Saint Peter’s Basilica hosts an extremely large number of works of art, therefore we shall concentrate on a limited number of artworks. We shall omit, on this occasion, the works that are found in the two inferior levels: the Grottoes and the Necropolis.
We have already dedicated a complete post to the most famous statue in the Basilica, the Pietà by Michelangelo, and in the article dedicated to Gian Lorenzo Bernini we spoke largely about the ‘Baldacchino’ and the Cathedra Petri, or “throne of St Peter”.
The entrance arcade: The Statue of Constantine and the Navicella
Even before passing beyond the five portals at the entrance to the Basilica, one finds oneself in a magnificent entrance arcade, characterised by the gilt stucco decorations on its ceiling and its coloured marble floor.
The arcade contains two masterpieces: the statue of Constantine the Great by Bernini and the reconstruction of a mosaic by Giotto, the Navicella degli Apostoli, (the Little Ship of the Apostles)
The Statue of Constantine can be found in the north end, in a niche at the foot of the Scala Regia (Royal Staircase). The sculpture depicts the scene of the vision the emperor Constantine had before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine saw a cross appear in the sky with the words In hoc signo vinces (In this sign, you will conquer). According to tradition, this vision converted the emperor to Christianity.
The peculiarity of Bernini’s work is in the way in which the episode is portrayed: the emperor is alone on the back of a rearing horse. Both man and animal seem to be poised between the ecstasy and the awe and fear of those who receive a divine message. Previously, the scene had been depicted showing the emperor either in bed in the middle of a dream or surrounded by his soldiers on the battlefield. Nobody had previously managed to capture this moment in such a dynamic way.
Initially the statue was destined to stand inside the Basilica. When Pope Alexander VII decided to change its location, Bernini was already working on a block of marble. The new space, however, was too large for the block. Bernini found a brilliant solution: he created a magnificent drapery that worked as a background and created the dreamlike atmosphere of the vision.
Giotto’s Navicella is located directly in front of Filarete’s central portal. Unfortunately, only part of the work belongs to the original mosaic that Giotto created in the early 1300s. The rest is a faithful reconstruction. In addition to the apostles and Christ, there are portraits of a fisherman on the lower left, and a man immersed in the water on the lower right. The first has the appearance of Giotto himself, the second that of the commissioner of the work, Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi.
Are there paintings in Saint Peter’s Basilica?
Over 10,000 square metres of mosaic adorn the Basilica of Saint Peter. Not only those of the dome, but also all the other paintings, are actually mosaics. From the seventeenth century all the altarpieces and other paintings of St. Peter were replaced by perfect mosaic replicas. The intention was to make sure the works endured over time.
At the beginning of 1700s the kilnsman Alessio Mattioli found a way to produce an opaque paste that eliminated the reflections of the mosaics and was also able to reproduce the shades of colour used in the paintings.
Since 1727 there has been a laboratory in the Vatican that deals with making new mosaics based on cartoons commissioned to painters, as well as restoring old ones.
The mosaic of the Transfiguration
The most famous mosaic is undoubtedly that which reproduces Raphael’s Transfiguration. It is located at the end of the left aisle, on the outside of the St. Andrew pier, while the original painting can be admired in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The history of its preparatory cartoon is very curious. It was entrusted to the painter Agostino Masucci in 1744, but he soon fell ill and did not complete the work. Many years later the task passed to Stefano Pozzi. Seeing as the Masucci’s draft was unusable and the original painting had been placed in a dark chapel, Pozzi took longer than expected. For these reason he asked for 200 scudi more than those he had already been promised. To support his argument, the painter pointed out that his workplace was very far from his home and required a long and tiring journey on foot! Although puzzled by his motivations, those who ran the Mosaic Factory were so pleased with the result that Pozzi’s request was immediately accepted.
Not far from the Transfiguration, in the chapel opposite Saint Helena’s pier, the Clement XIII funerary monument can be found.
This tomb was sculpted by Canova at the end of the 18th century. High up we can see the Pope kneeling in prayer. Lower down, to his right, a woman holding a cross representing Religion. On the left is Genius, winged and beautiful. The two symbolic figures each rest upon a lion. Canova studied the physiognomy of the lions in the Royal Gardens of Naples, which at the time was the only place in Italy where these animals could be observed.
The statues of the orders
Definitely worth a mention, finally, are the statues of the saints who were the founders of the religious orders. At the end of the 1600s, in the central nave, there were still 40 empty niches. The most important members of the religious orders asked to fill them with statues of their founders.
The ‘Fabbrica di San Pietro’, (The Fabric of St Peter) accepted, but set down a series of strict rules to the orders. The Fabbrica reserved the right to approve the artists who would make the statues and, subsequently, the statues themselves. The Fabbrica would also have chosen the niches destined to the saints. Finally, the orders were committed to using only white Carrara marble and had to cover all the costs of the sculptures.