St. Peter’s Basilica interior II

The Baldacchino and the Cathedra Petri

photo: Steven Zucker

The Baldacchino      Columns      Aerial      The Tiara and Keys

St. Peter's Basilica: Baldacchino Cathedra Petri
Photos: Larry Koester; Dennis Jarvis; Tiara Lawrence OP

Top Baldacchino        Angel      Bernini: preliminary studies 1  
Graphische Sammlung Albertina Vienna Study 1     Study 2

photos: Larry Koester and angel: David Macchi

We walk over to St Peter’s grave and down the steps under the baldacchino where we can catch a glimpse of the lamps burning at his grave.

Confessio    Confessio and altar  Balustrade of the Confessio
Wikipedia St. Peter’s tomb

photos: Dinastriainc and Kent Wang

Gian Lorenzo Bernini ‘Urban VIII’ 1631 – 1632

Urban VIII  was elected pontiff on 6 August 1623. The following summer, he instructed the congregation of the Fabbrica de San Pietro to hold a design competition: “Architectural plans and designs for a baldacchino, to be submitted within 15 days.”
The Fabbrica was then to select the best design. The competition was in all likelihood a mere formality, as the pope had already selected Bernini.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini 'Urban VIII'

Bernini drafted multiple designs, two of which we will take a closer look at with the help of an A3-sized drawing, and compare them to the executed design: the draft from 1626 and the eventual design. The helical bronze columns rest on marble plinths. They feature several notable marble papal coats of arms. The marble plinths are as tall as the length of the average person standing before the altar. The columns and the plinths feature bees, a rosary, a portrait on a coin and lizards, one of which is devouring a scorpion.

Baldacchino    Holy Ghost    View from beneath    Top

St. Peter's Basilica: Baldacchino
photos: Dennis Jarvis; Holy: nekotank; tiara Lawrence OP

Layout basements with coats of arms and sequence of reading of the basements

one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
Coat of arms
one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
one and twee
three and four
five and six
seven and eight
one and two
three and four
five and six
seven and eight

Pedestal of the Baldacchino in situ

photos: Sailko
Santa Maria in Ara Coeli  Stained glass window
photos: Jebulon and Wikipedia

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli    Stained glass window

At first glance, the eight coats of arms seem identical. The three bees on the coats of arms leave no doubt that we are dealing with the Barberini family (Urban VIII Maffeo Barberini). Originally, the coat of arms depicted three horseflies. At the urging of Bernini, the pope changed the flies into bees. The modified coat of arms of the Barberini family was first seen in a stained glass window in the Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.

A baby      Baldacchino plinths      Satyr’s head

In addition, it also shows Saint Peter’s keys and the papal crown: the tiara. The triple crown shows a Cherub with a bee above it. A woman’s head is depicted below the two keys. The bottom of the coat of arms repeatedly depicts a satyr’s head. The decorative laces also show up in all eight coats of arms.
At a closer glance, you will see remarkable details that change as you pass by the four basements with the eight coats of arms. The coats of arms are not just a reference to the pope and the Barberini family, they also tell a story.
Walking past the eight coats of arms, starting at 1 (see layout), you will see significant changes, particularly at the faces of the woman and the satyr and the part with the belly that depicts the three bees. The belly is swelling, and this swelling decreases in the last two coats of arms. You see contractions and the birth of a baby.

St. Peter's Basilica: Baldacchino  plinths coat of arms

As you walk inside the St. Peter, the scene begins on the coats of arms at the front left. Witkowski (referenced in the English Wikipedia footnote 7), wrote the following in 1908:

“The scene begins on the face of the left-hand front plinth; the woman’s face begins to contract; on the second and following plinths the features pass through a series of increasingly violent convulsions. Simultaneously, the hair becomes increasingly dishevelled; the eyes, which at first express a bearable degree of suffering, take on a haggard look; the mouth, closed at first, opens, then screams with piercing realism. … Finally, comes the delivery: the belly subsides and the mother’s head disappears, to give way to a cherubic baby’s head with curly hair, smiling beneath the unchanging pontifical insignia.”

As a Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein took a profound interest in how Bernini showed this delivery. He compared it to editing the frames of a film. Similarly, filming each coat of arms and making a montage of them would result in a story. Between 1937-1940, Eisenstein collected a great deal of materials and sources about the coats of arms designed by Bernini for the pedestals of the Baldacchino. In his essay, titled ‘Montage and Architecture,’  (available here) he writes about the coats of arms of Bernini: ‘one of the most spectacular compositions of that great master Bernini.’  ‘with the coats of arms as “eight shots, eight montage sequences of a whole montage scenario.’ (cited from Wikipedia)

There is consensus on what Bernini attempted to show in his coats of arms, but its meaning has different interpretations. The English Wikipedia lists three interpretations. One is symbolic, where the work of the Pope and the early-Christian church is revealed. A second, more popular meaning attributed to the works is that the niece of the Pope endured a hazardous and lengthy delivery. The Pope promised that if all would end well he would devote an altar in the St. Peter to it. The delivery ended positively for both mother and child. The last interpretation deals with Bernini’s sister who had just given birth. The ecstatic father, Taddeo Barberini, was one of Bernini’s assistants and a nephew of the Pope. Sadly, Urban VII refused to acknowledge the newborn and it thus became a bastard child. Read more about the Baldacchino in: Irving Lavin, Bernini at Saint Peter’s The Pilgrimage, The Pindar Press London 2012 (pdf).

Column       Preliminary studie      Royal Collection Trust

The columns were cast in three sections, with the bases and capitals cast separately. There was no alternative, this was really the only way that some of the details could still be cast. The finer details were applied later. The three sections were joined together by means of wedges hidden behind a decorative border.
Grapevines with their leaves climb up along the columns, with the leaves projecting quite strongly in some places. Small putti, winged children, are chasing after ‘butterflies’, in this case bees (Barberinis) or after each other. The bees are attracted by the sweetness of the wine (the blood of Christ) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The casting was done in ovens located near the barracks of the Swiss Guard north of the Piazza San Pietro. Bernini used the lost wax method: a core and outer casing strong enough to withstand the fire with a layer of wax in between.

Some people said that Bernini used real bees and a real lizard that were coated with an extra thick layer of wax. This was mockingly called ‘the lost lizard process’. In actual fact, this sort of addition would immediately be incinerated by the molten bronze. In short, it is an interesting story, but false. The moral of this myth was that Bernini’s art was excessively realistic.

Another point of criticism brought forward by contemporaries who weren’t overly fond of Gian Lorenzo, was that he relied on his casters too much. And yet we know for a fact that Bernini kept a close eye on the casting process, which took three years to complete: ‘night and day, in heat and in rain.’ Also some of the particulars of the process point to Bernini being in direct control, such as the hollow columns that were filled with cement. This not only made them heavier, but also much stronger.

Ceiling portico Pantheon

A satirical lampoon about this way of obtaining bronze read: ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini’ in other words, what de Barbarians didn’t do, the Barberinis did.’ Urban VIII’s doctor, Giulio Mancini, is credited with coining this phrase. For quite some time, Bernini was believed to have used bronze from the portico of the Pantheon to cast the four columns of the Baldacchino. However, recent studies revealed that only 1.8 percent of the bronze designated for the columns came from the Pantheon’s portico. And even this quantity was returned to the Fabricca di San Pietro (public works Vatican). Bernini did not trust the alloy. The bronze from the Pantheon was primarily used for casting the cannons. (Franco Mormando, ‘Bernini His Life and his Rome,’ University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2011 pp.85-86; Website Mormando).

photo: David Castor

We are going to take a closer look at the niches in the four piers surrounding the baldacchino, and more in particular the niche that Bernini carved his Longinus for. After the baldacchino was completed, Bernini also won the competition for carving the statues in the crossing’s niches.

F. Mochi ‘Saint Veronica’    The crossing    A. Bolgi ‘Saint Helena’

St. Peter's Basilica  crossing Baldacchino
photo: Mark McElroy

Continuation Rome day 4: Interior III