Colonnades                               Bernini’s Rome .com
 

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Introduction


Pope Alexander VII and the Commission


Considerations and Preliminary Designs


Formal Features


Spiritual Significance

 

This differs from a previous plan that comprised of freestanding pairs of Corinthian columns, an idea that Bernini himself was not particularly proud of and which he changed a few days after the foundations had been laid. The sun lights the columns in such a way that each row successively disappears into darkness, creating an interesting illusion of depth and even movement. The contrast between the straight corridors at the sides of the church and the curved colonnade gives Saint Peter’s an even more solemn and magnificent appearance than it already has on its own.

During the years of construction, Alexander VII formulated inscriptions that were later placed inside the colonnade arms. Word from Psalms 86, inviting the reader to the “mountain of the Lord” to worship Him, were placed closest to the Apostolic Palace, on the northwest side. The inscription on the northeast mentions the utility of the colonnade as a shield from bad weather. The coat of arms of Pope Clement IX, Alexander’s successor, can be found on the south corridor; it is the only emblem in the piazza not belonging to the Chigi family.


As previously mentioned, Bernini had always wanted to place statues over the colonnade’s balustrade. A total of ninety-six figures tower over the square, and according to Marder, they “serve as actors and audience for the oval theater space”. Although Bernini is thought to have designed most – if not all – of the statues, it is now commonly known that he did not carve them himself, but rather he assigned the task to a multitude of assistants and other members of his studio (Lazzaro Morelli alone is credited for making at least forty-seven of them). The statues are not nearly as detailed or refined as other Bernini sculptures, both because he did not complete them himself and also due to the fact that they are located far enough from the ground where details are impossible to identify. Due to the distance between the ground and the statues, many of them were rendered with exaggerated postures and “obvious gestures”, which make them easier to identify and differentiate from one another. The figures of Saint Agnes and Catherine were the first two to be sculpted and were placed above the entrance to the Apostolic Palace. The saints and martyrs belonging to the early Church can be found over the northern colonnade’s balustrade. On the east are located the “female saints and male founders of the religious orders”, while the south colonnade includes predominantly male saints. An additional forty-four statues were carved in later years to line the corridors, but these were not completed until over twenty years following Bernini’s death.



Spiritual Significance


The primary concern was functionality and practicality in terms of the spatial layout. Bernini was fully aware that the faithful would occupy the space. The colonnade was needed to set the atmosphere for the multiplying crowds of worshippers that turned up on religious holidays and other times of special occasion. Big celebrations like Easter Sunday required a physical perimeter to contain the masses during the papal blessing, so Bernini always had a religious perspective in mind. The colonnade’s shape actually gives the effect of a compression of space, so the viewers are meant to feel embraced. There are even preliminary drawings by Bernini, which depict a man in the shape of the piazza greeting the viewer with opened arms, the idea to embrace the faithful. In this human analogy the basilica itself represents the head of the man, the stairs descending from the church into the square represent the neck and shoulders, and the colonnade symbolizes the arms.


The two curving arcs of the colonnade pull in the devoted and the non-believer through its open mouth like an undertow. It is through this parted opening that visitors are ushered inside the piazza to begin the journey to St. Peters’ Basilica. Bernini’s St. Peter’s Piazza is the nucleus, which wrangles the devoted spectators. Editor Aidan Weston-Lewis of Effigies and Ecstasies remarks, “Bernini himself said that the colonnades ‘reach out with open arms to embrace Catholics in order to reaffirm their belief, heretics to be reunited with the Church, and agnostics to be enlightened with true faith’”. The colonnade dictates the path to spiritual fulfillment; its architecture becomes the guiding force to spiritual salvation.


Today Via della Conciliazione, the long open boulevard commissioned by Mussolini, leads up to colonnade and Saint Peter’s Basilica, but in his time Bernini had envisioned a journey through a labyrinth of streets. Three streets, the Borgo Vecchio, the Borgo Santo Spirito, and the Borgo Nuovo, which are now non-existent, were once the connected streets to the colonnade. Bernini wanted the viewer to experience twisting through a maze of slim streets before entering the expansive wide space. This idea of wandering, almost feeling lost in the cluttered streets of Rome to enter this expansive oval, contrasts the earthly with the divine. The vast network of streets which would suddenly open to a view of the colonnade – with obelisk as its center and St. Peter’s as the destination – was again to attain awe from those seeking the pinnacle location of the religious pilgrimage.


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Endnotes

Krautheimer, 65

Gaulli, Giovanni Battista. Portrait of Pope Alexander VII. C. 1667. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Canterbury Tales by Taylor Marshall. 18 Nov. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. <http://cantuar.blogspot.com/2010/11/is-french-kissing-mortal-sin-pope.html>.

Tod A. Marder, “Piazza San Pietro and the Rome of Alexander VII,” in Bernini and the Art of Architecture

Tod A. Marder, “Piazza San Pietro and the Rome of Alexander VII,” in Bernini and the Art of Architecture

James Lees-Milne, “The High Baroque and Bernini,” in Saint Peter’s, Boston 1967, p.270

Christopher Hibbert, Rome: The Biography of a City, New York 1986

Effigies & Ecstasies: Roman Baroque Sculpture and Design in the Age of Bernini, p.108

Hibbard, 155

Marder, 142

Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, University Park 2006, p.43

Tod A. Marder, “Piazza San Pietro and the Rome of Alexander VII,” in Bernini and the Art of Architecture

Tod A. Marder, “Piazza San Pietro and the Rome of Alexander VII,” in Bernini and the Art of Architecture

Krautheimer, 68

Avery, 214

Krautheimer, 67

Marder, 129-132

Hibbard, 156

Krautheimer, 67

Marder, 134

Marder, 129-130

Marder, 144

Marder, 145

Wittkower, 120

Avery, 214

Marder, 142

Weston-Lewis, 109

 

The Colonnade of Saint Peter’s Square

Introduction

Piazza San Pietro, located directly in front of the basilica of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, was arguably Pope Alexander VII’s biggest and most daring commission. The pontiff wanted the visitors to access the square and have a majestic view of the church, as well as a visual connection to the adjacent Apostolic Palace. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was put in charge of designing the piazza, and along with Alexander and other advisers he produced a plan that varied through multiple phases. The piazza was to be enclosed by two-story porticoes with arcades, but the Pope soon decided the portico would only contain one story and statues would be placed on top of it. There were disagreements between Alexander and the Congregazione della Fabbrica di San Pietro, the council in charge of approving every construction projects related to Saint Peter’s, but the Pope always backed Bernini’s plans. In fact, it was the artist’s idea to design the square with an oval shape as it appears today. This new scheme led to the decision to erect colonnades rather than arcades.

The two curved arcs composed of columns, which extend from the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica to shape the colonnade, create one of the greatest public spaces ever to be constructed in Rome. Bernini’s colonnade solidifies the designated area where visitors and worshipers can exist in a unified space. Yet, for the sculptor turned architect, mapping out and reorganizing an environment that had been under construction for centuries would prove to be a difficult challenge. Still, the Pope knew his decision to give Bernini the commission, even soon after his downfall with the cracking bell towers, was the risk needed to cement the glory of his reign. Few other artists were able to withstand the pressures of working for the papacy, produce architecture possessing a genuine spiritual power and surpass all expectations as Bernini could.



Pope Alexander VII and the Commission

It took someone of Alexander VII’s determination to commission such a monumental and costly project. Alexander VII began his rule at a time of political marginalization for the papal state, entering the hot seat soon after the end of the Thirty Years War. This war resulted in the requirement for citizens to abide the laws of their respective countries before adhering loyalty to any outside religious states, a policy that brought a loss of power to the Catholic Church. The consequence of separating religious affiliation from political obedience to one’s own nation caused the European powers to question the papacy’s ability to execute temporal rule. It was this doubt of papal authority, initiated by the Protestant Reformation and continued by the rising superpowers of Europe, which pushed Alexander VII to reassert Rome’s power on a global scale.

His commission of the colonnade, along with his other monumental architectural projects in Rome, was a way for Alexander to enforce papal authority and dominion at a time of waning power. By developing a visual image of an abundant, sumptuous, and dynamic Rome, the Pope hoped to display the strength of the city. If anyone knew how to please popes through Baroque spectacle, it was Bernini. Alexander was so enthralled by Bernini that he actually wrote about him weekly in his diary. He was enchanted by the artist’s fame, and desired that kind of veneration for himself. Spending most of his days at the center of an audience preaching and blessing the people of Rome, it is conspicuous that Alexander liked attention and wanted his name in the history books. Thus, Bernini was tasked not merely with constructing a gate to close the area in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, but with creating a religious stage set for Alexander VII and the papal court.  In order for Rome to continue to be the top city of religious pilgrimage and power he would have to maintain an extravagant standard.



Considerations and Preliminary Designs


Alexander trusted Bernini to develop a structure that would adequately frame a barrier of space for visitors to collect, but also a place for them to bask in the glory at the greatness of Rome as a Catholic state. Bernini needed the colonnade to visually establish the greatness of St. Peter’s Basilica that was the face of Catholic artistic virtuoso, by transforming the point by which viewers entered its presence.


Before embarking on the task, Bernini had to take into consideration several things. First, he had to make sure everything was proportional, especially taking into account Maderno’s façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica was already too wide for its height, so Bernini could not touch this to any further extent. Since the Basilica did not have the bell towers that would have made it appear tall and grand, Bernini had to emphasize opulence in an optical view from a basilica that was wide and short. Thus instead, he concentrated on the piazza. Here he encountered several design challenges.


Because the piazza was going to be too wide, he would need to put the colonnades right in front of the Basilica. The colonnades also had to be big enough to accommodate all the people that would come for special occasions such as the papal blessings of urbi et orbi (“to the City of Rome and to the World”) given during Christmas and Easter. Visitors from the piazza had to be able to see the Pope from the loggia at the center of the Basilica’s facade where the Pope appeared in these occasions. Alternatively, the Pope’s apartment window located on the upper floor of the palace to the north, should be visible at an angle from the piazza should the Pope decide to bless the visitors or appear in any case of emergency. More importantly, Bernini had to consider incorporating the obelisk that already stood at the center of the square into his design. The obelisk had been brought to Rome from Egypt in 37 AD by Emperor Caligula. It originally stood at the center of the circus, subsequently known as the Circus of Nero, located just south of the present day Basilica. By 1568, Pope Sixtus V had Domenico Fontana move the obelisk to the center of St. Peter’s square using massive towers and a giant pulley system to put it on its side and haul it to its new location. In addition to the placement of the obelisk, Maderno’s fountain existed to the right of it. With all this in mind, long phases of planning and design were reviewed and executed before and while construction began. The current design evolved through several phases, which have been documented in records as well as foundation medals designed by Bernini himself.



Originally, Bernini considered creating a trapezoidal arcade. It was not until near the end of 1656 did he decide to adopt a transverse oval plan. The new oval shape would surround the piazza in a gesture of embrace by the Catholic Church towards the visitors. In fact, Bernini used a human analogy to describe his project: the basilica itself represents the head, the stairs descending from the church into the square represent the neck and shoulders, and the colonnade symbolizes the arms. Baldinucci further explains that the design of the oval plan would “bring the colonnade closer to the Apostolic Palace and obstruct less the view of the square from the part of the palace built by Sixtus V with its wing connecting with the Scala Regia”.


Since the very beginning of the planning process, Bernini had envisioned statues of saints and martyrs over the balustrade of the colonnades. Initially, the statues were supposed to be placed on both edges of the colonnade, some facing Saint Peter’s square and others facing the outside. The plan was changed, however, because the statues over the outer part of the balustrade would have been virtually impossible to see due to tall buildings surrounding the area. As a result, only the ones overlooking the piazza were erected. The placing of the statues began in 1662 and continued until 1672. Earlier drawings also indicated arches above the columns topped by pediments, but this plan was never carried out. Also, Alexander’s idea was to make the porticoes stand as independent monuments, so Bernini designed the ends of the two porticoes to be freestanding. During the final design, three passages were devised within the porticoes: a wide center passageway for carriages and a narrow passage on each side for pedestrians. Previously, a single narrower passageway was presented and planned but was eventually dismissed after the idea of carriages was considered.


Bernini planned to enclose the broad end of the piazza with a third wing of colonnades, a terzo braccio. This would have blocked the entrance to the piazza thereby enclosing it, and emphasizing the difference of the wide space of the piazza and the narrow streets of the Borgo. Though the third wing was never built, it was meant to turn the piazza into a courtyard for the basilica, as well as “a forecourt for the visitor to give himself over to the grandeur of the show spread before his eyes”. Because this terzo braccio was never built, in 1936 the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini initiated the construction of Via della Conciliazione to lead straight into Piazza San Pietro from the Tiber river, “with complete disregard for historicity, aesthetics or the character of the old city”.


After many years of planning, design, and construction, the two lateral colonnades were finally completed in 1666.

 

Formal Features

The colonnades of Saint Peter’s Square extend out from the façade of the basilica and surround the piazza; due to the nonexistent third wing of colonnades, the broad end of the square is open. The colonnade is four columns deep – for a total of three hundred columns – creating three passages under each arm: two narrow ones with coffered ceilings and a wider barrel-vaulted central path for the carriages of official visitors, and today, automobiles. The curved colonnades end just before the basilica on each side, where straight corridors containing pillars continue up both sides of the church. As stated by Tod A. Marder, the pillars “link the curved geometry of the colonnades to the linear geometry of the corridors”. All columns are of Tuscan order, giving them a rather severe appearance, with a continuous Ionic frieze on top.