Saturday, February 5, 2011

How the Vatican came to be the Pope's home

When the papacy left Avignon and returned to Rome in 1377 the papal court found the old Lateran palace which had been the official papal residence adjoining the pope’s cathedral, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, in such ruin that it was not habitable so they took up residence in a warren of buildings adjoining the basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. You may remember from earlier blogs (January 17 and 18) that Constantine had built basilicas over the tombs of the Apostle Paul (on the Via Ostia) and the Apostle Peter (on the Vatican hill) and that the popes kept a residence at the Vatican for those occasions when they were presiding at ceremonies in that church so that they did not have to journey from the Lateran to the Vatican or return to the Lateran the same day. Innocent III had modernized (well, "modern" for the thirteenth century) the buildings to the north of the basilica and it was here that the popes settled. Well, some of the popes settled, others preferred a variety of palaces around Rome. Paul II Barbo, for example, had rebuilt the residence of the Cardinal Priest of the Basilica of Saint Mark just north of the Capitoline Hill and made it into a splendid renaissance palace. When he was elected pope in 1474, he preferred to remain in his Palazzo Venezia than live in the Vatican and so it served as a papal residence for a number of years, (It also later served as Mussolini’s official headquarters.) Allesandro Farnese, a man who owed his cardinal’s hat to his sister (the so-called Giulia Bella –beautiful Giulia) being the mistress of Pope Alexander VI Borgia, built a magnificent palace –to my mind the most beautiful building in Rome—called the Palazzo Farnese and when he was elected Paul III he too opted to live in this palace even though it was still undergoing its “finishing touches.” This doesn’t mean that the Vatican Palace was being neglected Nicholas V (1447-1455) did a substantial renovation of the older buildings and Alexander VI Borgia constructed new apartments for himself during his reign (1492-1503). Nicholas V’s private chapel was frescoed by Fra Angelico with scenes of the lives of Saints Stephen and Laurence and is—to my mind—the most exquisitely beautiful room in the Vatican Palace—or at least those parts of the palace that we mere mortals get to see. It is a small room that can hold probably no more than ten or twelve people, but the aforementioned frescoes are windows into another world. The Borgia apartment, on the other hand, is a heavy construction—massive and powerful and today houses the Paul VI collection of contemporary (20th century) art. Alexander VI Borgia’s successor, Julius II, despised Alexander and would not live in his apartments so he had apartments of his own constructed directly over them and decorated by Raphael. Like the Borgia apartments, they are today part of the Vatican Museums.
Julius’s uncle, Sixtus IV, (pope 1471-1484) had built the Sistine (named after Sixtus) Chapel between 1473 and 1482. This chapel was built on the site of and to replace an earlier Cappella maggiore (Greater Chapel) which was used for the semi-public papal ceremonies. It apparently was built to the same dimensions of this earlier chapel 134’ by 44’—said to be the dimensions of the temple of Solomon. It would be Julius who would see the decoration of the chapel however, hiring Michelangelo to paint the vault.
Although Paul III Farnese preferred his family palace, he did not ignore his official residence and had the architect Antonio Sangallo the younger—who at the time was serving as the architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica that was being built— build the greast reception room—the Sala Regia—and the Pauline chapel in the Vatican Palace. Sangallo also built the Scala Regia to connect the papal apartments with St. Peter’s Basilica. This staircase would later be restored into today’s majestic staircase by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. (You really do need to go and see all this beauty for yourself.) in the last of the sixteenth century Gregory XIII (reigned 1572-1585) and his successor, Sixtus V (reigned 1585-1590 and one of my favorite popes) built the block of the palace overlooking Saint Peter’s Square where the actual papal apartments are located. This is ironic in as that Gregory had another building project which would result in those apartments sitting empty most nights for several centuries. But more on that in a few weeks. Enough of papal residences. I want to get back to Anti-Catholicism in America, the building of the Vatican Basilica, and those troublesome American nuns that the Vatican wants to “investigate.” Maybe somebody needs to investigate the Vatican. Hmmm.
Today's image is the Diaconal Ordination of Saint Laurence by Fra Angelico, Chapel of Nicholas V

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