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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Maderno's St. Peter's Facade

Vatican environs featuring  the Circus of Nero,
Old St. Peter's Basilica, and the present-day
St. Peters (lightly outlined)
Anyone who has ever traveled to Rome with even a few hours to spare seems to automatically gravitate, not to the seven ancient hills upon which the city was founded, presumably by the brothers, Romulus and Remus, but instead, across the Tiber to another, hill, historically referred to as Vatican Hill. The valley next to it, once held the Circus of Nero, the hill itself a cemetery. Catholic tradition has it the apostle Peter was slain in the circus, and buried just outside its walls  Eventually the cemetery was essentially "roofed over" to form a necropolis upon which the original St. Peter's Basilica church was build, its high altar placed strategically over the tomb of the apostle and first bishop of Rome.

Michelangelo's St. Peter's plan, 1547
Bramante's St. Peter's plan, 1506

Around 1506, during the first years of his reign as pope, Julius II and his erstwhile architect, Donato Bramante, decided to tear down the badly deteriorated, thousand-year-old church and erect one more worthy of the center of world-wide Catholicism. Bramante fabricated a Greek cross plan housed in the center of a square with a complex of auxiliary chapels occupying the corners of the square (above, left). Work was begun, literally building around the old church for a time before it was finally torn down as being in the way of construction for the new cathedral. Forty-one years after Bramante began, Michelangelo significantly altered, simplified, and improved the design, adding an east portico and his famed dome (above, right). And had his design, or even that of Bramante, been carried through to completion, we would, today, have one of the most beautiful churches in Christendom. One can best get a feel for the organic unity of design Michelangelo contemplated by looking at St.Peter's from the Southwest (below, left), or virtually any side other than the front with its ungainly Baroque facade designed by Carlo Maderno around 1606-12.

St. Peter's from the southwest
Maderno was not a bad architect. His debut piece, the facade of Sta. Susanna constructed in Rome between 1597-1603 is a masterful handling of Late Renaissance/Early Baroque style and an adept solving of the problem created by a tall central nave and low side aisles. It undoubtedly won him the admiration of Pope Paul V and the job as architect of St. Peters. No, the problem was not the pope's architect but the pope himself. As the church neared completion around 1600 based approximately of Michelangelo's design, the decision was made by certain architecturally illiterate clergy to extend the east arm of the Bramante/Michelangelo Greek cross to the east by several hundred feet (three bays). To his credit, on the inside at least, Maderno carried off the misguided extension with a seamless design and execution hinting not in the least at the unmitigated disaster caused by the design change on the outside. He was a superb interior decorator.

Maderno's St. Peter's facade as seen today.  Even from well out
in the plaza, Michelangelo's dome is almost totaly obscured.
Outside the effect of the improvised Classical facade with its brownstone lower two levels and its white marble "attic" is, for lack of a better term, dismal. From the immediate environs in front of the cathedral, the massive stage set of unevenly spaced columns, superhuman portals, and windows, virtually eliminates the view of Michelangelo's magnificent dome. And to make matters worse, as Maderno's "wedding cake" facade was nearing completion, the decision was made by the same red-hatted architect wannabes to build twin bell towers, one on either end of the facade. Work was begun. An additional vault was added on each end connecting the largely freestanding tower bases with the already way-too-wide facade.

Sangallo's St. Peter's with the ill-fated
bell towers, 1539
However, had the towers grown to completion they would have somewhat mitigated the distressingly horizontal tendencies of the facade. Unfortunately, as work progressed on the North tower, it began to tilt. The foundation and subsoil of the ancient cemetery would not support the intended tower's immense weight. So, it was torn down level with the top of the new facade and work was halted on the South tower at the same level. Thus the facade ended up being more than two and a half times as wide as it was tall. As a result, only from a great distance does one even get the feeling of standing before a church. Up close, the effect is more one of some enormous government ministry building over-decorated with triple life-size statuary and every form of architectural adornment known to man.

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