Thursday, June 16, 2011

10. St. Peter's Square

Today's photos:


1.  St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk 

2.  The Apostolic Palace looms over the colonnade of Bernini.

3.  Stand on this disc and be amazed at the genius of Bernini.

4.  Four columns deep?????

5.  Take a walk through the colonnade.

6.  One of the two fountains in the piazza.





When you stand in St. Peter's Square you cannot help being awe-struck by the architectural marvels all around you.  The piazza and its surrounding buildings are one of the most impressive spectacles in the entire world, created by the hands of geniuses such as Michelangelo Buonarroti, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maderno.  In front of you stands Maderno's magnificent façade of St. Peter's Basilica, with Michelangelo's dome looming above it.  On either side of you is the majestic colonnade of Bernini, with the Apostolic Palace rising up over the right side.  In the middle of the piazza stands the ancient Egyptian obelisk, flanked by the two fountains.  (For the full story of the obelisk, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 31, The Vatican Obelisk).  It is truly a breathtaking experience to stand there and think that all of this was created over 350 years ago.  Let's trace the history of how this incredible space came into existence.


It was on July 31, 1656 that Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) called a meeting of the Congregazione della Reverenda Fabbrica, the committee which had been created in 1523 to oversee the construction and administration of the building of St. Peter's Basilica.  A decision was made at this meeting to have a piazza built in front of the newly completed basilica.  It was further decided that this task should be entrusted to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica.


Bernini began working on a design for the piazza on August 19, less than three weeks after receiving the commission.  His initial plan had the shape of a trapezoid.


A curiosity


It was no accident that Bernini wanted this particular shape to his piazza.  A trapezoid was the shape which Michelangelo had used over one hundred years earlier when he designed Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill, the seat of city government.  This piazza has, since its beginning, been hailed as a brilliant masterpiece of urban planning for political Rome.  Bernini wanted to create an equally brilliant masterpiece for sacred Rome.  I think he succeeded!


The design called for a straight rectangular colonnade on both sides of the open piazza.  But there was a problem with this plan.  It was feared that the height of such a colonnade would block the view of the pope's window in the Apostolic Palace from which he blessed the crowds, as well as the view of the piazza from the palace.  It was also important to make sure that the center balcony of the basilica, La Loggia delle Benedizioni, be visible from all areas of the piazza.  (For the story of this balcony see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 13, Loggia delle Benedizioni).


So Bernini made some revisions to correct the problem.  He created an oval-shaped piazza which would be contained by two semi-circular colonnades, low enough so that the Apostolic Palace and the balcony would be visible.  Eventually the oval-shape was changed to the more elegant and graceful ellipse which we know today.


A curiosity


The piazza we see today opens up between the ends of the two semicircular colonnades.  Bernini, however, had planned a terzo braccio, a third arm, running all the way across the front between the two ends of the colonnades, parallel to the façade of the basilica.  He wanted to create a very dramatic sight as a visitor walked through the third arm from the crowded, dark medieval neighborhood to suddenly find himself in the immense open space of the piazza.  We will never know if Bernini would have been successful in achieving this effect because the terzo braccio never got off the drawing board.


The physical dimensions of the piazza are mind-boggling. It is 1,115 feet long and 650 feet across at its widest point.  It can easily hold 300,000 people.  The entire Colosseum could fit within the piazza.  The roof of the colonnade is supported by 300 massive stone columns 52 feet high and four rows deep.  It is adorned by 96 colossal statues twice life-size carved by the students and assistants of Bernini under his supervision.  It took approximately two months to create and mount each statue.


A curiosity


There is a marble disc in the pavement on both sides of the piazza indicating the center of the two ellipses.  When you stand on either one of these markers and face the columns on that side, it appears that there is only a single row of columns all the way around that side instead of four.  It is truly an amazing sight, and whenever I find myself in the piazza I cannot resist standing on one of the two discs and admiring the genius of Bernini.


Work on the colonnades began soon after the elliptical design was approved by the pope in the summer of 1657.  Both the pope and Bernini were present as the first stone was laid on August 28, 1657.  Within a year 47 columns were standing and by 1662 one entire side of the colonnade was complete.  Alexander VII died on May 22, 1667 as the two colonnade arms were nearing completion.  But lest anyone forget which pope was responsible for the colonnade, the name of Alexander VII with his Chigi family coat of arms is prominently displayed in six places at the top of the colonnade!


There are two fountains in the piazza, one on either side.  The one on the right was designed by Carlo Maderno in 1614 and replaced a pre-existing fountain on that spot from 1490.  It was modified by Bernini in 1667 when he designed the second fountain on the left to match it.  The obelisk in the center had been moved to that spot in 1586.  (For the fascinating story of this obelisk see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 31, The Vatican Obelisk).


There is a small plaque imbedded in the cobblestones just on the right side of the piazza as you face the basilica, near where the security check is to enter the basilica. The only two things you see on the face of this plaque are the coat of arms of Pope John Paul II and the date in Roman numerals:  XIII  V  MCMLXXXI.  This is the spot where the pope was shot as he rode through a cheering crowd on 13 May 1981.


A curiosity


During John Paul's lifetime many people, including some of his close friends and advisors suggested to him that some kind of memorial should be put up on that spot to recall the attempt on his life.  The pope steadfastly refused, saying that he did not want any kind of commemoration of that event.  Shortly after his death in 2005 the memorial plaque appeared on the spot.  So much for the power of a deceased pope!


Post a Comment