Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
Gian Lorenzo Bernini is seen as one of the most influential and talented architect of the 17th century. His genius was found at a very young age, and his dedication earned him the respect of many popes of the Roman Baroque. Pope Urban VIII, also known as Maffeo Barberini, was Gian Lorenzo’s greatest patron. Maffeo Barberini took an immediate interest to Bernini’s talent when the two met during Bernini’s commissions at the Villa Borghese. Barberini was a cardinal then, and he made Bernini a papal knight by the time Bernini was 23. A year later, Barberini was named Pope with a landslide of 50 out of 55 votes; Barberini was only 55 at this time, very young for a Pope. When he received this title, Barberini summoned Bernini to tell him: “It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.” Barberini and Bernini were so close Bernini visited the Pope whenever he wanted, accompanied him to the bedside, and drew the window curtains for him. Bernini acquired a huge number of commissions during Barberini’s reign of 21 years, and he was one of the most richly rewarded and highest paid artists in the world.
The main event during Barberini’s papacy was the Thirty Years War, a clash of Catholicism with Protestantism which had grown out of the Holy Roman Empire to spread throughout Europe. Barberini’s main objective throughout his papacy was to restore Catholicism in Europe; he had a lot of set plans for the church, the papacy, and how they were to be seen at the time. Barberini was a fervent supporter of Catholic missions across the globe. He created dioceses and vicariates in pagan countries, founded the Collegium Urbanum in 1627 (its objective to train missionaries to go abroad) as well as a college for the Maronites on Mt. Lebanon in 1625, and he also attempted to reinstate Catholicism in England. Because of this as well as his reputation as patron of the arts, the Roman people heartily welcomed his pontificate. While most of Barberini’s actions are attributed to his commitment to restoring Catholicism in Europe, he also had personal agendas. Due to the fact he was young and his family was not from Rome (and only modestly wealthy) he felt the need to truly establish his legitimacy as pope, develop his family name, and make sure all the Roman people understand he had been “chosen” to be Pope.
Under Urban VIII, Bernini produced great pieces of art with important messages. Pope Urban VIII carefully detailed the symbolism behind each commissioned artwork to prove the legitimacy of his papacy and the Barberini family name. Unfortunately for Barberini, support of his pontificate slowly trickled away by the end of his reign due to his excessive nepotism and accumulation of large debts. Bernini was a central figure in ensuring the continued support of the Roman people even at the end of Barberini’s papacy.
The original altarpiece over St. Peter’s tomb was erected in the Thanksgiving of 324 AD by Constantine, the first Roman Christian Emperor. Saint Peter was the first Pope, and the altar served to both venerate him as well as display the most important relic of the church: St. Peter’s body. Historically, the baldacchino was a temporary structure, and it underwent many transformations before Bernini’s final design. The entire church of St. Peters had actually been rebuilt, starting in the time of Pope Julius II (1506) with the exterior finally finished in 1617. Originally Pope Gregory XV had commissioned Maderno to construct the full-sized model of the baldacchino, but he died before the project was finished. Urban VIII gladly took over the project of installing the permanent baldacchino, an enormous undertaking to highlight the connection between papal power and the imperial benevolence of Constantine. Within five days of Maderno’s death, Urban VIII had appointed Bernini as the chief architect of St. Peters. Bernini started work on the baldacchino in 1624; it was his first grand architectural endeavor. Bernini had a distinctive take on architecture: he believed the good architect combined the beautiful with the necessary but the best architect was the one to turn necessities and defects into beauty. Bernini believed strongly in basing architecture in antiquity, although he did feel bending the rules was necessary sometimes.
Bernini’s baldacchino (1624-33) drew from one important idea of Maderno’s: the twisted columns, not staves, supporting the altar. However, the original Maderno design had angels at the foot of the columns, and Bernini made an important change by moving the angels to the top because columns stand independently and need not to be held up by angels. The twisted columns, also called Solomonic columns, recall the columns of the original Constantinian altar as well as the twisted columns in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. This symbolizes the union of the Old Testament (under Solomon) and the Christian rule of Constantine.
The bronze used in the columns came from the Pantheon’s porch; Urban VIII had ordered the bronze supports to be dismantled to be used in St. Peters. His stripping of 927 tons of Pantheon bronze in 1633 elicited the quote "Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini" (What wasn't done by the barbarians was done by the Barberini). Each bronze column was hollow-cast in three pieces; the shafts cast in three pieces and joined separately. Bernini used the lost wax process, where the mold is sandwiched between a heat-resistant core and cover. The wax is the primary sculpting material which made up the positive image against the negative encasing material. Bronze is then melted and poured down into the channels where the wax was; the wax then melts and is drained so the metal can take its original shape. A myth also mentions the use of the lost lizard process, where Bernini would use real animals such as lizards, fruit, leaves, and bees in the wax to capture more realistic details. Because the columns are hollow, it was not enough to secure and stabilize the structure. Thus each shaft’s cavity was filled with concrete to increase its compressive strength.
Bernini raised the columns to rest upon marble pedestals carved with the family crest and portraits of Urban VIII’s niece and her newborn son. Raising the columns made the papal symbols on the bronze especially visible, allowing Bernini to cast symbols to compliment his patron. Even though the Christian vine leaves were customary at the time (representing the Eucharist), Bernini picked vine leaves that looked similar to the laurel leaves of the Barberini family crest to be shown on the columns. Instead of butterflies, Bernini put in the “Barberini bees”. Bees were revered at the time for their attraction to the sweetness of “holiness”, so this replacement showed the sanctity of the structure as well as the connection of the Barberini family with the baldacchino. At the top of each column the Barberini sun is also depicted.
The canopy Bernini designed was especially a phenomenon of its time, violating the rules of what architecture was supposed to be. It was customary for the canopy to be made of a separate element that the structure; usually it was cloth or silk. However, Bernini also made the canopy out of bronze with bronze tassels, so it looks ephemeral yet very durable. The tassels also show the three bees of Barberini and the cherub, alternately. The originally crowning feature of the baldacchino was to be a figure of the Risen Christ. A change was made, very late in the construction, to replace the Risen Christ with an orb and cross. Historians argue this change may have been due to structural concerns, which were mostly iconographical; Bernini may have strayed from the original plan because he wanted to switch out the Eucharist symbol with a more general symbol of the religion.
The angels atop the superstructure look to be airy and graceful despite the fact they are twice life size and solid bronze. They reach out to support the structure, formed by S-shaped curves, with a garland of flowers, holding the canopy distinctly above the columns as to not connect the two. The “ribs” of the superstructure rest on the columns much less heavily than earlier versions and look as if it were “lifted” from the columns. This structure also helps carry the viewer’s eye straight up into Michelangelo’s dome, uninterrupted. The Barberini family crest is displayed prominently in the center of the superstructure, and pairs of putti lean over the rim at the top. These putti each hold a great amount of symbolism and emphasize holiness on earth through papal power. One holds St. Peter’s keys, reinstating the fact St. Peter was the first Pope; another holds the papal tiara directly below the apex of the dome, connecting the power of the papacy with the light of the heavens, reminding the viewer St. Peter was the chosen one of Jesus to build the church; and the putti on the back side of the baldacchino hold a book and sword, symbolizing St. Paul.
The baldacchino was not formally unveiled until the feast of Saint Peter in 1633. The baldacchino had cost more than 200,000 scudi in the making (one scudi could buy four loaves of bread), and it was a stunning success. The baldacchino was the perfect art form to demonstrate the goals of Urban VIII for the church. The Catholic Church at the time of the baldacchino was primarily concerned with keeping Catholicism strong and to spread it throughout Europe. The baldacchino accentuates just how holy the papacy is, for St. Peters is the first pope and all popes are chosen by God; this served to restore faith in both the Pope and remind the viewer of just how powerful Catholicism is. Urban VIII was readily able to incorporate his family symbols (bees, laurel leaves, sunbursts) into the baldacchino, effectively melding himself into the very structure of the holiest altar in the empire. The symbolism Bernini used in the baldacchino is subtle enough as to not detract from the structure itself, but prevalent enough to be noticed and remembered. The columns remind the viewer of the column of Trajan, recalling times of prosperity; the bronze canopy, innovative for the time, garnered Urban VIII the respect of viewers and architects alike. The placement of the putti with a papal tiara and the keys of Peter solidify the connection of the Barberini family with the papal heritage and continue the idea of the Barberini family as the chosen family.
Cathedra Petri is the oak throne of St. Peter in the St. Peters basilica; it is framed by the baldacchino’s columns and forms the climax for the viewer of the nave. This was possibly Bernini’s most complex experiment with the dosage of light. Bernini was commissioned to build a reliquary—a type of container for relics—as to house the ancient wooden chair believed to be used by St. Peter himself. This chair symbolizes the recognition of St. Peter as the first Pope, and the seat will forever be his. The throne is composed of red jasper, black Sicilian marble, masses of bronze, some gilt, stone, iron, marble statuary, yellow glass, and golden stucco clouds. Before Bernini’s design, completed in 1666, was in place, an ancient wooden chair held the place as early as the 8th century; but the ivory plaques depicting the Labors of Hercules were added later.
The base of the chair is made of colored marble. The Doctors of the church stand on either side of the throne and are made of gilded bronze; St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are to the right as the father and Doctors of the Latin church (west) and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom are to the left as the doctor and father of the Greek church (from the east). The doctors serve as a bridge, showing Catholic unity across Europe; together the doctors miraculously seem to “hold aloft” the chair itself, showing the work of the doctors in supporting the church. There are three bas-reliefs on the throne: ones on the sides show the life of St. Peter, including the scene of the Washing of the Feet and the Handing Over of the Keys. The clearest bas-relief is on the back of the throne which depicts Christ as the Good Sheppard letting St. Peter take care of his flock of sheep (pasce oves meas). The top of the monument, commonly known as “Glory”, is framed by a stained glass window featuring the dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) in midst of 12 rays (symbolizing the 12 apostles). While Bernini often used hidden windows in his work to ensure the proper light to shine upon his work, the Glory is a different approach. The original light from the window was too strong, so Bernini softened it with yellow glass and added the dove to inspire the sense of holiness in its viewers.
This structure serves very well to show the strength of Catholicism across uncommon lands, people, and culture. United in faith, both east and west understand the importance of the reliefs on the throne: these panels represent the right of papal succession and the divine blessing of God given to the Pope to care for his people. The setting of the throne is also important; after the viewer has taken in the baldacchino, they look beyond the high altar to see a holy light streaming in from the stained glass window with the Holy Spirit at the center, framed by a golden stucco of angels. This scene shows God watching over the Pope he has appointed, and he ready to welcome St. Peter, and his descendants, into Heaven.
Tomb of Matilda
Countess Matilda of Canossa, who lived 1046-1115, was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages and a benefactress of Holy See. Her family had extensive possessions in middle and upper Italy. Even though Matilda’s father was a support of the German emperors and moved against the Papacy in the factional struggle, Matilda remained faithful. While her most known donation is the lands known as the Patrimony of St. Peters, she is also “credited with many religious donations, foundations, and constructions of former territories” (Holman, 638) as well building abbeys, churches, hospitals, and cathedrals. She became a close friend of Pope Gregory VII, supporting him in his struggle against Henry IV. In 1082 she also sent part of Canossa’s famous treasure to Rome to help the Pope with his war efforts; after she died, she bequeathed her possessions to the church. After Henry IV was excommunicated, Matilda was still sporadically at war with him until 1106 (when he died); sometimes she would even wear armor and lead the troops. Matilda was truly the epitome of the medieval female and was put on par with St. Helena and Empress Placida.
Urban VIII was a great admirer of the Countess; he owned a portrait of her and had composed a poem singing her praise. He commissioned Bernini to design a funeral monument for Countess Matilda in 1633 “as an example to other princes” (Holman, 653). The statue of the Matilda is not by Bernini, however, but by his student Andrea Bolgi. In the sculpture, Matilda is commandingly holding a baton as well as the papal tiara and keys. Having Matilda pose in this stature, Urban VIII was showing his support of religious war. The bas-relief below her monument is by Stefano Speranza, depicting the scene of Henry IV kneeling before Gregory VII in Matilda’s castle in Canossa. Henry IV had waited barefoot for 3 days and 3 nights to see Pope Gregory VII until he was finally let in on January 28th, 1077. This reinforces the triumph of Catholicism and the papacy over Protestantism. The angel on the right supporting the inscription is also by Bolgi, and the one on the left is by Bernini’s brother, Luigi. The crown and coat of arms have the motto “TUETUR ET UNIT” (Protects and Unites).
The body of Matilda was originally housed at Polirone, but Urban VIII wished to have her remains transported to Rome. The body was stolen in the dark of the night and arrived in Rome in March 10th, 1634; it was laid to rest in the second pier on the right isle of St. Peters. The monument to Countess Matilda, accessible to the general public, is visibly the only tomb in St. Peters not dedicated to a former pope. This dedication of space in the basilica exemplifies the idea truly church-loving individuals can rise to the level where they are venerated with the popes. Urban VIII wanted to foster a deeper sense of connection with the Church for the average attendee, and Matilda was the perfect role model.
The four piers of the transept support the dome of St. Peters, each containing a niche holding a statue. The transept forms strong diagonals with the baldacchino, making it visually pleasing and naturally drawing the attention of the viewer. Above the statues Bernini formed staircases on the balconies, framed by twisted columns, to show the four most important relics of St. Peters. In each balcony angels are carved, holding the relic. The sky in which they fly is made of yellow marble and the clouds are purple marble.
Bernini only designed one of the statues, St. Longinus, and the others were commissioned to his students. The other statues are of St. Veronica (Francesco Mochi), St. Andrew (Francois Duquesnoy), and St. Helena (Andreas Bolgi). St. Longinus is of the traditional Roman soldier who pierced Jesus on the side while on the Cross using the Spear of Destiny. In medieval tales, the blood of Chris cures Longinus’ blindness; he then realizes Christ truly is the son of God and instantly converts to Christianity. St. Veronica was a woman from Jerusalem so moved by Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha she offered him her veil so he could clean his face. St. Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great, and St. Andrews, brother of St. Peter, was martyred on a diagonal cross. St. Peters houses the Spear of Destiny, the veil of Veronica, a fragment of the True Cross discovered by St. Helena, and the head of St. Andrews, respectively.
Finally finishing his sculpture of St. Longinus in 1632, Bernini redesigned his sculpture 22 times (many times discussing ideas with the Pope himself). Bernini’s sculpture stands roughly 15 feet tall. St. Longinus is depicted with his arm thrust out, holding a spear, as he seems to come into realization of the true name of Christ. His figure extends so much it seems to occupy the entire niche; his left leg is stretched out and his right leg is at the edge of the pedestal, as if he is going to jump out of the space he is in. His cloak is falling back and his hair is ruffled, as if blown by some spiritual force of the revelation. Just like Bernini’s David, St. Longinus is in action—his muscles are striated, giving it a texture the other smooth statues do not have and making him seem more three-dimensional and realistic. He looks towards the altarpiece, which helps complete his story and lets the baldacchino recapture the viewer’s attention.
Flanked by four compelling statues in a single moment of realization, the transept is a strong reminder of the sanctity of the church, which contains several category one relics. Urban VIII used the transept as a tool for communicating with the public audience: he reconstructs the story of our four saints, places them next to the holy altar of St. Peters, and freezes each statue in a moment of revelation as they look up at the altar and heavens. Viewers recognize how sacred the Catholic history is, how powerful and everlasting their faith is, and realizes the example set by these four figures that have changed history.
St. Peters is an amazing fusion of papal propaganda and artistic mastery; everything about the church is carefully constructed with symbolism and intent. Bernini succeeded in making St. Peters one of the most powerful and grandiose churches of its time. In the 16th century when the pilgrims or commoners came from miles away to pray, they would first walk through the piazza. There, they were transfixed by the size and grandeur of nearly a hundred statues around them. Walking up the stairs, they would see the relief of Christ handing over St. Peters the keys to heaven as well as the pedestrian statues of Constantine and Charlemagne. Surrounded by two key figures of Christian history and the knowledge of what sacred relic were inside this church—St. Peter’s body—they would have been in awe. Once inside the church, the huge monuments still looked proportional. It was only as they approached the baldacchino from the nave would they realize the size and holiness of the altarpiece. Looking up into Michelangelo’s dome they would see the beautiful light of heaven. Framed perfectly by the baldacchino would be the Throne of Peter, the “glory” of the golden angels atop it, and the hidden stained-glass window where holy light seem to appear from behind the dove. Surrounding the baldacchino would be the four other main relics in the church, symbolized by the statues of the saints below, reminding them of the sacrifice made by Jesus for faith. Visiting St. Peters would have been the experience of a lifetime, and Urban VIII took the opportunity to create a lasting impression in the minds of its viewers.
The propaganda in St. Peters is only thinly disguised. Urban VIII had a very specific message for Bernini to portray before any of his work even started. The theme of papal succession, legitimizing Urban VIII’s reign and the Barberini family name, is a prominent feature of the church. The Barberini family symbols are everywhere in the church, allowing the churchgoer to forge a connection between the family and the papal power present in St. Peters. Even the most hesitant Romans would eventually come to associate the bees with the Barberini name with St. Peters basilica. It would seem ridiculous for any of the viewing subjects to question the legitimacy of Urban VIII’s right to the throne; he was the one who finished the church to make it one of the most beautiful and the holiest places on earth, where only the Pope can conduct ceremony at the high altar. St. Peters was Urban VIII’s way to give thanks to the people, give them something to take pride in, and show himself as the “chosen” pope by God to make this church. Even now, tourists and natives alike know Urban VIII’s name because St. Peters basilica has become a part of his history and vice versa.
Despite the massive size of the church, Bernini made sure all his works looked fitting in its setting—no one architectural piece dominated the entire space. Perhaps his greatest feat in the church was his ability to always have the big picture in mind; he was able to carry out the plans of Barberini with taste. He glorified the Barberini family, the papacy as a chosen instrument of God, and shed good light on Urban VIII’s reign. Yet as he was incorporating these explicit messages in his work, he was still able to capture the feel of the church and give the Roman people a holy space they would rejoice in. As quoted by Rudolph Wittkower, “Bernini never lost sight of the whole.”
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