History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - St. Peter's Basilica - The Church to End all Churches

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It´s one of the most beloved success stories of Renaissance Italian art and architecture. A stroll through St. Peter´s Basilica and the Vatican museums is to see the wealth of the Renaissance popes and feel their desire to combat the growing Reformation by appealing to the beauty and grandeur of Catholicism. The building of St. Peter´s is also the story of the rebuilding of Rome itself, a city left devastated by the Middle Ages, neglected by the Great Schism when the popes lived under the thumb of the French in Avignon. Only in the 15th century did the popes return to Rome and pick up the pieces of the Caput Mundi.

In 1506, Pope Julius II oversaw the early demolitions of the old basilica and the architectural plans of what would be the new home of the Universal Church. Construction would take a century and a half, carrying the birth of the new St. Peter´s through the high Renaissance under the guidance of astounding architects and artists: Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Giuliano da Sangallo, Maderno, Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo.

Location: St. Peter´s sits in the Vatican City, a walled section of western Rome that in a 1929 treaty became a sovereign state with the pope as chief executive. The Vatican City is less than one fifth of a square mile making it the smallest state in Europe. The Vatican coat of arms depicts the triple papal crown- father of kings, rector of the world and vicar of Christ- and the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ gave to St. Peter.

History: The basilica was built on land that has seen thousands of years of building, demolition and more building. It began in ancient times, when the oblong Circus of Caligula (or Nero, 1st c. AD) expanded to the left of the current basilica. It is said that St. Peter was martyred there in 64 A.D. Over St. Peter´s tomb and other Christian catacombs, the Emperor Constantine built what is now referred to as the Constantinian Basilica in the 4th c. A.D. During the Middle Ages, builders constructed new wings to the church, but the design stayed essentially the same.

The Dome: The silver-blue dome of St. Peter's can be seen from just about anywhere in Rome. Michelangelo began the dome project in 1546 and died 18 years later before the work was completed.

The Baldacchino: A fantastic canopy made up of four thick, twisting gold and bronze columns that flank the basilica´s high altar. Bernini built the baldacchino as the centerpiece of the basilica directly underneath Michelangelo´s dome.

The Square: Bernini designed St. Peter´s Square under Pope Alexander VII (1655-67), his goal to widen the church´s facade and broaden the entire square so that more people could see the pope during public appearances. As a solution, Bernini designed an ellipse bordered by four collonades which envelop the square and block out the unsightly buildings that flank the basilica.

The Swiss Guards: These men in striped tunics with very long pikes in hand are the traditional guards of the Vatican, a corps formed under Pope Julius II in 1505. The costume has not changed since then. A wannabe Swiss guard must be a native Swiss Catholic under 25 years old and must apply for the job.

The scale: The interior furnishings of a dollhouse are built small enough to look right in a miniature space. Likewise, the sculpture, doorways and columns of St. Peter´s were built larger than life to harmonize in a superhuman space. The statues are massive, even the dainty marble cherubs. The baldacchino is taller than the Palazzo Farnese. To show the huge proportions of the basilica´s nave, bronze markings on the floor show the lengths of the largest other Christian churches. Every one of them would fit inside St. Peter's.

The Numbers:

25 m. Height of the obelisk in St. Peter´s Square
29 m. Height of Berinini´s baldacchino.
42 m. Diameter of Michelangelo´s dome.
119 m. Height from the inside of the dome.
114.69 m. Width of Maderno´s collonade facade.
600 feet Lenth of the basilica´s nave, or main hall.

Have I forgotten anything? Ah, the Sistine Chapel, the Pietá, the Vatican Museums... These masterworks stand on their own, and I will talk about them in future articles.
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