Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New naturalism and intent: Caravaggio’s public commissions at the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels

Kimberly Cheong
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

Introduction & Background
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a revolutionary painter whose tumultuous life, extraordinary talent, and compelling masterpieces still captivate people today. He was born on September 29, 1571, in Milan to Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori. At the age of twelve, Caravaggio was apprenticed to a painter by the name of Simone Peterzano for four years. In the year 1592, after having lost both his parents, Caravaggio arrived in Rome and struggled as an artist for the next three years. He relocated often from various households and studios, one of which belonged to the famous painter Giuseppe Cesari, otherwise known as Cavalier d’Arpino. During this early period in his career, Caravaggio painted mostly still-life and genre paintings depicting themes such as fortune telling or card playing that would later become extremely popular and inspire many copies.

One of his genre paintings attracted the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria Bourbon del Monte, who invited Caravaggio into his household around 1595. At the time, Venice-born Cardinal del Monte was a wealthy, highly influential figure in Rome who held official positions in prestigious institutions such as the Academy of Saint Luke and the Fabbrica di San Pietro. He was known as a “lover of pleasures and leisure” with a wide range of interests, from music and the arts to the natural sciences (Puglisi 86). Cardinal del Monte conducted medicinal and alchemical experiments in his own laboratory and was an early supporter of Galileo. Through Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio met important figures such as Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, a neighbor and friend of del Monte who purchased many Caravaggio canvases. Through his powerful patrons, Caravaggio enjoyed legal protection when the police caught up to his unruly escapades; he was known as a brash man who was easily aggravated and constantly engaged in disputes. This ultimately led to his famous crime of murder, the consequences of which even his patrons could not protect him against. Caravaggio subsequently fled southward from Rome in 1606.
Caravaggio’s stay in Rome virtually coincided with the papacy of Clement VIII, which lasted from 1592 to 1605. This period was characterized by the construction and renovation of new palaces and church buildings, especially in preparation for the Jubilee year of 1600. Clement VIII expected more than half a million pilgrims to visit Rome, and he wished for them to view the city as a splendid, impressive capital. The pope was lavish in his preparations, but he was also morally stringent. He was strict regarding decorations in churches, and had paintings or sculptures that he deemed inappropriate removed.

The first public commission Caravaggio received was for two lateral wall paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. San Luigi dei Francesi was dedicated to Saint Louis, the Crusader King of France, and it was considered the official French church in Rome for French diplomats, clerics, nationals, and pilgrims (Hunt 68). The Contarelli Chapel paintings were commissioned through the rich estate of Matteo Contarelli, a French cardinal, after his death in 1585. They were to depict scenes from the life of St. Matthew, Contarelli’s namesake. However, the chapel remained unfinished until the priests of San Luigi dei Francesi petitioned the Fabbrica di San Pietro to undertake the task of completing the chapel decorations. Through the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio signed the contract to paint The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew on July 23, 1599. They were completed and unveiled in July 1600 (Hibbard 93).
Caravaggio’s next public commission was again for two lateral wall paintings, this time for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi was a former papal lawyer who began an ecclesiastical career when he was around fifty years old. In 1556, his affluence afforded him the powerful position of Treasurer General to the Apostolic Chamber. Presumably, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, the Depositary General to the Apostolic Chamber as well as banker in Cerasi’s contract with Caravaggio, exerted his influence on behalf of Caravaggio for the prestigious commission (Puglisi 145). On September 24, 1600, a new contract commissioned Caravaggio for the Cerasi Chapel, stipulating two paintings to be finished in eight months. The document also named Caravaggio Egregius in Urbe Pictor or “Distinguished City Painter of Rome” for the first time (Hunt 74).

Meanwhile, the original marble sculpture altarpiece created for the Contarelli Chapel by a sculptor named Jacob Cobaert was rejected by the priests of San Luigi. On February 7, 1602, Caravaggio signed a contract to paint the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. The subject was to be “Matthew writing his gospel with an angel at the right in the act of dictating to him” (Hibbard 138). Caravaggio’s first attempt, St. Matthew and the Angel, was rejected by the San Luigi rectors. Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani stepped in to pacify a distraught Caravaggio by purchasing the original and setting up arrangements for a new painting. The Inspiration of St. Matthew was completed in February 1603 and, with the approval of the San Luigi clergy, installed as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel, where it can still be viewed today.

The Contarelli Chapel
The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi is dimly lit; one can only see the Caravaggio paintings clearly after feeding the coin box at the right of the chapel. The neglected, faded ceiling frescoes depicting four now-unidentifiable prophets and St. Matthew healing a sick person are by Giuseppe Cesari. The Calling of St. Matthew is on the left wall of the chapel, The Inspiration of St. Matthew is the central altarpiece, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is installed on the right lateral wall. Caravaggio’s first public commissions called for the largest canvases that he had ever worked with, and he must have felt enormous pressure to please the patrons and the public.

In The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio hearkens back to his earlier genre paintings and utilizes his previously successful formula of several figures in an obscure setting. This painting captures a pivotal moment in time. Matthew, a tax collector before his conversion, is sitting at the table with his four assistants after a long day’s work. They are busily counting the day’s proceeds when Christ and Peter, in classical dress, suddenly enter the scene. Christ’s outstretched arm is raised toward Matthew, who has lifted his head, perhaps surprised by the interruption. Matthew is caught in the instant of conversion, at the boundary between the worldly and the holy. He looks directly at Christ and points to himself in a “Who, me?” gesture while his other hand is still fingering the coins on the table. Additionally, there is a coin perched in his black hat. The light from the top right corner illuminates Matthew’s bearded face in a straight line, and also coincides with the direction from which Jesus enters the room.

There has been recent speculation that the usual identification of Matthew as the bearded man is incorrect. Angela Hass argues that the youth at the end of the table with his head bent downward is the actual St. Matthew. Although Matthew was often depicted as a bearded man, there have been precedents for clean-shaven Matthews, most notably in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (Hass 247). Furthermore, Caravaggio’s young man is clutching a moneybag in his left hand – a common trait of Matthew in paintings due to his past as a tax collector. Hass also believes that the bearded man’s uncurled finger is pointing at the young, hunched over man in a “Who, him?” gesture, and that the position of Jesus and Peter on the other side of the painting places them on a straight-line path toward the young Matthew (247, 250).

Although Angela Hass’ arguments are certainly compelling and well-reasoned, the traditional identification of Matthew as the bearded man is more convincing and the most widely accepted viewpoint. Much of Hass’ evidence is circumstantial and for me, the illumination of Matthew’s bearded face, his direct eye contact with Christ, and his central position at the table are strong pieces of evidence for the traditional identification.

On the opposite wall, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew depicts a more terrifying, emotion-filled scene. X-ray photographs reveal the trouble Caravaggio initially encountered while working on this painting. His original approach was more traditional, with a Raphaelesque, balanced arrangement of smaller figures which included women at the lower right corner of the scene (Hibbard 106). Classical columns in the background were visible, and there was a centrally placed figure that would have been seen from behind.

Caravaggio’s final version raises the two main figures of the executioner and St. Matthew to the center of the painting. Other figures, immobilized witnesses to the execution, are placed centrifugally around the two central characters (Hibbard 108). The setting is in a dark church around a baptismal font, and the light source is from the left of the painting, where the window of the Contarelli Chapel is located. The nude body of the executioner suggests that he was in line to be baptized – an idea that augments the alarm and terror of the scene. The scream of the choir boy running away on the right reverberates throughout the painting, and his face clearly shows fear and helplessness. Caravaggio’s own dismayed face, looking back as he runs away, is visible past the executioner’s shoulder. This serves to amplify the viewer’s involvement in the painting; the audience looks upon the same scene just as the artist does from the opposite side. The figure at the bottom right corner with his lower torso cut off by the boundary of the painting also increases the audience’s personal involvement with the piece because of his close proximity to the viewers. Caravaggio’s masterful use of tenebrism, or intense contrasts between light and dark, highlights only certain parts of figures and heightens the commotion in the piece. Yet amid the chaos the viewer’s eyes are carefully guided by the graceful lines made by St. Matthew’s arms and the martyr’s palm frond being offered by the angel on top of the cloud. There is also a “juxtaposition of the saint’s right hand, the executioner’s left hand, and the martyr’s palm over the Maltese cross on the altarpiece” which imparts “a focus for the meaning of the painting” (Moir 74).

The central altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, is a beautiful work that should be analyzed in conjunction with the first rejected painting, St. Matthew and the Angel. Although the initial version was executed according to the description in the contract, Caravaggio’s vernacular rendering of the subject matter offended the clergy of San Luigi dei Francesi. Matthew was portrayed as a lowly, plebeian figure with a tough, weather-beaten appearance. His large legs are exposed above the knee, and his left foot protrudes out clumsily toward the viewer. The angel at his side – a little too close for comfort – is sensuous and erotic, with her leg uncovered and drapery clinging to her body. She is guiding Matthew’s hand as he writes the gospel, which could suggest that he is illiterate and simple-minded. The San Luigi rectors were opposed to this overly realistic depiction of a saint, who was to be revered and honored by the public.

Caravaggio’s second attempt assuages all the objections of the priests. He separates the two figures, and paints the angel flying hierarchically over the saint. The flowing drapery around the male angel covers most of his body and he is charmingly ticking off points on his fingers as he dictates to the saint. Matthew is dressed in a fresh, eye-catching orange robe that covers most of his legs and he holds the pen himself as he writes. His surprise at the angel’s appearance is depicted on his face and also perhaps by the bench tipping precariously over a ledge into the viewer’s space. Matthew is no longer a dumbfounded commoner with large feet; instead, he looks like a distinguished, immaculate old man.

The Cerasi Chapel

The Cerasi Chapel is situated in a prominent place to the left of the main central altar. The dramatic altarpiece is The Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci, another prominent painter in Rome during Caravaggio’s time. The Assumption of the Virgin is one of Carracci’s most classical works, with massive, idealized figures and cool, clear colors. It is interestingly juxtaposed against Caravaggio’s two darker, naturalistic lateral wall paintings, The Crucifixion of St. Peter on the left and The Conversion of St. Paul on the right.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter is a solemn, contemplative piece depicting the raising of St. Peter’s cross during his crucifixion. The canvas is vertical, with smaller dimensions – aspects which have been taken into consideration by the artist. There are three anonymous executioners straining to lift up the cross; two of them have their heads bent and the third’s face is obscure due to a shadow. The focus of this painting is on St. Peter, whose powerful nude torso is displayed at a diagonal across the center. His head is turned toward the chapel altar, and his face is resolute, pensive, and full of acceptance of his fate. Caravaggio’s emphasis on ordinary details may be seen in the illuminated rear and dirty feet of the executioner at the bottom left. Although the instruments of the crucifixion such as the spade, nails, and the wooden cross are depicted, Caravaggio chooses to forgo portraying pain or bloodshed. Instead, the drama is heightened psychologically as the viewer partakes in Peter’s private physical and spiritual trial. The absence of spectators in the painting “transmutes the crucifixion from an historical event to a personal ordeal” (Moir 84). The absence of a visible background further reinforces this point and makes the scene more relevant to the viewer, since it could be taking place virtually anywhere. Finally, the large rock in the foreground represents St. Peter metaphorically, because Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).

Across the chapel on the right wall is The Conversion of St. Paul. Again, the number of figures has been reduced to a minimum and the background is dark and obscure. The light source enters the painting from the top right corner, and it represents the bright light that blinded Paul for three days from the Biblical account of his conversion. Most of the painting is filled up by a large, realistic horse. Paul’s ungainly steward is not a participant in this miraculous event; he is situated behind the horse, and is for the most part covered by the animal. St. Paul has fallen off the horse onto his back, with his head situated toward the viewer. His helmet has fallen off his head and his cloak is in disarray on the ground. Paul’s eyes are closed, representing his blindness, and he is in a vulnerable supine pose with his chest exposed to the heavens. His arms are stretched out in a parabolic shape that frames the bottom of the painting and assures the audience of Paul’s consciousness and acceptance of Christ. As in The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the story is effectively pared down to its fundamental essence. Although there is not much action going on in the painting, Caravaggio represents this “significant moment of inaction in order to penetrate the psychological core of events” (Moir 86). The deep, earthy, red, green, and brown tones that Caravaggio utilizes also complement The Crucifixion of St. Peter perfectly.

The narrow, tight dimensions of the Cerasi Chapel force visitors to view the lateral wall paintings at sharp angles. However, Caravaggio has taken the chapel setting into account and the final result is highly unified, with his pieces corresponding to the larger external context. The light source for both paintings comes from the oval dome ceiling which features a dove in a heavenly gold background. The gilt stuccowork above the Caravaggio paintings depicts scenes from other events in the lives of Peter and Paul. Furthermore, the two paintings themselves are meant to be viewed from oblique angles. From the spectator’s vantage point, the remoter parts of the saints’ bodies “are so pivoted into the picture space, that their axes become prolongations of our sight lines” (Steinberg 186). Caravaggio has clearly considered the architectural setting carefully and his paintings work in harmony with the chapel space.

Caravaggio’s work was deeply influential to future generations; many artists after him attempted to emulate his style and techniques, although the intensity and psychology in his paintings could not be equaled. He was somehow able to reproduce biblical accounts and stories from the lives of saints in a contemporary (seventeenth century) setting without having the pictures lose their authenticity and power. His naturalistic paintings featuring everyday models were relatable to the viewer but still inspired awe and reverence. Caravaggio is also credited with popularizing tenebrism and his method of manipulating light in order to emphasize certain aspects of the painted narrative was highly effective and original. Followers of his style have even been termed the “Caravaggisti,” and among them are important artists such as Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi.

What interested me most during my research was the fact that there were different interpretations of which figure was supposed to be Matthew in The Calling of St. Matthew. I enjoyed reading Hass’ article, mulling over her arguments, and then formulating my own opinions about which idea was correct. I was also interested in the X-ray photographs of Caravaggio’s paintings that revealed the initial work which he then chose to paint over. They provide a deeper insight into the artistic process by which he worked, and I wonder what the original paintings would have looked like if they had been executed. Finally, I appreciated the lovely poetry that Caravaggio’s person and paintings inspired. The following is a worthy tribute to Caravaggio written after his death by his friend Cavalier Marino:
“Nature, who feared to be surpassed
In every image that you made
Has, Michele, now, in league with Death,
A cruel plot against you laid:
For Death with indignation burned
To know that many as his scythe
Cut down, still more and usurously
Your brush contrived to make alive.”


FRIEDLAENDER, W. (1955). Caravaggio Studies. New York: Schocken Books.

HASS, A. (1988). Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew Reconsidered. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51, 245-250.

HESS, J. (1951). The Chronology of the Contarelli Chapel. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 579, 186-201.

HIBBARD, H. (1983). Caravaggio. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

HINKS, R. (1952). Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: His Life – His Legend – His Works. London: Faber and Faber.

HUNT, P. (2004). Caravaggio. London: Haus Publishing.

LANGDON, H. (1998). Caravaggio: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

MOIR, A. (1989). Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers.

PUGLISI, C. (1998). Caravaggio. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

STEINBERG, L. (1959). Observations in the Cerasi Chapel. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 41, No. 2, 183-190.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bernini: Politics and Propaganda in St. Peter’s Basilica

Ethan Jones
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

Bernini's contributions to St. Peter's under Urban VIII
The Pontificate of Urban VIII saw the rise of the most influential Baroque artist ever to live, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Born in Naples during 1598, Bernini first traveled to Rome with his father in 1608. Pietro Bernini, Gian’s father and a personal favorite sculptor of Pope Paul V, introduced the Pope to his son, who managed to succeed in impressing the Paul V with one of his drawings, for which he received as much gold as his little hands could carry. He received something much more important than gold though, for he was recognized as an art prodigy. He began to sculpt for the influential aristocrat Scipione Borghese shortly after his run in with Paul V, as well as the young cardinal Maffeo Barberini. Maffeo grew very close to Bernini, and looked after him as he would his own son. He urged Bernini to learn architecture and painting, almost as if he knew that someday he would test Bernini’s skills in ways that Bernini could never imagine.

Maffeo Barberini was born in 1568 to a Florentine noble family. He was sent to Rome to study the humanities and law under the Jesuits, and his Uncle, Francesco Barberini, helped ensure that he would be well placed within the social structure. At the age of 24 he was made a Governor, and in the span of his 31-year career he held the positions of papal nuncio for Paris, Cardinal, and finally Pope. On August 6, 1623, after much debate and a split between the college of Cardinals, a compromise between the two factions was met and Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope, taking the name of Urban VIII. No doubts were ever raised about the piety or chastity of Urban VIII, but he became well known for his hot temper. It is said that on a warm summer morning, Urban had all of the songbirds in the papal gardens killed because he couldn’t stand their songs. He was a true patron of the arts though, and a poet himself. This explains why he adopted the signs of the Greek God Apollo as his own, namely the sun and the laurel. His first action as Pope was to begin the re-armament of the Papal states, for Urban was determined to show the strength of his new papacy.

When Urban VIII came to power, Catholicism was in a period of triumph due to the successes of the Counter Reformation. Rome had become a center of the arts again, and the extravagant Baroque period was being born. Urban was extremely well connected throughout Europe and having been the Papal Nuncio with France, not to mention the Barberini family’s ties with France, Urban was in the perfect position with the necessary support to assert the authority of his new powers. Considering that Urban was the Pope to consecrate the new St. Peter’s (Nov. 18, 1626), he was given the perfect blank canvas within the Basilica to legitimize his papacy too. Urban was planning to redefine the face of Catholicism for the glory of the papacy and his family through paint, bronze, and stucco. His artist was Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

In June of 1624, Pope Urban VIII and the Fabbrica di San Pietro called for the architects and artisans of Rome to submit plans for the baldachin that was to be placed over the tomb of St. Peter. It’s believed that this was merely a formality, for the Barberini Pope had already chosen Bernini to execute the baldachin, but he submitted his designs like the rest and was chosen. He planned to mix the grace of a baldachin, an impermanent cloth canopy used as an altar cover, with the architecture of a ciborium, a permanent structure with 4 columns and a domed roof. To his contemporaries it was as if he was mixing oil with water, and Bernini was quick to take notice.

The original design called for the angels that we now see on top of each column to hold a vine that supported the seemingly cloth canopy, but Bernini promptly changed it so that the angels are now supporting the ribbed superstructure. This had the effect of combining the two design ideas into one without any separation, which is what Bernini’s critics had taken offense to. The bronze canopy now rests directly on the four columns, which had the effect of combining the two structures into a new structure called ‘The Baldacchino’. This quelled his opposition, but Bernini was also later forced to change his design for the top of the Baldacchino from a bronze sculpture of the risen Christ to a globe with a cross above it. For hundreds of years it was believed that the switch was necessary because the risen Christ would have simply been too heavy for the structure. However, it has been recently proposed that the switch was actually made because Bernini wanted to present a more political message rather than a Eucharistic message, with the cross over the globe representing the universality of Christianity. It seems that both proposals can be combined into the right answer, for the risen Christ would have been far too heavy and Bernini is definitely trying to get a political message across with this work. It was just that Christ being too heavy led to Bernini’s change from a Eucharistic to a political piece. Since the design was established, construction began.

The construction of the Baldacchino was no small task for the inexperienced Bernini. It stands 95 feet 2 inches tall and weighs just over 93 tons. Its total cost to Urban VIII was 200,000 ducats, or roughly 1/10 of the Catholic Church’s income during 1624. It was Bernini’s first true architectural undertaking, but if he was nervous, we can find no account of it in history books. Perhaps this lack of experience explains why he was not given a formal commission from Urban VIII until long after he began casting and assembling his monolithic Baldacchino. Bernini’s first action was to name Francesco Borromini as his assistant, and Borromini has been given credit for the architectural stability of the structure.

Together with Borromini, Bernini began to cast the four columns of the Baldacchino in five parts (base, three column pieces, capital). The problem was that he didn’t have enough bronze. Paul V had removed the bronze supports for Michelangelo’s dome during his pontificate and replaced them with a lighter metal, but it still wasn’t enough. Urban went directly to the Pantheon and removed the bronze supports from the porch, resulting in the famous phrase, “what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” Urban actually took so much bronze from the Pantheon that after Bernini was done, he used the remaining metal to cast 80 canons for the Castel St. Angleo. In casting the columns, Bernini employed the ‘Lost Wax Process’. Wax was applied to the outside of a heat resistant core, which was then carved by Bernini and his myriad of workers before finally being covered with an outer heat resistant coating. Molten bronze was poured onto the wax which melted, leaving the bronze in its place. The method was ingenious, but it has also led critics to accuse him of crossing the line between art and mere imitation.
Bernini’s casting of the four columns has also been referred to as the “lost lizard process” because Bernini would often press laurel boughs, bees, and even a lizard into the wax to obtain the most realistic forms. Many critics found this to be some sort of cheating, found that it detracts from the entire ambiance of the piece, but according to modern research, this is simply not true. Bernini captured, literally, the perfect form of everything that he was trying to embody in his columns, whether they were carved or real. This fits perfectly with the principle theme of naturalism in Baroque art. Borromini then carved the marble bases with the Barberini crest and the columns were erected and filled with concrete for support during 1627.

Urban VIII and the Fabbrica di San Pietro asked Bernini to erect a wood model of the rest of the Baldacchino before moving on to its casting, and he obliged. It was a good thing that he did, because he ran into his biggest problem yet. The crossbeams that comprised of the ribbed superstructure were already too heavy in wood, and were therefore entirely unfeasible in bronze. Bernini fixed this by encasing the wood in bronze for the final piece. This is also when he replaced the risen Christ with the globe and cross. Having worked out the problems with the wood structure, Bernini forged ahead by casting and assembling all of the remaining pieces, which was completed in 1633.

After 9 years of hard labor and changed designs, the Baldacchino was finally complete and no one was happier with Bernini’s work than Urban VIII. The columns’ marble bases each sport a large Barberini crest with the three bees as well as the face of a young woman. As one circumambulates the structure, the woman’s face seems to portray more and more pain until the final crest where her face has become that of a peaceful cherub. The explanation for this symbolism is not certain, but scholars have proposed that it represents the promise Urban VIII made to his favorite niece that if she safely delivered her baby, he would build an altar for her. Other explanations range from the struggles and final triumph of the Counter Reformation or the struggles of Christ and his final resurrection, but all have the effect of moving the viewer around the Baldacchino.

It was long believed that Bernini’s art was meant to be viewed from one spot, portraying all of its intricacies best from one viewpoint. This assertion seems hard to follow, for in his early works, such as the Rape of Persephone, he intentionally moves the viewer around the statue, just as he does with the Baldacchino. The four columns spiral towards the heavens, reminiscent of the columns at the Temple of Solomon as well as those in the first St. Peter’s. They draw the viewers eyes up to the angels, through the cross and into the depiction of God above. This hierarchy was a very important element in moving the viewer as well, for Bernini draws your eyes from his Baldacchino up to God which accentuates the point of the Baldacchino during mass. It’s the place where God and man meet in holy communion. The spiraling columns are covered in the Barberini symbols of laurel, as opposed to Christian vines, bees, which are attracted to the scent of piety, and small Putti who play amongst the leaves. The bronze flaps that hang from the canopy are embossed with bees and suns, which are references to piety and Urban’s adoption of the signs of Apollo. The Angels stand in support of the crossed rib superstructure, and the two large Putti on each side of the Baldacchino hold the Papal Keys, the gospels, the tiara, and Paul’s sword. All of these symbols were very important in portraying the legitimacy of Papal authority, because they represent the very foundations of the Papacy.
After the completion of the Baldacchino, Bernini was asked to design a reliquary for four of the holy relics at St. Peter’s. Bernini designed a lower niche to hold a sculpted depiction of the Saint and his/her relic, and a balcony above where the relics could be displayed during the Holy Week. Bernini is only responsible for carving the figure of St. Longinus, who is expertly sculpted at the exact point where he is converted to Christianity. He has just pierced the side of Christ with the tip of his lance, which they still have as a relic, and is looking up to God with his arms spread. His face is depicted at a moment of pure elation, and Bernini’s attention to detail is evident in his muscular arms and perfectly sculpted face.

Bernini also employed different textures within the sculpture to give a more realistic feeling, which he has accomplished. On St. Longinus’ robes, Bernini carved small grooves which from a distance make his robe seem like velvet. His skin is smooth and shiny while the base is deeply carved in much the same texture as his robe. His robe flows to his left as he embraces God. Bernini has captured the emotions of a man in marble, making it an amazing piece of artwork. The other three Saints and relics are St. Helen and the piece of the true cross, St. Andrew and his head, and St. Veronica with the cloth that she wiped Jesus’ face with on the way to his crucifixion. Although they were designed by Bernini, they were executed by Andrea Bolgi, Francesco Duquesnoy, and Francesco Mochi respectively. The four reliquaries surround the Baldacchino, and the statues engage the structure with their actions. In doing so, they acknowledge the temporal and spiritual authority of the Pope by gesturing towards the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope.

Urban also commissioned Bernini to design and execute a reliquary for St. Peter’s chair. This reliquary no longer remains because Pope Alexander VII had Bernini redesign it, but the new reliquary is awe inspiring. Four doctors of the Church, two Latin and two Greek, lightly hold the large bronze case that contains St. Peter’s chair. Each corner gently rests on the very tip of the Saints fingers, which symbolizes the strength of the church when Christendom is united beneath the Pope. Stucco clouds surround the chair making it seem as if it were floating in heaven, and little Putti and angels play above it. This scene is reminiscent of Raphael’s contemporary works, which were a huge inspiration to Bernini. Above the chair and encompassed by all of the Putti and Angels is a yellow stained glass window with the form of a dove in the center. There are twelve main parts to the circular window, symbolizing the 12 apostles around God, represented by the dove. When first entering St. Peter’s, the window is perfectly framed by the Baldacchino, a careful and intentional decision by Bernini. Just as he had done with the Baldacchino and the Reliquaries, Bernini brings many different aspects of his piece together to portray one message, the legitimacy of the Papacy. Bernini unites heaven and Christendom around St. Peter’s chair, which is then framed by the Baldacchino, another piece legitimizing Urban and his power. It literally means that the seat of the Papacy presides over the temporal and spiritual worlds, which was a powerful message considering that the Papacy was only in control of a small portion of Italy.

Bernini’s final large contribution to St. Peter’s was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII at the end of Bernini’s life, namely Pope Alexander VII tomb. It would be one of the final large projects undertaken at St. Peter’s. Bernini was 80 years old at the time and only carved the head and hands of Alexander’s figure, but he oversaw the project which was completed by his assistants. The only spot remaining to build a tomb was less than desirable because it had a large door in the middle of it, but Bernini incorporated the door into the tomb. Here again is evidence of Bernini’s true genius. He made the door seem as though it lead into the crypt, or perhaps even the afterlife.

Alexander is portrayed kneeling with a decorative cloak, praying for the triumph of his own soul over death. Above him is half of a dome that is very reminiscent of the Pantheon, appropriate because Alexander was so interested in redecorating the Pantheon. He is surrounded by the four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Charity, and Truth, who are themselves enveloped in a Sicilian marble drapery. Behind them is the Chigi family crest, seeing as Alexander is a member of the Chigi family. Above the door and below the Pope’s figure is that of death, holding an hourglass that represents time as he pulls the cloak away from the Alexander and the Virtues. As a matter of fact, Bernini only personally carved the head and hands of Alexander since he was 80 years old himself.

Truth is by far the most interesting figure in the entire tomb.
She is portrayed nude, holding a sun as she usually does since light uncovers the truth. Her foot gently rests on the globe, and more specifically upon England. Death, representing time, pulls the large drapery away from truth, representing the idea that in time the truth will be revealed. The reference to England directly references the Anglican church that gave Alexander so many problems during his lifetime. Bernini sends the message that in time, the truth will be revealed for Anglican England. Every piece of artwork that Bernini was ever involved with has a deeper meaning than that which is evident upon first examination.

In conclusion, all of the art that Bernini contributed to St. Peter’s Basilica had one message in that it was meant to legitimize the authority of the Pope on earth and in heaven. Historically, Rome had been a place of great decadence until the turn of the 17th century, and Urban was determined to bring back the extravagance of the arts. Pope Urban VIII seized the opportunity to use Baroake artwork to portray a message of Papal legitimacy, therefore returning the Papacy to a position of prestige. This is why he chose the Baroake master, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as his artist. Bernini portrayed the political agenda of the Papacy throughout St. Peter’s, and in a way that inspires the viewer. He was a master of art, defining the artistic styles of the Baroque, and a master of politics and propaganda.

Scotti, R.A. “Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s”. Viking
Publishing, New York, 2006

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

Scribner, Charles. “Masters of Art: Bernini”. MacMillan Publishing Company, New
York, 1991

Blunt, Anthony. “Roman Baroake”. Pallas Athene Arts, London, 2001

Marder, Tod. “Bernini and the Art of Architecture.” Abbeville Press, New York, 1998

Avery, Charles. “Bernini: Genius of the Baroake”. Little, Brown and Company, Boston,

Kirwin, William Chandler. “Powers Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the
Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Magnuson, Torgil. “Rome in the Age of Bernini”. Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1982

Hollander, Joel. “Bernini and the Baroake in St. Peter’s Chapel.”
nini.htm, July 29, 1998

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Piazza Navona and Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain

Veneta Tashev
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

“Bernini, by giving us this unexpected joy, 
you have added ten years to our life!”
~Innocent X
I. Abstract
As you walk through the streets of Rome, between the winding alleys and picturesque houses, you suddenly stumble onto Piazza Navona, a large square, home to three fountains. The very center one, in front of the church of St. Agnes, is the attraction that many come to see today. The locals call it Fontana delle Quattro Fiumi. Sponsored by Pope Innocent X and executed by the baroque mater Bernini, the fountain was inaugurated on the 8 of June 1651. In its day, the fountain not only stood as an emblem of the glory of the Pamphilj family, but also as a symbol of the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

II. Piazza Navona
The site that became known as Piazza Navona was once a stadium of the Emperor Domitian. Build in AD 81-96, the Circo Agonale held up to 30,000 spectators. In the Middle Ages, the piazza had not changed substantially; it was the sight of bullfight and tournaments. Bit by bit, the beautiful masonry was eventually stripped and used for the decoration of the Vatican Gardens and in the building of churches. Any remnants that we have today can only be seen in the basements of the houses surrounding the pizza and in the crypt of St. Agnes. Since the 15th century, the piazza has had the same function as it possesses today - a center for a popular and busy market.

III. The small fountains
Having stumbled onto the piazza, you pause to admire each of the two smaller fountains that lie on the north and south ends of the square. Let your eyes explore them, for once your gaze moves to the Four Rivers Fountain, it would not return to linger here. These fountains were commissioned by Gregory XIII and built by Giacomo della Porta, about seventy years before the construction of the central fountain. The north fountain is called Fontana di Nettuno (1574), while the south fountain bears the name Fontana del Moro (1576). In both fountains, the central figure is a statue of Neptune entangled with a sea monster and surrounded by tritons. The Neptune in the north fountain fights with an octopus, while its southern brother wrestles with a fish. The south statue of Neptune was actually added by Bernini and the question of how it acquired the name Il Moro still remains to be answered.

IV. Description of Four Rivers Fountain
Eventually, you slowly stride toward the center of the piazza and admire one of the most celebrated fountains of Rome – the Four Rivers Fountain. The first thing you notice is the towering obelisk, reaching for the skies and crowned with a dove holding a laurel branch. As you move closer, the base slowly reveals its details. The heavy obelisk is standing on a four sided arch, sculpted to look like a grotto, and through it you can catch a glimpse of the other side, giving the illusion of witlessness. On two sides of the fountain the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family (of Pope Innocent X) is visible, one on a shelf and the other with a cornucopia. The coat of arms reveals the symbols of the family: three lilies and a dove bearing an olive branch. Each arm of the grotto supports a marble figure easily recognizable as a river god. The four statues represent the main four rivers of the world, each linked with a different continent. The Nile, the river god standing for Africa, has a beaded band around his left tight. His identity is clear by the proximity of a lion and a palm tree. His head is covered by draping fabric, in visual representation of its unknown source. Europe is represented by the Danube and he gestures toward one of the Pamphilj crests while sitting on the rock-base from which a horse protrudes. The river of choice for Asia is clearly the Ganges and is embodied by an enormous helmsman with an oar, an article that tells the viewer that the river can be navigated. Lastly, a bald and bearded river god represents Rio de la Plata of the Americas. To help the viewer identify him, this river god holds coins, for the riches of the new world, and an armadillo lies below him, although a modern viewer would have a hard time identifying the dragon-like creature as an armadillo. Rio de la Plata also wears a jeweled band circling his right leg, above the ankle, and raises his arm up to shade his eyes. To complete the composition of the fountain, two fish “swim” in the basin where multiple jets of water empty themselves.

V. History of Four Fivers Fountain

The history of the fountain is just as intriguing as the composition. After becoming a pope in 1644, Innocent X of the Pamphilj decided to transform Piazza Navona into an emblem of the glory of his family. Innocent X was born in the Pamphilj palace overlooking the piazza and thus he had a very personal interest in it. One of the main improvements he wanted to make was to build a magnificent fountain topped by an obelisk and positioned in the center of Piazza Navona. The original architect was supposed to be Francesco Borromini, a favorite of the pope. After all, the water source for the Four Rivers Fountain is the Vergine aqueduct and in 1645 Borromini had already started laying pipes that would bring water to the piazza. Borromini’s design included the obelisk, a high basin, spouts on the side, and a base decorated with masks. His secondary design replaced the masks with a low relief of the Earth’s four main rivers. Thus, the idea of incorporating river gods is Borromini’s, even though there remains some speculation that, considering the symbolic role the fountain was to play, someone close to the donor may have instigated the idea.

Innocent X had asked a select group of architects to submit a design for the new fountain. Despite the fact that he was generally accepted as a master of the Baroque and of the manipulation of water, Bernini was not amongst them. This was due to the fact that Bernini had been a favorite of Pope Urban VIII from the rivaling Barberini family, who reigned before Innocent X. So how did Bernini get the commission when he was not even invited to submit a design and when the current pope had already shown preference for Borromini With the help of Donna Olimpia Maidalchin, sister-in-law to the pope, for whom Bernini designed a model of the fountain. It was built it in silver and was inspired by the idea of the four river gods. On April 23, 1647 the pope stopped for ceremonial lunch at the palace at Piazza Navona. The silver model was placed in a room where Innocent X was to pass and could not miss seeing it. It is said that he exclaimed at perceiving the model and spent some time studying it in detail. He then commented that the designer could be none other than Bernini, and that the only way to avoid building his designs was to never see them. In April of 1647, Bernini received the commission to build the fountain.

The fountain was to be completed in 1650, a jubilee year of the Church. The only requirement given by the pope was the use of the obelisk, which was found in five separate fragments in the circus of Massentius in 1645. For the construction of the fountain, Bernini employed a building crew as well as sculptors from his own school. The Nile was carved by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli, the Danube - by Antonio Raggi, the Ganges - by Claudio Poussin, and lastly Rio de la Plata - by Francesco Baratta. It is said that Bernini himself carved the grotto, the lion, the horse, the palm tree, and put the finishing touches on all the figures. The four figures are carved from marble, while everything else is of travertine. The fountain was once polychrome, and the inscriptions were glided. The north inscription reads: “Innocent X placed the stone ornate with enigmas of the Nile above the rivers that flow here below to offer with magnificence healthy pleasure to those who pass by, drink to those who thirst, and an occasion for those who wish to meditate.”

Two other anecdotes concerning the fountain, have trickled through history to us. When Bernini had virtually completed the work on the fountain, Pope Innocent X came to view it. He was happy with the results, but upon leaving he asked, “Bernini, when will we be able to see the waters fall?” The architect responded, “It takes more time, but I shall serve your holiness with all expedition.” The Pope blessed him and proceeded to leave. Bernini waited until the entourage reached the end of the piazza to give his signal to the waiting workers. Without warning, the water rushed out and cascaded down in numerous paths and sprays down the fountain. The Pope was so pleased to see the display that he declared, “Bernini, by giving us this unexpected joy, you have added ten years to our life!”

After the unveiling of the fountain in 1651, Bernini received much acclaim, but soon enough, rivals of the architect claimed that the obelisk was too heavy for its minimal supports and that it would topple. Hearing this, Bernini showed up one day and spent a considerable amount of time in show of examining the structure. The story claims that he attached strings from the top of the obelisk to four nearby buildings and then departed. The story spread like fire and set Rome laughing. There is no doubt that Bernini knew his fountain was in no danger of falling, his architectural work was supreme and the fountain still proudly stands today.

VI. Symbolism and Propaganda
The complex arrangement of the fountain holds multiple layers of meaning. Starting with the very top, the dove stands for the Pamphilj family, for peace and for the Holy Spirit. The obelisk is an ancient symbol for a ray of sunlight, but in this setting, it can also be interpreted as a jet of water. As mentioned previously, the four statues are linked with the four main rivers of the world from each of the four continents. All four elements, not just Water, are represented in the structure. Air is symbolized by the wind in the palm tree, Earth by the mass of rock and fauna, and Fire by the obelisk in the role of a ray of sunlight.

Having read the symbolism, there are multiple layers and messages interwoven in the fountain. The first and most obvious role was to glorify the Pamphilj family. Observe the central placement of the two coats of arms and the fact that the river god representing the Danube is gesturing proudly towards the south-facing crest. A dove with an olive branch accents both the coat of arms and the obelisk, a symbol that clearly stands for the Pamphilj family.

The next and most important message that the fountain carries is one that emphasizes the supremacy of the Catholic Church. The dove standing over the four main rivers is representative of the Church’s dominance over what were believed to be the four continents of the world. The political climate during the reign of Innocent X was extremely tense. He had taken the papacy right after the end of the Thirty Years War, and the Church needed to take on propagandistic efforts through symbols of power in order to win the support of the people. Bernini cunningly used the figures of the river gods to achieve this goal. The river god representing the Rio de la Plata raises a hand toward the obelisk (the ray of sunlight) to shade himself in the ancient gesture used in divine presence. But even more the giant river god is shading himself from the dove at the top of the obelisk, a symbol of the Holy Sprit, thus further reinforcing the concept of dominance of the church over the continents. A second meaning that can be found in the dove, looking down on the river goods, is Christianity’s conquest of Paganism.

Another interpretation of the configuration suggests that the behavior of the rivers represents the behavior of the continents towards Catholicism. On behalf of Europe, the river god of the Danube proudly supports the papal symbol while the river god of the Rio della Plata is blinded by its might. The head of the river god of the Nile is shaded, showing both that the source of the river is unknown and that Africa knows little of Christianity. Lastly, the river god of the Ganges is looking away leisurely, representing the lack of influence the Pope had over Asia.

Many have commented that, when the representation of the Tiber River is so ubiquitous in Rome, the choice of the Danube as the river to represent Europe seems rather strange. After all, the Tiber winds through Rome, the seat of the papacy. Why, then, does Bernini use the Danube? In an article in The Burlington Magazine, Mary Christian suggests that the choice was not accidental. She argues that the previous pope, Urban VIII, busy with the Thirty Years War, offered little aid to restore Catholicism to the Austrian Monarchy. Thus, it was expected that the new pope should be able to remedy this. In 1644, when Innocent X became pope, Protestant and Catholic negotiations for peace in Osnabruck and Munster began. Even though the Treaty of Westphalia was signed on October 24th 1648 (one year after the fountain was designed), the settlement included decisions that influenced Catholicism along the Danube, but the Pope had to give up influence in the north. However, he regained control of Austria and Bohemia. Bernini was surely aware of this, and thus he chose the Danube rather than the Tiber as the symbol for Europe. Note that the Danube is the one who is upholding the shield of the Papacy.

VII. Today
The Four Rivers Fountain was completed in the seventeenth century, yet today Piazza Navona and its main fountain are as popular as ever. Tourists visit the site constantly. Small coffee shops line the edges of the piazza, offering refreshments and a view of the fountain. Artists display their work, from beautiful paintings to caricatures. Couples wonder through on Sunday mornings. Children run, scream, and laugh. And, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that at one time or another, people glance up at the beautiful fountain. Why is the Four Rivers Fountain still provocative today?

I believe that a part of us is impressed by the power of the sculpture, the height of the obelisk, and the elegance in the design. While river gods are traditionally portrayed lounging and stagnant, the Baroque was about action and movement. Three of the four figures are in mid-motion. Danube is leaning back and enthusiastically gesturing towards the Pamphilj coat of arms, Nile is pulling on the folds of the fabric that hides his head, and most dramatic of all, Rio della Plata is raising his hand up as if, in a moment, he would fall back. Only the Ganges is calmly gazing out. When one approaches the fountain, the figures intrigue the imagination, as we look for an explanation of what they are doing and of what they represent. When one arrives at the base of the fountain, it is then that the details and the masterful execution impress us. It is also then that the true size of the fountain and its figures becomes apparent, causing the viewer to be staggered by how huge they are and how tall and heavy the obelisk must be. Despite the size and the weight, everything still maintains lightness and elegance, as well as unity and balance. Bernini may not have personally executed every part of the fountain, but his hand is evident in very part of it; he was truly a master.

VIII. Conclusion
For those who know the history of the fountain, we are fascinated to visit the site that is connected with the levies of popes and mater architects. In writing this paper, I found that one of the most fascinating parts of my research consisted of the anecdotes and snippets of seventeenth century gossip. The fountain was not only built in the flurry of talent and experimentation, but in the midst of political intrigue, architectural competition, and social manipulation. The rivalry between Bernini and Borromini is legendary, as is Bernini’s love for showmanship and his ability to impress and intrigue those around him.

The Four Rivers Fountain is forever etched in the viewers’ mind. It is not just a monument to the Pamphilj family and the glory of the Catholic Church, but a tribute to the genius of Bernini, the master of the Baroque, and all to the history and intrigue that surrounded its erection.


Prates, Pudovico and Rendina, Lunara. “Roman Fountains by Bernini, the Baroque Master.” Ingegneria per la Cultura. Fratelli Pabombi srl, Rome. July 1999. pp 20-28.

Morton, H.V. “The Fountains of Rome.” A Giniger Book. The Macmillon Company. New York, 1966. pp.176-187, 276-279.

Christian, Mary. “Bernini's Dunabe and Pamphili Politics.” The Burlington Magazine. 1986 The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd. pp.354-355.

Feha, Philipp P. “Hermeticism and Art: Emblem and Allegory in the Work of Bernini.”
Artibus at Historie 1986 IRSA s.c. pp.182-184.

Morrissey, Jake. "The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Rome

Makyia Thayne Hoyt
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

St. Jerome’s forth century description of the catacombs speaks to the true nature of their function. He writes, “while it is pitch dark, the words of the prophet seem to come true: ‘may they go down alive in Sheol’” (Rutgers 5). “Sheol” is the Hebrew word for “underworld” or “the common grave of mankind.” The Roman catacombs or, Sheol served as just that for the early Christians, in the sense that the catacombs themselves existed as a reference point for the growing community. The important status of the catacombs during times of Christian persecution came into being for several reasons. The ubiquitous presence of the catacombs, their role in instilling a sense of community for the Christians, and the all encompassing effect of the promise of an afterlife in heaven established the catacombs important role in history.

The Christian catacomb first began its four hundred year existence in about AD 150 (Stevenson 7). Christians revived the practice of burying the dead in underground chambers from the Etruscans, because they did not believe in the practice of cremation, as the pagans practiced, due to their belief in bodily resurrection. They preferred burial, just as Christ was buried, because they felt they had to respect the bodies that one day would rise from the dead (Snyder 503). Hence they began to bury their dead, first in simple graves and sometimes in burial vaults of pro-Christian patricians. The first large-scale catacombs were excavated from the 2nd century onwards. All Roman catacombs have been carved into tuff. Tuff is a volcanic rock that can be found everywhere in and around Rome. It derives from two volcanic areas to the north and south of Rome around inactive volcanic areas that have since become lakes. Romans used tuff to build walls and used it for other means of construction (Portella 43). Originally, Christians dug into this soft rock outside the boundaries of the city, as Roman law forbade burial places within city limits.

At first, catacombs were used for both burial and memorial services as well as celebrations of the Christian martyrs on the dates of their martyrdom, following similar Roman customs. Many modern portrayals of the catacombs depict them as hiding places for Christian populations during times of persecution, however, this was not so. They were generally not used for regular worship or hiding. The large number of decaying corpses would have made the air nearly, if not completely, toxic. Additionally, the approximate locations of the catacombs were known to the Roman officials, making them a poor choice for a secret hiding place (Allen 15). There are forty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome. They were built along Roman roads, like the Via Appia, the Via Ostiense, the Via Labicana, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana. Names of the catacombs like St. Calixtus and St. Sebastian alongside Via Appia refer to martyrs that might be buried there. This is significant, because Christians wished to be buried by martyrs in order to have a quick journey to heaven after death that only a martyr could provide. For this reason, the catacombs which featured a tomb for a martyr were some of the most popular. Christian excavators built vast systems of galleries and passages on top of each other. They lie 7-19 meters (22-65 ft) below the surface in area of more than 2.4 km² (600 acres). Narrow steps that descend as many as four stories join the levels. Passages are about 2.5x1 meters (8x3 feet) wide and tall. Burial niches were carved into walls. They are 40-60 cm (16-24 in) high and 120-150 cm (47-59 in) long. Bodies were placed in chambers in stone sarcophagi in their clothes and bound in linen without coffins, just as Christ was buried. Then the sarcophagus was sealed with a slab bearing the name, age and the day of death.

In 391 A.D., Christianity became a state religion. At first many still desired to be buried in chambers alongside martyrs. However, the practice of catacomb burial declined slowly, and the dead were increasingly buried in church cemeteries. By the 6th century catacombs were used only for martyrs’ memorial services (Stevenson 20). During this century Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards who sacked Rome also violated the catacombs looking for valuables and by the 10th century catacombs were practically abandoned and holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas (21). In the intervening centuries they remained forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1578, after which Antonio Bosio spent decades exploring and researching them for his volume, Roma Sotterranea, published in 1632.

Archeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894) published the first extensive professional studies about catacombs. In 1956 and 1959 Italian authorities found more catacombs near Rome. The catacombs have become an important monument of the early Christian church. This is true for numerous reasons. One being that early Christian artwork has been well preserved in the catacombs. This is due to atmospheric conditions present underground. The artwork has not been affected by environmental factors; thus the rediscovery of the catacombs have enhanced the archeological study of early Christian art and how it first came into existence. “Throughout the ages there was little climatic change in the catacombs. Moreover, hardly any building activity took place there after the catacombs went out of use, thus minimizing the chance that wall paintings and other works were ruined as a result of such activities” (Rutgers 82).

The early Christian art that was preserved in the catacombs of Rome have been divided into three phases of development: the earliest phase (during the second and third centuries A.D.), the Old Testament phase (during the third century A.D.), and the New Testament phase (during the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.). In the earliest phase early Christians used non-Christian and pagan imagery in their artwork. Scholarship suggests that the earliest Christian communities did not find this practice unacceptable. It was only as time went by and Christianity began to develop into a major religious movement that Christians began to feel the need for an iconography that would express their system of belief in ways that were not possible using current iconographic schemata (87). According to the Church Father Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 160-215) Christians used the subjects in art produced by pagans, but were encouraged to use the objects that were decorated with motifs that could be interpreted as Christian references with Christian notions. Such motifs would include the dove, fish, a ship, an anchor, a fisherman, and a lyre (88). In the third century “Christians began to adopt the figure of the ram bearer. Christians were interested in this figure for different reasons, namely because it could easily be interpreted as a reference to ‘the Good Shepherd,’ that is a reference to Jesus . . .” (90). The image of the ram bearer is popular; it is featured in the catacombs of Callisto, Domitilla, and Priscilla, along with many other early Christian catacombs of Rome. Always “bucolic and idyllic motifs” such as birds and flowers are featured alongside the figure of the ram bearer in these ancient catacombs. “The presence of such motifs indicates whence the iconography of these figures derives, namely from the world of classical Roman artistic production” (91). The split between Christian and non-Christian art occurs when Christians still used figures and motifs popular in non-Christian and Pagan art, but transformed the symbols’ meanings so as to conform to Christian beliefs.
During the third century is when the Old Testament Phase occurs, where the majority of scenes illustrated in the catacombs were taken from the Old Testament. The scenes that were particularly popular during this phase are those which represent the power of God and his willingness to “save” those who truly believe in him. Some specific examples are the story of Jonah coming out of the whale, raising Lazarus from the dead, the sacrifice of Isaac, the three Hebrew youths in the fiery furnace, and Daniel in the lions’ den (105). The scenes which illustrate God’s saving power, such as these, were meant to appeal to the Christians as promises for salvation. Around the same period that the scenes which appeared on the walls of catacombs were taken from the Old Testament, Christian Theologians began to develop the concept of ‘versus Israel’, which is Latin for “the true Israel”. This concept was developed by early Christian theologians in an attempt to turn Christianity into a religion that was acceptable to non-Christians on a social and political level (106). During this time in Rome, respectability depended on the lifespan of the religion. Thus, religions with a long history were respectable and religions which could not lay claim to ancient traditions were not. Christianity was a relatively new religion (one that came into existence only in the first century A.D.); and therefore lacked the credentials necessary to be taken seriously by society. Christian writers were bothered by the lack of respect that Christianity suffered by non-Christians, especially because it deterred people from converting (107); thus the preference for illustrating scenes from the Old Testament was derived for a political reason.
Early Christian writers found traditions in the Hebrew bible that they could use to gain respectability. These traditions, in one way or another, could be interpreted to suggest the coming of Christian Messiah, specifically Christ had been predicted in these honorable books. Christian writers began calling the Hebrew bible “The Old Testament” in order to suggest that the Hebrew bible is only a piece – nothing but a companion volume to their own New Testament (107). The Christian writers claimed that the Old Testament did not really belong to the Jews, because they refused to convert to Christianity and that Christians were the true heirs to the books; thus they believed they represented the true Israel. This is how the Versus Israel concept originated (107).

In the fourth century, major changes affected the early Christian community. “Starting with the promulgation of the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christians were now accorded the same rights as adherents of other religions in the Empire” (108). As a result, Christianity could now develop more freely. Large groups of people converted to Christianity during the fourth century as product of the new found freedom to proliferate. This development reached its peak in A.D. 391 when Christianity was declared the state religion. (108). Early Christian art began to undergo a thorough transformation in response to the rise of Christianity as a prominent religious movement. “Early Christian wall paintings and sarcophagi dating to this period indicate that from the fourth century onwards early Christian art was no longer the result of forces on which Christians could exert their influence only to a limited degree, as had been the case previously when Christians had employed types and schemata that had been developed in Roman, non-Christian workshops. Instead, works of art were produced specifically Christian in their iconography” (108). The old symbols used in the earliest phase, such as the Good Shepard, have disappeared during the New Testament phase. It is the New Testament that now inspires the most important subjects for artist and patrons (108). Of all the new figures Jesus is given a place of central importance. The importance of Jesus is stressed in art pieces by being placed in the center and made larger than other figures. Images of Christ’s sufferings are by the most popular illustrated scenes in the New Testament Phase (109).

On the other hand, Old Testament scenes by no means disappear during the fourth century. Old Testament scenes remained popular due to a ‘typological relationship’ between both testaments. According to this idea many events in the Old Testament could be interpreted as prefigurations of symbolic announcements of events described in the New Testament. For example, the story of Job was viewed as prefiguring the sufferings of Christ and the sacrifice of Isaac was interpreted as a prototype of the crucifixion of Christ. This explains why some Old Testament themes were popular in the catacombs during this time and some were not (111).

The Christian symbolism first featured in the catacombs continued to be utilized in Christian art in future centuries and even presently. The peacock for the pagans was the symbol of eternal life. However, not all the pagans shared the idea of an afterlife, and for those who did, it was one clouded in mystery and wrapped in a shadowy world of obscurity. Pagan art strongly reflects this anguish, which was a vision of pain and sorrow. The Christians adopted the symbol of the peacock, but developed a deeper meaning. Because of Revelation, the obscurity of death was cancelled by the victory of Christ's resurrection. The peacock therefore became the symbol of the eternal life of the soul. This symbol in particular was a popular Christian image in medieval artwork. The dove represented the peace and happiness of the soul, while the anchor represented hope in Jesus. Symbols often were a synthesis of more than one idea. The anchor is an example. By its very functional nature, it represents the ideas of stability, security, and hope because it confirms the safe arrival of the ship at port after a perilous journey at sea. By turning the anchor upside down, the Greek letter TAU was formed, and the "T" resembled the shape of the cross. Thus the symbolism of the anchor was enriched by this additional element. Hope in Jesus represented the secure port of Salvation, which came about through His crucifixion and resurrection. Interestingly, the cross is arguably the most widely recognized symbol of the Christian church today. The most interesting aspect of observing the artwork in the Roman catacombs is that going down into the “Sheol” is like a time portal in which current scholars can see the beginning usage of modern and common Christian images.

Allen, John L. “Catholicism in North Korea survives in Catacombs”. National Catholic Reporter; Volume 43 Issue 4, November 2006
Cioffarelli, Ada. Guide to the Catacombs of Rome and its Surroundings. Bonsignori Editore Rome 2000
Portella, Ivana Della. Subterranean Rome. Konemann 2000
Rutgers, Leonard Victor. Subterranean Rome: in search of the roots of Christianity in the catacombs of the eternal city. Peeters 2000
Snyder, Graydon. “From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries”. F. Journal of Religion; Volume 85 Issue 3, July 2005
Stevenson, James. The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1978

Monday, February 12, 2007

Saint Peter's Piazza and Approach

Kali Stanger
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

I: Introduction
In the early 1600’s, many Catholic pilgrims would travel from all over the world to come to Rome to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, specifically to pay respect to God. Upon arrival, the streets were cramped, damp, and poorly lit. The first view of St. Peters for the pilgrims was the Bridge of Angels, an exciting point in the long pilgrimage. Until 139 when the Bridge of Angels was finished, no other bridges existed in Rome except the Ponte Sisto. From the Bridge of Angels, Castel Sant’Angelo would be immediately visible, and three main roads led to Piazza San Pietro: the Borgo Vecchio, the Borgo Santo Spirito, and the Borgo Nuoveo. Once one arrived at the piazza, one would be embraced by the “hands of God” which reached out to the pilgrims, thanks to the creation and design by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and Pope Alexander VII.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian constructed the Bridge of Angels, otherwise known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, between 134 and 139 AD. The travertine-marbled bridge spanned the Tiber River and in 1450 was widened after many pilgrims drowned while trying to cross the narrow bridge. Several houses and a Roman triumphal arch at the head of the bridge were also removed to widen the route. In the 16th century, the bridge was used to expose the bodies of the executed. In 1535, Pope Clement VII allocated the toll income of the bridge to erect statues of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul; four evangelists and patriarchs representing Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses were erected as well. In 1669 Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to sculpt replacements for the aging statues. This task turned out to be one of his last large projects. The design called for ten angels holding instruments of the Passion of the Christ, but only two statues were finished in Bernini’s own hand, the Superscription and the Crown of Thorns. Upon seeing those two statues, Clement IX decided to keep them for his own enjoyment because he believed the statues were too exquisite to be placed outdoors. The colossal statues of the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion served to remind pilgrims that the Catholic Church is the sole earthly arbiter of salvation. The angel’s express such despair at the tortures inflicted upon Christ that the pilgrims crossing the bridge were persuaded to meditate on Christ’s suffering.

The Castel Sant’Angelo was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. Originally, a pilgrim would first see this as a fortress (it only later became a castle) and stands as museum today. The tomb of Hadrian was constructed between 135 and 139 AD. Hadrian’s ashes as well as his wife’s and son’s were buried in the tomb after Hadrian and his son’s death in 138. Following this, the remains of succeeding emperors were also placed in the treasury room deep within the building. Originally, the mausoleum was a decorated cylinder, with a garden on top.

During Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, the Visigoth looters scattered much of the urns and ashes from the tombs. The original decorative bronze and stone statuary was thrown upon the attacking Goths when they besieged Rome in 537. One unusual survival is the capstone of the funerary urn, thought to be Hadrian’s, which made its way to St. Peter’s Basilica and was later reused into a massive Renaissance baptistery. Legend holds that an angel appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword, which represented the end of the plague of 590. This incident lead to the castle’s present name of “Sant’Angelo”. Pope Leo X built a chapel with a Madonna by Raffaello di Montelupo inside the fortress. In 1536 Montelupo also created a marble statue of St. Michael sheathing his sword to top the Castle that recalls the legend.

In order to provide a safe route for Pope Clement VII during the 1527 sack of Rome a fortified and covered corridor was built. This was named the Passetto di Borgo and connected St. Peter’s Basilica to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Later Pope Paul III built a rich apartment, inside the fortress, thus ensuring that in any future siege the Pope had a safe location to stay protected. The castle was used by the Papal state for other reasons as well: specifically a prison that Giordano Bruno was imprisoned inside for six years. Executions frequently occurred in the small interior square of the castle.

Unlike the route a pilgrim would have taken in the 1600’s, today the square is reachable after one crosses over the Bridge of Angels by the Via Della Conciliazione. Mussolini himself demolished the avenue leading to the square ceremonially on October 23, 1650. As pilgrims would continue to make his or her way to the piazza he or she would pass the opening of the piazza which was originally was intended to have a third arm or colonnade. Bernini decided to move the colonnades farther back in the space to allow an entrance court through which to come upon the full embracement of the oval. The third arm also would have shielded people from seeing the basilica and the grand piazza until they actually entered the piazza, which was Bernini’s intent. He wanted it to be a surprising embracement for visitors and guests. The fact that the third colonnade was never constructed made it possible for Mussolini to easily clear the way for the Via della Conciliazione.

According to the famous art historian Richard Krautheimer in his book, The Rome of Pope Alexander VII, he claims, “None of the great building popes, from Julius II to Urban VIII, not even Sixtus V, changed the face of Rome as much as Alexander.” Pope Alexander VII was born in 1599, a year after Bernini, with the birth name Fabio Chigi. His grandfather was Agostino il Magnifico, the wealthiest of all Romans, and was the banker who secured the papacy for Pope Julius II. He accomplished impressive tasks for the Medici popes; bankrolling their excesses and paying the enormous ransom that kept their papacies solvent. Fabio Chigi studied theology in Siena, which opened the door to his interest in visual arts and the precepts of architecture. Chigi was different from most popes: he desired more than money, loved to write poetry under the name Philomathus, and enjoyed in depth discussion on literature, art, and history.

On July 31, 1656, Alexander VII made known his intention to form a piazza in front of the basilica. Virgilio Spada, a member of the Congregation of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, delivered the message of the intention for the piazza. Spada announced that a portico would frame the piazza and Bernini, the pope’s favorite architect, would provide the design. Bernini was mentioned in Pope Alexander VII’s personal diary more than four-hundred times, the next highest person mentioned was Corona, only mentioned fifty-two times. Bernini’s responsibility for the Piazza San Pietro is known as the most conspicuous initiative of the period due to Bernini’s personality as an architect. Bernini’s used the space he was given to create an ever-lasting impression for future generations to come.

II: Physical Description
According to Bernini himself, “an architect proves his skill by turning the defects of a site into advantages.” Bernini’s most challenging task when designing the piazza was the shape because the piazza was so much greater in width than depth. This problem inspired the oval design. Bernini had originally imagined, a trapezoidal shape influenced by Michelangelo’s Campidoglio. This shape later evolved into a rectangle and finally into the oval design we see today.

The oval shape of the piazza with two impressive colonnades reaches out from the church and embraces its visitors, surrounding them with statues, columns, and the two identical fountains. The piazza actually comprises two huge circles architecturally designed that forms an oval. The reoccurring theme of th e piazza are the colonnades, which are four columns deep. They divide each arm into three continuous passages: two narrower pedestrian walkways and a wider passageway for a carriage path. There are 284 freestanding travertine columns, 88 pilasters, and 164 statues. The twelve-foot statues that line the inside of both colonnades each took two months to produce and included five basic steps. First a full-size wooden model was built, then a rough likeness was chiseled in stone. The unfinished statue would then be hoisted onto the portico for positioning, taken down, and then finally completed, raised up, and mounted.

At the center of Bernini’s oval stands the Egyptian obelisk of red granite, forty meters tall from the ground to the cross on its tip. Originally, the obelisk was moved in 37 AD by the Emperor Caligula to stand in the central street of the Circus Gai et Neroni that lay to the left of the present basilica. In 1586, the engineer-architect Domenico Fontana moved the obelisk to its current location in the center of the piazza. This obelisk is the only obelisk in Rome that has been standing since Roman times. During the middle ages, the ball on top of the obelisk was speculated to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar, but when Fontona removed the ball only dust was discovered. Today, the top of the obelisk is known for holding a piece of the Holy Cross.

On both sides of the obelisk, parallel to the basilica, are the two identical fountains. The fountain added by Maderno, which was northeast to the Basilica, added a complication to Bernini’s design. As his design was centered around the obelisk, Bernini chose to move Maderno’s fountain to make it even with the obelisk and sculpted a second identical fountain on the opposite side for visual balance.

III: Function and Impact
For a pilgrim entering the piazza, the colonnades would form a paradise—a kind of open-air entryway where the pilgrims would prepare themselves spiritually to enter the sanctuary. The earlier artists imagined an impressive avenue leading to the new basilica, but Bernini envisioned something different: an embrace. His solution was the ellipse, reaching out from the sides of the Basilica and designed “to receive maternally with open arms the Catholics and confirm them in their belief, to reunite heretics to the Church, and to illuminate the infidels to the true faith” (Marder, 125). The piazza had to introduce and welcome visitors and frame the new basilica. It also had to provide a gathering place for visitors to receive the papal benedictions given at Christmas and Easter from the Benediction Loggia located in the middle of Maderno’s façade. The Pope, on occasion, still offers his blessing from a window of his private apartment located on the uppermost floor of the palace block angled over the piazza.

The piazza was designed to enshrine the Corpus Christi; this is evident by viewing a manuscript from 1546 that depicts the train of participants marching across the piazza under a list of names of saints whose statues now appear in the piazza. The Feast of Corpus Christi was a very festive occasion that included decorated tents, banners, and garlands. The Pope led a vast train of attendants, clerics, and curial officials out of the palace, through the streets of Borgo, and back to the basilica. Today, the Vatican has been transformed into a site commemorating the triumph of the conqueror of the world, Christ. The new processional path, alluding to the circuit used on the Feast of Corpus Christi, leads from the papal palace, through the porticoes of the piazza, down the Borgo Nuovo, and back to Saint Peter’s along the Borgo Vecchio.

IV: Intention
The intentional design was to be an appropriate forecourt, designed so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace. Bernini had been working on the interior of St Peter's for decades The purpose of the design of St. Peter’s Piazza was to welcome the pilgrims to Rome. The entire piazza was built for the people, so he or she could feel welcomed to coming to the church. The colonnades are symbolic of God opening his arms to the Catholics and inviting them into his church. The piazza would be the first embracement of the church, therefore, it had to leave a lasting impression, one of which a pilgrim would feel overwhelmed with joy that the pilgrim had traveled all this way at it was worth every minute and every step.

V: Conclusion
From the day the first stone was quarried into the piazza, St. Peter’s has had a tremendous impact on society and many generations of Christians. To have thousands of pilgrims travel from all over the world and still have thousands of tourists travel all around Rome and come to the piazza with amazement, is astonishing. One reason this monument continues to be influential to generations is because of it massive dimensions. There is nothing like it in the world; it was one of the first oval shaped piazzas and the design is absolutely incredible. This grand space is where people prepare themselves to enter the holiest place on earth, the Saint Peter’s Basilica, built directly above Saint Peter’s remains. The work of Bernini’s intellectually challenging architecture has made the piazza different from that of any other before or after. When standing on one end of the circle facing the other colonnade, the columns appear to the eye as if there is only one column aligned in a perfect row. Another reason a visitor today would still find this work amazing is because Bernini designed a sundial marker by the obelisk. From the obelisk toward the fountain on the right, are white marble discs used as sundial markers for the obelisk. Two dates are inscribed on each disc to indicate when the noon shadow of the obelisk will reach the spot. There are also four discs showing the points of the compass as winds (As winds? – Explain further). In every direction one turns in the piazza, there is some new historical fact to be unearthed and a important historical account to be discussed.

VI: Surprised or Interested Me
Throughout my research on Saint Peter’s Basilica, I learned a new perspective on art history that I had not been previously exposed to. One of the most interesting elements of my research was the path that an actual pilgrim would have taken in order to arrive at St. Peter’s Basilica. I loved researching the Bridge of Angels and thought that the design and the history of the bridge was very intriguing, the fact that this was the first bridge the pilgrims would have crossed to get to the piazza. It would have been the most excitement thus far on their journey, was extremely motivating to me because it allowed me to imagine what one would sacrifice and endure to give their life to God. Another aspect of my research that I found very interesting is the amount of planning and designing Bernini put into making the piazza. After looking at many of the earlier sketches, it is amazing at how much time, work, and money must have been given to create this grand piazza.

VII: Bibliography

Bruce Boucher. Bernini and the Art of Architecture. Biography. Honolulu:
Spring 1999. Vol. 22, Iss. 2; p. 284 (1 page)

Glassman, Paul. Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican.
Library Journal. New York: Apr 1, 2003. Vol. 128, Iss. 6; p. 94 (2 pages)

Kitao, Timothy K. Circle and Oval in the Square of Saint Peter’s. New York: New York
University Press, 1974.

Marder, T.A. Bernini and the Art of Architecture. New York: 1998.

Triff, Kristin A. Bernini and The Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican.
Renaissance Quarterly. New York: Summer 2004. Vol. 57, Iss. 2; p. 601 (2 pages)

THE GENIUS IN THE DESIGN: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That
Transformed Rome. Anonymous. Publishers Weekly. New York: Feb 21, 2005. Vol. 252, Iss. 8; p. 172

Friday, February 9, 2007

Bernini’s Elephant Obelisk - “Pulcino della Minerva”

Kristina Dahlberg
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Small Presentation

The curiously small Obelisk in front of the Santa Minerva Dominican Church is known as the “Pulcino della Minerva”, or Minerva’s little Chick. The name ‘Minerva’ arises from the fact that the church was built on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Minerva. The obelisk was discovered in 1655 in a garden belonging to the Dominican monastery. The obelisk was discovered to be one of two obelisks that was transported from Sais and was built during 589-570 BC in Egypt, the other being on display in Urbino.

Shortly after the obelisk was discovered, Pope Alexander VII began to entertain ideas for a new display utilizing the obelisk. One idea presented was done so by Father Domenico Paglia who was also an architect. His designs had the Obelisk resting over 6 small hills, as well as a dog in each corner – the dog being a symbol of the Dominican priests. The hills recalled the 6 hills also depicted on the Chigi family crest. As Alexander VII was of the Chigi family, clearly Paglia was attempting to appeal to his inner narcissist; however, Alexander actually rejected the design, stating that he wanted the Obelisk to be a “symbol of holy knowledge”.

Thus, Bernini was approached and asked to design a solution, and he presented the Pope with several designs.
One such design contained four figures, each seated at one corner of the pedestal, and each offering one hand to hold the Obelisk up. Another design showed the Obelisk resting on an ‘irregular’ rock as Hercules gives it a ‘wrestler’s’ hold to keep it vertical. One of his final early sketches depicted Hercules with his knees semi-bent as he hoists the obelisk upward and recalls Atlantis holding up the world in his position.

The solution eventually chosen was, of course, a depiction of an elephant holding up the Obelisk on its back. This solution was inspired by a popular and well known novel at the time, and was one of the first books actually printed in Italy. The book was titled “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” or “Poliphilo’s The Strife of Love in a Dream” and was written by Francesco Colonna. The book was written in 1499 and included the main character meeting an elephant made of stone carrying an obelisk. A wood cut was included in the novel, that depicted a Elephant that looked very similar to the elephant obelisk.

In Bernini’s original drawings, the obelisk’s weight would actually have fully rested on the legs of the animal. However, father Paglia was envious of Bernini receiving the commission and convinced the Pope that “according to traditional cannons, no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady nor long lasting”. (“Minerva’s Chick”) Bernini was very opposed to this modification, especially as he had already proven that he could accomplish such a task in his “Four Rivers Fountain” in Piazza Navona.

The Pope decided to add the cube to Bernini’s elephant all the same, and though Bernini attempted to disguise the heavy look of the cube by adding in a saddle to the elephant’s back, it was not entirely successful and the elephant was thus nicknamed “Procino della Minerva”, or Minerva’s Piggy because of its thick and heavy look. This name eventually changed into the obelisk’s present name of “Pulcino della Minerva” likely due to the similarities between the two words in Roman dialect.

Bernini was able to take his revenge upon the Pope and Paglia by depicting the elephant’s rear end as pointing toward the Dominican Monastery, “the tail slightly shifted to the left, in the attitude of saluting Father Paglia and the other Dominican Friars in a rather obscene way!” (“Minerva’s Chick”) The Bernini’s design was carried out by a student, specifically Ercole Ferrala in 1667 and, as per the Pope’s request, the inscription on the base reads, “… a strong mind is needed to support a strong knowledge.” (“Minerva’s Chick”)


Heckscher, William. "Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk." The Art Bulletin 29 (1947): 155-182. 5 Feb. 2007 .

“Hypnerotomachia. The Strife of Love in a Dream” Robert Dallington, trans. London, 1592. Reprint. Lucy Gent, ed. Delmar, NY, 1973.

"Minerva's Chick." Virtual Roma. 5 Feb. 2007 .

"Obelisks in Rome." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 Jan 2007, 09:25 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Feb 2007 .

"Santa Maria sopra Minerva." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 4 Feb 2007, 16:57 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Feb 2007 .

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Talking Statues of Rome

Katie Furia
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007
Short Presentation Paper

In the first half of the fifteenth century, the popes gained direct authority over the government of Rome. This was a historical milestone for Italy, as the popes now assumed the dual role of spiritual and civil leaders. Inevitably, in his role as king, the pope was soon exposed to much criticism, which was voiced by the Romans through what had become a favorite form of expression—short compositions in verse that ridiculed or blamed the popes for their poor behavior.

Nicholas V (1447-55) was one of the first popes whose action, the bloody repression of a conspiracy, was harshly criticized in a short poem:

Da quando è Niccolò papa e assassino, abbonda a Roma il sangue e scarso è il vino.
Since Nicholas became pope and murderer,
Blood is abundant in Rome while there is lack of wine.

It is important to note that the authors of these poems were anonymous and were often very close to the pope, providing them with direct knowledge of confidential information. Another poem suggested that Pope Innocentius VIII (1484-92) be given the title, Padre della Patria (Father of the Nation), because of his sixteen illegitimate children.

In 1501, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa put the torso of a statue representing Menelaus with the body of Patroclus in a small square near Piazza Navona after it had been dug up in the course of paving the Parione district. This location was a major meeting place during papal rule, which immediately gave the statue much exposure. Each year, on April 25th (St. Mark’s Day in 1501), the Cardinal chaired a Latin literary competition in which the poems were posted on the statue. Occasionally, however, this happened outside the competition period, and the poems became a way for the people to express their political or social discontent with popes or individuals within the government. Legend has it that an outspoken tailor named Pasquino was the first to post anti-governmental slogans on its base. In this way, the statue, who had been given the name Pasquino, became the first talking statue of Rome. An example of the use of the statue for political means involves Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope. Essentially, Pasquino accused Alessandro Farnese of being little better than a pimp for his sister: “You should attach horns to your hat…because of that slut, your sister Guilia; for that point where she meets the sixth Alexander, when she lies under him, is the point where your own life is touched.” Guilia was also mockingly described as the “bride of Christ” and was said to have given birth to at least one child of the pope. To this day, Pasquino is still used for posting messages and claims. The little square in which he still resides, Piazza di Pasquino, is named after him and pasquinata (pasquinade) has now come to be the word used for a short satire exhibited in a public place.

Despite his battered appearance, Pasquino soon became a popular form of political free speech as the messages hung around his neck or posted at his base spoke out about the people's dissatisfaction, denounced injustice, and assaulted misgovernment by members of the Church. Even during the conclaves, new gossips were posted every night to influence the election of the pope. Pope Adrianus VI (1522-23) and other popes considered throwing Pasquino into the Tiber, but they feared to be ridiculed by punishing an ancient Roman statue. However, severe laws were issued to stop the posting of messages, and, in 1522, Pasquino was put under strict surveillance. Before long, however, this caused the undesired result of other talking statues appearing on the scene, forming a kind of academy with Pasquino as the leader called the “Congress of the Wits” (Congresso degli Arguti). The colossal statue of a river-god at the foot of the Capitol Hill, named Marforio, became a second Pasquino. It added zest to the lampooning of the popes as Pasquino and Marforio started talking to each other through posted messages across Rome. Clemens XI (1700-21) was so interested in revitalizing the town of Urbino after it had lost its importance, that Pasquino and Marforio had this short conversation:
Marforio:- Dimmi: che fai Pasquino? (Pasquino, tell me: what are you doing?)
Pasquino:- Eh, guardo Roma, chè non vada a Urbino. (I watch over Rome, to make sure it's not moved to Urbino).

In 1679, with the excuse of preserving the statue, Marforio was moved inside the Palazzo Nuovo di Campidoglio.

In addition to Pasquino and Marforio, the damaged marble bust of a statue of a priestess of Isis near Chiesa di S. Marco became known as Madama Lucrezia. She added a female character to the academy of the talking statues. The most famous pasquinade of hers is with no doubt:
Quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini.
What the Barbarians did not do the Barberini did.

The target of this pasquinade was Urbanus VIII Barberini (1623-44) who had used the bronze tiles of the Pantheon for the Canopy of St. Peter's.

The only talking statue that is not an ancient Roman statue is Il Facchino (The Porter), located in Via del Corso near Palazzo Decarolis. He portrays a Renaissance seller of water with a small cask. This trade declined at the end of the sixteenth century when Sixtus V started reactivating the ancient Roman aqueducts.

Close to Pasquino, another talking statue of an unidentified emperor whose head belongs to a different statue is located near S. Andrea della Valle. He also talked to Pasquino and Marforio, and was commonly known as l'Abate Luigi. In addition, Via del Babbuino (Baboon) of the Strangers’ Quarter in Rome is named after an old statue of a silenus (a forest spirit, often represented as a drunken old man with the legs and ears of a horse), which was referred to in derogatory terms as il Babbuino. Its location made it an alternative site for posting pasquinades without a high risk of punishment. Il Babbuino was also used by the large community of foreigners living in the area for lampooning members of the community.

Being some of the few uncensored and independent news sources during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the people of Rome listened to the talking statues carefully. However, as freedom in the press became more widely practiced, the statues fell into disuse. Despite this, even though Pasquino and his academy are no longer used as key avenues of expressing political sentiment, they still provide entertaining and creative means by which to voice one’s opinion, no matter how scandalous it may be.





Majanlahti, Anthony. The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide. Chatto & Windus; London. 2005.