Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Baldacchino

Today's photos:


1. The Baldacchino, seen from half-way between the altar and the entrance to the basilica, seems to have only two columns.

2. This view from the side shows all four columns.

3. The closer you get, the larger it seems.

4. A close-up of one of the four twisting columns.

5. The coat of arms of Urban VIII on one of the column bases.

6. A close-up of the upper section of the Baldacchino. Notice the Barberini bees.

7. The magnificent dome of Michelangelo soars above the Baldacchino.

8. Another view of the dome. At the bottom right you see the cross which is at the top of the Baldacchino.


Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) were not only contemporaries, they were also fierce rivals. It is generally accepted that both of them were geniuses of the Baroque, but Borromini, an introvert by nature, often suffered when compared to his gregarious rival. Nevertheless, early in their careers the two men did collaborate on some projects, one of which was the Baldacchino (canopy) over the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica. Even though this magnificent structure is almost always referred to as "Bernini's Baldacchino", we'll see shortly exactly what parts of this project are by the hand of Borromini.


It was Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644) who hired Bernini to build the Baldachino. Borromini was later taken on as one of his assistants. In any case, the two artists, both still in their 20's, created an extraordinary structure, 91 feet high and weighing 69 tons. Despite its massive size and weight, it does not appear cumbersome or out of place in the enormous basilica. On the contrary, it is remarkable for the appearance of lightness which it presents. This is due in part to the fact that the Baldacchino is supported by four columns, each one 82 feet high, so there is a great deal of open space between it and the altar.


A curiosity


The ponderous weight of the Baldacchino required deep foundations beneath the pavement of the basilica. This caused the destruction of several tombs in the ancient cemetery below. When several workmen died mysteriously during this process, rumors began to spread that the entire project of constructing the Baldacchino was somehow cursed. The superstitious workers refused to return to the job . . . until the Pope doubled their wages!


When the Barberini Pope hired Bernini for the job, he told the artist he wanted the Baldacchino made out of bronze. When Bernini expressed a concern about where he would get all the bronze he needed for such a large structure, Urban told him that was no problem. "Go down to the Pantheon", said the pontiff, "and take all the bronze you want from the roof of the porch".


A curiosity


This stripping of the Pantheon's bronze resulted in a very clever quip composed by Giulio Mancini, the Pope's personal physician: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did). In the end, Bernini had more bronze than he needed for the Baldacchino, so Urban instructed him to use the leftovers to fashion artillery pieces (cannons) for Castel Sant'Angelo, the papal fortress. Those "leftovers" were enough to produce 80 cannons!


Although Urban knew and respected the ability of the 24-year-old Bernini, he also knew that his prodigious young artist had little or no experience with architecture. To help him overcome this shortcoming, the Pope instructed the chief architect of the basilica, Carlo Maderno, to take the youngster under his wing and teach him the ropes. He also appointed Bernini as superintendent of the Acqua Felice aqueduct to give him some on-the-job training in administrative and architectural matters.


A curiosity


Bernini first produced a small wax model of his design for the Baldacchino. When it came time to enlarge this and turn it into a full-size model in plaster and wood, he turned for help to none other than his father, Pietro Bernini, who also assisted in casting the bronze. This famous father-son team would also combine to create the charming Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps.


But what in particular was Borromini's contribution to the Baldacchino? Since Bernini had no experience working in bronze, it was Borromini who supervised the removal and melting-down of the bronze taken from the Pantheon. In addition  it is generally agreed that the upper part of the Baldacchino is his design. He is also given credit for carving the massive marble pedestals (8.5 feet high) upon which the enormous columns rest.


A curiosity


Borromini carved on all four of the pedestals the coat of arms of Urban VIII, but this representation of the famous Barberini family shield is unique. Above the three bees on the face of the shield, you can see the figure of a woman's face contorted in the agony of childbirth. The shield itself gradually expands on the succeeding pedestals, like the womb of a pregnant woman. Finally, on the last pedestal the shield is again flat as the head of the baby appears below. One explanation given for this bizarre decoration is that it represents a niece of Urban VIII who had recently endured a difficult pregnancy with a happy end to it. Another explanation offered is that it illustrates how suffering is eventually rewarded with joy.


The Baldacchino is certainly one of Bernini's greatest achievements, especially remarkable because of his young age at the time. It serves to cover, and at the same time, draw attention to the main altar which in turn stands directly above the tomb of St. Peter, while Michelangelo's majestic dome soars high above both structures. The scene is literally enough to take your breath away.


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