Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tomb of Alexander VII

George Wang
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

"Memento Mori", remember that you will die. Imagine yourself living with that phrase always dwelling in the back of your head, and your soul is at peace with the knowledge that death is the inevitable end to all anything that lives; then all that's left is determining how you want yourself to be remembered by future generations. The tomb you choose for yourself may be monumental, unusual, and unorthodox, but its meaning can only be expressed though the eyes of the beholder; it may speak to them, but its words are dependent upon their verbalization. In the passive glance of the passerby lies the perpetuation of memory of the deceased you.

During his time, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Architect of St. Peter's, was the artist to turn to if a member of the elite wanted to commission something elaborate and stylish. The papacy first took notice of Bernini chiefly from the sculptures he was turning out at a young age. In time, Bernini was commissioned by the Vatican on more elaborate works of art, such as the Colonnade of St. Peter's, which did much to boost his reputation and bring in more customers. Amongst his numerous commissions of sculptures, fountains, and buildings were, understandably, tombs. His uncanny ability to create art which would only fit perfectly at its original location of construction made him much sought after, for it made it much less likely that the client's final resting place would be relocated in the future. Thus a few Popes (Urban & Alexander) fortunate enough to have Bernini alive during their papacy had Bernini commissioned to design and construct their eventual tombs.

Fabio Chigi, better known in the history books as Pope Alexander VII, paid one thousand scudi for a design and model of Bernini's which, after further design and development, would develop into Bernini's final Baroque masterpiece known today as the Tomb of Alexander VII. Although Bernini was assigned this project during the life of Alexander VII, work on the tomb did not begin until well after Alexander VII's death. In fact, the papacy of Pope Clement IX began and finished before work even started on the tomb. It wasn't until 1672, during the papacy of Pope Clement X, that Bernini's workshop finally began working on the Tomb of Alexander VII. The final touches of the monument were applied in 1678, and its dedication was made under the papacy rule of Pope Innocent XI. The construction of the Tomb of Alexander VII, from planning to completion, spanned no less than four papacies.

Before any tool was picked up, Bernini first examined the site he was given to create the Alexander VII's tomb. Originally, Alexander VII's successor, Pope Clement IX, wanted the tomb erected in the choir of S. Maria Maggiore. This plan was abandoned upon the death of Clement IX, and instead Bernini chose a narrow passage of the south transept in St. Peter's. An awkward niche for the tomb, Bernini was obligated to relocate a fresco by Romanelli in order to have enough room for the tomb to fit. That the tomb was also designed to fit snugly over a pre-existing door pays tribute to the designing genius of Bernini.

With the designs in place, Bernini's workshop was ready to begin work. But before any work began on the statues, great care was taken in designing and constructing the marble drapery which would envelop no less than three of the statues and the top surface of the plinth. The shape of the drapery was first created in travertine by Morelli and later passed on to the stonemason Gabriele Renzi, who in turn constructed the plinth of the monument based off of the shape of the Sicilian Jasper drapery. Though not eye catching, the drapery is what makes the three statues in the foreground even more closely associated to the monument.

As expected of a pope's final resting place, the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII proudly displays a statue of the Pontiff centered at its apex. Beneath the sculpture of the Pontiff are four statues, each representing a virtue supposedly practiced by Pope Alexander VII. Charity and Truth are set in the foreground; Prudence and Justice are placed on a second upraised level; Charity and Prudence to the Pontiff's left, Truth and Justice to his right. Each virtue was carved by a craftsman of Bernini's workshop: Charity by G. Mazzuoli, Truth by Morelli and Cartari, Prudence by G. Catari, and Justice by L. Balestri. A bronze gilded skeleton is centered in the foreground as well, but placed closer to the ground than the virtues Charity and Truth. A carved drapery of Sicilian Jasper envelops the skeleton and the four virtues. The plinth for the tomb, carved from breccia marble to represent mourning of the Pontiff's passing, is shaped to fit over the Porta Santa Marta, a door located in a corner at the extreme southwest in St. Peter's Basilica.

The tomb is traditional in the sense that Alexander VII wished for a concrete object memorializing his existence, just like any previous Pope. However, the Pope's statue is anything but customary. Bernini and his patron chose to fuse together the traditions of a royal tomb's effigy and the papal honorary statue by mounting the statue of the Pope on a base instead of a sarcophagus, contrary to what most designs of the period would have it. The statue itself was designed to be different from most statues of past popes. Where most figures portray the Pope with an arm held out, arm frozen in the middle of a gesture of benediction, Bernini chose to carve Pope Alexander VII's effigy as a snapshot of the Pontiff kneeling in the midst of prayer to emphasize the Pontiff's spiritual power. In addition, where the majority of statues of Popes include the papal mitre, Bernini leaves Pope Alexander VII's head bare, further emphasizing the spiritual power of Alexander VII. But that isn't to suggest that the carved Pope gives off the impression of physical weakness. A great cloak, carved by Domenico Bassadoma, covers the Pope's shoulders. Bassadoma had exploited the natural veining of the marble to spectacularly render the streaks of cloth, imbuing the sculpture an aura of majesty. Majesty, always associated with the military strength of a lord, made sure that future eyes would not label Alexander VII as a weak Pope. The bronze gilded skeleton of death further complements the Pontiff's sculpture to emphasize the Pontiff's dedication to his religion by illustrating the Pope's peace of mind, for the Pontiff continues to stay kneeled and absorbed in prayer despite Death's sudden appearance.

However untraditionally the Pope's sculpture was carved, Bernini kept four virtues were more conventional. The initial designing of the monument called for a meeting of Modesty and Truth and an embrace between Peace and Justice, but later designs had Prudence substituted in place of Peace and Charity in the place of Modesty. The swaps were made to avoid the impression that Pope Alexander's foreign policy had been too accommodating, for it was a well known fact at the time that the King of France was less than respectful towards papal authority. The two vanguard virtues, Charity and Truth, are much more embellished and seem slightly larger than the two virtues on the second layer simple because they are closer to the viewer.

Charity is typically portrayed as a woman with at least one child near her. The greatest of the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity/Love), Bernini's choice to display Charity cradling a child while gazing almost reverently at the statue of Alexander VII strongly emphasizes the Pontiff's piety. The theological virtues differed from the cardinal virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice) in that they supposedly couldn't be obtained through human effort, but that a person could only receive those virtues by having them infused into his or her being through Divine grace.

Truth stands with one foot on the map of the world while holding a symbol of the sun. Incidentally, Truth's foot stands specifically on England, where Pope Alexander VII had sought in vain to suppress the continuing growth of Anglicanism. The symbol of the sun held by Truth hints that once enough time has passed, the truth will be revealed to all. It may also be suggesting that Pope Alexander VII abstained from clandestine actions and had nothing to fear should his dealings be brought to daylight. The sun itself hails from pagan Rome, which worshipped the sun as a deity. With the help of Constantine, the church has since then changed the day of worship from Sabbath to Sun Day and to this day still commonly uses images and symbols of the sun (currently, the Pope's mitre displays a sunburst). Truth would be been much more symbolic had it not been for interference in its designs by Pope Innocent XI. Innocent XI objected to the originally nude figure of Truth, accusing its nudity of undermining the propriety of the work as a while. Upon hearing that, Bernini didn't have much of a choice aside from "dressing" the figure of Truth with metal in the shape of a billowing cloak and painted white to resemble marble.

Of the virtues somewhat hidden on the second platform, Prudence is seen holding a mirror, albeit the stump of one, which refers to the Latin maxim of Nosce te ipsum (know yourself), a phrase derived from the main temple of Delphi. Justice is interesting in that this particular statue has no real markings that distinguish it as Justice. Traditionally, Justice is represented in the act of holding a balance, being blindfolded (Justice must not rely on the senses but rely only upon reason), or carrying fasces (bundle of rods with projecting axe-blade commonly carried by magistrates in Ancient Rome). In this case, Bernini's Justice is lying down, resting her helmeted head on the knuckles of her right hand, almost as if she were taking a break and passively watching those who gaze upon the Tomb of Alexander VII.

Bernini's addition of a bronze skeleton to the Pope's tomb is not as surprising during his time as it would be today, for skeletons were commonly added to funeral monuments. Usually, they were not depictions of Death, but rather the skeletal version of the deceased. For the Tomb of Alexander VII, scholars are fairly certain the skeleton represents Death, for Pope Alexander VII had a life fraught with encounters with death. In his infancy, the young Chigi suffered from an attack of apoplexy (hemorrhage into internal organ/cavity), and chances of his survival were so slim that preparations for his funeral were actually commenced. During his papacy, Pope Alexander VII had to deal with the spread of pestilence, which at one point was killing off more than a thousand people a day in the city of Naples. His brother, Mario, having saved Siena from the pestilence before, was given the task of removing this scourge from Rome and the Papal States. A fisherman had carried this disease to Nettuno, where it spread like wildfire and soon reached Rome, and soon the deaths in Rome started rising as well. A strict quarantine soon removed the pestilence from the Papal States, but not before numerous souls were snatched from their bodies. Another unusual aspect of Pope Alexander VII is that he kept his coffin in his bedroom alongside a skull carved by Bernini on his writing table. Alexander VII's keen self-awareness that someday he would die most likely inspired Bernini to incorporate the skeleton of Death brandishing an ominous clepsydra (hourglass with wasp-waisted reversible glass with two bulbs containing sand to be used as a timer) onto his patron's monument. The skeleton itself was different from the norm, for Bernini was the first to use three-dimensional skeletons. This idea may have originated from a unforgettable mass conducted in 1639 at Il Gesu, a Jesuit church Bernini attended during much of his adult life. In this particular service, the Jesuit fathers displayed mechanized skeletons wielding swords and wearing crowns to symbolize Death's dominance over the present world. These skeletons from that memorable mass must have left quite the impression in Bernini's mind for the winged skeleton of Alexander VII's tomb emerges from the symbolic tomb in a three-dimensional manner, true to Bernini's Baroque fashion of art.

Why did Bernini choose to memorialize this particular Pope with designs that strayed from the norm? For starters, future generations would take note of this deviance from the norm and pay more attention to Bernini's masterpiece and, in repeating its name, refresh the name Pope Alexander VII within their minds. Historically, Pope Alexander VII was elected to the papacy for his strong opposition towards nepotism. True to his values, the Pontiff lived simply and forbade his relatives from even visiting Rome during his reign. Yet in consistory a year after his election to Pope, Alexander VII announced that his brother and nephews would be coming to assist him in Rome, thereby rekindling the tradition of nepotism in the papacy. Bernini's sculpture of the Pope is therefore most likely made in memorial of the first year of the Pope's reign, where the Pope's values and devotion won out over his family greed.

In a typical act of theatricality, Bernini once again used the monument's surroundings to determine the monument's designs. Alexander's successor, Clement IX, wanted the tomb to be erected in the choir of Saint Maria Maggiore. However, St. Peter's Basilica was the final location chosen to erect the tomb. Since the chosen location was little more than a niche in an awkward corner in St. Peter's Basilica, Bernini utilized characteristics of the niche to make the Tomb of Alexander VII look larger and more grandiose than it really was. The lack of edged corners in the niche, as well as its domed ceiling, were taken advantage of as the Sicilian Jasper drapery was designed to feel as though it were flowing out of the corner into the room, carrying the four virtues with it. In addition, the top of the door in the niche is to some extent concealed by the carved drapery, adding an element of intrigue to the masterpiece. The skeleton of Death wielding the Sands of Time is placed directly in front of the door; taller individuals who pass through the door must duck in order to avoid bumping into the lower appendages of the skeleton. In essence, Bernini transformed an egress of St. Peter's from a door leading inconveniently located under the Tomb of Alexander VII to into a door symbolically leading to Eternity.

Bernini, an artist most interested with disegni (capturing the psychological moment of highest drama in his subject), succeeded just that in his final masterpiece the Tomb of Alexander VII. Bernini, at the age of 80, completed the last masterpiece of his life by mixing the Baroque art form and the art style of funeral monuments.

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