Saturday, April 16, 2011

The History of St. Peter's: a dream not realized

The alleged dalmatic of Charlemagne
I want to go back to the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica—we left off in February—the 23rd to be exact—and how it developed from Constantine’s basilica—originally built c. 325—to today’s basilica, built between 1502 and 1612. 
You may recall—and you can check the archives in January and February for more information—how Constantine surrounded the entire necropolis (pre-Christian) cemetery in which Peter had been buried with a retaining wall and buried it as the foundation for the large basilica he constructed over the tomb.   I did a number of blog entries (January 17, 18, February 21, 21) on Constantine’s basilica and then the February 23rd entry on the modifications by Gregory the Great.  It was in this basilica—as remodeled by Gregory the Great—that Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Romanorum on Christmas Day 800.   In the Treasury Museum of the Vatican Basilica (which is not part of the Vatican Museums but is found adjacent to the sacristy, on the left (as you face the altar) aisle of the basilica, just before the transept) you can see a tunicle which he supposedly had worn for the coronation.  In fact it is a 11th century dalmatic from Byzantium, but as my old friend, Dot Pittman (+God rest her), used to say: don’t let the truth spoil a good story.    What is more authentic is a disk of red Egyptian porphyry set into the pavement of the current basilica, just inside the main doors.  That stone, which stood before the high altar in the old basilica, is the stone on which Charlemagne knelt to be crowned by Pope Leo III and for centuries served as the “coronation stone” for later emperors.  
Giotto's Navicella
Saint Peter’s has never been the papal cathedral (although it has often functioned as such) which is the basilica of Saint John Lateran.  In the Middle Ages, the papal residence was the Patriarchatum, or patriarchial palace adjoining the Lateran.  The medieval palace has long disappeared, begin replaced by the much smaller palace built by Sixtus V which stands on the site today. (The original palace was much larger, covering much of today’s Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano.)  In the Middle Ages the popes would go to St. Peter’s several times a year for various religious festivals but they normally used the Lateran basilica for services.  Consequently the Vatican basilica was not always kept in good repair.  There were various additions and restorations over the years.  In the opening decade of the fourteenth century the Italian artist Giotto was commissioned to do a mosaic of Peter walking on the Sea with Christ.  It is called the Navicella (the Italian word for a small ship), while it has been so over-restored throughout the seven centuries of its existence that Giotto’s original work has all but disappeared, it is still visible in the atrium of the current basilica.  Similarly Eugene IV commissioned from Florentine artists, Antonio Filarete, a set of bronze doors for the old basilica which were finished in 1445.  They are incorporated into the new basilica as the central entrance to the basilica and can also be viewed from the atrium.  (However, be sure to view the back side of the doors, almost without decoration, from within the basilica and note at the base the line of figures dancing across the lower panel, representing Filarete and his workmen.)  There were a number of tombs in Old St. Peter’s that are still extent.  The only one in the current basilica is that of Innocent VIII which is located in the south aisle.  The tomb of Sixtus IV (d. 1484) long stood in the chapel of the choir both in the old and new basilicas, but was moved in the twentieth century to what is now the Museum of the Treasury. It is amazing how many papal tombs and monuments were destroyed during the demolition of the old basilica and the construction of the current one.  When the popes returned from Avignon in 1378 they found the Vatican Basilica near collapse.  Various plans were advanced to stabilize it but little was actually done.  Eugene IV commissioned the above mentioned doors by Filarette, but that was more decorative.  One of the original Renaissance-men, Leon Battista Alberti—architect, poet, musician, linguist, philosopher, and priest—visited Rome and at the request of Nicholas V inspected the Vatican Basilica and declared that the walls were so far out of plumb that the basilica was in imminent danger of collapse.  Nicholas called Bernardo de Matteo Rossellino to draw up  plans for a new basilica.  It was to follow the general lines of Constantine’s original church but to be much larger. Like Constantine’s church it was to be a five aisled basilica, rectangular nave with a tribune-sanctuary at the west end.  (Remember that St. Peter’s was built facing, not east but west.)   The plan of Nicholas and Rossellino called for it to be lengthened from the original 400 feet to 640 and widened from 200 feet to 320.  Engineering advances from the time of Constantine not only enabled the doubling of size but also insertion of large windows in the upper clerestory story which would flood the main nave with light.  The papal altar, positioned over the tomb of the Apostle, would stand at the juncture of nave and tribune.  Behind the altar, in the apse would be the papal throne and seats of the senior officials of the papal court.  The project was begun earnestly—a new west end and apse  
Old St Peter's--Raphael's Room of the Fire in the Borgo
was begun running parallel to the existing Constantinian building but further to the west of the old church.  One hundred and forty three feet of what was to be the west end of the projected new basilica was built to the height of seven and thickness of twenty-two feet, but with the death of Nicholas the project came to a halt.  Callistus III, the new pope, had other issues that captured his attention—most notably the expansion of the Turks into Europe after the fall of Constantinople and it would be another half-century before the problem of St. Peter’s would effectively be addressed.          

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