by Judith Anne Testa
Treasures untold can be found within the mammoth walls of St. Peter's Church in Rome.
St. Peter's is the largest church in Christendom -- there are Italian towns that occupy less ground than this mammoth basilica built on the scale of giants. The highlights of the church are among the most famous sights in Rome: Michelangelo's exquisite white marble "Pietà" in the first chapel to the right as you enter; Bernini's breathtaking gilded bronze "Baldachino" that soars upward under Michelangelo's stupendous dome; and Bernini's theatrical "Cathedra Petri," or "Altar of the Chair of Peter," at the far end of the church, lit by a brilliant sunburst from an artfully disguised window. But what about the rest of the church? Even though it would take days to make a tour of every treasure -- one guidebook lists close to 100 points of interest -- it's possible in a single visit to see more than just the major sights.
A good place to start is at the entrance, where you can examine the five doors to the basilica. On the far right is the bricked-up "Porta Santa," or "Holy Door," last opened by John Paul II for the jubilee-millennium of 2000. Its decoration, along with that of the door flanking the central portal and the two doors on the left, are all from the mid-20th-century and are interesting examples of modern religious art. But the real treasure is the central door, one of the few works of art salvaged from Old St. Peter's, the church torn down beginning in 1506 at the orders of Pope Julius II, to make way for the present structure. The gilded bronze panels, cast between 1439 and 1445, are the work of the Florentine sculptor Antonio Filarete. The intricate reliefs show Christ, the Virgin Mary, the martyrdoms of Saints Peter and Paul, and events from the life of Eugenius IV, the pope who commissioned the doors.
The scenes are full of references to Roman antiquity in the form of architecture, furniture, costumes and weapons, and surrounding them is a frame that carries that theme further, with depictions of classical and mythological subjects, and even portraits of Roman emperors. A delightful detail, low down on the right side, is a group portrait of Filarete and his assistants executing a lively dance while waving around the tools of their trade. The words "ANTONIUS E DISCIPULI MEI" flank the figure of the master, and all the other figures are named as well: a little piece of immortality for artisans who would otherwise have remained anonymous.
Once inside the immense church, visitors' eyes usually light first on Michelangelo's "Pietà," so it's easy to follow the crowds over to the right, to the chapel that contains that work. But if you stare at the floor instead, you'll find a historically interesting detail: a large circular stone slab embedded in the pavement in front of the central door. That object, another survivor from Old St. Peter's, once marked the spot near the altar where, on Christmas night in the year 800, Charlemagne knelt for his coronation by Pope Leo III, who proclaimed the Frankish chieftain the first Roman emperor since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, and (at least in theory) revived the Roman empire in the West. Further along you'll find a series of brass tablets in the pavement that bring home the astounding size of the church in which you're standing. Each tablet is placed at a spot indicating the length of the other largest churches in the world, every one of them swallowed up and dwarfed by the scale of St. Peter's.
In addition to Bernini's two great altars of the mid-1600s that define the space of the basilica -- his Baldachino beneath Michelangelo's dome and over the tomb of St. Peter, and his Altar of the Chair of Peter at the far end of the church, almost a quarter of a mile from the piazza in front of the church -- there are numerous other altars, most of them in the chapels that flank the central nave. There are also a number of papal tombs in St. Peter's. Some of the popes who succeeded in having themselves buried in the church were just pushy, but others played important roles in the construction and decoration of the basilica. A few influential laypeople are also buried in St. Peter's, and it's interesting to spot their monuments as well.
A walk around St. Peter's could begin with the Chapel of the Pietà -- no visitor should miss the chance to see Michelangelo's youthful masterpiece, sculpted in the late 1490s for Old St. Peter's at the order of a French cardinal. Michelangelo's "agent" in Rome, a somewhat shady character named Jacopo Galli, assured the cardinal that he would be getting "the most beautiful work in marble in all of Rome," and few men have kept their word more completely.
Once you're past the "Pietà," the crowds thin out, and you'll notice on your left a monument to one of the few women buried in St. Peter's: Queen Christina of Sweden. The question of how the female monarch of a Protestant country rated burial in St. Peter's can be easily answered: Christina had converted to Catholicism, abdicated her throne and come to live in Rome, where she died in 1689. Although quite a "catch" for the Catholic Church, Christina was an eccentric who dressed in men's clothing, clomped around in men's shoes, and was rumored to be both a lesbian and a hermaphrodite. Despite such oddities, she presided over an elegant salon at her palazzo, and her devotion to Catholicism was sincere.
The next highlight along the north side of the church is the ornate Chapel of the Holy Sacrament. Although open to the public through a splendid wrought-iron gate designed by the great Baroque architect Borromini, the chapel isn't for tourists; it's reserved for those who wish to pray. Besides Borromini, other leading artists of the 1600s had a hand in the decoration: Bernini designed the gilt bronze ciborium, the vessel that contains consecrated Host wafers; the chapel's altarpiece, showing the Holy Trinity, is by Pietro da Cortona, and a mosaic of the "Ecstasy of St. Francis," to the right of the altar, was designed by Domenichino. The chapel also contains two twisted columns from the original basilica. They date from the time of Constantine, in the 4th century CE, and gave Bernini the idea for the gigantic twisted columns cast in bronze that uphold his Baldachino.
On the left side of the aisle, just across from this florid chapel, is the severely simple tomb of Gregory XIV, who died in 1591, after a papacy lasting less than a year. A story of the time claims that the poor appearance of the tomb resulted from that fact that a fortune in gold and jewels belonging to the Church, which could have been used to pay for Gregory's tomb monument, instead had been ground up and fed to the pope in an effort to cure his illness. Needless to say, the potion hastened his death.
The last chapel before the transept, dedicated to St. Gregory, was built by Giacomo della Porta from designs of Michelangelo. It has its own dome, small only in relation to the gargantuan size of the central dome. Past here, the visitor enters the cavernous north transept, so enormous it was used for sessions of the Vatican Council in 1869-70. While troops of the recently established Kingdom of Italy were disposing of the last remnants of papal military resistance not far way, and thereby doing away with the popes' temporal authority, the cardinals inside St. Peter's were busy ratifying the dogma of papal infallibility.
Flanking Bernini's towering "Altar of the Chair of Peter" at the far end of the church, and totally dwarfed by it, are two papal tombs worthy of note. On the left is the worldly looking monument of Paul III Farnese (1534-49), who in 1546 was wise enough to put Michelangelo in charge of continuing the construction of the church. Designed by Guglielmo della Porta in 1575, the tomb is surmounted by a figure of the pope in full regalia, but lounging below his sarcophagus are two semi-nude female figures, one representing Prudence, the other Justice. The figure of Justice is reputed to be a portrait of the pope's sister, the beautiful Giulia Farnese, whose affair with Pope Alexander VI played a big part in advancing her brother's clerical career. Originally the figures were totally nude, and a strange story (or more likely a legend) accounts for why they're now clothed: a Spanish clerical student was rumored to have been driven to erotic frenzy by the statue of the notorious Giulia Farnese, and one night he hid inside the church in order to make love to it. How he proposed to possess an over-life-sized woman made of marble is unknown, but whatever his method, it seems to have worn him out, as the next morning he was found dead at the statue's side. After this scandal, the ladies were clothed in bronze draperies.
The papal tomb that flanks Bernini's Cathedra Petri on the right belongs to Urban VIII Barberini (1623-44) who, like Paul III, richly deserves such a prominent place for his monument. Urban put Bernini in charge of designing the decoration of the interior of St. Peter's, and it's horrible to think about what kind of decorating disasters could have occurred if a lesser artist had been entrusted with that overwhelming task. Upon his election, Urban declared to his favorite artist: "Your luck is great to see Cardinal Barberini pope, but ours is much greater to have Bernini alive in our pontificate." Urban VIII can claim another distinction: not only the Baldachino, but also most of the church's other altars and their altarpieces, the latter by a variety of outstanding Baroque artists, are his commissions. Although based on the format of della Porta's tomb of Paul III, Bernini's memorial to his devoted patron is much more tasteful: the animated marble females representing Charity and Justice on Urban's tomb are fully clothed.
After admiring the Cathedra Petri altar, the visitor continues around toward the left (south) aisle. There, you'll encounter another papal tomb, this one of the pope who commissioned both the Cathedra Petri and the vast colonnades that encircle the piazza: Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67). His tomb, also by Bernini and executed in the 1670s, is the great artist's last work in St. Peter's. It's an immense marble confection that includes at the top a figure of the praying pope, while below is an undulating "fabric" of highly polished, multicolored marble. From beneath this marble drapery a terrifying bronze skeleton emerges, brandishing an hourglass. The effect is powerful, and few viewers can look at it without a shiver of mortality.
Continuing down the south aisle, you'll pass the Cappella Clementina, like the Cappella Gregoriana on the opposite aisle, the work of Michelangelo's assistant and eventual successor, Giacomo della Porta. It's named for the pope who commissioned it: Clement VIII, who died in 1605. To the left of the altar is a monument to Pope Pius VII (died 1823) by Thorwaldsen, which caused a scandal not for any suggestive images, but because the sculptor was a Protestant -- it's the only object in St. Peter's made by non-Catholic hands.
Farther down the aisle we come to another survivor from Old St. Peter's: the beautiful bronze tomb of Pope Innocent VIII (1484-92), designed in 1498 by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo. The smiling image of the blessing pope is by far the most cheerful portrait in the church. Innocent, who hardly merited his name, was said to have fathered 16 illegitimate children, but he was an easygoing fellow who kept the Church pretty much out of the secular affairs of Italy, a relief to everyone after the papacy of his furiously scheming predecessor, Sixtus IV.
Gathering speed here, we pass several more chapels, as well as immense mosaic copies of famous paintings in the collection of the Vatican's painting gallery. The last chapel before the visitor reaches the entrance is the Baptistery, whose font is the upside-down cover taken from the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who died in Rome in 983 and is buried in the Grottoes (grottoes?) beneath the church. Another story, discredited by archeologists, claims that the tomb-lid came from Castel Sant' Angelo and originally covered the sarcophagus of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
This trip around St. Peter's could take an hour or more, but it doesn't begin to be comprehensive. Like Rome itself, the treasures of the basilica can seem infinite and are worth repeated visits. I've been going to St. Peter's for 40 years and I still haven't seen everything!