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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square

» Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), Carlo Moderno (Italian, 1556–1629), Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italian, 1598–1680), et al.
St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square
Artist / Origin: Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), Carlo Moderno (Italian, 1556–1629), Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italian, 1598–1680), et al.
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1506–1667
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Travertine marble
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Location: Vatican City, Rome, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of Alinari Archives/CORBIS

The fourteenth century was a tumultuous time for the papacy, beginning with the removal of the pope to Avignon, France in 1309.

During the Avignon years, called the “Babylonian Captivity” by later critics, papal authority waned. The return of the popes to Rome in 1378 did not end the troubles. During the Great Schism, which lasted into the early decades of the next century, multiple claimants assumed the title of pope, calling into question the very legitimacy of the role. Meanwhile, the city of Rome, unattended, with a declining population and a lack of spiritual capital, had fallen further into a state of ruin and disrepair.

In 1417, the Great Schism came to an end with the election of Martin V (r. 1417–31). Martin and his successors to the papal crown invested great energy and resources in attempts to restore power to the Church and glory to the city of Rome. Among other things, this involved large-scale urban projects that encompassed everything from the creation of new streets to the restitution of dilapidated buildings and the commissioning of art and architecture. This papal urbanism reached its height under Julius II (r. 1503–13).

Julius’s greatest legacy is perhaps the Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In 1506, Julius made the decision to raze the old Roman basilica marking the burial place of St. Peter and construct a grand new structure in its place. The project was intended not only to honor the foundation stone of the Church (Peter, or Pietro, literally means “rock”), but also to celebrate the worthiness of Julius as the heir of St. Peter, considered to be the first pope. However, less than two decades after Julius initiated work on new St. Peter’s, the Church faced another crisis—the Reformation. In the years that followed, building stopped and started and responsibility for the structure changed hands several times.

By the time Michelangelo took over as architectural supervisor of St. Peter’s in the 1540s, the Counter-Reformation was well underway. Created in this context, the massive, soaring dome rising above the basilica was a statement to all who saw it that the Church had emerged triumphant. Over the next hundred years, as the Church continued to regain its strength and more and more pilgrims began flocking to Rome, papal commissions continued both at St. Peter’s and throughout the city. During this period, urban spectacle became increasingly important as a vehicle through which the papacy could demonstrate and reinforce its legitimacy and power. The colonnades designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini under the supervision of Alexander VII in the 1660s served both to guide participants in papal processions and contain crowds of visitors within the open space before the basilica. In addition to their practical function, the curved colonnades, stretching out like arms around the piazza, symbolically expressed the Church’s reach in the wider world.

Expert Perspective:
Stephen J. Campbell, Professor of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

“In 1527, we have quarrels with the pope getting mixed up in the sort of theater of European politics, disputes between the emperor and the king of France. The pope backing one side, now the other. Finally, the emperor sends his troops against the city of Rome and the unimaginable happens. The summer of 1527, imperial forces take Rome and massacre a large part of its population, destroy large numbers of its churches, and desecrate its relics. The pope is submitted to all manner of indignities, but finally makes his peace with the emperor. And this is Pope Clement VII. Under his successors, especially Paul III, a great era of reconstruction begins in Rome. Paul III has got Michelangelo at his disposal. Michelangelo ends up rebuilding St. Peter’s pretty much, if you look at it from the east end, in the form we see it in today. And this is a project which Nicholas V had thought about in the middle of the fifteenth century. It’s finally finished in the 1600s. Michelangelo spends the remaining decades of his career as an artist—he dies in 1564—working on St. Peter’s.”

Additional Resources

Ackerman, James S. The Architecture of Michelangelo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Habel, Dorothy Metzger. The Urban Development of Rome in the Age of Alexander VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London; New York: Penguin, 1991.

Patridge, Loren. The Art of the Renaissance in Rome, 1400–1600, 2nd ed.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Tronzo, William, ed. St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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