I read my books while riding the commuter train to work and back. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti.
It’s an epic tale, beginning in the 1450s when Pope Nicholas V proposed renovating the Vatican basilica. Constantine’s original was by then more than a thousand years old, a creaking and rickety hulk. It remained standing mostly by force of habit.
Pope Julius II broke ground on an entirely new St. Peter’s in 1506. A restless dynamo with a fondness for outsize projects, Julius envisioned the new edifice as a kind of grand showroom for his tomb, which he contracted Michelangelo to sculpt. The mausoleum plans were so ambitious, and the artistic milieu of Renaissance Rome so volatile, that Michelangelo never finished. But the basilica itself moved forward, its story studded with characters as if from a novel.
There was Michelangelo himself, the very prototype of the genius temperament. Then there was Leo X, one of the Medici popes, under whom the basilica became an immediate trigger for the Reformation. Leo’s penchant for selling indulgences and offices to pay his ceaseless train of expenses, including construction bills, enraged an obscure German Augustinian priest named Martin Luther. The rest was history.
Have you ever wondered about the giant, iconic dome? It was the biggest such project since the Pantheon dome fourteen centuries before. And in 1588, architect Giacomo della Porta told Pope Sixtus V it would take ten years to finish properly. Sixtus, who was old, impatient, and almost gleefully ruthless, gave the flabbergasted Della Porta thirty months. As it happened, the dome only took twenty-two months, and so far it hasn’t fallen on anyone.
I smiled at Pope Paul V, who oversaw the completion of the façade. He modestly commemorated his own role by emblazoning the following directly above the front door: PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX (“Paul V, Roman of the House of Borghese, Supreme Pontiff”). You could be forgiven for thinking he poured the foundation personally.
But the most interesting person in the book was Gianlorenzo Bernini. A one-man Baroque whirlwind, he was known for painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, plays, and building his own theatrical sets. In fact he was a master of theater, of illusion, and this he brought to St. Peter’s. For by the time Bernini arrived in the 1620s, St. Peter’s needed illusion.
The new basilica was a hodgepodge of things done by different artisans in different eras with lots of interruptions. The façade was too wide for its height. And the front section of St. Peter’s, the nave, was so disproportionately big you had to stand away on a hill or down the road to appreciate what everything actually looked like. Meanwhile, the inside had no unity. Scotti describes a “sensory overload,” a “fantasia of soaring space, mosaics, gilt, colored stone, columns, niches, statues, chapels, and sepulchres.”
Enter Bernini. Over fifty-odd years, his sweeping achievement was to bring these clashing elements together. His massive bronze baldacchino, or canopy, centered the interior of the church on the pope’s altar. As for the awkward nave and façade, Bernini fused them with a colonnade topped with stone saints that encircled Piazza San Pietro. Now it’s an awe-inspiring grand entrance to the nerve center of Catholicism, both embracing the approaching world and transitioning visitors out of it.
Bernini was good at fixing stuff like that. Maybe too good. Many times since reading Scotti’s account, I’ve felt that Bernini’s projects are an overly-apt metaphor for the Vatican he served.
The global church, seen from the power center of Rome, has the appearance not only of unity but of uniformity. It’s a comforting illusion. But it wears off whenever Catholics speak too loudly about the gritty realities of their lived faith. And then the pope and bishops, who rarely live these gritty realities themselves, are typically overwhelmed by the fantasia of sensory overload.
So they go in frantic search of a baldacchino, a colonnade, something that will restore the appearance and revive the illusion. They censure theologians, warn us about LGBTQ activists, crack down on nuns, throw out Father Roy Bourgeois, and rejigger the liturgy. I’m actually sympathetic in a way: it must be really hard squinting at the world, trying to see it clearly, when the only view you have is from St. Peter’s. It must be really hard, as theologian Matthew Fox put it at the last Call To Action conference, to carry basilicas on your back.