15.08.05, McKitterick, et al, eds., Old Saint Peter's, Rome

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Gregor Kalas

The Medieval Review 15.08.05

McKitterick, Rosamond, John Osborne, Carol M. Richardson, and Joanna Story, eds. Old Saint Peter's, Rome. British School at Rome Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 484. ISBN: 9781107041646 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Gregor Kalas
University of Tennessee

During the sixteenth century, much of Old St. Peter's withstood the efforts to erase it. The decision by Pope Julius II in 1505 to commence construction of Donato Bramante's proposed Vatican complex did not immediately result in the total disappearance of the ancient structure. Indeed, impending removal inspired a systematic campaign to record the historic basilica's key features. The antiquarian scholars undertaking this work, Tiberio Alfarano and Giacomo Grimaldi, confronted serious challenges, working as they did to document the most important monument of western Christendom during its slow demolition. Thus, even though many modern scholars have assumed that Old St. Peter's lapsed into a Renaissance ruin, the late antique basilica nonetheless continued to play a vigorous role during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Oddly, the decision to tear down the basilica in a piecemeal fashion prompted an unexpected revalorization of the original monument, since Old St. Peter's regained the full authority of its historicity in its partly demolished condition. The old basilica retained the memories of all those who had affiliated themselves with the shrine (confessio) and the apparent burial of Peter there. Current research demonstrates that late antique emperors from the Constantinian and Theodosian dynasties sponsored the initial structures and that these rulers undertook various facets of the Vatican complex to gain credit for formalizing the apostle's commemoration. The political valence of imperial initiatives at the Vatican basilica during the fourth and fifth centuries gave way to the papal possession of the site beginning with Pope Leo I (440-461).

Old Saint Peter's, Rome, edited by Rosamond McKitterick, John Osborne, Carol M. Richardson, and Joanna Story, brings together important essays with many focusing on the significance of burial monuments at the Vatican that initially set forth aristocratic and imperial prerogatives during late antiquity and subsequently gave way to commemorative installations of the popes and other patrons. The volume features essays originating from a 2010 conference sponsored by the British School at Rome and provides a clear indication of vigor in new scholarship on the Vatican's earliest Christian basilica. The nineteen scholarly essays plus an epilogue, when considered in unison, demonstrate the critical contributions of medieval popes and secular authorities who fundamentally shaped the current Vatican complex and this is noteworthy, since the old basilica had previously been undervalued for its influence upon the new one. The articles, spanning the late antique formation of Old St. Peter's up to its slow dismantling in the sixteenth century, create the striking impression that funerary commemorations near the tomb of St. Peter staked a variety of claims for the apostle's persistent legacy, with some of the investigations delving into the central importance of cultic and liturgical activities that developed at the medieval Vatican.

Old St. Peter's was as slow to build up as it was to take down. Patronage by Constantine and his sons allowed these fourth-century rulers to claim imperial legitimacy from the initial construction in honor of the apostle. Constantine consolidated his power after eliminating a co-emperor in 324, which Richard Gem argues coincided with the initiative to build the nave and tomb of St. Peter. Gem presents a new construction chronology by noting the involvement of Constantine's sons, who added the transept and the apse in the 330s and 340s. One important index of the imperial resources devoted to Old St. Peter's was the explicit assembly of differently colored marble shafts; most but not all of these diverse columns have been identified as spolia by Lex Bosman in his thoughtful article. Olof Brandt carefully pinpoints a plausible location of the baptistery as a separate structure close to the north transept; perhaps the baptistery succeeded an original water feature accompanied by the poetic inscriptions of Pope Damasus (366-384). Given this late antique chronology for the development of Old St. Peter's, it becomes apparent that imperial concerns predominated at the basilica prior to papal interests prevailing after the late fifth century. One question that emerges is whether or not the papal claim to possess Old St. Peter's necessarily resulted from an opposition to imperial control, given that papal ascendancy occasionally occurred in cooperation with rather than in opposition to the rulers.

To understand the shifting power relations between aristocrats, emperors, and popes, scholars have detected the ideologies of each group in the significant tombs and mausolea within Old St. Peter's or annexed onto the basilica. In the fifth century, the Rome-centered ideals of rulers belonging to the Theodosian dynasty gained full expression in the mausoleum of Honorius with ten other members of the imperial family eventually buried there, including Constantius III, Valentinian III, and Galla Placidia. Rome's powerful senatorial aristocracy fully participated in advancing the status of Old St. Peter's as an opulent imperial basilica, since, as Alan Thacker clearly articulates in his essay, elite civic officials such as Junius Bassus (the younger), members of the Anicii family and other important senators used their sarcophagi and the funerary structures flanking the basilica to affirm the close links among emperors and Rome's elite. Thacker goes on to argue that the funerals of senators and members of the imperial family celebrated at the Vatican basilica repeatedly demonstrated this church's role as a theater for civic and ruling authorities prior to the papacy of Leo I. Meaghan McEvoy's contribution to the volume clearly documents that the mausoleum constructed for Honorius created a significant venue at St. Peter's for imperial ceremonies throughout the fifth century and that the rise of papal power in that century occurred with support from the western rulers. Later, in the fifteenth century, the tomb monuments of popes functioned prominently in papal coronation ceremonies. Indeed, Carol M. Richardson's essay turns to the fifteenth-century papacy and she makes the case that the popes, after the return from Avignon, reaffirmed the legacy of St. Peter, thereby bringing new life to Old St. Peter's through the monuments that commemorated the deceased.

The central political importance of Old St. Peter's during late antiquity was partly diminished by the perception of the Vatican as remote, even though sponsors reached out to the most needy residents and visitors in ways that extended the apostolic aura beyond the shrine. The civic role of Old St. Peter's within the charitable network that furnished food to the poor and accommodations for pilgrims suggests that the Vatican was becoming less of an isolated shrine, but rather a central node in the economic and ritual life of Rome. Paolo Liveriani presents important reflections on the social services provided to the needy at Old St. Peter's, since he draws noteworthy connections among senators giving alms, rulers staging outdoor processions, and the itineraries of pilgrims. All of these activities proceeded along the routes that brought the populace to the Vatican. The political meanings of Old St. Peter's seem to have inspired popes to make the basilica a center for the city's liturgical life, which Éamonn Ó Carragáin explores in an essay considering the introduction into Old St. Peter's of the Byzantine-inspired feasts of the Annunciation and of the Holy Cross during the seventh century; these demonstrated the papal independence from Constantinople by affirming Vatican icons and relics. Pope Gregory III (731-741) instigated the All Saints liturgy in a Vatican chapel that gathered together various relics in support of an essentially anti-iconoclastic ritual; Charles McClendon's essay explores how this and other installations of icons and relics at the Vatican both explicitly countered Byzantine iconoclasm and prompted the architectural and pictorial revival of early Christianity that lasted into the ninth century. The liturgical roles of Old St. Peter's were intimately bound up with the papacy's institutional identity. In her essay, Rosamond McKitterick sets forth the important argument that the papal tombs installed at the Vatican after the fifth century both affirmed St. Peter's burial spot at this location and also charted the lineage of popes. McKitterick makes the significant observation that bishops traced a lineage in the assembly of papal tombs as a parallel to the collected biographies of popes presented in the Liber Pontificalis. The medieval liturgical life of Rome came to be centered on the pope at the Vatican to a far greater degree than it had been during late antiquity, as Peter Jeffrey sets forth in his investigation of eighth-century liturgical calendars that emphasized the pope during all twelve months after the demise of the formerly four-fold division of the ritual year.

Influential popes who acquired both worldly power and religious authority constructed their particular identities in the spaces of Old St. Peter's by practicing specific rituals there. The Veronica image of Christ at the Vatican, as Ann van Dijk wisely speculates, meaningfully documented the historicity of an image during iconoclasm, since she contends that Pope Hadrian I (772-795) plausibly utilized the portrait to authenticate both textual traditions and the cult practices involving icons. Antonella Ballardini and Paola Pogliani have analyzed surviving fragments and the pictorial evidence attesting to the oratory of John VII at Old St. Peter's to offer a convincing reconstruction of the chapel, the site where the Veronica image was eventually displayed. Pilgrims were also drawn to the tomb of Pope Hadrian I, where Charlemagne installed an inscription composed by Alcuin to emphasize prominently the king's own name. A late eighth-century pilgrim's itinerary allows Joanna Story to argue that Charlemagne's name and gifts from his court to the oratory of St. Peter the Shepherd recognized the Vatican interior as a strategic venue for displaying power. Accounts describing routes to the Vatican reveal that the red granite obelisk, now at Piazza San Pietro, resonated with memories of Julius Caesar, even if his connection was legendary; this obelisk thus functioned as a key monument in the 'memorial landscape' of Old St. Peter's, as John Osborne argues. According to the article by Carmela Vircillo Franklin, reformist popes mandated adjustments to liturgical activities at the Vatican by encouraging ritual readings of saints' lives recorded in a text compiled after the eleventh century, St. Peter's Lectionary, which furnished exemplars from the time of the early church.

Old St. Peter's and its treasures displayed remarkable resilience because the basilica housed the iconography of a strong papal tradition after the twelfth century. A medieval silver cross, for example, generated a stucco replica produced in the sixteenth century, with the copy providing Katharina Christa Schüppel with evidence to argue that the original crucifix with its images of Peter and Paul served as a ceremonial backdrop to the coronation celebrations of emperors and popes. Bronze doors designed around 1433 by the Florentine artist Filarete marked the primary entrance to Old St. Peters known as the Porta Argentea. Robert Glass's essay establishes that the preservation of Filarete's doors and their installation in the new basilica sustained the iconography with the pointed messages to rulers whose coronations were practiced nearby. Maintaining the traditions associated with an altar of St. Maurice in the new Vatican complex, originating at a transept altar at Old St. Peter's, signals that specific coronation practices survived the destruction of the historic basilica. Coronation ceremonies for the Holy Roman Emperor located at the altar of St. Maurice marked a distinct venue for imperial rituals that differentiated rulers from popes, who used the altar of St. Peter for their own coronations according to Catherine Fletcher.

The remarkable flourishing of papal liturgies, tomb monuments, and imperial coronation practices that revitalized Old St. Peter's during the fifteenth century suggest that the vitality of the late antique basilica was much more striking than its decrepitude. This line of thinking appears explicitly in Bram Kemper's epilogue to the volume considering the fifteenth-century renovations that preceded the temporary restitution of a fragment of Old St. Peter's, which survived during the sixteenth century even after Julius II contemplated the new monumental dome. The degree to which sixteenth-century popes actually sought to retain the late antique basilica remains uncertain; yet, as the essays assembled in Old St. Peter's, Rome attest, the early Christian monument clearly shaped architectural expressions of religious authority and worldly power in ways that cannot be denied.

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