Monday, September 12, 2011

Back to Our Story of Saint Peter's Basilica

Vitrivuian Man, sketch of Leonardo
da Vinci
You know, we left Old Saint Peter’s falling down, Julius II in need of a place to put his tomb—the one he had Michaelangelo working on (see entries of April 19th and 20th)—and lots of intrigue going on in Rome.  Lots of intrigue still goes on in Rome, but let’s return to the story of how we moved from Old Saint Peter’s to new Saint Peter’s.  it takes a lot of guts to tear down the monumental basilica over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles, built by Constantine, standing for a thousand years plus, and a symbol of the Catholic world.  Imagine if today Pope Benedict said “Let’s tear down this old basilica and built something modern here…”  Well, it does take a lot of imagination to think of Benedict wanting to do something modern, but only a pope with the guts of Julius II could have done it in his day and do it he did.  And he took heat for it!  After all seven Emperors had been crowned there; one hundred and eighty four popes had presided in the basilica; dozens of saints were entombed in its altars, and unknown numbers of the dead lay beneath its floor.  Julius had a personal architect—Giuliano Sangallo.  When Julius as a Cardinal had gone to France in exile during the papacy of his implacable enemy, the lecherous Alexander VI, Sangallo had accompanied him.   He was sure the job was to be his—but it wasn’t.   A quiet and unassuming architect of no great previous accomplishment was building a small church—a very small chapel actually—the Tempietto, which was astonishing Rome for the perfection of its design.  It won over Julius who hired Donato Bramante to design his new basilica. 
Bramante's Plan for the new Vatican Basilica
     Bramante had come from a family of farmers but showed not aptitude for the plow and did show an aptitude for canvas and brushes and pigments—so he became an artist.  He studied originally in his native Urbino where the court of the Duke, Federigo di Montefeltro, was one of the most spirited centers of Renaissance culture.  From Urbino he moved to Milan where he was introduced to the Florentine genius, Leonardo da Vinci.  The two formed a twenty-year friendship and the influence of Leonardo on Bramante’s philosophy of art is apparent to anyone who compares Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man to Bramante’s designs for the Tempietto and later for his original design for the new basilica.  When Julius saw the design for Saint Peter’s he was overcome by its geometrical perfection. 
     Bramante’s plan was a totally symmetrical plan which would have located the tomb of the Apostle directly beneath a central dome.  It was a curious combination of two types of ancient Roman buildings—the basilica and the temple.  Like the Pantheon, a temple to all the gods (pan theon) it was centrally domed.  Like the Basilica of Maxentius it would be a vaulted hall—or actually the new basilica would be four vaulted halls converging at the papal altar beneath this central dome over the tomb of Saint Peter.   But this new basilica was to leave the ancient monuments in the dust of history—higher, wider, longer than the surviving buildings of ancient Rome.  It is a question if it could even have been built with the engineering materials and skills of the time: it would have been almost  a third larger than the basilica eventually built.  And it was innovative not only in its engineering but in its design.  The altar would be not in an apse, but central, approachable from every side.  (There are several surviving ancient Roman Churches with a central altar—San Stefano Rotondo, Santa Costanza, and San Teodoro to name three.)  The work required a “new” masonry—the “old" masonry of stone with which the great gothic cathedrals had been built would not allow for the vast spans of Bramante’s design.  Bramante carefully studied the ruins of ancient Rome and discovered the lost art of making concrete from crushed volcanic gravel, sand, lime, and broken stone.  This was the magic the architect needed.  Concrete was the material that made the vast barrel vaults possible.  Concrete and brick construction could be faced with marble, granite, and other stone to give the impression of stone masonry but provide a far more flexible building material to bear the weight of the huge vaults and the soaring dome.  This new basilica would be everything Julius dreamed of as a setting for his tomb.  But the work was just beginning and so much would happen in between and Julius—well he lies today in a borrowed vault beneath a monument bearing another pope’s name.  The last will be first and the first last.  But that story is yet to come.      

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