Thursday, April 12, 2012

Back to the Saga of Saint Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's dome from
the Vatican Gardens
You know it has been almost six months since the last posting on the history of Saint Peter’s Basilica.  It is taking as long to tell the story as it did to build the darn thing and like the building, the telling of the story is coming in fits and starts.  All through the sixteenth century it was stop and go as the popes were distracted by other things—like the sack of Rome, the Protestant Reformation,  the Council of
Trent.  And so too with this blog, my mind wanders to other topics, old and new, but now let’s come back to the basilica at least for a while.

      Look at the label’s list on the right hand side of the blog, and scroll down to “Saint Peter’s Basilica” and you can see in the entry for November 6 2011 that we left off the story with the death of Raphael, the hiring of Peruzzi to replace him, and the standstill to progress with Adrian VI and then with the sack of Rome.  So, let’s pick it up there—and here we come to the take-charge master of the works who left his indelible mark, Michelangelo.  
     Well, actually there was an interlude of about ten years or so between Peruzzi and Michelangelo when Antonio da Sangallo was the chief architect.  At this point all that had actually been built were the four piers on which Bramante had planned to construct the dome—the same four piers that stand today at the crossing of the Basilica.  Sangallo strengthened these piers so that a heavier dome—one supported by a large drum—could be built on them.  But most of what Sangallo did was to divert building materials and labor from the  Basilica to the palace he was constructing for himself on the Via Giulia.  That palace stands today as the Palazzo Sacchetti. 
Michelangelo was a superior genius but he never admitted that anyone else could have been in the same league.  He was not about to carry out the plan of some lesser genius—or one whom he perceived to be a lesser genius.  However, he was no fool and recognized that each of the previous plans had certain features that were brilliant.  He totally redesigned the master plan for the Basilica—which can be considered  his work more than that of any other—but he drew on the work of Bramante and Raphael.  He reverted to Bramante’s original idea of a Greek Cross—i.e. with the four arms of the cross of equal length—under a central dome.  And Michaelangelo designed the dome—one of the most elegant in the world—and for centuries the largest. The dome is truly a wonder as it seems to float over the empty space of the central crossing of the Basilica without support.   Unfortunately, due to alterations in the nave and façade by Michelangelo’s successor, Carlo Maderno, the dome is not clearly visible from Saint Peter’s Square but can only be seen from the distance. 

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