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On This Rock Ė Architecture of the Vatican

KOSINSKI ARCHITECTURE proudly sponsors the Vatican architectural feature

By John Thavis

The dome of St. Peterís
The dome of St. Peterís

The dome of St. Peterís: for most people, itís the most recognizable symbol of the Vatican. And in many ways, the cupola, which took the genius of Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists to design and construct over a 30-year period, represents the pinnacle of architectural achievement in Rome.

But the dome only begins to tell the story of the Vaticanís architectural wonders. Vatican City, in fact, is a 109-acre landscape of arches and towers, trompe líoeil perspectives and frescoed hallways, chapels and niches, fountains and friezes. You could call it an open-air museum, but that makes it sound frozen in time. Instead, this centuries-old architecture is living, breathing and fully functioning today.

The Vatican is no Disneyland, with fantasy turrets and crenellations. From the popeís first palace to the modernistic audience hall, structures were designed and built for a purpose.

ďThe Vatican doesn't do retro. Every thing they built was the newest, latest thing for its day,Ē Elizabeth Lev, an art historian in Rome, tells her tour groups when leading them through this brick and marble topography.

A skyline takes shape
It all began with a simple tomb. The Vatican hillside, just outside the gates of the ancient Roman city, was the site of a large cemetery that became the final resting place of St. Peter, who was martyred in a nearby racetrack. A cult dedicated to the memory of the first pope took hold, and in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine built his first Basilica of St. Peter above the grave.

During the medieval decline of Rome and frequent barbarian invasions, popes protected the basilica and in the 800s Pope Leo IV began enclosing the future Vatican City inside thick walls. The transfer of the papacy to Avignon in 1309 left the Vatican Hill unattended for 70 years, and St. Peterís was abandoned to the elements and the occasional cows that grazed in its courtyard.

When the popes returned, the first order of business was to repair the church. The second was to build the pope a place to live -- until then, pontiffs had resided at the Lateran Palace on the other side of Rome. Given the papacyís limited resources, however, both projects would take time.

An early version of the Apostolic Palace, which would become the home of the popes, had been constructed by Pope Nicholas III in the late 1200s. In the mid-1400s, Pope Nicholas V began an extreme makeover, adding a round tower that today houses the Vatican bank. The new palace was connected via a covered passageway to the fortified Castel SantíAngelo on the Tiber River -- an escape route that would be used several times by popes fleeing foreign invasions.

Gradually, the jumbled Vatican skyline took shape. The Sistine Chapel, just to the north of St. Peterís, was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV and built to the dimensions of Solomonís Temple in Jerusalem. It was completed in 1481, and nearly 30 years later, an artist named Michelangelo would begin frescoing its ceiling.

Sixtus IV also built the first Vatican Library, four rooms that soon became too small for the popesí growing collection of manuscripts. Pope Innocent VIII built a house on a hillside behind the Apostolic Palace, called the Belvedere for its lovely views; it was the prototypal Renaissance country villa. Towers and courtyards, along with a Swiss Guard residence, were added to what was slowly becoming a small city beneath the papal palace.

Pope Julius II, the same pontiff who insisted that Michelangelo paint the Sistine ceiling, ordered another great project: a three-story loggia that stretched from the Apostolic Palace to the Belvedere. Today, the twin frescoed corridors form the main display areas of the Vatican Museums.

Finally, Pope Sixtus V in the late 1500s decided to build a whole new Apostolic Palace abutting St. Peterís Square, in part to house the Vaticanís expanded Roman Curia and diplomatic staff. The palace, designed by architect Domenico Fontana, is where popes reside today and from which, every Sunday, they pray the Angelus and bless the crowd below.

St. Peter's Basilica interior
Visitors tour St. Peter's Basilica in this 2005 photo. At center is the baldacchino designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The structure rises to 95 feet beneath the basilica's main dome and marks the main altar and the grave of St. Peter.

A new basilica

Serious work on St. Peterís Basilica began under Pope Julius II, who gathered the resources and the will to carry out the project. He hired famed architect Donato Bramante and gave him permission to virtually tear down the old basilica and build a new one. Bramante carried through with gusto, destroying mosaics, frescoes, statues and even relics with such abandon that he earned the nickname, Maestro Ruinante or ďMaster Wrecker.Ē

Bramanteís plan for the basilica was a Greek cross, with all four arms of equal length. The cornerstone was laid in 1506 and the building was slowly beginning to take shape when Pope Julius died in 1513, and Bramante the following year. For the next 33 years, a series of architects took turns at completing the basilica, including the Florentine Antonio da Sangallo, who decided to lengthen the nave and turn the Greek cross plan into a Latin cross.

Sangallo died in 1546 with little construction accomplished, and Pope Paul III turned to Michelangelo, then 72 years old, who had little or no architectural experience. He simplified Sangalloís design and returned to the Greek cross plan, giving the interior much-needed lighting by adding windows.

When Michelangelo died 18 years later, much of the exterior was finished and the drum of the dome was nearing completion. But the next chief architect, Giacomo della Porta, had his own ideas. For one thing, he gave the dome a more elongated look instead of the squat hemisphere that Michelangelo apparently had in mind.

The work was far from completed when della Porta died in 1602. Under the new architect, Carlo Maderno, the remnants of the old basilica were torn down and the nave once again extended. In the end, the Latin cross triumphed, in part because of concern that the smaller Greek cross design was not big enough for major papal processions and liturgies.

Maderno finished the nave, the vestibule and, finally, the faÁade, which has been much criticized for being too busy and inelegant. But the new basilica was finally completed, and was inaugurated in 1626.

A new architect would now leave his mark on the church and the square: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who in 1633 completed work on a baroque baldacchino or canopy above the basilicaís main altar. From 1656-66 he completed one of his greatest works, the semicircular colonnade that borders St. Peterís Square, ringed with statues that stand above a forest of columns. With this last grand building project, the modern Vatican had largely taken shape.

A space that embraces
Whatís wonderful is that this rich architectural history is not hidden away behind Vatican City walls. Most of it can be seen and experienced by a casual visitor to St. Peterís Square, the Basilica and the Vatican Museums.

It is Berniniís space that first welcomes modern visitors to the Vatican, as they step into the square. Itís not a ďsquare,Ē of course, but an oval. The twin arms of the colonnade are meant to embrace the crowds (and metaphorically the world), and can accommodate more than 100,000 people during religious ceremonies. On other days, this traffic-less space provides an unusual sense of calm in the middle of Rome.

The colonnades have four rows of Doric columns, 284 in all, forming three covered walkways that have borne the footsteps of countless cardinals, Vatican functionaries and tourists. Viewed from two points near the center of the square, the columns align perfectly in a tribute to the architectural precision of Bernini and his workshop. Looking down on visitors from above the colonnade are more than 100 statues of saints, martyrs and popes.

The focal point of the square is the Egyptian obelisk, which, like the bronze fountains to each side, were already in place when Bernini began his work. The obelisk once adorned the middle of Neroís circus nearby -- the presumed site of St. Peterís crucifixion. Pope Sixtus V had it moved here in 1586, a massive engineering operation that required a small army of workers, horses and cranes.

As the visitor draws near to the church, the dome does a disappearing act, an effect of the lengthened nave. On either side of the faÁade, which is the size of a soccer field, stand squat towers. They were meant to be taller, but Bernini -- to his everlasting embarrassment -- miscalculated the stress and the foundations began to cede during construction.

At the end of the right colonnade, where the Apostolic Palace complex joins the church, an upward glance reveals the Bronze Door. Itís the archetypal Vatican entryway, and a Swiss Guard stands sentry in his distinctive striped uniform. Beyond the door is a corridor leading to the Scala Regia or ďRoyal StaircaseĒ that Bernini restored with illusionist baroque touches.

Architecture on a giant scale
The climb up the steps to St. Peterís Basilica is sometimes compared to a spiritual ascent. Inside the vestibule, the central bronze doors were salvaged from the old St. Peterís and decorated by the Renaissance sculptor Filarete with biblical reliefs and an intricate frieze of animal and plant life. Stepping inside the basilica, one enters a magnificent and vast space bounded above by Bramanteís gilded coffered ceiling and below by Berniniís marble floor, and leading visually to the brightness of the altar area beneath the dome.

Berniniís colossal altar canopy, cast with bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon, is a baroque masterpiece that imitates, on a giant scale, the canopies used to carry statues and relics during popular processions. Its soaring twisted columns are decorated with olive and bay branches, and are surmounted by angels.

In front of the altar, the sunken confessio leads down to the area where St. Peterís tomb was discovered during excavations carried out in the mid-20th century. The lower level of St. Peterís, which holds the tombs of many popes, is known as the Vatican Grottoes and is open daily; below that, the excavated Roman cemetery can be visited by appointment.

From the depths to the heights, an elevator takes visitors to the inside of the dome, where a dizzying view reveals the basilicaís vast scale. A passage to the outdoor roof of the basilica offers a unique panorama of Rome and a close-up look at St. Peterís smaller domes and statues. A steep stairway leads upward to the lantern at the pinnacle of the dome, with a birdís-eye view of Vatican City.

University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 5.
(CNS photo/Giampiero Sposito, Reuters) (April 6, 2009)

A walk through time
The Vatican Museums represent the other major architectural gateway to Vatican City. Itís an amalgamation of styles, beginning with an ingenious modern staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, which features two intertwined spiral ramps -- one leading up, one leading down.

Above the entrance, the Belvedere villa built by Pope Innocent VIII now houses an amazing collection of Greek and Roman sculpture assembled by Renaissance popes. Proceeding down the long museum corridors, the visitor encounters the original chambers of the Vatican Library, including the frescoed reading room.

At the southern end of the corridors lie a series of rooms that form the heart of the Vaticanís early architecture. The tiny Chapel of Nicholas V, with its lovely frescoes by Fra Angelico, is part of the Tower of Innocent III, which was built in the early 1200s.

The Borgia Apartment, which houses modern art today, occupies the entire first floor of the original papal palace begun in the late 13th century. Its small windows overlook the Courtyard of the Parrots, where the atmosphere is gloomy and fortress-like.

The Raphael Rooms are situated in the more airy second floor of the early papal palace, where Pope Julius II and his successors lived in the 16th century. Standing before Raphaelís stunning frescoes, itís easy to forget that these paintings were simply the decorative backdrop for daily life in the papal living room, dining room and bedroom.

A narrow passageway leads to the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo spent four years covering the barrel-vaulted ceiling with frescoes depicting figures and scenes from Old and New Testaments. The ceiling is as much an architectural composition as a pictorial one. Michelangelo, in fact, painted cross-ribs and cornices to divide the vast space into a series of ďframesĒ that hold his pictures.

Like so many of the places in the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel doubles today as a tourist attraction and an important liturgical setting. Its beauty emerges most clearly during papal Masses celebrated here a few times a year or, more dramatically, when the worldís cardinals assemble to elect a new pope in a conclave.

On the other side of St. Peterís Basilica looms one of the Vaticanís most modern buildings, the Paul VI Audience Hall, where the pope conducts his weekly general audience when the weather is too hot, cold or rainy to hold it in St. Peterís Square.

This distinctive building, with a curved roof that was recently covered with solar panels, was designed by the Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi and completed in 1971. Such a modern edifice, constructed of reinforced concrete, may seem odd plunked in the shadow of St. Peterís, but it met a real need, and today itís one of the most-used buildings in Vatican City.

The Audience Hall stands about 100 feet from where it all began. Across the space that once accommodated the circus of Nero and Caligula -- where St. Peter was martyred -- lies the Vatican Hill cemetery. Here, early Christians laid St. Peterís body in the ground, and marked the site with a makeshift tomb: the seed of 20 centuries of architectural development.


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