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 Essential Architecture-  ROME

Piazza of St. Peter's Piazza Di Pietra. See also St. Peter's of Rome

architect

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

location

Vatican City, surrounded by Rome, Italy

date

1656 to 1667

style

Italian Baroque Neoclassical 

construction

masonry, cut stone

type

Outdoor space
  Space defined by curving colonnades. Elliptical plan with central obelisk. 
 
 
 
 
 
  Mussolini's approach to St Peters'.
 
   
This monumental elliptical space, enclosed by 284 Doric columns four rows deep (196m wide and 148m long), is the masterpiece of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who laid it out during the pontificates of Alexander VII and of Clement IX.

Every Sunday at noon, people gather to recite the Angelus and receive the Pope's blessing from his window. A red porphyry stone on the northwest side of the square, marks the spot where Pope John Paul II was shot.

A red stone mark the spot in the northwest corner of the Square where Pope John Paul II was shot 

From: 'Seminarians Guide'
The piazza in front of St. Peter's was built by Bernini between 1657-1667. It was designed with the Feast of Corpus Christi especially in mind, which at the time was very popular and engendered massive public processions. Today it is used for solemn Masses and ceremonies; for canonizations; for the Pope's Sunday angelus, a devotion commemorating the Incarnation; and for the Pope's Wednesday audience, weather permitting. 

From 'St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square'
Once the basilica had been built, it was felt that a space should be created in front of it with a capacity sufficient to contain the mass of people who would flock here to take part in the most solemn functions, especially on the occasion of the celebrations for the Feast of Corpus Christi which was then very popular and widely observed. It was Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667) who decided to build the square as we know it today - it had actually already been begun by Sixtus V when he had the obelisk moved there - and it was continued by various popes. In 1656, Alexander VII entrusted the direction of the work to Gian Lorenzo Bernini who completed it very rapidly, between 1657 and 1667. 

St. Peter's Square has the shape of an immense ellipse (the visitor who stands in one of the two centers of this ellipse, marked by two white disks, one on each side of the obelisk, sees a single row of columns), 320 m. long and 240 m. wide, at its broadest point. 

From 'St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour' by Our Sunday Visitor
Before mentioning, however, the methods used and the time taken to construct this building, which replaced an older early Christian Basilica dating from the time of Constantine, and before beginning a guided tour of the temple of Christianity, it is worth stopping to look in more detail at the square, for which Bernini designed, as his drawings show, an arrangement different and contrasting to the present one, with a third section of colonnade in place of the so-called "Spina di Borgo." 

The entrance to the square, through two lateral passages at the sides of this colonnade, would have produced a greater stage-setting effect, but at the same time, would have exalted the feeling of awe and meditation in the believers, who would have felt themselves to be welcomed into the arms of the Christian Church, as ideally visualized in Bernini's famous drawing where the church is the head and the colonnades are the open arms of a human figure. 

This is an effect which is still possible simply by superimposing, at the entrance to the square, a hypothetical colonnade to produce the spectacular result which Bernini pursued, obscuring the view of the façade from the distance, but not of the dome rising above it.

In reality, the solution chosen by this absolute protagonist of Roman art in the 1600s, whose career was so closely linked to the commissions he was given in the Basilica, was ingenious but at the same time lucidly rational. 

In his design for the very vast surface of the square, which at that time may have appeared to be overlarge, Bernini abandoned Bramante's project envisaging four straight arcades arranged to form a square, adopting an oval shape which, however, was not favorably viewed by Alexander VII. The Pope, in fact, judged it to be "not particularly in harmony with the design of the façade" and additionally, rather costly already in the planning phase. 

Yet with this solution, placing two arcs of a circle beside a rectangular space, Bernini achieved the striking and amplifying effects of an elliptic plan; that is the impression of a space larger than it actually is by dynamic articulation of the square, stretched by its two lateral containing structures. 

At the same time, he knew how to avoid the risks which this elliptic solution might present from the perspective point of view, by aligning two centers (not focal points) on a very long axis passing through the central obelisk. In this way, he was able to maintain the columns equidistant from one another and then, by gradually increasing the diameter of the columns, so that those in the internal row are the most slender and the external ones are the thickest, he was also able to maintain an equal distance between the intercolumniations. 

Hence, if we stand on one of the two disks at the side of the obelisk, the columns appear as one row and not four in all parts of the semicircles. This is both a technical and an artistic device, which permits anyone moving around the square to enjoy the effects of a lively theatrical spectacle, but also of control of the immense space; it is a grandiose solution but at the same time is on a human scale. 

With this creation, balanced between his effervescent imagination and his never denied classical vein, which here is inspired by the simplest of the ancient Greek styles, the Doric order, Bernini was able to offer Christianity its ideal epicenter. 

In modern times, the function of this epicenter has been confirmed even without any special events, by the Pope's Sunday message, instituted by Pius XII and continued by his successors, with a simple but vibrantly human and spiritual contact between the Shepherd of Men and the always numerous crowd gathered in the square. 

Lastly, it must be remembered that Bernini, in the final layout of the square, had to respect various differing and contrasting requirements. First and foremost was the view of the dome the soaring vertical lines of which, with the building of the façade, had been considerably diminished, at least for anyone standing in the space directly in front of the Basilica, still far from achieving the harmonious layout it was to have. 

The Obelisk from Egypt was brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD. It originally stood in his circus on a spot to the south of the basilica, close to the present Sacristy.

Sixtus V had Domenico Fontana move it in 1586 to the center of St. Peter's Square

It is also a sun dial, its shadows mark noon over the signs of the zodiac in the white marble disks in the paving of the square. The obelisk rests upon four couchant lions, each with two bodies whose tails intertwine.

From: 'Seminarians Guide'
Obelisk is from obeliscus - "in the shape of a spear". For pagans, the obelisk was a solar symbol that represented a vital flow between heaven and earth, a way of communicating to the divine. 

As a pagan monument in the greatest Christian square, it is a symbol of humanity reaching out to Christ. Originally inscribed to "Divine Augustus" and "Divine Tiberius" and now dedicated to the Holy Cross - "Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat." It is topped by a bronze cross containing a fragment of the true Cross. 

From 'St. Peter's - Guide to the Basilica and Square'
A large pink granite obelisk can be admired in the center of the square. It was hewn from a single block and stands 25.31 m. high on a base 8.25 m. wide. The obelisk which comes from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it was built by the Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honor of the sun, was brought to Rome in 37 BC by the Emperor Caligula (37-41) and erected in the circus he built. Here it was silent witness of the martyrdom of St. Peter and of many other Christians. In 1586 Sixtus V had it moved to the center of St. Peter's Square. This operation, which required hundreds of workmen, was directed by Domenico Fontana with the help of his brother, Giovanni, and took four months. It was erected on September 10, 1586 by 900 men using 140 horses and 44 winches. 

From 'St. Peter's Basilica - A Virtual Tour' by Our Sunday Visitor
Another interesting illustration of the obelisk is contained in the fresco "Coronation of Pope Sixtus V" in 1585, in the Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library. In it, as in other engravings, the obelisk is still standing to the left of the Basilica. 

An anonymous painting in the Museum of Rome, illustrating the Corpus Christi Procession, shows St. Peter's Square with the obelisk already in place, before the colonnades were built. This monolithic obelisk in red granite, 25 meters high and weighing approximately 1 million pounds, had been taken from the city of Alexandria by Caligula (37-41 A.D.) to be placed on the spine of the circus later to be known as Nero's, situated to the left of the Old Basilica. 

Given the difficulty of moving it, several projects were considered until Sixtus V entrusted the job to his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana, who presented a wooden model, containing a lead grid, a replica of the obelisk, which could be easily lowered and raised. His project met with the Pope's approval and on April 30, 1586, transport was begun, after a solid foundation had been built to support the obelisk in the center of the square but not on the median axis of the façade of the Basilica. 

The operation, which is illustrated by several engravings, was carried out using hemp ropes and iron bars weighing 40,000 pounds, plus 900 men and 72 horses, and was completed on Sept. 10 of the same year. 

There is no truth in the story of "water on the ropes" which is supposed to have occurred during the raising of the obelisk, the work on which was, however, suspended during the summer. On the top, in place of the golden urn, said to contain the ashes of Caesar, was placed a bronze emblem of Pope Sixtus containing a relic of the cross. At the base are four bronze lions supported by a high pedestal. 

From: 'Guide to St. Peter's Basilica' © 2003
It is a red granite unique block 25.31m high, on a 8.25m base, weighing about 330 tons. It is the second highest obelisk in Rome, after the Lateran one, and the only one devoid of hieroglyphics, but with Latin inscriptions. Pliny the Elder wrote about it in his Naturalis Historia (1st century AD). It was brought from Egypt by Caligula, on a ship filled with lentils to prevent any damage and raised in the Spina of his Circus, then called Nero's Circus. After the voyage the ship was filled with pozzolana and sunk so as to be used as the base for the left pier of Claudius' harbour, at the mouth of the Tiber.

Sixtus V ordered it moved to the center of the square, putting Domenico Fontana in charge of the operation. Solid foundations were built to support the heavy structure and on April 30, 1586 the operations started - 907 men, 75 horses and 40 cranes were required. The obelisk was raised into position on September 10, six days later it was placed on the base and on September 26 it was blessed and consecrated.

The inscriptions on the north and south sides of the base have texts written by Cardinal Silvio Antoniani as a memorial to the moving of the obelisk. The east and west sides have exorcist formulas.

Special thanks to
www.stpetersbasilica.org 

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