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.

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