Friday, August 1, 2008

Heavenly Architecture: The History, Design, and Propaganda of Piazza San Pietro

Jeff Smith
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is regarded as one of the best baroque artists in history. Although involved with many famous projects, this sculptor and architect from Naples is forever immortalized for his design and creation of Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) -the Vatican City piazza that invites pilgrims and tourists alike to behold the splendor of Basilica di San Pietro (Basilica of St. Peter) before entering “the greatest of all churches in Christendom” (Bannister).
This piazza is a masterful piece of propaganda of the Roman-Catholic Church which allows both the pilgrim and visitor to view Catholicism as an intricate, powerful, and awe-inspiring entity as they enter into the heavenly glow of Piazza St. Pietro.

Both the glowing piazza and the massive basilica of Vatican City were named after St. Peter, the leader of the twelve apostles of Jesus and the first pope of the Catholic Church. Many art historians believe that the body of St. Peter still rests under the basilica which bears his name. St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in 319 AD during the papacy of Sylvester I. Due to years of neglect and damage suffered during the sack of Rome in the 15th century, Pope Julius II and a number of his successors directed the nearly complete restructure of the Basilica. A legendary staff of architects, including Raphael, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Maderno, were involved in the rebuilding. The current dome of the Basilica was completed in 1590, and it stands today as the fundamental symbol of the Roman-Catholic Church and all of Christianity. After completion of the magnificent Basilica, Pope Alexander VII decided almost immediately upon his papal election in 1656 that the approach to St. Peter’s needed to be rebuilt as well. He commissioned Bernini, who had worked on other architectural projects for the church, including St. Peter’s baldachin, to be the lead architect in designing the piazza which was to welcome tens of millions of pilgrims to one of the holiest sites in all of Catholicism.

Bernini worked on the piazza from 1656 until its completion in 1667. Papal commissions were nothing new to Bernini. Before the papacy of Alexander VII, he was a favorite of Pope Urban VIII, and worked near or at St. Peter’s for fifty-four years of his life. After obtaining the commission from Alexander VII to design the piazza, Bernini considered many blueprints, including a trapezoidal shaped entrance. However, with much input from cardinals and other church officials, he settled on a primarily elliptical-shaped piazza, a “sub-piazza” known as Piazza Obliqua (unless otherwise noted, I will use “piazza” synonymously with “Piazza San Pietro”). The long axis of the ellipse spans 350 meters and the short axis is roughly 240 meters; an impressive size given the central location of St. Peter’s relative to Rome and Vatican City. In addition to the dominant elliptical portion of Piazza San Pietro, Bernini incorporated a trapezoidal shape (named Piazza Retta) into the piazza near the entrance to the Basilica. Bernini enclosed the Piazza San Pietro with radially aligned travertine Doric columns utilized to accentuate the vertical height of the piazza’s enclosure. In an unconventional architectural move, Bernini also made use of ionic entablature on top of the Doric columns, a design which added structural strength to the colonnades. A total of 284 columns, thirty-nine feet in height and four rows deep, surround the elliptical and trapezoidal portions of the piazza. The area between the columns is wide enough for a carriage (or car) to pass through; allowing the Pope and other church officials to quickly traverse the large piazza while bypassing crowds. Bernini placed a heightened portion of the portico in the middle of the colonnade arms, which breaks up some of the repetitiveness of the nearly three hundred columns, but still allows the eye to transition smoothly around the piazza. A fifteen foot high statue of a saint or a martyr of the Catholic Church tops each of the 96 colonnades. The surface of the piazza was initially paved with cobblestones, but the current cobblestones are not the originals due to the wear on the piazza’s surface from hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors who fill the area each year. Today, radiating lines of whitish travertine intertwine the new dark cobblestones.

At each of the geometric focal points of the elliptical portion of the piazza, there are two identical fountains composed of white marble that provide a striking contrast to the dark cobblestones paving the piazza. The original fountain was designed by Carlo Maderno (found on the southern side of the piazza) and the second fountain was added by Bernini to give symmetry to the piazza; a decision which is consistent with Renaissance-style design. Between the two fountains, a 25.5 meter obelisk adorned by a cross sits atop small bronze lions and a pedestal, raising the obelisk to a height of 41 meters above the ground. The cross that rests atop the obelisk symbolizes the relic of the “true cross” on which Jesus Christ was crucified on.

During the Middle Ages and before the cross sat upon the apex of the obelisk, a small sphere rested upon the pinnacle of the obelisk. It was said that this ball held the ashes of Julius Caesar; symbolically linking the Catholic Church to the days when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. This Egyptian obelisk was built in the 13th century BC and is made of red granite. It was moved to Rome in 37 AD by the Emperor Caligula. It is one of only 28 known remaining intact obelisks in the world from ancient Egypt, and was moved by Pope Sixtus V to its current location in 1586. The task of moving the prodigious and ancient obelisk intimidated many of the greatest minds of the day and was finally delegated to Dominco Fotana, who supposedly had horses ready to escape the wrath of Sixtus V in case the obelisk toppled during the move. Luckily, Fontana’s engineering feat was successful, and the obelisk which serves to represent light and the power of the Catholic Church still stands slender and triumphant against the backdrop of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Because the obelisk had been moved to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica before work on the piazza began, Bernini was forced to incorporate the already existing obelisk into his design; a task that was not new to him. In his design of the Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in 1651, Bernini also had to work around an existing obelisk. It was fitting that Pope Alexander VII (a lover of history and the arts, and one of the more worldly individuals to hold the papacy) was the Pope to commission the piazza which would display the historic obelisk. Pope Alexander VII wanted an entrance to the basilica that would convey the power and glory of the Catholic Church while filling the viewer with an overpowering sense of awe. During the design and construction of the piazza, the baroque style which incorporates movement, awe, and balance into architecture and art was at its height of popularity in Rome. In his design, Bernini was forced to deal with many architectural restrictions due to existing buildings and structures, many of which housed church officials who did not want their homes destroyed.

Still, these complications could not prevent Bernini from utilizing the baroque style as propaganda to meet the Church’s wishesof an entrance which would make pilgrims and visitors feel a sense of holy revelation while being overwhelmed by the massive, yet ornate structures of the Catholic Church. However, Bernini did not complete his finalized design in its entirety.
The “third arm” of the piazza which would guide pilgrims and visitors into its interior was never completed. Nevertheless, the completed piazza and basilica signify the power and importance of the Catholic faith while also serving to make visitors feel welcome in the wake of their feelings of awe.

This feeling of amazement in the pilgrim was dramatically increased by Bernini’s design of the approach to the piazza. Bernini specifically constructed the path to the basilica and piazza to wind through the narrow streets of Rome, preventing the pilgrims from being able to see the piazza or basilica until they were nearly upon them. This design was characteristic of the baroque “surprise.” The brilliant white travertine marble colonnades of the piazza provide a divine glow, giving the pilgrims and visitors the impression that they are transitioning from dark, winding streets of Rome into the light of Catholicism. In the words of Bernini, the piazza allows pilgrims to be received into “the motherly arms of the church.” These propaganda techniques were intended to show the strength and power of the Catholic Church.

In addition to linking the church to strength and power, Alexander VII, a son of the prominent Chigi family, wanted to link his family to the magnificent attributes of the piazza. He did so by having his name inscribed numerous times throughout the two porticos, as well as having his family’s coat of arms of mountains and oaks decorate both the base of the obelisk and doors within the portico. Alexander VII’s goals were clear: as patron of these architectural masterpieces, he wanted to heighten the glory and strength of the Catholic Church, but also assure that his family would gain both fame and power. Alexander VII did not to be forgotten in the annals of history, and his tomb, designed by Bernini, which rests inside the basilica is further testament to his goal of surviving posthumously through the art and architecture he commissioned.

The current approach to St. Peter’s and the masterful propaganda of the Catholic Church has been changed since its original construction. Bernini initially designed the approach to prevent pilgrims from seeing the piazza until they were nearly on top of it. He mapped an approach to the piazza that involved pilgrims and visitors crossing the Tiber River over Ponte Sant’Angelo near Castel Sant’Angelo. Castel Sant’Angelo was initially constructed by Emperor Hadrian (76AD-138AD) as a mausoleum for his family. It was converted into a military fortress in 401 AD, and used by the papacy as a fortress until 1901, when it was decommissioned from defense purposes. Today, the building stands as a museum. During the crossing of Ponte Sant’Angelo, the pilgrims were able to get their first glimpses of St. Peter’s Basilica; a site that would almost certainly give any weary pilgrim more than enough strength to walk the final steps to the rock of Catholicism. The winding approach to St. Peter’s was destroyed in 1936 by Benito Mussolini. In a politically savvy move, Mussolini had an avenue built that would lead directly to the Basilica. This linked his dictatorship with the power of the Catholic Church, as well as served as propaganda to give his leadership divine legitimacy.

Changes and constraints were forced upon Bernini both during and after his lifetime. Bernini was limited in his design by both restrictions of religious officials and the lay of the land, and had to deal with many logistical and structural problems. Nevertheless, he put much thought into the symbolic nature of the piazza’s design. The piazza had to encompass a large amount of area to allow the maximum number of pilgrims to attend masses presided over by the Pontiff. Also, the Doric columns which surround the both the trapezoidal and elliptical portions of the piazza were erected to be a specific height to allow pilgrims to view the Pope without architectural hindrance. Like many historical masterpieces, art historians have made different arguments regarding the reasoning behind Bernini’s unique design of Piazza San Pietro.
Kiato argues that the construction of the piazza was designed almost solely as an amphitheater “for the performance of God’s worship;” built primarily to pack pilgrims into the piazza for mass. While the ability to hold a prodigious number of individuals was a practical necessity to allow for large mass attendance, the art historian Napier argues that there is deeper meaning behind the symmetrical fountains and welcoming travertine colonnades. In his book, Napier states that the design of the piazza was shaped to mimic a uterus. As Bernini intended to glorify St. Peter’s as “the mother of all churches,” Napier attempts to persuade his audience that Bernini accomplished that task by glorifying the Virgin Mary through his design, and allowing “the womb of the world [to be] inverted on the altar of God.” Napier provides structural evidence for his claim: the two fountains symbolize the uterine arteries which “bring life giving fluid to the womb,” while the third arm of the piazza that was never constructed would have formed two entrances meant to symbolize fallopian tubes. In addition, the overall shape of the piazza with its elliptical and trapezoidal portion does resemble the shape of a uterus. Napier expands his assertion further, arguing that the altar symbolizes the masculine key to the womb with the keys being eternally held by St. Peter, whose body rests under the altar. One aspect of Bernini’s creation is certain: the piazza was designed as a propaganda piece to convey the power, spirituality, and greatness of the church, yet also serves to invite pilgrims to the most well known basilica in the world to gaze upward at the wonder and glory of God.

Piazza San Pietro has survived nearly four and a half centuries, and has influenced the thoughts, actions, and lives of millions of people, whether Catholic or not. Even a person of the 21st century living in a technologically advanced world that Bernini could not have possibly fathomed is left awe-struck by the piazza’s magnificence. With radiating white travertine marble columns enclosing the colossal piazza adorned by fifteen foot high legends of Catholicism, it is difficult to imagine a pope, or any other individual for that matter, advocating any major changes to Bernini’s baroque masterpiece. The cross that adorns the ancient, slender obelisk provides a beacon of light to those feeling the call of the Catholic Church. This piazza will continue to be an experience of a lifetime for countless more pilgrims through the coming centuries.

In writing and researching this paper about Piazza San Pietro, there were two topics that I kept delving deeper into: Bernini and the ancient Roman Obelisk. I was taken with Bernini before I had the privilege of seeing his works firsthand in Rome, but after seeing the statues that he designed while in his teens, I was truly amazed at this baroque sculptor who centered his life on artistic perfection. The thought, time, and dedication that he put into each of his masterpieces deserve the kudos of the millions of people who have the privilege of seeing his works.

The 440-ton obelisk between the two fountains of St. Peter’s also captured my attention, as it likewise did for many Roman emperors and popes. Reading about the specially constructed boats used to transport the obelisk to Rome in the first century as well as the stories involving the ceremonies during its move to its present location under Pope Sixtus V will amaze almost anyone. I also thought it very interesting that the pagan-constructed obelisk had held the ashes of the legendary pagan Roman leader Julius Caesar, and yet remains an icon of the holiest site of the monotheistic Catholic Church. Although the obelisk and Bernini captured my curiosity, it would be easy to pick almost any portion of Piazza San Pietro and be struck by its magnificence. It is a testament to Bernini’s artistic skill that his work invokes such feelings of awe.

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