Bernini renovated an existing stairway, that served as an entrance to the Sala Regia and had to connect the church to the palace. The old stairs dated from the 16th century and had been built by Bramante and Antonio da Sangallo the younger.
The Scala Regia is located between St Peter’s and the south wing of the Vatican palace. To gain access to the palace the visitor had to make all kinds of strange detours. This did not at all match with the neatly laid out big piazza in front of the basilica. Urban VIII and Bernini decided to demolish the old entrance to the palace and replace it with a closed corridor as opposed to an open colonnade like in the adjoining arm. The corridor begins in the north at the colonnade and ends at the steps of the old stairway. The corridor thus serves as a link between the colonnade and the church. The stairs and the corridor also connect the Sala Regia (official reception room for visitors) to the papal palace. The corridor on the left side of the square serves exclusively to lead visitors to the church.
1. St. Peter’s Basilica 2. Sixtine chapel 3. Sala Regia 4. Scala Regia 4b. Scala Regia (part below the Sala Regia) 5. Cappella Paolina 6. Sala Ducale 7. Northern arm of the colonnades 8. St. Peter’s square 9. Benedictine Hall (with Benedictine loggia)
A ? B. Piazza del Forno C. Cortile della Sentinella D. Cortile Borgia E. Cortile del Pappagallo F. Cortile del Maresciallo
A. Landing in the corridor leading to the bronze door.
B. Landing leading to the Portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
D. Pedestal of the equestrian statue of Constantine
E. First flight of stairs
F. Intermediate landing
G. Second flight of stairs
H. Intermediate half landing
I. Third flight of stairs leading to the Sala Regia
K. Sala Regia
L. Cappella Paolina (Pauline Chapel)
M. Stairs leading up to the Apostolic Palace
Gian Lorenzo needed much more than a corridor to create a beautiful stairway. The old one was narrow, quite dark and made a gloomy impression. The stairs ran under the old rooms of the palace (see floorplan 4b), that were supported by the vaults of the corridor. Bernini radically renovated this corridor. A big window was built before the start of the steps and another at the landing halfway up the stairway. And finally a third window at the end of the stairs where a visitor has to make a 180 degree turn to walk up the Scala’s last flight of steps. This section leads to the door of the Sala Regia. Bernini did not make any major alterations to the narrow stairway just before the Sala Regia, he only put in a ceiling and new plastering on the walls. Bernini did create skylights in the new vault. Of the original six only two remain. When you walk up the stairs at the very beginning there are three skylights and after you have made the turn and walk up the final section of the stairway there are no less than six. This has the effect of a climax, which was done deliberately.
I will explain by means of an A3-sized copy of a design drawing by Bernini (now in Munich) how he struggled with the construction of the corridor. The main problem facing Gian Lorenzo was that the corridor’s vaults adjoined the papal palace and the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Furthermore, the vaults of the Scala supported the walls and the floor of the Sala Regia above. Bernini abandoned his initial design because he thought it was too dangerous. Don’t forget that the tower that Bernini had built near St Peter’s Basilica facade had to be demolished. The old foundation was too weak and the facade began showing cracks so the tower had to be torn down. He couldn’t afford a second capital blunder.
The visitor, sorry, royal visitor walking down the long corridor and up the steps undergoes a very special experience, somewhat comparable to Borromini’s famous corridor in the Palazzo Spada that we will visit later. If you are lucky, you will be allowed to walk down Borromini’s corridor. When you come to the stairway, it appears quite long, but the actual distance proves to be much shorter. You reach the central landing much sooner than you thought you would. Your visual impression is negated by your physical experience. In other words, what you see is the opposite from what you experience.
Standing in the narthex, you will not only see the corridor and the top of the Scala Regia, but also a larger-than-life-size statue by Bernini of the emperor Constantine sitting on a rearing horse and looking up in alarm.
The statue was initially intended for the interior of St Peter’s. Innocent X had commissioned the statue in 1654, during the final months of his papacy. The death of this pope and the fact that he had many other assignments meant that Gian Lorenzo did very little work on the statue. Only in 1662, under Pope Alexander VII, did he start working on it again, but so slowly that it was not finished until 1665 after he his return from France. It was not until 1669 that the statue was taken from Bernini’s workshop and transported to the landing at the bottom of the Scala Regia.
A section of one of the walls of his workshop had to be demolished to get the huge statue out. It was then placed on a sled pulled by horses. Once at the Vatican, multiple winches and double the normal number of horses were needed to hoist the statue into place. The invoices for the repairs to Bernini’s workshop (near the Spanish Steps), for the horses and for fixing the potholes that had been caused by the transport can still be found in the Vatican archives. The invoices even include a post for the many candles that were needed to illuminate the road travelled by the statue on its sled. When the statue was hoisted onto its plinth, it was not yet completely finished. That was the moment when Bernini started working on the drapes hanging behind the rearing horse. These drapes, that serve as a backdrop to the statue, at the same time make it possible for the horse to rear up without the marble breaking off. Bernini himself paid the invoice for the scaffolding that was needed to continue working on the statue. An assistant from his workshop created the drapes in stucco. They were painted blue and were partly gilded. Gian Lorenzo found himself in serious trouble when his brother Luigi had brutally raped a young man behind the statue (continue reading at: San Francesco a Ripa).
The light was to come pouring in from the top right. Gian Lorenzo built an east-facing window above the barrel vault. It is known that the height of the window was increased at a later stage of the design process. This also applies to the vault immediately before the stairs. A higher vault was needed to allow sufficient light to enter the room. Bernini probably did not get the idea to raise the vault until after he decided to put the statue of Constantine in this spot. Now that the statue would be placed here and no longer in St Peter’s, the need arose for more light (window) and consequently for a higher vault. Raising the vault was a risky enterprise, because the floor of the Sala Regia (see 4b) almost adjoined it. However, Bernini decided to take the risk because the rearing horse and Constantine needed beautiful lighting. Emperor Constantine looks up at the heavens and sees a sign from God. Around a cross are the words: ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’, In this sign you will conquer.’ And yes, after seeing this sign, Constantine won the battle against his Roman rival Maxentius.
How did Bernini succeed in supporting the existing construction in such a way that he could build a higher vault and a higher arch? Carlo Maderno, a good engineer, said he was scared when he saw the temporary struts. He describes how Gian Lorenzo had two enormous wooden struts placed under and above the Sala Regia so that the room was kept in its place and construction of the new vault could begin. When the new vaults and the high Serlio arch were finished, the wooden struts were only partly removed. Just to make sure, several parts of the wooden struts were left in place for some time.