Look at this painting of the St-Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A very famous view of this famous church. However if you look closely you will notice that it is not as it appears today. Something is missing. In this painting dated 1630 we see the two bell towers as imagined by Pope Urban VIII. Bernini was put in charge of decorating the interior of the newly built basilica. Then a new Pope Alexander VII asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1658 to enhance the site as we see it today.
Construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica began in 1506, led by Pope Julius II with Donato Bramante on board as chief architect. Bramante designed the basilica and its dome up until 1513 when Pope Julius died; he was replaced, in succession, by Fra Giocondo, Guiliano da Sangallo, and Raphael. While Giocondo and Sangallo made their contributions, they both died in 1515, followed by Raphael a few years later in 1520.
Next in line to design for Saint Peter’s was Michelangelo, who famously said, “I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle.” Michelangelo decided to build upon Bramante’s early plans. His biggest contribution was the dome that was built atop the basilica in the year 1547. The dome was completed in 1590 and is still to this day the tallest dome in the world, spanning 448 feet. Everyone was quite pleased with the dome but some felt something was still missing, this something turned out to be the infamous bell towers of Saint Peter’s. Plans for bell towers atop St. Peter’s Basilica were drawn up during the reign of Paul V. Using Carlo Maderno’s designs, they had been completed up to the balustrade, the crown of the basilica’s facade. Then comes Pope Urban VIII who is eager to try his papacy’s hand at completing the facade and campanile of St. Peter’s Basilica.
On the February 5, 1629 Bernini assumed the title of chief architect to the basilica of St. Peter’s. “It was in this capacity as architect to the basilica that Bernini undertook the design and construction of his ill-fated campanili.” Commissioned under Pope Urban VIII, Bernini was instructed to design two great bell towers on each corner of Saint Peter’s Basilica with Michelangelo’s dome in the middle. An early indication of Urban VIII’s interest in the facade of St. Peters dates to sketches from 1626 by Francesco Borromini. Borromini was an architect, contemporary, and rival of Bernini. He was also a more experience architect.
Colliding pressure from Urban the VIII to carry out the project to fit his own vision and pressure from Borromini, to seize the project as his own created unstable conditions for the early development of plans for the towers. Pope Urban VIII dies in 1644. Innocent X’s ascension to the papal throne brought with it a general disfavour towards any remnants of the previous Pope and his family the Barberini.
Bernini, as it turned out was a constant reminder of the previous pope’s legacy, a reminder which Innocent X was looking for any excuse to remove. Borromini, the architect who had been working on St. Peter’s yet passed over as Architect under Urban VIII, could not help but lend his expertise on the subject of the problematic bell tower construction.
Borromini eventually convinced Pope Innocent X to take down the rest of the towers as the weight of them created cracks in the whole structure of the facade. The pope was not entirely confident in this decision and may have even had some regrets concerning the demolition of the towers. Remnants of their presence still haunt the facade of St. Peter’s in the shape of low bases that extend the length of the facade to the naked eye. The facade of St. Peter’s Basilica now has the oppressive feeling of excessive width. By looking at the building one senses there is something missing or wrong. Francesco Borromini looses his position with the death of Pope Innocent X.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini is called back by the new Pope Alexander VII who ascends the throne in 1655. He will continue to work for the Pope until his death realizing many other grandiose projects you can see today in Rome.
My question to you dear readers is, what did Bernini built beyond the now demolished bell towers which is such a great visual aspect of St-Peter’s basilica and piazza today? Do you know, can you tell?
Viviano Codazzi, St-Peter’s basilica 1630
Original St-Peter’s basilica from the 4th Century AD.
The original St-Peter’s Basilica around 319 AD built by Emperor Constantine. It will be demolished around 1500 to make way for the New St-Peter’s Basilica we see today with the new construction started in 1506 it will continue until 1660. On the image the Vatican Obelisk is on the left side of the old basilica. It was moved to the Centre of the St-Peter’s Piazza in the 16th century.
Sadly, little is known of its origins or which Pharaoh ordered its construction, but it was certainly quarried in Egypt and intended to be erected in Heliopolis. Sometime between 30 and 28 BC the red granite obelisk shows up in Alexandria under Augustus’s instructions to have it erected in the Julian Forum there.
It was Gaius Caligula who had the obelisk bought to Rome in 37 AD. It was the largest non-inscribed obelisk to leave Egypt, at 25.5 m high and weighing an estimated 326 tonnes. The obelisk was originally erected in gardens Caligula had inherited from his mother, and then on the central Spina of Caligula’s circus. Much of the circus is today under the basilica and square, the original spot for the obelisk is near the present-day sacristy, south of the basilica.
Because of the solid pedestal on which the obelisk was placed, it remained standing for 1,500 until it was moved to where it stands today in Saint Peter’s Square. It took thirteen months, between 1585 and 1586 to move and re-erect the obelisk. The idea to move it was that of Pope Sixtus V, as part of his desire to recover and re-erect all the obelisks lying then in the ruins of Rome.