Nov 182015
 

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Certainly not by coincidence, on this date in 326 the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was consecrated, and 1300 years later, in 1626 the “new” St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated. The latter is still in use, and is one of the most prominent buildings in Rome.

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Old St. Peter’s Basilica was the building that stood, from the 4th to 16th centuries, on the spot where the new St. Peter’s Basilica stands today in Vatican City. Construction of the basilica, built over the historical site of the Circus of Nero, began during the reign of Emperor Constantine I. The name “old St. Peter’s Basilica” has been used since the construction of the current basilica to distinguish the two buildings.

Construction began by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine I between 318 and 322, and took about 30 years to complete. Over the next twelve centuries, the church gradually gained importance, eventually becoming a major place of pilgrimage in Rome. Papal coronations were held at the basilica, and in 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire there. In 846, Saracens sacked and damaged the basilica. The raiders seem to have known about Rome’s extraordinary treasures. Some impressive basilicas, such as St. Peter’s, were outside the Aurelian walls, and thus easy targets. They were “filled to overflowing with rich liturgical vessels and with jeweled reliquaries housing all of the relics recently amassed”. As a result, the raiders pillaged the shrine. In response Pope Leo IV built the Leonine wall and rebuilt the parts of St. Peter’s that had been damaged. In 1099, Urban II convened a council including St Anselm. Among other topics, it repeated the bans on lay investiture and on clergy’s paying homage to secular lords (laying the seeds of the Protestant Reformation).

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By the 15th century the church was falling into ruin. Discussions on repairing parts of the structure commenced upon the pope’s return from Avignon. Two people involved in this reconstruction were Leon Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino, who improved the apse and partially added a multi-story benediction loggia to the atrium facade, on which construction continued intermittently until the new basilica was begun. Alberti pronounced the basilica a structural abomination:

I have noticed in the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome a crass feature: an extremely long and high wall has been constructed over a continuous series of openings, with no curves to give it strength, and no buttresses to lend it support… The whole stretch of wall has been pierced by too many openings and built too high… As a result, the continual force of the wind has already displaced the wall more than six feet (1.8 m) from the vertical; I have no doubt that eventually some… slight movement will make it collapse…

At first Pope Julius II had every intention of preserving the old building, but his attention soon turned toward tearing it down and building a new structure. Many people of the time were shocked by the proposal, as the building represented papal continuity going back to Peter. The original altar was to be preserved in the new structure that housed it.

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The design was a typical basilica form with the plan and elevation resembling those of Roman basilicas and audience halls, such as the Basilica Ulpia in Trajan’s Forum and Constantine’s own Aula Palatina at Trier, rather than the design of any Greco-Roman temple. Constantine went to great pains to build the basilica on the supposed site of Saint Peter’s grave, and this fact influenced the layout of the building. The Vatican Hill, on the west bank of the Tiber River, was leveled. Notably, since the site was outside the boundaries of the ancient city, the apse with the altar was located in the west so that the basilica’s façade could be approached from Rome itself to the east. The exterior however, unlike earlier pagan temples, was not lavishly decorated.

The church was capable of housing from 3,000 to 4,000 worshipers at one time. It consisted of five aisles, a wide central nave and two smaller aisles to each side, which were each divided by 21 marble columns, taken from earlier pagan buildings. It was over 350 feet (110 m) long, built in the shape of a Latin cross, and had a gabled roof which was timbered on the interior and which stood at over 100 feet (30 m) at the center. An atrium, known as the “Garden of Paradise”, stood at the entrance and had five doors which led to the body of the church; this was a 6th-century addition.

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The altar of Old St. Peter’s Basilica used several Solomonic columns. According to tradition, Constantine took these columns from the Temple of Solomon and gave them to the church; however, the columns were probably from an Eastern church. When Gian Lorenzo Bernini built his baldacchino to cover the new St. Peter’s altar, he drew from the twisted design of the old columns. Eight of the original columns were moved to the piers of the new St. Peter’s.

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The great Navicella mosaic (1305-1313) in the atrium is attributed to Giotto di Bondone. The giant mosaic, commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi, occupied the whole wall above the entrance arcade facing the courtyard. It depicted “St. Peter walking on the waters. This extraordinary work was mainly destroyed during the construction of the new St. Peter’s in the 16th century, but fragments were preserved. Navicella means “little ship” referring to the large boat which dominated the scene, and whose sail, filled by the storm, loomed over the horizon. Such a natural representation of a seascape was known only from ancient works of art.

The nave ended with an arch, which held a mosaic of Constantine and Saint Peter, who presented a model of the church to Christ. On the walls, each having 11 windows, were frescoes of various people and scenes from both the Old and New Testament.

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The fragment of an eighth-century mosaic, the Epiphany, is one of the very rare remaining bits of the medieval decoration of Old St. Peter’s Basilica. The precious fragment is kept in the sacristy of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It proves the high artistic quality of the destroyed mosaics. Another one, a standing Madonna, is on a side altar in the Basilica of San Marco in Florence.

By the end of the 15th century, having been neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy, the old basilica was in bad repair. It appears that the first pope to consider rebuilding, or at least making radical changes was Pope Nicholas V (1447–55). He commissioned work on the old building from Leone Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino and also had Rossellino design a plan for an entirely new basilica, or an extreme modification of the old. His reign was frustrated by political problems and when he died, little had been achieved. He had, however, ordered the demolition of the Colosseum and by the time of his death, 2,522 cartloads of stone had been transported for use in the new building. The foundations were completed for a new transept and choir to form a domed Latin cross with the preserved nave and side aisles of the old basilica. Some walls for the choir had also been built.

Pope Julius II planned far more for St Peter’s than Nicholas V’s program of repair or modification. Julius was at that time planning his own tomb, which was to be designed and adorned with sculpture by Michelangelo and placed within St Peter’s. In 1505 Julius made a decision to demolish the ancient basilica and replace it with a monumental structure to house his enormous tomb and “aggrandize himself in the popular imagination”. A competition was held, and a number of the designs have survived at the Uffizi Gallery. A succession of popes and architects followed in the next 120 years, their combined efforts resulting in the present building. The scheme begun by Julius II continued through the reigns of 20 popes.

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Pope Julius’ scheme for the grandest building in Christendom was the subject of a competition for which a number of entries remain intact in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. It was the design of Donato Bramante that was selected, and for which the foundation stone was laid in 1506. This plan was in the form of an enormous Greek Cross with a dome inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon. The main difference between Bramante’s design and that of the Pantheon is that where the dome of the Pantheon is supported by a continuous wall, that of the new basilica was to be supported only on four large piers. This feature was maintained in the ultimate design. Bramante’s dome was to be surmounted by a lantern with its own small dome but otherwise very similar in form to the Early Renaissance lantern of Florence Cathedral designed for Brunelleschi’s dome by Michelozzo.

Bramante had envisioned that the central dome be surrounded by four lower domes at the diagonal axes. The equal chancel, nave and transept arms were each to be of two bays ending in an apse. At each corner of the building was to stand a tower, so that the overall plan was square, with the apses projecting at the cardinal points. Each apse had two large radial buttresses, which squared off its semi-circular shape.

When Pope Julius died in 1513, Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo, Fra Giocondo and Raphael. Sangallo and Fra Giocondo both died in 1515, Bramante himself having died the previous year. The main change in Raphael’s plan is the nave of five bays, with a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. Raphael’s plan for the chancel and transepts made the squareness of the exterior walls more definite by reducing the size of the towers, and the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory.

In 1520 Raphael also died, aged 37, and his successor Baldassare Peruzzi maintained changes that Raphael had proposed to the internal arrangement of the three main apses, but otherwise reverted to the Greek Cross plan and other features of Bramante.This plan did not go ahead because of various difficulties of both Church and state. In 1527 Rome was sacked and plundered by Emperor Charles V. Peruzzi died in 1536 without his plan being realized.

At this point Antonio da Sangallo the Younger submitted a plan which combines features of Peruzzi, Raphael and Bramante in its design and extends the building into a short nave with a wide façade and portico of dynamic projection. His proposal for the dome was much more elaborate of both structure and decoration than that of Bramante and included ribs on the exterior. Like Bramante, Sangallo proposed that the dome be surmounted by a lantern which he redesigned to a larger and much more elaborate form. Sangallo’s main practical contribution was to strengthen Bramante’s piers which had begun to crack.

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On 1 January 1547 in the reign of Pope Paul III, Michelangelo, then in his seventies, succeeded Sangallo the Younger as “Capomaestro”, the superintendent of the building program at St Peter’s. He is to be regarded as the principal designer of a large part of the building as it stands today, and as bringing the construction to a point where it could be carried through. He did not take on the job with pleasure; it was forced upon him by Pope Paul, frustrated at the death of his chosen candidate, Giulio Romano and the refusal of Jacopo Sansovino to leave Venice. Michelangelo wrote “I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle.” He insisted that he should be given a free hand to achieve the ultimate aim by whatever means he saw fit.

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Michelangelo took over a building site at which four piers, enormous beyond any constructed since ancient Roman times, were rising behind the remaining nave of the old basilica. He also inherited the numerous schemes designed and redesigned by some of the greatest architectural and engineering minds of the 16th century. There were certain common elements in these schemes. They all called for a dome to equal that engineered by Brunelleschi a century earlier and which has since dominated the skyline of Renaissance Florence, and they all called for a strongly symmetrical plan of either Greek Cross form, like the iconic St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, or of a Latin Cross with the transepts of identical form to the chancel, as at Florence Cathedral.

Even though the work had progressed only a little in 40 years, Michelangelo did not simply dismiss the ideas of the previous architects. He drew on them in developing a grand vision. Above all, Michelangelo recognized the essential quality of Bramante’s original design. He reverted to the Greek Cross and, as Helen Gardner expresses it: “Without destroying the centralizing features of Bramante’s plan, Michelangelo, with a few strokes of the pen converted its snowflake complexity into massive, cohesive unity.”

As it stands today, St. Peter’s has been extended with a nave by Carlo Maderno. It is the chancel end (the ecclesiastical “Eastern end”) with its huge centrally placed dome that is the work of Michelangelo. Because of its location within the Vatican State and because the projection of the nave screens the dome from sight when the building is approached from the square in front of it, the work of Michelangelo is best appreciated from a distance. What becomes apparent is that the architect has greatly reduced the clearly defined geometric forms of Bramante’s plan of a square with square projections, and also of Raphael’s plan of a square with semi-circular projections. Michelangelo has blurred the definition of the geometry by making the external masonry of massive proportions and filling in every corner with a small vestry or stairwell. The effect created is of a continuous wall-surface that is folded or fractured at different angles, but lacks the right-angles which usually define change of direction at the corners of a building. This exterior is surrounded by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters all set at slightly different angles to each other, in keeping with the ever-changing angles of the wall’s surface. Above them the huge cornice ripples in a continuous band, giving the appearance of keeping the whole building in a state of compression.

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The dome of St. Peter’s rises to a total height of 136.57 m (448.1 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world. Its internal diameter is 41.47 m (136.1 ft), slightly smaller than two of the three other huge domes that preceded it, those of the Pantheon of Ancient Rome, 43.3 m (142 ft), and Florence Cathedral of the Early Renaissance, 44 m (144 ft). It has a greater diameter by approximately 30 feet (9.1 m) than Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia church, completed in 537. It was to the domes of the Pantheon and Florence duomo that the architects of St. Peter’s looked for solutions as to how to go about building what was conceived, from the outset, as the greatest dome of Christendom.

Michelangelo redesigned the dome in 1547, taking into account all that had gone before. His dome, like that of Florence, is constructed of two shells of brick, the outer one having 16 stone ribs, twice the number at Florence but far fewer than in Sangallo’s design. As with the designs of Bramante and Sangallo, the dome is raised from the piers on a drum. The encircling peristyle of Bramante and the arcade of Sangallo are reduced to 16 pairs of Corinthian columns, each of 15 metres (49 ft) high which stand proud of the building, connected by an arch. Visually they appear to buttress each of the ribs, but structurally they are probably quite redundant. The reason for this is that the dome is ovoid in shape, rising steeply as does the dome of Florence Cathedral, and therefore exerting less outward thrust than does a hemispherical dome, such as that of the Pantheon, which, although it is not buttressed, is countered by the downward thrust of heavy masonry which extends above the circling wall.

Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome to completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern and had an inscription to the honor of Sixtus V placed around its inner opening. The next pope, Clement VIII, had the cross raised into place, an event which took all day, and was accompanied by the ringing of the bells of all the city’s churches.

TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM

(…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. … I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven… Vulgate, Matthew 16:18–19.)

Beneath the lantern is the inscription:

  1. PETRI GLORIAE SIXTVS PP. V. A. M. D. XC. PONTIF. V.

(To the glory of St Peter; Sixtus V, pope, in the year 1590, the fifth of his pontificate.)

On 18 February 1606, under Pope Paul V, the dismantling of the remaining parts of the Constantinian basilica began. The marble cross that had been set at the top of the pediment by Pope Sylvester and Constantine the Great was lowered to the ground. The timbers were salvaged for the roof of the Borghese Palace and two rare black marble columns, the largest of their kind, were carefully stored and later used in the narthex. The tombs of various popes were opened, treasures removed and plans made for reinterment in the new basilica.

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Another influence on the thinking of both the Fabbrica (construction committee) and the Curia was a certain guilt at the demolition of the ancient building. The ground on which it and its various associated chapels, vestries and sacristies had stood for so long was hallowed. The only solution was to build a nave that encompassed the whole space. In 1607 a committee of ten architects was called together, and a decision was made to extend Michelangelo’s building into a nave. Maderno’s plans for both the nave and the façade were accepted. The building began on 7 May 1607, and proceeded at a great rate, with an army of 700 laborers being employed. The following year, the façade was begun, in December 1614 the final touches were added to the stucco decoration of the vault and early in 1615 the partition wall between the two sections was pulled down. All the rubble was carted away, and the nave was ready for use by Palm Sunday.

The façade designed by Maderno, is 114.69 m (376.3 ft) wide and 45.55 m (149.4 ft) high and is built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by thirteen statues: Christ flanked by eleven of the Apostles (except Peter, whose statue is left of the stairs) and John the Baptist.

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The façade is often cited as the least satisfactory part of the design of St. Peter’s. The reasons for this, according to James Lees-Milne, are that it was not given enough consideration by the Pope and committee because of the desire to get the building completed quickly, coupled with the fact that Maderno was hesitant to deviate from the pattern set by Michelangelo at the other end of the building. Lees-Milne describes the problems of the façade as being too broad for its height, too cramped in its details and too heavy in the attic storey. The breadth is caused by modifying the plan to have towers on either side. These towers were never executed above the line of the façade because it was discovered that the ground was not sufficiently stable to bear the weight. One effect of the façade and lengthened nave is to screen the view of the dome, so that the building, from the front, has no vertical feature, except from a distance.

At length, on 18 November 1626 Pope Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the Basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica is neither the Pope’s official seat nor first in rank among the major basilicas of Rome. This honor is held by the Pope’s cathedral, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran which is the mother church of all churches in communion with the Catholic Church. However, St. Peter’s is certainly the Pope’s principal church in terms of use because most Papal liturgies and ceremonies take place there due to its size, proximity to the papal residence, and location within the Vatican City proper. The “Chair of Saint Peter”, or cathedra, an ancient chair sometimes presumed to have been used by St. Peter himself, but which was a gift from Charles the Bald and used by many popes, symbolizes the supposed line of apostolic succession from St. Peter to the reigning pope. It occupies an elevated position in the apse of the Basilica, supported symbolically by the Doctors of the Church.

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I visited St Peter’s Basilica about 9 years ago with my son as part of a university summer session on Italian language and culture that I was teaching in. We had journeyed over Italy from Florence to Sicily, ending in Rome for a few days as the capstone. On the day that my son and I visited St Peter’s we found a little family-run restaurant for a late dinner down a back alley that was, unfortunately, in the process of closing for the night. We appealed to the owner to stay open and he told us that he would if we would eat all that he had left – trippa alla Romana !!! Sold. It was brilliant to eat one of the great dishes of Rome on that day of all days.

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Tripe in the style of Rome differs very little from tripe served all over Italy. Basically it is cooked tripe bathed in tomato sauce. What makes it stand out is the addition of chick peas (I can live without them), and the addition towards the end of cooking of a mountain of shredded fresh mint. If you are a cook of any sort you can figure out how to do this without a recipe. If you really need help, here’s an excellent video.

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