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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Basilica of Saint Peter

Transcribed by Judy Levandoski

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.


The present Church of Saint Peter stands upon the site where at the beginning of the first century the gardens of Agrippina lay. Her son, Caius Caligula, built a circus there, in the spina of which he erected the celebrated obelisk without hieroglyphics which was brought from Heliopolis and now stands in the Piazza di San Pietro. The Emperor Nero was especially fond of this circus and arranged many spectacles in it, among which the martyrdoms of the Christians (Tacitus, Annal., XV 44) obtained a dreadful notoriety. The exact spot in the circus of the crucifixion of Saint Peter was preserved by tradition through out the centuries, and in the present Church of Saint Peter is marked by an altar. Directly past the circus of Nero ran the Via Cornelia which, like all Roman highways, was bordered with sepulchral monuments. In Christian times a small city of churches and hospices gradually arose here, but without this part of Rome being included in the city limits. When in the year 847 the Saracens pillaged the Basilica of Saint Peter and all the sanctuaries and establishments there, Pope Leo IV decided to surround the extensive suburb with a wall, interrupted at intervals by exceedingly strong and well-fortified towers. Two of these towers, as well as a fragment of the wall, are still preserved in the Vatican Gardens and afford an interesting picture of the manner of fortification. Owing to this circumvallation by Pope Leo the Vatican portion of the city received the name Civitas Leonina, which it has preserved to the present day (Leonine City). The Vatican Hill rises in close proximity to the river Tiber. Between it, the river, and the mausoleum of Hadrian (Castle of Sant' Angelo) lies a small plain which was not filled with houses until the early Middle Ages. The Vatican territory did not assume a throughly urban character until the end of the fifteenth century.

Basilica of Constantine

The simple sanctuary of the Prince of the Apostles gave place under Constantine the Great to a magnificent basilica, begun in the year 323 but not completed until after his death. The southern side of the ancient basilica was erected upon the northern side of the circus, which in the Middle Ages bore the name Palatium Neronis. It was built in the form of a cross and divided into five naves by four rows of twenty-two columns each. Vast treasures were collected in the course of centuries in this principal sanctuary of Western Christendom: precious mosaic decoration internally and externally, offerings of great value surrounding the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, magnificent vestments in the wardrobes of the sacristy, richly decorated entablature, and bright but harmoniously coloured pavements, paintings, and whatever else the love and veneration of high and low could conceive in the way of adornment. Connecting the basilica with the Porta di San Pietro at the Castle of Sant' Angelo was a covered colonnade, through which innumerable pilgrims passed. Provision was made in the Vatican territory for their shelter, and the necessity soon arose of building a palace near the basilica in which the pope could live and receive visitors when sojourning at Saint Peter's. Churches and monasteries, cemeteries and hospices arose in great numbers around the tomb of the "fisher of men."

Twelve centuries elapsed between the building of Saint Peter's and the first demolition of an important part of the basilica. Its rebuilding during the Early Renaissance is to be regretted, for the plan of the new church became the plaything of artistic humours. It is due to Michelangelo, who saved all that was possible of Bramante's original plan, that something aesthetically satisfactory was created.

History of the Building

Owing to the neglect of the churches at Rome during the papal residence at Avignon, by the fifteenth century the decay of Saint Peter's had progressed to an alarming extent. Pope Nicholas V, an enthusiastic humanist, therefore conceived the plan of leveling the old church and erecting a new structure in its place. Bernardo Rossellini of Florence was intrusted with the undertaking and in accordance with his plans the new basilica was to completely surround the choir and transept of the old, and to have the ground plan of a Latin cross with an elongated nave. But with the exception of the tribune begun in 1450 and the foundations of the wall surrounding the transept nothing further was built, as the pope died in 1455. Pope Julius II, adopting the idea of reconstructing the basilica, instituted a competition in which Bramante, as is related, gained the prize. His unlimited enthusiasm for the mighty conception of the impetuous pope is attested by his numerous plans and drawings, which are still preserved in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Bramante wished to pile the Pantheon upon the Constantinian basilica, so that a mighty dome would rise upon a building in the form of a Greek cross. In the spring of the year 1506 Julius, in the presence of thirty-five cardinals, laid the foundations of this imposing structure, which posterity has spoiled and changed for the worse in an inexcusable manner. Bramante died in 1514. Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giacondo da Verona, who together with Raphael continued his work, died in 1516 and 1515 respectively. Raphael, yielding to all manner of influences, undertook changes but did not promote the building to any considerable extent. After his death in 1520 a sharp conflict arose whether the church should remain in the form of a Greek cross, or the nave be extended so as to form a Latin cross.

Antonio da Sangallo, who was appointed architect in 1518, and Baldassari Peruzzi, appointed in 1520, were without fixed plans and attempted all manner of experiments, of which Michelangelo, when he received control in 1548, made an end so far as this was still possible. Bramante's plan seemed to him so excellent that he built in accordance with it. By strengthening the central piers he made it possible for them to bear a dome. He did not live to see the completion of his artistic conception, since only the drum was completed when he died. But in the years which followed the present dome, a sublime masterpiece of unsurpassed beauty, was constructed in accordance with his designs. The faithfulness with which, after the great master's death (1546), Giacomo della Porta continued the building of the dome in accordance with Michelangelo's intentions should be especially emphasized.The building might have been completed at the beginning of the following century if in 1606 Pope Paul V had not decided to carry out the form of the Latin cross. During the twenty years which followed Carlo Maderna constructed the present by no means unobjectionable facade and Bernini wasted time and money in adorning the front with bell-towers, which for artistic reasons had to be removed, in so far as he had completed them. At length on November 18, 1626, Pope Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the church, of which the actual construction, excepting certain unimportant details, may be considered as completed. Three clearly defined stages in the construction of Saint Peter's must therefore be distinguished:

  1. Bramante's Greek cross with the dome
  2. Michelangelo, a Greek cross with dome, and in addition a vestibule with a portico of columns
  3. Paul V, a Latin cross with Baroque facade.
The longer they built the more they spoiled the original magnificent plans, so that the effect of the exterior as a whole is unsatisfactory. The principle mistake lies naturally in the fact that the unsuitable extension of the nave conceals the dome from one observing the basilica from a near point of view. Only at a considerable distance is Michelangelo's genial creation in its pure and beautiful design revealed to the astonished observer. All the external walls are constructed of splendid travertine, now become gold in colour, which even in bright sunlight gives a quiet, harmonious effect.

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Part 2: Architecture

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