09.07.08, Tronzo, ed., St. Peter's in the Vatican

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Brother Charles Hilken

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.008


Tronzo, William. St. Peter's in the Vatican. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 320. ISBN: 0-521-64096-2.

Reviewed by:
Brother Charles Hilken
St. Mary's College, California

This book will be necessary reading for anyone interested in the history of the two Saint Peter's Basilicas. The essays give insight into specific moments in the history of the buildings and, taken together, allow the reader to see the significance of the whole. The book becomes a model and goad for similar studies of other major church buildings. Tronzo, the editor, makes the argument that the book's copious illustrations could tell the history. Indeed, there are 338 illustrations in less than 300 pages of text.

The introduction begins in the middle of the history of St. Peter's, right before the destruction of the old basilica. Tronzo neatly characterizes the work of the Renaissance builders as the rationalization of the medieval (a nod to Burckhardt). He describes the continuities between the two basilicas as memories, a theme which takes on special resonance in the second essay on spolia. The organization of the book is to be commended. There are eight essays, all but one with footnotes following. A list of illustrations begins the work and a selected bibliography and index complete it.

G. W. Bowersock, "Peter and Constantine", makes the case that Constantine had nothing to do with the building of the basilica. The argument is somewhat convincing with one defect. The proposal of the translation of Peter's relics in the third century is labeled as "extravagant speculation," a charge which is hard to align with the work of Jose Ruysschaert, whose essay, "La tomba di Pietro. Nuove considerazioni," in Studi Romani 34.3 (1976), developed this argument. It seems Bowersock did not know of this essay since it is not cited. Bowersock is perhaps too cautious, for example, "The translation of bones, and the tomb violations it entails, would be inconceivable for the third century" (14). In light of the burying of an entire cemetery to make way for a basilica in the fourth century, it is hard to think of much else that would be inconceivable in the preceding century.

Dale Kinney's essay, "Spolia", examines the ultimately ambiguous regard for spolia which she defined as "artifacts made for one physical and cultural context, and reused in another" (25). This remarkably informative essay describes the use and reuse of pagan and Christian spolia in the two basilicas. With painstaking care she maps out the history of the placement and reception of twisted columns. The same attention to detail is given to the origins, placement, and reuse of the shafts of the Constantinian nave. Here Kinney notes variety as an aesthetic at play.

The fourth essay, "Est haec sacra principis aedes" by Antonio Iacobini is dedicated to the iconographic programs of Innocent III and Gregory IX in the apse and facade renovations respectively. It is especially clear in this essay as with all that leading scholars in the history of Saint Peter's are at work. Iacobini uses visual highlights--drawings and remains of apse and facade and the Limoges statuettes that once adorned the confession--to show the relationship of the artistic programs to the papal political philosophies of the two popes.

The theme of papal theories driving artistic schemes under Innocent III and Gregory IX leads nicely to the fifth essay, which begins with Nicholas V's attempt to restore visual unity to St. Peter's that would mirror the unity of the Church under papal primacy. Christof Thoenes, in "Renaissance at St. Peter's," describes the fifteenth-century basilica as an "immense repertoire of histories" lacking order. The popes of the sixteenth century would add size as a theme in the building renewal. Starting with Bramante the architects emerge in their own right as shapers of the visual and spiritual message.

Henry A. Millon's essay, "Michelangelo to Marchionni. 1546-1784," is an architectural history of the present basilica and is rich in historical detail. There is a fascinating argument about Michelangelo's placement of windows in order to use light to re-center the altar over the tomb. Light here became an element of form. The treatment of Michelangelo is a state of the question of his part in the design and execution of the building. The figure of the floor plan of the interior (#103) is too small to be of use. The book could have benefited greatly from a legible illustration in this regard. For a successful use of such a plan compare Antonio Pinelli, ed., La basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano (Modena: 2000), vol. 1, pp. 340 and 345.

By far the longest essay is Irving Lavin's "Bernini at St. Peter's: Singularis in Singulis, in Omnibus Unicus," which is 142 of the 320 pages of the book. The extraordinary length is unexplained but not without merit. The essay is a brilliant treatment of Bernini as an artist driven by his understanding of Catholic faith and the possibilities of expressing it in stone and precious metals. Credit is given by the author to his research assistant, Uta Nitschke-Stumpf, and his editor, Mary Elizabeth Lewis, for assistance in the considerable expansion of an essay previously published in the four- volume work edited by Pinelli cited above. Lavin links the program of design in Bernini's time to the Council of Trent's emphasis on performance and involvement of the faithful. He gives a deep reading to each of the major contributions of Bernini, making of the artist something of a theologian. He describes the baldacchino as a rendering in stone of a non-architectural processional covering, the placement of which unites the three themes of the tomb of the apostle, the Eucharist, and the papacy. Lavin analyzes the debate over Borromini's part in the design of the baldacchino and even draws a possible connection to the Battle of Lepanto. Each of the major works of Bernini are treated: the placement of Paul III's tomb and the design of Urban VIII's; the design of the crossing at the papal altar with the giant statues at the piers of the dome; the nave decoration; the piazza and colonnades; the monumental chair of Peter; the Scala Regia and statue of Constantine; the Ponte Sant'Angelo; and the sacrament altar. The essay ends with an evaluation of Bernini as a man of faith who merged painting, sculpture, and architecture in service of the Christian doctrine of redemption. There is also a lovely homage to Richard Krautheimer's book, The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655- 1667 (1985). The artistry of Lavin's Bernini is comparable to Millon's Michelangelo on the point of the artists' use of light, which in Bernini's case is especially evident in his work on the monumental Charlemagne statue and the Altar of the Sacrament. It is impossible to capture all of the rich insight of this essay in the confines of this review. Much more could be said about Lavin's attention to Bernini's architectural designs intended to give the experience of liturgical drama across a giant stage and above all to the many ways that Eucharistic theology shaped Bernini's masterpieces.

There is a good deal of harmony between Alessandra Anselmi's "Theaters for the Canonization of Saints," and Lavin's essay. Anselmi has given us a history of the arrangements and decorations made for the ceremonies of canonization in the new basilica. She begins her study with the significant developments before Bernini. By the time of Bernini's first contract for a canonization theater, the ceremonies had been transferred to the nave of the basilica from smaller chapels. Papal power was progressively emphasized, especially by the development of the suggestum, or the stage upon which the ceremony occurred. An interesting caution that the author gives concerns the engravings of the ceremonies which are untrustworthy as records of what occurred because they were produced before the ceremonies.

Richard A. Etlin is the author of the final essay, "St. Peter's in the Modern Era: The Paradoxical Colossus." The paradoxes offered by Etlin are interesting to consider and all evoke arguments put forth by his colleagues in the other essays of the book. There are the opposing floor plans of Greek and Latin crosses; the sacred drama and movement captured by Bernini contending with the massive solidity of the stone; and the immensity of the structure vying with the sense that the interior seems smaller than it really is. Etlin successfully shows the influence on subsequent architecture of the ambiguities contained in the renaissance building and in the original motivating ideals of renovation of ancient Rome and service of the universalist papacy. His essay is a tour of buildings from St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the Hotel des Invalides of Paris, to the neo-classical masterpieces of the Napoleonic Era, to the secular marvel of Milan's Galleria, and onto Hitler's and Albert Speer's dreams of a new German Federal Capital! Etlin's analysis successfully reveals the lines of influence of St. Peter's Basilica on subsequent world architecture.

This book is highly recommended for gathering into one place and in English the most recent and excellent scholarship on the two basilicas of St. Peter at the Vatican. The photos are mostly excellent, though not all of them are credited. The few Alinari photos (ill. 18, 100, 104, 105, 330, and 331) are, of course, a cut above the rest. A very few are too small to be of use (il.103, the floor plan of St. Peter's; il.114, the cupola fresco in the duomo of Florence; and il.278, The Canonization of St. Francesca Romana).

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Brother Charles Hilken

St. Mary's College, California