We continue walking toward the west and arrive at the river Tiber. We are welcomed by angels that were also designed by Bernini. They are a clear indication that we are walking toward the church were St Peter lies buried; the apostle who designated Christ as the first pope. We continue our way toward the Via della Conciliazione, a broad street leading to St Peter’s that was built by Mussolini.
We immediately see the famous ‘arms’ welcoming the visitors. I will explain on the spot how this big symmetrical square was built (Wikipedia).
Pope Alexander VII (Guido Ubaldo Abbatini) commissioned Bernini to design a beautiful and impressive square. It is no coincidence that it was precisely this pope who was so sensitive to imposing architecture. Whenever Alexander travelled through Rome on his way to some audience in one church or another, he would always bring 1,000 soldiers. These soldiers were to stand guard at notable locations in the city. They would ask the public to salute the pope as he passed by. Two cavalry regiments in full dress followed the pontiff wherever he went. Majestic architecture formed a great backdrop to all this ostentation, and an impressive square for the visitors to St Peter’s was of great importance.The design and construction were no easy matter. Bernini met with great opposition, but nevertheless succeeded in tying the square and the adjoining buildings together into a whole.
Israël Silvestre, Panorama of the Vatican from the Dome of St. Peter’s, 1641 (detail).
The square during construction and on the right Bernini’s tower under construction, which had to be demolished quite soon because of a bad foundation.
The square was used to accommodate the many visitors and listeners when the pope gave a speech. At Christmas and Easter, the pope would give his blessing from the Benediction loggia: The window in the centre of St Peter’s facade. Quite often the pope would also bless the crowd from his living quarters at the palace; from the upper window in the section that sits at an angle to the northern arm. This meant the square had to be suitable for both directions. The square itself is a combination of an oval (the Piazza Obliqua) that connects to a trapezoid (the Piazza Retta) situated directly in front of St Peter’s facade. Floor plan St Peter’s and the square (trapezoid and ellipse) with Bernini’s colonnade. Architects: Bramante (central plan), Michelangelo, della Porta and Vignola. Nave, Narthex and Facade: Maderno. Square, Scala Regia, Baldacchino, Tombs: Bernini.
The Piazza Obliqua comprises two arcs of a circle that were pulled apart, breaking up the static effect or a form that exclusively refers to itself, such as a circle or a square. The main motif of the Piazza Obliqua are the colonnades with a depth of four columns. Each arm has three passages, two narrow ones for pedestrians and a wide one for carriages. The columns have been arranged radially like the spokes of a wheel. The ‘spokes’ meet at a point or hub in between the fountain (Wikipedia) and the obelisk (Wikipedia). Had the focal point been positioned near the two fountains, it would have eliminated the tension between the sides and the central space. The Piazza Retta was given the shape of a trapezoid. Here, Bernini was inspired by Michelangelo’s Piazza Campidoglio.
Buonarroti used a trapezoid in combination with an oval for his squares as well. He placed the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the middle. The eventual facade of St Peter’s deviates from Maderno’s design. As a result, the facade is too wide relative to its height. Carlo Rainaldi made a second design for the square, which fortunately was rejected. Bernini was reasonably successful, at least optically, in hiding the imbalance between the facade and its height from visitors to the church by giving the square the shape of a trapezoid. The narrow front end of the Piazza Retta makes the facade look narrower than it actually is. The colonnades were intended to protect the visitors and participants during processions. According to the regulations, the cardinals and other high ranking prelates were allowed to ride a carriage to the ceremonies in St Peter’s; everybody else had to go on foot.
The brothers Virgilio and Bernardino Spada had a profound love for architecture. Virgilio himself wrote ‘The Opus Architectonicum’ in close collaboration with Borromini. Virgilio Spada was the man who came up with the idea for three passages in the ‘arms’ or colonnades. One passage for carriages that measured 24 palmi or five meters in width and two narrow adjoining passages for pedestrians. It is known from a large number of anecdotes that Bernini was rather vain and full of himself. He was loath to accept ideas presented to him by his subordinates or less talented people. Spada knew this and looked for a clever way to get his idea for the three passages accepted by Gian Lorenzo in such a way that Bernini would be able to take credit for it.
An essential characteristic of this square is the combination of a trapezoid with an oval placed perpendicularly on the vertical axis. When we are there, I will show you an A3-sized drawing that makes clear that Bernini in one of his preliminary drawings was still working from the idea of a square consisting of a trapezoid and a square. Gian Lorenzo let Alexander VII take the credit for the perpendicularly placed oval square. This gesture is often misinterpreted as intended to flatter the pope, but it was probably really the pope’s idea, as proved by a drawing with his handwriting.
Whereas the paired pilasters ‘march’ down the corridors on both sides of the Piazza Retta, this is not the case with the colonnades of the two arms. The rows of columns partly dissolve in the light and the shadows that play among the pillars that were placed four in a line. Apelles’ law takes effect here because of the light falling on the first columns and the shadows on the columns behind it. Here, Bernini was clearly influenced by Bramante’s Tempietto. The columns of the arm produce an alternation of light and shadow, emptiness and volume. A viewer walking across the square sees the front row of columns before they see those behind it, creating a stereoscopic effect. The back row of columns appears to be much farther away than they really are. This produces the same mysterious effect that occurs when you are looking at a departing train from a stationary one. The pedestrian en route to St Peter’s experiences the same effect. Also, because the shape of the Piazza Obliqua is perpendicular to the Piazza Retta, the distance between the basilica and the edge of the piazza appears much shorter. The shape of the Piazza Retta and its counterperspectival effect make the facade appear closer than the actual distance would suggest. The result is that the space between St Peter’s and the big city is optically contracted.