Something else that stands out when you walk across the square toward the entrance of St Peter’s Basilica is the clearly visible axis. Unfortunately, the big doors (of Filarete) in the narthex that give direct access to the church won’t be open. However, on the axis you are continually reminded of St Peter. Before you enter the church, you see the apostle’s statue with of course the keys in his hands. In the middle of the narthex, near the doors of Filarete, you will see a large number of relics connected to St Peter’s life. If you then continue your way along the vertical axis, which requires a minor detour via a side entrance, you immediately notice the enormous baldacchino.
If you continue along the central axis you will see a number of copper strips between the marble tiles of the floor (St Paul’s Cathedral London). Written below these strips is which European church would fit in the basilica at that point. Naturally, St Peter’s is the biggest. Also, in the centre of the floor there is a porphyry plate that indicates the spot where Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope.
Before we take a closer look at the baldacchino, we first take a right turn immediately after entering the church to take a look at a famous sculpture by Michelangelo, the Pietà. Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498-1499.
This sculpture has unfortunately been placed behind armoured glass. Many years ago, when you could still get close to the sculpture, a visitor struck off the nose of the Virgin Mary. When we are standing in front of the glass, I will explain to you why this sculpture became so famous. The composition of a dead person lying on a mother’s lap is exceptionally difficult. It was not just sculptors had a hard time getting this right, but painters too like Vittore Carpaccio or Cosmè Tura.
Michelangelo was the first to succeed in making it look beautiful. And yet, when you look closely, his solution came at the expense of realism, because there is something strange going on with the proportions of the bodies. Besides, there was fierce criticism of the Virgin Mary’s head. Her face was not the head of a mother, but that of a girl.
Michelangelo reacted to this criticism with a simple defence, namely that those criticising him did not understand that:
“[…] virginal, immaculate people for a long time preserve their perfectly unblemished appearance, while the opposite holds true for people such as Christ, who have suffered greatly.’ This is the only sculpture that Michelangelo signed, according to Vasari because:
[…] one day when Michelangelo entered the chapel (St Peter’s) that houses the sculpture, he encountered a large number of strangers, from Lombardy, who praised the work highly, and one of them asked another who had carved it, and this one replied: ‘Our Gobbo from Milan.’ Michelangelo just stood there and remained silent, but he was uncomfortable with the fact that his work was being ascribed to someone else; so one night he fetched his chisels and a lamp, had himself locked in, and inscribed his name on the statue.”
Cited and translated: Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume 1 [original edition: 1568] 1992, pages 207 and 106
Buonarroti signed the sculpture with:
MICHEL.A [N]ELVS.BVONAROTVS.FLORENT.FACIEBA [T] which literally means: Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making (me). It is the statue that speaks, as it were, but in an imperfect tense. By omitting the final letter T, Michelangelo emphasised that his Pietá wasn’t finished yet. This is similar to what Pliny wrote about the way in which Apelles and Polyclitus signed their work. They used a provisional signature such as Faciebat Apelles (Polyclitus), as if art is always just a moment in a process. At the same time, the word faciebat expresses humility, after all, the work is not yet finished. (Rona Goffen, ‘Renaissance Rivals Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian’, Yale University Press, New Haven&London, 2002 pp. 113-114) This was also a useful defence against criticism. Michelangelo had included in the contract that his Pietá would eclipse all others. Let’s not forget that this is one of Buonarroti’s early works, and the composition was clearly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Buonarroti not only copied the triangular composition, but also how Leonardo painted his drapes. Da Vinci never signed his works; his style was his signature. After the Pietá, Michelangelo would never again sign any of his sculptures or paintings.
The great mother, Magna Mater Cybele, was very popular with the old Romans. Her right foot was kissed so often that it needed a replacement more than once. This custom can be found centuries later with Mary and Peter statues. The Catholics were wise enough to provide the right foot of the Saint with a copper or silver cover, as shown with the statue of the H. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio from c. 1250 in the St. Peter.