After 1200 years, the first Roman basilica dedicated to St. Peter was torn down, and then began the slow process of building a new one on the same location. We discuss why it took so long to build the basilica, what the main features of its beautiful piazza are, and how it differed from that of the old one.

Show Notes

Here we approach the “new” or “second” St. Peter’s Basilica, not the first. The first was constructed very soon after Constantine legalized Christianity early in the fourth century, and it was in regular use for 1,200 years before being torn down and replaced. During this long period it survived such dramatic events as the sacking of Rome by Goths and Vandals, the Gothic Wars, the looting by Saracen raiders, and the civil tumults of several centuries. It was also the site of the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800, and it served as the burial place of over 100 popes.

Old St. Peter’s shortly before its demolition (H.W. Brewer (1836 – 1903)[1], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Several Renaissance popes and architects concluded that the old basilica was beyond repair, venerable and venerated space though it was, and Julius II and his architect, Donato Bramante, took the decisive steps of tearing it down and beginning to build a magnificent replacement. Partly because this meant the destruction of a hallowed space populated by the bones of saints, popes, and many others, Bramante got himself dubbed “the Master Destroyer.”

It took 120 years to build just the main structure of the new St. Peter’s, mostly during the 16th century, from 1506 to 1626, when it was consecrated. This long span partly reflects the magnitude of the project, but it can also help us remember the turbulence of European politics at this time. Martin Luther launched what later became known as the Protestant Reformation in 1517, and this split Christianity and became the popes’ principal preoccupation. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks, who had already taken Constantinople, were at the gates of Vienna in 1526. Vienna held, but the Balkans, Rhodes, Cyprus, and, roughly speaking, all the Mediterranean fell into the hands of the Turks.

Closer to home, troops nominally loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor violently occupied Rome in 1527 and kept on sacking it for nine months. Vivid accounts of brutal rapes and murders remain, and only with difficulty did the pope manage to flee in disguise. The city’s population plummeted to—who really knows?—perhaps 10,000, a fifth of what it had been. Even in the Renaissance, Rome had the population of just a small town. In short, the capital of Catholic Christendom was threatened from within and without, and the building of a vast new church could seem an unaffordable luxury. The wonder is not that the New St. Peter’s was built so slowly but that it was built at all.

The list of architects who worked on St. Peter’s is long and distinguished. It includes Bramante, Raphael, two Sangallos, Peruzzi, Michelangelo, Maderno, Bernini, and others. But the slow progress in building the church gave each of them the opportunity to revise the plans of his predecessor and sometimes even to tear down what had just been built. Once Pope Paul III compelled him to take over the project, an elderly Michelangelo pressed ahead with his plans rapidly, in part to make it exceedingly difficult for anyone to undo them after his death. He also secured a public papal threat to excommunicate any successor who changed what he had accomplished.

The new St. Peter’s was consecrated in 1626, but it was far from finished. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was just beginning his long and consequential relationship with the basilica. During the next half-century, he would work under six different popes and give the new church many of its most eye-catching features, including its most lavish interior decorations and its welcoming piazza and colonnade out front. Bramante and Michelangelo were the architects most responsible for its initial design, which bears the stamp of the Renaissance, but the final modifications and decorations were completed mostly by Bernini and by Carlo Maderno. These bear the stamp of the Counterreformation, which roughly coincides with what art historians often refer to as the “baroque.” It is with good reason that the word “baroque” is almost constantly on the lips of Rome’s guides: it is the dominant architectural style of many of Rome’s most memorable piazzas, palaces, and churches, and St. Peter’s fits right in.

As we approach the basilica, we first encounter the piazza in front of it, which invites the question, “How did the Church’s architects design the front yard of the largest church in the world? How did they use the space available to convey the Christian message, or are there other messages they wished to convey?”

Surely the piazza’s designers wanted to make it large, harmonious, and stunningly attractive. It is also welcoming. It is repeatedly and reasonably said that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the presiding architect, wanted the two curving branches of the colonnade to represent the arms of a welcoming and loving embrace, that of the Church. And a colonnade is more welcoming than a wall, for it allows easy passage through it.

St. Peter’s Square, with its embracing Colonnade, Obelisk in the center, and trapezoid linking the Church and the Piazza (Vatican photo)

This was a choice. Instead of an embracing colonnade, the Old St. Peter’s had a closed rectangular atrium out in front: perhaps its walls were to suggest and foster a stronger sense of a united Christian community within. Outside, the Rome of that day was still predominantly pagan, and walls were then a physical expression of the enormous barrier between Christian and pagan ways of looking at life and death. More generally, walls suggested the exclusion not just of pagans but of everything mundane. Acutely alive to the mysteries of the faith and the life of the world to come, the designers of the closed atrium of the First St. Peter’s implied that it is proper for there to be barriers that keep what is sacred from being defiled by what is profane. They set the basilica off not only from pagan Rome but from everything mundane.

The different approach taken by the New Saint Peter’s makes me wonder who Bernini wanted his colonnade to welcome and embrace, and why. We moderns are instructed to be non-judgmental, non-discriminatory, and open to virtually everything, but when Bernini designed his all-embracing arms, almost everyone in Rome was Catholic. And instead of the doctrine that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, religious wars were raging in Europe between the opposed opinions of Catholics and Protestants. It was a time of Either/Or, not Both/And. There would be no Protestant Churches in Rome for another couple more centuries. As for agnostic and atheistic opinions, they were not protected by law, and only a few radical thinkers dared to hint at such heresies. Catholic pilgrims flooded into Rome from other parts of Europe to pray at the tombs of the martyrs and saints, and Bernini’s piazza surely welcomed and embraced them, but I would not take its open arms to be a call for ecumenicalism. That came later.

So one question to keep in mind is who is being welcomed by the all-embracing arms of the piazza’s colonnade. A second is what does the piazza welcomed us to. To a Christian church, of course, but let’s try to be a little more precise, while we at the same time introduce the other main elements of the piazza: these include an obelisk; two fountains; the façade of the basilica, and the statues that stand on top of the colonnade and elsewhere.

Consider first the 140 large statues which stand on the colonnade. I once heard a spunky tour guide tell his group that the statues above the colonnade represented the Church’s wealthy donors. This earned him chuckles and knowing smiles, so I’m sure he kept using the line, even while knowing it to be false. The statues are all of saints. This is no surprise, for the Church had always honored saints, but these particular saints gained their lofty positions at a moment when the Church was responding to the Protestants’ denial that saints were important for the salvation of our souls. The Protestants’ doctrine was then “Solus Christos,” or Christ Alone, who was the mediator between God and man. The Catholic Counterreformation did not seek a middle ground but reaffirmed the importance of saints in strong terms. As expressed at the Council of Trent, “The saints who reign together with Christ offer up their prayers to God for men, [and] it is good and beneficial suppliantly to invoke them and to have recourse to their prayers.”

If we pray to them, that is, they will pray for us, and do so from their privileged position in heaven.

Embracing Arms of Bernini’s Colonnade, surmounted by Statues of Saints. (© 2006 – 2020 Paesaggio Italiano – Fotografie di Leonardo Bellotti)

Over half of the 140 statues on the Colonnade represent martyrs, a much higher percentage than we find among the saints in general, and this too reflects the Church’s renewed emphasis on the martyrs during its battle with Protestantism. The martyrs gave up their lives when pagans persecuted the true faith, and the early Church was eager to remember and perhaps even to magnify their sacrifices. Hence, the great churches in Rome’s earliest days of legalized Christianity were often dedicated to martyrs, including St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Agnes, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, St. Clement, and others. But perhaps because the age of the early persecutions faded somewhat in the Roman memory, so did the martyrs. The hot and bloody struggle with Protestantism brought them back into the limelight, and we will see them also on the canvasses of the period.

Another feature distinguishing the Catholic Church from its Protestant rivals was its inclusion of different religious groups or orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and many more. The founders of such groups are also well represented in the statues surrounding Piazza San Pietro; among them, for example, are both main founding saints of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. The Jesuits’ vital service to the Church during the Counterreformation could only have made their inclusion more certain. This emphasis on founders of religious orders is evident also inside the basilica.

The popes might have been a natural choice to place above the welcoming arms of the supreme church of the papacy, but only 13 statues of popes occupy this place of honor. Not all popes were either saintly or sanctified, of course, but the available pool of pope-saints was about 83 as of the time the Colonnade went up, so it is perhaps curious that Alexander VII choose to honor martyrs more than the saints who had held his own office. His restraint suggests that popes are not the greatest servants of the faith.

The split in Christianity that occurred while St. Peter’s was being designed and built makes it especially unsurprising that the Piazza is marked by its Catholicism. St. Peter’s is not a nondenominational church! But another aspect of the Piazza does surprise me, or at least it did for a long time. It is the extent to which the popes who most directed its design, Pope Alexander VII and Paul V, used the piazza to honor their families as well as their Catholicism. They both came from powerful families, as was typical for high-ranking church officials of their day, and they both called loud attention to their families in the new piazza, which marks another break from the old St. Peter’s. Alexander placed six sculpted coats of arms of his family around the top of the two colonnades, at their centers and ends, and all of them are larger and stand taller than the statues that surround them. (For an excellent list of papal coats of arms, see Rome Art Lover.) And on the frieze that runs just above the column tops on the façade of the basilica is a Latin inscription that reads:

Coat of Arms of Pope Alexander VI on Colonnade of St. Peter’s (my photo)

In Honor of the Prince of the Apostles, PAUL V BORGHESE A ROMAN, Pontifex Maximus, 1612, the 7th year [of his papacy]. He implies the verb, “built this.”

Though the pope claims to be honoring the Prince of the Apostles, the inscription puts his own name in very center of the façade, and it can almost sound as if the pope is declaring himself to be the apostle in question. This emphasis on papal families is continued inside the basilica and all over papal Rome. Note it also on the obelisk at the center of the piazza: Just beneath the cross at the top of the obelisk, Pope Sixtus V placed a star and three mountains, and at its base he positioned lions. A later pope added crowned eagles, all of which symbols celebrate powerful families, not the transcendent doctrines of the Christian faith.

Let’s move now to the most eye-catching elements in the center of the piazza; they are the obelisk and the fountains on either side of it.

The obelisk was the first feature to be put in place. In fact, it was positioned in the piazza almost a century before Bernini added the 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters that form the piazza’s welcoming perimeter.

It is one of thirteen obelisks standing in Rome today, all of them ancient and eight of them Egyptian. It is the only one of the thirteen that did not fall down or get torn down during the Middle Ages, but not even it is still standing in its original position. It had been brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula, who placed it in the racecourse for chariots he had built to honor himself. This racecourse used to be just to the south, or left, of where St. Peter’s, stands today. Nero renamed it the Circus of Nero and made it infamous by using it for the first brutal persecution of Christians, which Tacitus recorded and Catholic tradition remembers as the likely occasion of the martyrdom St. Peter.

Bramante did not think it possible to move the obelisk, but he was so taken by its effect that he suggested centering the new church on the obelisk. This would have meant that the church could no longer be positioned over the tomb of St. Peter, however, so Pope Julius II refused. Perhaps he figured that a later pope-architect team would be able to move the obelisk successfully, and this is what Sixtus V and Domenico Fontana managed in 1586. Fontana’s success inspired Pope Sixtus and his successors to begin to resurrect the other old and broken obelisks lying around the city. All the obelisks that are such important visible features of Rome today were put in place after this one at St. Peter’s.

Although the Ancient Romans had managed to transport this and other obelisks all the way from remote locations in Egypt and erect them in Rome, nothing like this had been attempted for over a thousand years. The obelisk weighs about 330 tons and is made of granite, which is very difficult to fracture if it is supported from below. Without such support, however, granite and most kinds of stone become breakable, which is why we use steel beams, not stone beams. The practical consequence is that the obelisk needed to be supported along its full length when it was lowered from its vertical position to the horizontal position used for moving it about a quarter of a mile, and so again when it was raised.

Fontana wrote a little book describing his achievement. The gist is that he built a tower of timbers to surround the obelisk, which he cradled in wood and iron. Then he used ropes attached to the tower to lower it 90 degrees—slowly!—onto a wooden platform, which then could be drawn on rollers to the new site. Then the procedure was reversed, with the obelisk being rotated up from horizontal to vertical. This sounds easy enough, but course there were many winches, pulleys, long lengths of rope, horses, and men necessary. The job took five months, not counting the planning, and included a few dramatic moments: all guides in Rome tell the story of the sailor who broke an enforced silence to yell “Water on the Ropes” at a critical moment to keep the ropes from unraveling under the strain.

Obelisk raised by Domenico Fontana in Piazza San Pietro in 1586 (commons wikimedia)

Attractive fountains flank the obelisk. One necessity of a good fountain, at least prior to the availability of electric pumps, is an elevated water supply, and several popes in 16th and 17th century Rome worked to satisfy this need by rebuilding the ancient Roman aqueducts, which had been cut ten centuries earlier during the Gothic Wars. Pope Paul V rebuilt one to empty into the impressive fountain called “Paul’s Water,” or Acqua Paola, on the Janiculum Hill, and some of this water was then piped down to supply fountains planned for Piazza San Pietro. Since the Janiculum is much higher than the piazza, the architects were able to design fountains that would send streams of water high into the air, to spectacular effect. Carlo Maderno, who also built the façade and extended the nave of the basilica, finished the first of them, the one on the right, in 1614. Bernini matched it with a second fountain about 65 years later. The are especially attractive in late afternoon, when their spray catches the light of the setting sun.

Final considerations, mostly aesthetic, concern the façade and the overall shape of the piazza. As it seems to me, at least, both were affected by the desire allow the basilica’s dramatic dome to be at least somewhat visible to large numbers in the piazza.

As noted previously, Michelangelo and Bramante had intended for St. Peter’s to be in the shape of a Greek Cross, that is, with all four arms of the cross of equal length and all relatively short. This fully symmetrical shape would have made the dome more visible from the front and emphasized both the church’s verticality from the outside and its central crossing on the inside. As things turned out, the nave was extended to the front, limits the visibility of the dome.

Carlo Maderno was the architect who extended the nave, and he was also responsible for the façade or front view of the basilica. His façade is often criticized because it has such a stocky appearance, for its basic shape is that of a big rectangle lying on its side. Maderno clearly knew how to design a more vertical and more attractive façade, as he did for the church of Santa Susanna on the Quirinal Hill, for example, but at St. Peter’s he wanted avoid limiting visibility of the dome of St. Peter’s any more than was necessary, so a high façade was out of the question.

The Low Rectangular Facade of St. Peter’s, which allows just a glimpse of the Dome (© 2006 – 2020 Paesaggio Italiano – Fotografie di Leonardo Bellotti)

The overall shape of Bernini’s piazza is that of a keyhole, with a large oval linked to the church by a trapezoid that gets broader as we approach the church. Since the longer axis of the oval is perpendicular to that of the church and separated from it by the trapezoid, the greatest gathering area in the piazza is set back from the church, near the obelisk and fountains. Keeping the centers of the piazza back from the façade makes the dome at least partially visible to a higher fraction of assembled crowds.

In short, lengthening the nave reduced the visibility of the dome: keeping the façade low and moving the centers of the piazza further back do their part to keep it from disappearing altogether.

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