St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour
Text from the CD-ROM ©1999 Our Sunday Visitor
(all rights reserved)
To complete this introduction, our attention should also focus on the floor of the median aisle. It consists of a geometric decoration with various designs inserted inside squares, made with rare marbles - African, bardiglio, breccia, brocatello, jasper, fior di pesco, antique yellow granitello, pavonazzo, portasanta, antique green - on a background of white marble, and arranged with symmetrical correspondence on segments that intersect horizontally and vertically.
This composition can be appreciated in its entirety when viewed from above. The decoration, which began in the transept, was then extended throughout the entire Basilica, based on designs by Giacomo della Porta and Bernini. The center holds the coat of arms of Innocent X who ordered that it be completed for the Holy Year of 1650. Farther ahead we find the coat of arms of Pius XI, who restored it in 1933 for the Jubilee of the Redemption.
Just after the entrance to the center is the so-called "rota porfiretica," a large disk of red Egyptian porphyry, one of the six of the old Temple, which originally was located farther ahead near the high altar. This is where emperors and kings kneeled - 23 from Charlemagne in 800 to Frederick III in 1450 - to receive the official blessing from the Pope and the imperial crown.
In fact, in 800, Leo III, in the presence of the Senate, the Roman People and the armies of France and Italy, proclaimed the triple acclamation "Life and Victory to Charles the devout, august, great and peaceful Emperor, crowned by God."
Before continuing along the aisle, we can look up toward the interior facade, above the three entrance doors which bear the inscriptions that refer on the right to the embellishments made by Innocent X, in the center to extension by Paul V, and to the left to the consecration of Urban VIII.
These three Popes, together with Alexander VII (1655-1667) after the era of Bramante and Michelangelo, made a lasting impression on the Basilica in a nearly continuous succession of 50 uninterrupted years (1605-1655) except for the brief papacy of Gregory XV (1621-23).
The three memorial stones lead to three large windows ornated with the papal coat of arms and surmounted above the cornice by three other irregularly shaped windows, including two mosaic clocks by Valadier - the face of the one on the left divided into 12 hours and the one on the right into six, both with a single hand according to the old tradition.
Thus, it can be stated that the interior decoration of St. Peter's, in general, was carried out in about two centuries from Maderno to Valadier, with a concentration of works in the first 70 years of the 17th century but which already began at the end of the 16th century, when the extension, the atrium and the facade of the Basilica had not yet been completed.
In fact, the 16th century was coming to an end when Giovanni de' Vecchi and Cesare Nebbia were commissioned to decorate the pediments of the great dome, with the representation in tondos of the four Evangelists: St. John (with the symbol of the eagle), St. Luke (calf), St. Mark (lion) and St. Matthew (angel); the contiguous upper triangles are decorated with angels designed by Cesare Roncalli.
This was followed by the decoration of the large dome, divided by 16 vaulting ribs which, within six fields, enclose: at the bottom, the Pope Saints buried in St. Peter's and the large figures of Christ, the Virgin, St. Paul the Baptist and the 12 Apostles; above, inside frames, angels with instruments of passion and heads of cherubs inside round medallions, followed by angels in adoration within frames and finally heads of Seraphims.
The top border bears the words S. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTUS PP. V.A. MDXC PONTIF. V., which was inscribed according to the wishes of Clement VIII in memory of the promoter of such a great work. Above, this is connected to the clerestory terminating in a small dome that glorifies the Eternal Father.
The iconographic layout, in which the possibility of viewing the details does not affect the overall harmonious vision, was executed by Cavalier d'Arpino who created 65 life-size cartoons painted with tempera, 16 of which were preserved in the Abbey of Montecassino.
The transfer to mosaic, executed by the best mosaic artists of the period (Turchi, Torelli, Rossetti, Abatini, Serafini) under the direction of Provenzale, and which continued up to the papacy of Paul V, skillfully expressed the decorative intentions of the artist, with a beautiful chromatic effect. Based on two main colors, the dominant light blue and the vibrant gold, this composition utilizes the diffuse light that penetrates uniformly through the immense intrados, from the large Michelangelo windows, surmounted by curving and alternating triangular architraves and enclosed by coupled pilaster strips. A show of color and lights that enhances the spatial aspect of the architectural structures, instilling deep emotions in the spectator, at any time of the day and from any point of view, that is an effective introduction to a meditative visit to the underlying Confession: the focal point of the origin and construction of St. Peter's two Basilicas - the early-Christian and present-day structures.
In fact, the Confession opens under the center of the dome. This underground church at the height of the Constantinian church preserves the tomb of St. Peter, and is really the "heart of the Basilica" as written by Turcio. A double ramp of stairs descends into an exedra closed by a beautiful balustrade and with multi-colored marble walls and floor, based on a design by Maderno and Martino Forabosco.
The center once displayed the statue of Pius VI, kneeling in prayer, one of the last works by Canova, which was not completely finished at his death. Now, it is located inside but in its original position between the two ramps of stairs, as the Pope requested that it be placed close to the Apostle. The area is beautifully illuminated by the eternal flames of 100 lamps, supported by elegant bronze cornucopias by Mattia de' Rossi.
St. Peter's sepulchral chamber is located at the bottom of the exedra, in a niche decorated by a mosaic from the ninth century with "Christ in the middle of the Princes of the Apostles," and closed by a gilded bronze gate flanked on the sides by two metal statues of St. Peter and St. Paul.
The niche is called "dei Palli" (the Stoles niche) because inside there is a bronze urn, donated by Benedict XIV, which contains white stoles embroidered with black crosses and woven with the wool of lambs blessed on St. Agnes' day. According to tradition, they were instituted by Pope Linus, and are the insignia of the dignity of the Metropolites.
Above the Confession, the papal altar rises on seven steps, where only the Pope can celebrate Mass, facing the people and looking toward the east as in the old Christian churches. It was installed and consecrated here in 1594 by Clement VIII using a large block of marble coming from the Forum of Nerva, including the altar of Callisto II consecrated in 1123.
A processional type of canopy, supported by poles, in this case consisting of four metal angels, was placed by Paul V above the altar. But this was a mediocre and temporary solution and certainly did not match the grandeur of the Basilica, and especially its location in the real epicenter of the church.
A deficiency that was immediately recognized by the cultured and ambitious Urban VIII, already from his election in 1623, when he commissioned the favorite Bernini to design a prestigious tabernacle, without any economic restrictions so that the work would be worthy of the site. The artist compensated for such trust in his work by creating a real masterpiece, an emblem of the Baroque style that despite its formal originality and its size (no less than 29 meters tall), is harmoniously inserted into the immensity of the church.
In fact, it compensates for an emptiness that would have been too dominating over the small altar, however without introducing a bulky mass but instead a graceful and streamlined construction. Though imposing, it appears free since it allows the background to be seen quite easily and does not reduce the impression of depth of the Basilica. Instead, it increases the latter making the apse, which can be glimpsed between the columns, seem farther away. Furthermore, despite the inevitable criticism by Milizia, this spectacular work, which in effect is anti-classical in its formal layout, does in fact involve tradition in many aspects.
In fact, Bernini refers to the traditional ciborium of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which was still being used during that period. To renew and avoid repeating the usual constructions consisting of a spire or marble dome supported by columns, like a small temple within a temple, he was inspired by the canopy, thus, in the final analysis, replacing a pictorial element with an architectural element. For this purpose he created a cover imitating cloth, producing the feeling of a lightweight structure that is almost mobile and temporary. In a very determinant manner, this involved a solution which was as bold as it was ingenious, to support his "machine" (it is important to recall that Bernini worked with ephemeral constructions that were the fashion in the 17th century, on the occasion of festivities or celebrations), using four streamlined gilded bronze spiral columns, thus avoiding the monotony that four smooth trunks of that extraordinary height would have produced.
He divided it into three levels: the bottom with helical grooves and the two top ones with olive and bay leaf branches, populated by small putti and flying bees, the symbol of the Barberini, inviting the observer to move from one curve to the other of their spiral winding, generating a dynamic and ascending view. Moreover, in this case, Bernini the innovator respected an ancient tradition, because the tabernacle of the Constantinian Basilica had eight spiral marble columns of the same type, which he adopted, restoring them to the loggias of the Relics, in the four pillars of the dome. The columns rest on marble pedestals, decorated by the bronze coat of arms of the Barberini. They terminate with elaborate Corinthian capitals which support a trabeation with shelves, dentils and radiant suns.
The draping canopy rises on this structure, like cloth moved by the wind, surmounted at its apex by a globe with the cross supported by four curving ribs. The corners include four angels bearing floral festoons, executed by Duquesnoy, and on the sides eight festive putti carry the keys and the tiara of St. Peter, as well as the sword and book of St. Paul. The canopy was revealed to the public on St. Peter's day in 1633.
With this work and with the subsequent arrangement of the pillars, Bernini proved that he was really the only one who could audaciously compare with Michelangelo and we believe with great success since he was able to respect the grandeur, even while inserting works that are highly representative of the Baroque period, of which he was undoubtedly an emblematic figure.
This masterpiece led to glory but also criticism, both for the artist and for those who commissioned the work. Firstly because of the enormous costs incurred to obtain the large quantity of bronze that was used. First the ribs of the dome were removed, obtaining 103,229 pounds to which the same amount was added from sources taken from Venice and Leghorn. With other material still required, Urban VIII did not hesitate to remove the bronze of the beams from the Pantheon, and to such an extent that Pasquino made what became a historical statement "quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini" (what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini's did).
The Pantheon, to compensate for the "theft" of its ornaments, which supplied more than the metal needed for the project, was enriched by two bell towers that were immediately shrewdly baptized by the people as "the donkey ears of Bernini." The towers were then demolished in 1883.
As consolation for these pungent statements by the Roman people, Urban VIII earned the glory of such a project and for Bernini a more than generous payment. For the entire project, which required more than 100,000 pounds of bronze and which cost 200,000 scudos, he received 250 monthly payments according to the agreements reached at the beginning of the work, in addition to another donation of 10,000 scudos, plus a canonry for Vincenzo and a patriciate for Domenico his brothers, and the appointment of Luigi to superintendent. Bernini executed numerous small-scale designs, which were gradually reproduced on a larger scale by Borromini.
The arrangement and decoration of the pillars which support the dome, as begun by Bramante and completed by Michelangelo, are another of the most important works executed by Bernini between 1629 and 1639 during the papacy of Urban VIII.
On the internal sides of the four pillars, which are 45 meters tall and have a perimeter of 71 meters, he created four large niches at the base with an upper round arch covered with multi-colored marbles, and above, four loggias, placing tabernacles at the bottom supported by spiral columns (those which supported the ancient Constantinian "pergula"), with high bas-reliefs depicting angels holding the symbols of passion. The two openings are connected by a protruding balcony and are crowned by a roof that resembles a curtain such as that from the Canopy.
This structure along with the front of the pillars forms a harmonious assembly. In the niches, Bernini placed four large five meters statues, according to the wishes of Urban VIII, all with emphatic and excessively theatrical postures.
The right side includes the "St. Longinus," his own work, in a declamatory pose with his arms extended, while holding a spear in the right hand that wounds Jesus; and the "St. Helen" empress mother of Constantine, more peacefully composed in its position, balanced by the fluidity of the clothing, but with a general equilibrium altered by the cumbersome Cross, that she found in Jerusalem together with the nails.
On the left is "St. Andrew," by the Flemish artist Duquesnoy, dynamically arranged in front of its characteristic cross, but his ecstatic gaze appears however to be more studied than sincere. Finally, the "St. Veronica" bearing the "Volto Santo" (Holy Image) the most original and audacious of the four works due to its almost invading posture in the impetuous race in which the wind pins the clothing against the body.
This work received much criticism because of the excessive motion, which was not suitable for the subject or the location. This statue, that has similarities in the section of the clothing with other works by the artist, including his famous "Cavalli Farnesiani" of Piacenza, was the brunt of shrewd anecdotes. So it was said that when Bernini asked where such wind came from that moved the clothes of the Saint, the Mochi answered sarcastically: "from the cracks that were opened by your ability in the dome."
In fact, at that time rumor had it that Bernini, while digging in the pillars, had created some dangerous cracks in the work by Michelangelo. Afterwards, with the decline of the artist's fortunes, under the papacy of the moralist Innocent X, who was famous for having covered the nudity of various works of art, a commission was established in 1680, which also included some of the master's students, to determine if the pillars of the dome had been damaged. An accusation that time demonstrated to be unfounded, but the envy for the success of others and the alternating favors of the Popes, had to produce vicious backbiting, leading to sarcastic statements but also material damage.
Bernini, with an arrogant attitude, was often the brunt of such outbursts, and so much so that, as a reply to his denigrators, after the decline of the fortunes of the Barberini, he created his "Truth discovered by time," with what were clearly allegorical intentions.
The previously mentioned loggias are located above the niches. They rest on very ornate balconies and are surmounted, above the tympanums, by putti and angels with scrolls, another original but harmonious Baroque insertion by Bernini.
Skillfully matched to tradition, made possible by reusing the ancient columns, they housed the most important relics of St. Peter, which in fact are referred to by the lower statues. The three relics called the "Maggiori" are preserved in the pillar of the Veronica, and are displayed to the public from the same loggias on some holidays, and especially during the Holy Week.
The most famous relic is that of the "Volto Santo," more commonly known as the "Veronica" which, according to tradition, was the sudarium that a devout woman used, during Jesus' ordeal, to dry his bloody face and that was miraculously impressed with his countenance.
To preserve this relic, two oratories were built in the old St. Peter's, the second of which, built by Pope Celestine V with rich mosaics at the end of the 12th century, was demolished in 1605. The following year Paul V had the relic placed in the current niche.
The other two most venerated relics are also preserved here. The holy spear was donated by the sultan Baiazet, son of Maomet II, to Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. On the monument we can see its form - being held by the Pope - but it does not include the point that was already donated to a king of France, perhaps St. Ludovic, and which is preserved in the royal chapel of Paris.
Fragments of the Holy Wood of Christ's Cross were preserved in St. Peter's up to the fifth century, in an oratory that was specially built by Pope Symmachus. They are the same ones which, though reduced as a result of subsequent dismantling, are displayed in the Basilica during the Holy Week.
The two other most important relics are the one reconstructed by Pope Urban VIII and called "Croce delle api" (Cross of the bees) and the larger one called the "Croce d'Olanda" (Holland Cross), in which the five fragments of the Holy Wood reach a length of 40 centimeters.
The pillar of St. Andrew preserved the venerating head of St. Andrew, St. Peter's brother, donated by Tommaso Paleologo, the last despot of Morea, to Pope Pius II in 1460 and transferred to St. Peter's two years later with a solemn procession along the streets of Rome. The holy relic was given by Pope Paul VI to the city of Patrassus, where the Saint died.
The two loggias above the niches of St. Longinus and St. Andrew are reserved to the internal services during solemn ceremonies.
The famous bronze statue of St. Peter is placed against the pillar of St. Longinus, above an alabaster base that was executed in 1757 by Carlo Marchionni. In this statue St. Peter is seated on a marble see from the early Renaissance, dressed with the philosophical stole, with his left hand holding the keys close to his chest and the right raised in the act of blessing. His right foot protrudes from the previously mentioned base, which is worn by the kisses of the devout.
The identification of the author but also of its exact epoch, is a "vexata quaestio" which has yet to be resolved, with datings ranging between the fifth, or even fourth century and the 13th or 14th centuries. Tradition has it that the statue was commissioned by St. Leo the Great, as a token of gratitude for defeating Attila, and that it used the metal from the statue by Giove Capitolino. But, in reality, the oldest historical information about the work dates back only to the 15th century.
Currently, the almost unanimous opinion is that the Vatican bronze statue dates back to the late 13th century and more specifically to the restricted environment of Arnolfo di Cambio, the artist who created the tabernacles of St. Paul and St. Cecilia, and the sacellum of Bonifacius VIII in the Constantinian Basilica.
The archaic character of the statue of St. Peter sustains the attribution to Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1296) since the "antique" modules that are present, such as the so-called "snail" curls of the hair and the beard are found in famous Arnolfian works, matching the "13th century classicism," which was widespread in the European sculpture of the period.
In 1871, the mosaic altar frontal was placed behind the statue, imitating a brocatello drapery, and above a mosaic medallion with the portrait of Pius IX, in honor of being the first Pope whose papacy lasted more than 25 years, attributed to that of St. Peter and considered by tradition to be insuperable. In reality, his successor, Leo XIII (1878-1903) extended that papacy by five months.
"Only the canons of the Basilica can access the Chapel of the Relics and, to allow an illustrious dignitary to view it from close by, the Pope first appoints him as an honorary canon of St. Peter's: as Urban VIII did, in the Jubilee of 1625, with Ladislaus, the son of king Sigismund, who then became king of Poland, and Innocent XII, in the year 1700, with the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III.
Returning to the statue of St. Peter near the entrance, and entering the aisle on the right, we begin the most "classical" tour of the Basilica. Here there is immediately a change from the magnificence and decorative sobriety of the central nave to a decidedly Baroque atmosphere, to be found in the aisles, where chapels, altars, cupolas and funeral monuments follow closely one after another and often do not seem in proportion with the surrounding architecture. Nevertheless Bernini, who was the major director of the Baroque insertions into Michelangelo's pre-existent structures, extended by Maderno, succeeded in achieving a sufficiently harmonious passage from the main nave to the aisles, through the large arches, with a relationship based on the use of color and light and shade rather than lines and mass, as correctly pointed out by Galassi Paluzzi.
Let us go back then to the Holy Door, flanked inside by two columns of mottled Cottanello marble, surmounted by a mosaic showing a bust of St. Peter, modeled on a work by Cavalier d'Arpino, drawn by Ferri and completed by Cristofari for the Jubilee of 1675.
Immediately adjacent is the Pietà Chapel, formerly of the Crucifix. As in the whole of the rest of the tour, visitors should first of all look upwards to admire the mosaic decoration of the cupola, the subject of which centers on the Mystery of the Cross and the salvation deriving from it. The vault shows an apocalyptic vision of the Chosen, spared by the scourges, because they are marked on their foreheads by the angels. The corbels show Noah's Arc, symbol of salvation, the Sacrifice of Abraham symbolizing Jesus' sacrifice, Moses with the Tablets of the Law, and Jeremiah imploring on the ruins of Jerusalem, which allude to the new pact of salvation. The two lunettes closest to the altar show the Cumaean and Phrygian Sibyls, on whose phylacteries the prophesies of the Passion are written; in the others are Hosea, Isaiah, Amos and Zechariah, prophets of the trials and sacrifice of Christ.
The mosaics were executed by F. Cristofari to drawings by Ferri and Pietro da Cortona. This last artist has rightly been called the Bernini of painting, due both to the number and to the artistic value of his works in the Basilica. On the small cupola above the altar is the Triumph of the Cross, frescoed by Lanfranco, the only painting in the church which has not been transformed into a mosaic.
. The name of this Chapel, which originally housed a Crucifix, changed in 1749, when Michelangelo's Pietà was placed there. Thus both on entry and exit from the Basilica, where the Baptistry Chapel may be found, as pointed out by Galassi Paluzzi, there are places dedicated to Mary and to John the Baptist, that is to Christ's mother and forerunner, who also represent the two great sources of health: blood and water.
The famous Pietà was sculpted by Michelangelo when he was only 23 years old in 1498, shortly after the death of his stepmother, Lucrezia degli Ubaldini, who had been an affectionate mother to him. It was commissioned by Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, who died only a few weeks after completion of the work which, according to his wishes, was placed in the famous St. Petronilla Chapel, later known as the Cappella Regum Francorum. After this Chapel was demolished in Bramante's time, the Pietà was moved to various sites in the Church before finally being placed in its present position.
It shows Michelangelo's full name on the sash, the only signature the artist put on his work; it is an attribution which soon became unnecessary due to the great fame which Michelangelo achieved, but it was inscribed then to refute a group of envious Lombards, who attributed the work to a certain Cristoforo Solari.
Although it is one of his first major commissions for sculptures, it already shows his full maturity, foretelling his future style which was to distinguish the whole of the 16th century. At the same time, however, it expresses the height of the Florentine Renaissance and it is in fact through the expressive gentleness typical of the Renaissance that the dramatic and tormented interpretation of humanity can be seen.
The most important figure in the group is the Virgin Mary, whose face still shows a pure youthfulness, even though her troubled silence suggests all her pain on the death of her son, who appears to be gently lying, almost weightless, on her lap. It has rightly been written more than once that she is simultaneously Virgin and Mater dolorosa.
Up until a few decades ago, to the right of the altar stood the "twisted" column, presently in the Grottoes, the object of pious veneration for many centuries since it was believed that Jesus had leaned against it in Solomon's Temple.
In reality, it is a work dating from the third or fourth century A.D., like the others of the ancient Pergula, of which it too was part. In 1438, however, it had been enclosed within railings and in 1544 it was isolated and placed in front of the Altar to St. Lawrence and St. George.