Saint Peter’s Basilica is the one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world.
Construction began in 1506 and it took 120 years before the church could be consecrated.
To this day, at 187 metres in length and with its 133-metre-tall cupola, Saint Peter’s remains one of the largest churches in the world.
The curse of the first architects: Rossellino, Bramante and Raphael.
In the middle of the 15th century the Constantinian basilica, also known as the Old St Peter’s Basilica, was falling apart.
The pope of the time, Nicholas V, decided to have it restored. This task was entrusted to Bernardo Rossellino. The project he proposed was somewhat bold: Rossellino wanted to demolish the old church and build a new one.
Nicholas V approved the project but died soon after, when all that had been built was only a wall erected on the outside of Old St. Peter’s. The 7 popes that succeeded him chose instead to enrich the existing building.
It was only at the beginning of the 1500’s that talks of a new basilica resumed. Pope Julius II was an incredibly ambitious man. He commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt his tomb, and the Florentine artist designed an enormous, pyramid-shaped, monument that featured 40 life-sized statues. The pontiff was pleased with the project, but there was not enough space inside the Constantinian church for such a large tomb.
Creating a space worthy of his funerary monument was one of the reasons that Julius II decided to build the new Basilica. Other factors included the increasingly precarious conditions of the old building, and the general approval that a new and wonderful temple of Christianity would be met with.
Bramante was the architect responsible for this project, and he came up with a revolutionary idea: instead of the classic Latin-cross church with 5 naves, he proposed a Greek-cross structure, towered over by a large central dome.
The first stone of the new Basilica of St Peter was laid in 1506. However, between 1513 and 1514 both Pope Julius II and Bramante died, leaving their successors with only the 4 enormous pillars meant to support the dome.
The new pontiff, Leo X, decided to rely on the skill of a great artist of the time, Raphael. Unfortunately, the famous painter died at the age of 37, and his project never saw light. Raphael’s Basilica was to have a Latin-cross shape and its interior would feature an intricate play of light and shadow. The faithful would walk along the central nave in half-light, until they reached the altar where, in front of the tomb of St Peter, they would suddenly be enveloped by light.
Raphael was followed by Antonio da Sangallo. He was the chief architect of the Fabbrica di San Pietro from 1520 to 1546. For most of this period, however, all work had been blocked due to the economic difficulties of the Church.
Sangallo widened Bramante’s floorplan so that it would cover the entire surface of the old Basilica. This area was in fact considered to be sacred ground, and Leo X demanded that it be included in the new construction. To achieve this goal, the architect positioned the façade between two bell towers and connected it to the main body of the church by a vestibule.
At the request of Pope Pall III, Antonio da Sangallo created a magnificent wooden model of his project, which itself took 8 years to create and cost as much as a real church. This 4,5-metre-tall model, the largest from the Renaissance, can be admired today in one of the Basilica’s octagons. The octagons are located above the four large corner chapels.
Who designed St Peter’s dome?
After Sangallo’s death, the assignment was passed over to Michelangelo Buonarroti. By this time, the Florentine artist was over 70 years old and repeatedly refused the offer until Pope Paul III forced him to accept. Michelangelo was not an admirer of his predecessor’s work and so demolished many parts that had been built. He went back to Bramante’s original plans and designed an enormous cupola as the central element of the Basilica. He took inspiration from the cupola of the Duomo of Florence, designed by Brunelleschi.
When Michelangelo died all that was missing from the new Basilica were the corner chapels, the façade, and the cupola, of which only the drum and its columns had been completed.
In 1587, the responsibility of completing the cupola fell to Giacomo della Porta, who was already chief architect of the Fabbrica, and his assistant Domenico Fontana. It was completed in just 2 years, a fifth of the time that had been forecast.
Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini
When management of the construction passed into the hands of Carlo Maderno in 1603, new St. Peter’s Basilica still coexisted with its old counterpart. In the meantime, there were a growing number of people who opposed the demolition of the old church, suggesting that it be transformed into a sort of atrium for the new temple instead.
Nevertheless, Pope Paul V decided to demolish the old walls, that were already starting to crumble. However, he had Maderno extend the eastern wing of the new church, thus covering the surface of the old Basilica. The façade was now positioned much further forward and, in order to connect it to Michelangelo’s construction, Maderno created a 3-naved structure. In this way, the Basilica acquired a longitudinal Latin-cross shape.
Compared to Michelangelo’s plan, the cupola was located further away from the entrance. Since the façade was too flat for the cupola to stand out, the decision was made to frame it between two bell-towers. Neither Maderno nor Bernini, however, succeeded in building the towers, as the underlying soil was too soft.
Finally, in 1626, construction on St Peter’s Basilica was complete and Pope Urban VIII consecrated it.
St Peter’s had been consecrated, but inside it was quite bare. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was entrusted with the task of filling the Basilica and arranging the works of art it already contained.
The first important issue Bernini had to resolve was where to position the great altar. There was debate over whether to place the altar above the tomb of St Peter, at the centre of the transept, or in the apse, as was traditionally found in Latin-crossed churches. Bernini created two grand altars. He crafted a splendid bronze canopy (the Baldacchino) above the altar in the transept. This took care of two practical concerns: filling the space between the floor and the extremely high cupola without blocking the view of the other altar in the apse.
Bernini’s contributions were many and often brilliant. He was responsible for the flooring of the basilica, the creation of a monument to hold the Seat of St. Peter, the adornment of the cupola’s four pillars, sculptures and sepulchres, and the magnificent colonnade outside the Basilica.