dealt with.

In order to compensate for the wide facade of St. Peter's Basilica, Bernini "made it appear taller by contrast" by constructing relatively low (39 foot) columns. He also connected the curved colonnades to the basilica by a pair of straight, enclosed corridors of the same style and height in order to provide a further optical "pinching" effect of the broad facade.

And the obstacles don't stop there. The colonnades all reach 39 feet, but each of the columns varies in level of foundation, as the ground slopes down away from the basilica. The individual statues of saints and martyrs atop the columns were designed by Bernini but executed by many sculptors, with Lazzaro Morelli carving 47 of the 96 saints. Each of the 15 foot tall saints piece together to constitute a whole, creating an outdoor "pantheon" (if you will) of Catholic saints to welcome approaching pilgrims on their journey.

Originally, the piazza was to be enclosed by a "terzio baccio", or "third arm." Bernini later decided to place this back and allow for an entrance court - a "theatrum mundi" (world theater) resembling the ancient ampitheaters such as the Colosseum. This third arm was never built, but Bernini still successfully displays a construction that is both open and closed, a "teatro" that recalls the greatness of Ancient Rome.

III. Conclusion

St. Peter's continues to this day to be the center of Catholicism. Bernini's contributions to St. Peter's exemplify more than any other complex works of art the spirit of the Catholic Restoration, and the Baroque era. In the fifty years between 1625 and 1675, St. Peter's was dramatically transformed - from the Ponte Sant'Angelo all the way to the Cathedra. Bernini's numerous works of pure genius comprise a dynamic work in its entirety, and each composition continues to evoke in the modern visitor the same multitude of feelings and images for which Bernini intended. In spite of his numerous commissions in and around the basilica, Bernini never lost sight of the whole picture, and it is this full scope that lends itself to the continuity of his work - across the individual works themselves, as well as spanning the scale of time. To this day, thanks to Bernini, St. Peter's remains a source of affirmation for the faithful, reassurance for once-faithful, and inspiration for rest - the precise effect that Bernini desired.

IV. Personal Observations

During the excavation process for the foundation of the baldachino columns pagan sarcophagi were encountered, and it had never occurred to some people that St. Peter would be buried among non-Christians. Weird coincidences began to take place a few days into digging; the Keeper of the Vatican Library who was asked to keep a memorandum of the excavations suddenly died. Other deaths of those connected with the project followed, including the Pope's own private chaplain, and Urban himself fell ill. Upon the Pope's recovery, work was carried on and pagan and Christian relics continued to be uncovered.

Of a particularly conspicuous nature are the Barberini bees placed seemingly at random on the Urban VIII's tomb. Upon being questioned by a churchman (who apparently Bernini disliked) about the bees, Bernini said, "Yes, they are scattered, but as you know, bees reassemble at the sound of a bell." This cryptic remark was in fact a warning, and referred to the Cardinal-Nephews of Urban VIII who had fled to Italy after his death. When the Barberini cardinals heard the sound of a bell marking the death of a pope and announcing a meeting to elect a new successor, they would indeed return. Bernini was therefore, as this remark reflects, well aware that he might suffer personally as a result of the political upheaval that accompanied each new papal succession.

Walking across the piazza, this forest of 284 columns is four columns deep, and this depth adds to the idea of a fully-encompassed space. There are, however, two points along the broad axis of the piazza (spanning the obelisk and two fountains) from where the four-column-deep colonnades line up in single file.

V. Bibliography

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965.

Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini – Volume I. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1982.

Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini – Volume II. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1982.

Peterson, Robert T. Bernini and the Excesses of Art. Florence: Maschietto&ditore, 2002.

Scribner, Charles. Bernini. New York: Harry N. Agrams, 1991.

Storoni, Paola B. Unusual Guide to the History, the Secrets, the Monuments and the Curiosities of St. Peter’s Basilica. Rome: Newton & Compton, 2000.

Vicchi, Roberta. The Major Basilicas of Rome. Florence: Scala, 1999.

Wallace, Robert. The World of Bernini: 1598-1680. New York: Time-Life Books, 1970.

Weston-Lewis, Aidan., ed. Effigies & Ecstasies: Roman Baroque Sculpture and Design in the Age of Bernini. Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 1998.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press, 1955.