Protected by the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Palace gained precedence over the cathedral church and Lateran Palace during the papacy’s troubled centuries. St. Peter’s was built over the traditional burial place of the Apostle from whom all popes claim succession. The spot was marked by a three-niched monument (aedicula) of ad 166–170. Excavations in 1940–49 revealed well-preserved catacombs, with both pagan and Christian graves dating from the period of St. Peter’s burial. Constantine enclosed the aedicula within a shrine and during the last 15 years of his life (died 337) built his basilica around it. The shrine was sheltered by a curved open canopy supported by four serpentine pillars that he brought from the Middle East. The design, enormously magnified, was followed in making the baldachin (1623–33) over today’s papal altar.
In spite of fires, depredations by invaders, and additions by various popes, the original basilica stood for 1,000 years much as it had been built, but in 1506 Julius II ordered it razed and a new St. Peter’s built. His architect was Donato Bramante, a Florentine who in 1502 had completed the first great masterpiece of the High Renaissance, the Tempietto in the courtyard of S. Pietro in Montorio, a mile away on the Janiculum Hill. Built to mark the spot where, according to tradition, St. Peter had been crucified, the Tempietto is round, domed, and unadorned. Its outer face is a colonnade of bare Tuscan Doric, the earliest modern use of this order. Because of its proportions, the tiny temple has the majesty of a great monument.
Bramante’s ground plan for St. Peter’s was central: a Greek cross, all of the arms of which are equal, around a central dome. Both he and the Pope died before much could be built. Successive architects, including Raphael, drew fresh plans. The last of them, Antonio da Sangallo, died in 1546, and the 71-year-old Michelangelo was solicited to complete Sangallo’s projects, which included St. Peter’s, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Capitol.
He accepted but refused payment for his work on the basilica. Michelangelo adapted Bramante’s original plan, the effect being more emotional and mighty, less classically serene. Of the exterior, only the back of the church, visible from the Vatican Gardens, and the dome are Michelangelo’s. After his death Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana, who executed the dome, altered the shape, making it taller and steeper than the original design.
The east end remained unfinished, and it was there that Carlo Maderna was ordered to construct a nave, the clergy having won its century-long battle to have a longitudinal church for liturgical reasons. Thus, St. Peter’s orientation reverses the normal. Maderna added a Baroque facade in 1626. He was followed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who worked on the building from 1633 to 1677, both inside and outside. His pontifical crowd-funnelling colonnade in the shape of a keyhole around the piazza, a fountain for the piazza, the breathtaking baldachin, his several major pieces of sculpture, his interior arrangements for the church, and his dazzling Scala Regia (Royal Stair) to the Vatican exhibit his legendary technical brilliance and his masterful showman’s flair. Before the lamentable assault in 1972, which damaged the sculptural masterpiece, one could enter the church and, in the first chapel at the right, see the “Pieta” (1499) of Michelangelo in the original splendour.
All the planning, plotting, labour, and faith of all the popes, priests, artists, and artisans produced a vast, gorgeous ceremonial chamber. Amid the gleam and glitter of gold and bronze and precious stones eddy throngs of awed, dwarfed humanity. "Italy" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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