The Construction of St. Peters Basilica during Different Periods





The Construction of St. Peter’s Basilica during Different Period


The design as well as process of constructing St. Peter’s Basilica in the 16th century influenced modification and approval of graphic conventions of representational and emblematic standards for the building processes in Rome. Working under directions of Raphael, Bramante, Michelangelo, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, and Peruzzi, the group of architects initiated a de facto standard. Accordingly, the standard became a popular architectural practice throughout Europe. Contemporary architects still find it highly essential to use the same standards, nearly five centuries after widely used by the ancient architects. The architect’s capacity to visualize their ideas graphically and utilizing concepts that were portrayed through sketches help in the design and construction processes. Similarly, preferences and personnel artistic skills enhanced the design in addition to construction process. Apparently, all the architects charged with the responsibility of designing and constructing the building had a duty to communicate or share their design their assistants, computists, workmen, and administrative bureaucrats via traditional media. The most popular media channels (traditional media) then included drawings, models, sketches, and templates primarily made in clay, zinc, and wood. The media channel remained constant in the long term design as well as construction process of St. Peter’s basilica.

According to Charles B. McClendon’s The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1989), St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is among the most celebrated architectural ensembles worldwide. McClendon bases his argument on the fact that St. Peter’s Basilica has a combined image of its dome, central obelisk, colonnaded piazza, and monumental façade. The building has much more than just the appearance. The complex grew out of various intentions and circumstances mainly based on the sanctity and power of the site. Incidentally, the building did not achieve its current status as a result of effort from one architect or single building campaign but founded on circumstances based on the continuous belief in supremacy as well as holiness of the site. For instance, Piacentini and Spaccarelli’s proposed alternative schemes for the Via Della Conciliazione which presented an ingenious compromise between the open and closed solutions. It provides the grand vista from the Tiber River to the façade, dome, and the obelisk of St. Peter’s. Before construction of the Via, early maps and photographs indicate that two narrow street led in divergent paths from Tiber river to St. Peter’s basilica. The two paths formed a central triangular series of buildings known as the spine or spina.

The vast piazza in front of St. Peter’s came as a surprise to any visitor to the Vatican before 1936. Many of the people visiting St. Peter’s might think that the grand oval of the piazza serves a perfect foil for the crowded urban environment of the spina. In contrast, no formal piazza existed before mid seventeenth century but merely an irregular, unpaved area right in front of the church. Gianlorenzo Bernini created the piazza and colonnade, effectively transformed (1659-1667) the rather unimpressive open lot (open space/plateau) into the majestic ceremonial entrance to the greatest shrine in Christendom. Drawings by assistants of Bernini and drawings in his own hand enhanced the process of following the creative process of the piazza’s design. Bernini’s workshop first proposed a rectangular piazza before settling on a circular one. In effect, Bernini in his characteristic sketchy manner ultimately arrived at the elliptical solution. In essence, he found meaning in this kind of configuration. From a formal point of view, two intersecting lines centered about the familiar obelisk standing in front of the St. Peter’s façade determined design of the piazza. In addition, the moving of the Vatican obelisk marked the first of several such undertakings essentially sponsored by Sixtus V during his brief pontificate. Sixtus V also had other obelisk erected in the Piazza del Popolo, and alongside the church of S. Maria Maggiore as well as the new papal palace that adjoins the Lateran basilica.

According to the New St Peter’s: Basilica or Temple, by Ian Campbell (1981), St. Peter’s basilica is the principal church of the Western Christendom and a solid expression of Christianity itself. The author also argued that Christianity brought about a rather uneasy marriage between the traditions as well as thoughts of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman Worlds. By the period of the Renaissance, there was a long established tradition regarding Rome as the successor to the perhaps earthly Jerusalem. A case in point is the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. Apparently, S. Croce church was established in the fourth century in a hall of a palace that belonged to Helen, mother of Constantine the great. The author believes that Rome’s premier church is the Lateran Basilica, a cathedral in the city. Incidentally, Lateran had close linkages with the temple. Nevertheless, the wider spiritual authority claimed by the Bishop of Rome is derived from St Peter, the leader of the Apostles. Thus, the church built on the presumed site of his tomb which has come to represent the catholic or Universal Church. The twisted white marble columns decorated with vine leaves which, in Old St. Peter’s founded by Constantine, were used for the first time to reinforce the canopy over the saint’s tomb.

Yi-Fu Tuan in Geography, Phenomenology, and the Study of Human Nature, focuses on geography as a ‘mirror for man’. In essence, geography uncovers man and the deeper levels of human nature. For example, a house is a man’s environment and his world. Apparently, man carries out his day-to-day in an environment which is primarily defined as the house. Various economic and social constraints characterize the house in which man lives. For instance, the size, kinds of materials used, site, and location are fundamental aspects that humanity must look into before determining the next move particularly in the critical decision making. The structure of the house usually obeys physical laws. The arrangement of the inner part as well as the exterior or outer sections of the house is essentially the duty of the owner of the house. This case is categorically applicable to the St. Peter’s basilica, and the kind of stages together with challenges it has gone through to attain its current status. For example, Constantine the great was responsible for the establishment of Old St. Peter’s basilica. Furthermore, Tuan talks about the geographical concerns which are essentially the human concerns and thought patterns.

Martellota Francesco (2009) in his book: Identifying acoustical coupling by measurements and prediction-models for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, argues that St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest buildings worldwide. Apparently, the huge size has been a result of the addition of different parts. Consequently, it is arguably difficult to interpret sound propagation using conventional approach. Therefore, experimental measures will play a significant role since it will be compared with the statistical-acoustics and geometrical predictions to explain better the existing interplay between shape, sound waves, and materials. For example, the acoustical coupling phenomena are believed to have contributed to the surprisingly low reverberation time in the previous researches. Large reverberant spaces are frequently encountered in acoustical practice. For instance, concert halls, theaters, and auditorium have huge volumes. However, the way sound propagates inside them is well understood provided that their shapes are reasonable proportionate. Churches (for example, St. Peter’s Basilica) represent an important example of very large buildings whose acoustic characteristics have been under investigations since the early ages of acoustic science. Precisely, the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica is 480 000M3. Shankland and Shankland5 measured the reverberation time in St. Peter’s basilica y means of tape recorder, by ear, and stopwatch in the early 1970s.

Urban Development in Renaissance Italy

Urban expansion in Italy went into turn around following the 5th century’s downfall of the Western Roman Empire along with its aftermath. A plethora of churches was built in the country between the 4th and 6th centuries including the basilicas of S. Giovanni in Laterano (c 313-20), Old St. Peter’s (320) in Rome, and centrally planned church of S Vitale (547). The barbarian invasions from the north architecture in the country’s crumbling dense, squalid and depopulated cities declined substantially from nearly 500 years. However, the Byzantine architecture stood out and came to maturity in the 9th century as demonstrated by Venice’s basilica of S Marco (c 830).

Romanesque architecture whose origin is France and Germany had by 11th and early 12th centuries began to stamp its mark on the built environment throughout the length as well as breadth of Italy though with a difference. Church architecture in Italy continued to employ the basilica plan, marble facing, and cupolas contrary to the development of style elsewhere in Western Europe. In the same way, for the first time arches were employed for ornamental purposes rather than for entirely structural ones, and baptisteries and large detached campaniles became common place. Moreover, many of the Romanesque churches in Italy were apparently different in scale from those that preceded them. According to Bill Riseborough, most of the new building that evidently appeared for the first in eight or more centuries with size and height rivaled those of the ancient Rome.

St. Peter’s Basilica being the largest church in Vatican is among the greatest monuments during Renaissance and Baroque periods. It was the epic of highest technology of the building structure and construction in that period. The process of building St. Peter’s, its expansions, rebuilding, and finally finishing decoration took about 1300 years. It is almost same period of the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In this sense, St. Peter’s is part of the history of Christianity. St. Peter’s was successively presided over by Italy’s most outstanding architect Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bernini.

The first master architect was Bramante. Invited by Giulio 2, Bramante designed the initial construction plan to rebuilt Old St. Peter’s. His main ideas were the Greek cross plan and dome scheme. Bramante presided over the construction just eight years, and then Julio 2 and he died one after another. The new pope Leo 5 invited Raphael continue to build St. Peter’s. However, this young talent died after he became the chief six years. There was no big progress in engineering for about ten years before 1547 when Michelangelo took over. He kept the original design and made a partial adjustment. Michelangelo did not see the completion of his design finally. Seventeen years later he died. But what thankful is the architects after him took his design and accomplish the St. Peter’s. In the overall sense, the St. Peter’s was just an outer form when it completed in 1626. The main impeller of Baroque Bernini spent more than twenty years to decorate both inside and outside of the St. Pete’s.

The historical circumstances and popes play important roles in St. Peter’s basilica. Nicholas 5(1447-55) considered as the first pope has intention to rebuild the St. Peter’s. Many historians do not maintain Nicholas 5 intend to rebuild basilica instead of restoring the basilica. He did intend to preserve old basilica and repair the damaged basilica from beginning. However, he realized it cannot be preserved because of the great damage after he spent so much time and money to patch interior, but it was too late to start rebuilding the basilica. (125)

Nicholas’s rebuilding intention can also be endorsed from the plan by Rossellino. Comparing the Constantine’s Basilica and Rossellino’s plan, it is apparent the plan consists of a nave and four aisles, and additional deep apsed choir known as the Tribuna de San Piero (which was finally built), flanked by chapels, and a transept of the same width as the nave. The nave was to be carried on freestanding columns. Some ancient columns were actually brought ready for this purpose. The same old Constantine roof construction was to be repeated in open timber. Over the crossing however there were to be a dome and cupola, and the apse was to contain the papal throne.

In the early 16th century, Julius II decided to completely rebuild St. Peter’s basilica. Bramante’s Greek cross scheme was been chosen. From that on, the basilica changed from Latin cross to Greek cross. And the Bramante’s scheme powerfully influenced the design of the basilica later. Bramante is the first veritable architect for rebuilding basilica. There are three significant aspects that influenced his decisive plan of St. Peter’s Basilica. Bramante had arrived in Rome in c1500. He has strong enthusiasm to study ancient buildings especially the Camoagna, Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa. Bramante got inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome to design a low central dome which called a dish dome in basilica scheme. Its span is slightly less than the Roman pantheons and the dome of the cathedral of Florence, but it highly than them. The levels of the internal space are more abundant. Bramante borrowed idea from Brunelleschi’s column of the Florence Cathedral’s dome, but Bramante’s dome is a great step forward. Moreover, Bramante and contemporary intellect Leonardo were influenced by Vitruvius’s square and circle theory. Bramante applied and developed the central idea on his Greek cross scheme. Looking at further details in his Greek cross scheme, the entirety plan was based on a centrosymmetic square. It can be average divided into nine portions. He also repeated the small Greek cross forms as small chapels in all corners. Furthermore, he was influenced by Leonardo’s sketches of central-plan churches. Bramante’s scheme, however, adjoins octagonal corner chapels. With its four great piers supporting the central dome and a cluster of subsidiary domes around them “He was the first to use vaults with wooden projecting caissons, with the stucco ornaments that encase them, which catch the eye. To him, also, was due the invention of the method, subsequently used by Antonio San Gallo, of building the vaults on hanging bridges” (Mereu).

Bramante fundamentally made the Leonardo’s sketches of central-plan church become a reality. St. Peter’s was not his first attempt to use centrally plan. From the S. Satiro to the circular Tempietto in the courtyard of S. Pietro in Montorio, Bramante flexibly applied central idea into those design. Bramante’s scheme is the prototype of numbers of renaissance churches. “His design for St Peter’s was commensurate with the authority of the papacy as regenerated by a civilization newly based on principles of humanism and the rules of art according the classical masters”. It also became a model influence the later architectures. Bramante’s scheme is magnificent.

Raphael’s basilica, according to Serlio, consisted of a nave and two aisles, instead of four, separated by pilasters against narrow piers. The whole exercise cost the artist much tribulation and anxiety how it was to be carried out. After his death, his plan was abandoned. His achievements in his short life for St. Peter’s are just raising some columns and building Bramante’s vaulting. “Pope Leo along with his successors was of a Greek cross with apsed arms, every apse opening upon semi-circular colonnade. The central dome was to be flanked by four lesser cupolas. At the angles were four square projecting towers. The high altar was to be in the center under the dome. With the religious reform movement and the Spanish war of aggression, St. Peter’s project shut down for 20 years. In 1534, the new designer Peruzzi hopes of restoring the church to the centralized style but without success. In 1536, while under pressure from Pope Paul III to maintain a Latin cross design, Antonio da Sangallo assimilated Bramante, Raphael, and Peruzzi’s designs then developed his own design. It was remarkable that he made east closer to Bramante’s Greek cross plan and a shorter nave flank by two aisles on the west instead of Raphael’s longer one.

Nearly a decade without significant progress before Michelangelo became the architect of St. Peter’s in 1547. Michelangelo’s design is considered as the bulk of construction. In addition, he is the main contributor that promoted the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Paul III’s insisted around seventy year-old Michelangelo accepted the entrusted. As a great leader of the Renaissance Michelangelo abandoned the Latin cross shape, instead, he restored Bramante Greek cross plan on the basis of his manuscript “but greatly thickened the central piers and simplified, and made more massive, the outer walls. Today the inner piers, and the exterior walls of the transepts, are much as Michelangelo built them”.

From the top of the dome, people can overlook the entire city. When the weather is good, you can even see the beautiful scenery of Alps. The significance of the dome is that it is in the true sense of spherical dome, rather like the dome of Florence cathedral consists of several parts vault patchwork. This was challenging project. The key problem is how to support the dome with the great side thrust caused by earth’s gravity. Once the drum can’t bear side thrust of extrusion, there is the danger of collapse. The perimeter of the dome is 71 meters. It uses internal and external dual structure like the double shell on Florence Cathedral to support the dome. To strengthen the support, “Michelangelo also removed Raphael’s planned apse and transept ambulatories, thus shirking the building’s total sixe. He condensed the square corner chapels inward and thickened all walls and supports until they matched the newly strengthened main piers”.

In summary, it is imperative to emphasize that the ancient Popes from Nicholas V (1447-1455) to Innocent the IX (1676-1689) played vital role in resource mobilization toward building the contemporary St. Peter’s Basilica. However, construction of the building was influenced by the financial and political fortunes of the Roman Church. Hence, not all Popes have prioritized the building over the years. In the same way, the history of its design as well as construction has been greatly fragmented. The several churches of Constantine deliberately followed the conventional plan of Basilica, which is the Roman hall of justice. Most Basilicas (law courts) were normally rectangular, and divided by rows of columns into aisles and nave. Lastly, the exact year when St. Peter’s basilica was started remains controversial though many scholars have suggested the year 322. Nevertheless, the year 337 when Constantine died reveals when the building was completed.


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