Baldacchino                              Bernini’s Rome .com
 
 
  1. As Howard Hibbard, one of the 20th century’s great commentators on Gianlorenzo Bernini said, “Bernini’s Baldacchino is the first Baroque monument of world significance.”1  Built over a nine-year span (1624-33), the Baldacchino is one of Bernini’s greatest contributions to one of the holiest Catholic sites, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Barberini, commissioned the superstructure after the basilica’s construction was recently completed under Pope Paul V; thus, decoration demanded the genius of Bernini.2  By that time, Bernini’s talent was widely known, after he had completed several dynamic sculptures under Cardinal Scipione Borghese.  Pope Urban VIII chose Bernini as chief architect of St. Peter’s knowing that the grand Church required exceptional decoration by an exceptional artist.  Bernini worked with other craftsmen and artists on the project and borrowed earlier ideas from past architects for the design.  After overcoming various architectural and typological challenges, Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe,3 possibly fulfilling a significant prophesy by painter Annibale Carracci when he commented, “Believe me, the day will come, when no one knows, that a prodigious genius will make two great monuments in the middle and at the end of this temple on a scale in keeping with the vastness of the building.”4 The child genius supposedly cried, “Oh, if only I could be the one.” This prophecy foreshadows the building of the Cathedra Petri at the end of the basilica in addition to the Baldacchino located at the center. As well as being a personal monument to Pope Urban VIII, the monumental scale of the Baldacchino forms a visual mediation between the enormous size of the building and the human scale of the people below, overwhelming visitors with a visual representation of the triumphant strength of Roman Catholicism.

 
  1. Crossing of St. Peter’s: The Crossing of St. Peter’s designates where the nave (central approach to high altar) and the transept (transverse aisle crossing the nave in a cruciform church) meet. During the rebuilding of the Church under Paul V (initiated by Julius II under architect Donato Bramante), the nave was extended and the high altar moved from the apse to beneath the dome;5 thus, Bernini’s Baldacchino was needed to make the new altar a more conspicuous presence. In addition, because St. Peter’s is technically not a cathedral but rather a basilica, a shrine of the martyr St. Peter, a dramatic focal point designating the Saints burial place, was needed for pilgrims to visit.  Pilgrims could descend the steps in front of the altar to visit the Peter’s tomb below in the area known as the confessio, which architect Carlo Maderno previously built.  Also in this crossing, the Congregation of the Fabbrica da San Pietro, a committee responsible for building and administering the basilica, commissioned Bernini to embellish the piers surrounding the Baldacchino.  Bernini decorated the four surrounding niches with life-size statues that referred directly to the relic enshrined there including, St. Helena with the True Cross, St. Veronica with the Sudarium, St. Andrew’s Crucifixion, and St. Longinus with the spear (which Bernini carved himself). 6

  1. Historical and Architectural Context: In the Old St. Peter’s, the altar and accompanying confessio were marked by a ciborium, a permanent architectural structure consisting of columns supporting a solid dome (designating an altar).  During the initial renovation of the basilica in 1594, the ciborium was replaced by a temporary structure of “eight columns and four pilasters”7 holding up what appeared to be painted canvas. No permanent structure existed until 1605 when Pope Paul V commissioned a second altar under the apse where a bishop could supervise liturgical events. With the help of Maderno, he further designated these separate traditions with differing structures: a ciborium for the apse and a baldachin for the altar, initiating a new marker for the high altar.  The ciborium consisted of four twisted columns, which many believed were brought from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to Rome by Emperor Constantine I, alluding to the triumphant strength of Roman Catholicism.8

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  3.     Distinct from a ciborium, a baldachin is a temporary canopy used as a marker of honor. It could designate a relic or the Eucharist exposed for veneration.  A baldachin is usually held by staves or suspended above, different from the immobile characteristic of the ciborium.  What was remarkable about the new temporary structure over the high altar of St. Peter’s was its tremendous height, topping out at thirty-five feet.  This height made the possibility of mobility almost non-existent if it weren’t for the angels below that appear to support it.  Maderno thus effectively transformed a portable structure (a baldachin) into a permanent one (a ciborium).  This transformation from an ephemeral to a permanent structure and the incorporation of tremendous height is what Bernini picked up on in the Baldacchino we see today. 9

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  5.     New changes developed in 1622 under the reign of Pope Gregory XV (1621-23). Maderno created the angels supporting the staves of the baldachin kneel in addition to gilding the decorations on the staves – both features found in Bernini’s design.  Maderno’s appointment as chief architect was secured through Gregory’s reign until the death of Paul V and the election of Urban VIII in 1623; this marked the end of Maderno’s power and the birth of Bernini’s. At this time in his life, Bernini was a well-known artist, having recently completed various statues for the Borghese family, ending with the David (1623-24).  Pope Urban VIII already had Bernini in mind when the Fabbrica invited several architects to produce plans for the new structure. The 25-year-old Bernini did not have extensive experience as an architect as Maderno did, and yet he was endowed with the most prestigious positions at this young age.

 
  1. The Papal Agenda: Urban VIII recognized that what was needed under the dome was a superstructure to draw attention to the relationship between the tomb and the massive basilica built over it. The importance of St. Peter’s dates back to Early Christianity when Emperor Constantine I defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.10  This marked the recognition of Christianity as an officially practiced religion as well as the triumph over Paganism.  Shortly following, Constantine founded St. Peter’s basilica.  “This association was the most conspicuous testament to the legacy linking papal authority to Constantine’s imperial benevolence.”11 In other words, it attests to the spiritual and temporal power of the church In hastily commissioning the Baldacchino, Urban could complete the everlasting architectural project begun by Julius II and dedicate the church to its martyr exactly 1300 years after the dedication of the Old St. Peter’s in 326.12 Bernini made the decision to substitute traditional Christian symbols with symbols of the Barberini family, reinforcing Pope Urban VIII’s desire to personalize and immortalize his role in the Baldacchino.

  1. Bernini’s Designs:  Bernini’s first design only differed slightly from his predecessor’s designs.  Although disturbed by the Cavalier’s appointment to chief architect, Borromini continued to work on the mechanics of the
    structure while Bernini most likely worked on the sculptural elements. The Baldacchino was a collaborative effort, created by Bernini as well as Borromini, Maderno and Bernini’s brother-in-law, Agostino Radi. Bernini maintained the embellished twisted columns initiated by Bramante (conserving the connection with Early Christianity) and the kneeling bronze angels from Maderno’s design. Bernini added a new sculptural element of a Risen Christ figure (a Eucharistic symbol and one of salvation) above the super-structure. Another architectural innovation by Bernini was the physical fusion of the ciborium-baldachin design that Maderno partly introduced in the past, a symbolic transition that designated the pope’s tomb as a reliquary for which a canopy would be appropriate. 13

  2.     There was one major architectural and typological problem: critics such as Borromini stressed that a canopy, by definition, should not touch other things because it is customarily suspended by staves.  In other words, a baldachin is traditionally separate from a ciborium. To overcome this criticism, Bernini had to separate the cornice and columns to make it appear as though the canopy was being suspended. He did so by moving the angels to the top of the supporting columns to “carry” the canopy.  He also replaced the heavy Risen Christ with an orb and a cross to relieve the cornice of weight. This substitution may have been symbolic, transforming the altar from a Eucharistic image to that of a more generalized altar image.

 
  1. The Columns: Bernini’s colossal columns were produced by the lost wax method, a complex technical procedure of creating a wax model enclosed in clay molds and pouring metal into the center to melt away the wax.  The remaining molten metal would eventually cool and take the desired shape. The bronze itself came from the Roman Pantheon (symbolically plundering metal from a pagan building).14 The amount of metal needed for the Baldacchino was extraordinary, leaving Bernini to hollow out the four bronzed columns and replace the cavities with concrete. The massive columns serve for more purpose than just grandeur—they solve the formal problem of supporting the gigantic Baldacchino they support.15 One of Bernini’s primary biographers and son, Domenico Bernini, quotes his father saying, “The praiseworthy architect is the one who knows how to combine the beauty of a building with the convenience and comfort afforded to its inhabitants.”16 Bernini clearly worked around the enormous size of the basilica and tailored the Baldacchino to its aesthetic needs to create a monument that melded perfectly and effectively with its surrounding space. Paying careful attention to the size of the columns (to ensure that they did not overpower the architecture of the church), Bernini created a beautiful and dramatic contrast of the dark bronze twisted columns to the straight fluted pilasters and other white marble structures in St. Peter’s Basilica. 17

  1. The Surface Decorations: Surface decorations on the columns consisted of cherubs, putti, foliage and other natural elements, enlivening the superstructure. Bernini also scattered bees along the columns, the heraldic symbol of the Barberini family symbolizing the sweet odor of sanctity, testifying to the sanctity of the pope as well as the surrounding space.18  He also substituted traditional Christian vine leaves for laurel leaves associated with the Barberini family, further alluding to the Baldacchino as a personal monument to Urban VIII.

  1. The Pedestals: Beneath the columns are pedestals that raise the structures to about head height for a person of average stature.  On these pedestals are the papal escutcheons containing Barberini bees along with the keys of St. Peter and the papal tiara with its triple crown. The elevation of the column bases makes a visitor psychologically engage with the structure by admiring its embellishments. This bond between the object and the observer helps define the latter’s experience in the surrounding space by allowing him/her to contemplate on the symbolic elements of the superstructure.


  1.     The Baldacchino is not only a personal monument to Pope Urban VIII but it is a tomb-marker of Christ’s earthly successor, St. Peter, the first pope.21  Its ties to early Christian form also allude to the triumphant power of Christianity as seen in the past by Emperor Constantine. Although bending the rules of convention in the physical fusion of the ciborium-baldachin design, Bernini’s received much praise for his work. The Baldacchino exemplifies one of Bernini’s great contributions to the visual arts: un bel composto, the unifying of architecture, sculpture, and painting to create a beautiful whole.22 As seen in the Baldacchino, Bernini fused a relationship between sculpture and architecture to create one of his greatest masterpieces. According to Domenico Bernini, a committee convened to discuss the nature of the reward that the pope should bestow upon the Cavalier.23  Bernini’s shrine of devotion cannot be given a value; its priceless creation is nothing less than remarkable.

1 Hibbard, 79

2 Hibbard, 75

3 Wittkower, 120

4 Baldinucci, 11. (Bernini, 37)

5 Marder, 128

6 Hibbard, 80

7 Marder, 29

8 Marder, 29

9 Lavin, 5

10 Fanning, 1

11Marder, 28

12 Avery, 95

13 Lavin, 6

14 Avery, 96

15 Wittkower, Montagu, Connors, 115

16 Bernini, 117

17 Wittkower, Connors, Montagu, 115

18 Avery, 100

19 Avery, 101

20 Baldinucci, 19. (Bernini, 126)

21 Hibbard, 39

22 Lavin, 6

23 Bernini, 123

Notes

On This Page

Crossing of St. Peter’s

Historical Context

The Papal Agenda

Bernini’s Designs

The Columns

The Surface Decorations

The Pedestals

The Crossing Sculptures

  1. The Crossing Sculptures: Shortly after the Baldacchino columns were set in place in 1628, Bernini’s design was approved for the first pier surrounding the superstructure.19 The four niches in the piers surrounding the Baldacchino carry the great dome of St. Peter’s and are located directly under the relics.  Visitors can enjoy a spectacle of four colossi of marble made by four individual artists.  While Bernini carved St. Longinus, Francesco Duquesnoy carved St. Andrew, Andrea Bolgi carved St. Helena, and Francesco Mochi carved Veronica.20  The over fourteen-foot statues are topped by images of the relics sculpted in relief which were behind balconies that would present the real relics on major feast days.