Piazza di San Pietro is the main entrance to the St. Peter’s Basilica, the mother church of the Catholic religion. Just like St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza di San Pietro is just as commanding and grand in its design. The piazza functions to welcome pilgrims in to the motherly arms of the church.
Alexander VII was the pope behind the creation of Piazza di San Pietro. His original name was Fabio Chigi, and on April 7, 1655 he was elected Pope and took the name of Alexander VII. He took the name from another pope that was also from Siena and who had worked hard to keep the papacy strong (Krautheimer 12). Before Alexander became a cardinal he was an envoy for Pope Innocent X at the conference of Munster in 1648. At the conference the Treaty of Westphalia was signed which ended the 30 years war. As a result of the conference much of the papal political power was lost, and the Papal States were relegated to a “minor position among European powers” (Krautheimer 12). Alexander believed that the “papacy towered both temporally and spiritually over all secular kingdoms” and he “never overcame the Trauma of Munster” (Krautheimer 12). He has since strived to regain the power that was lost as a result of the Treaty. This desire for power can be seen in his building projects.
Alexander in particular loved architecture. Much of his papacy was defined by his building projects and he was affectionately called, “il papa di grande edificazione” (Marder 126). He spent much of the papal finances on widening streets, correcting and clearing squares, finishing off façades, and of course Piazza di San Pietro. He wanted to “raise Rome to the grandeur it held in ancient times” and beautify Rome (Krautheimer 12). Piazza di San Pietro was one of Alexander’s most magnificent projects. The Piazza is also said to be a “reconstruction of the Neronian circus” (Kruft 800). Many of Alexander’s building projects were done on roads that pilgrims who were traveling to St. Peter’s would pass through. One the pilgrim reached Rome he would enter into the Piazza del Popolo and would eventually end up in Piazza di San Pietro (Krautheimer 138). The building projects were meant to show the power and strength of the Catholic religion to all of those who came to Rome. On all of the buildings and squares that Alexander built or finished he attached his coat of arms. However, because of all of his building projects he left the papal finances in near ruin (Kruft 800). Nevertheless, Alexander truly changed the face of Rome.
On the day of his election, Alexander commissioned Bernini to design Piazza di San Pietro. Alexander and Bernini had all ways been friends. They both shared the philosophy that “princes must build grandly or not at all” (Marder 123). Bernini had also worked for Urban VIII and Innocent X before Alexander and did much of the work on St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1629, Bernini was given the title Reverenda Fabbrica, or Architect of St. Peter’s by Urban VIII. Alexander also spoke to or about Bernini at least three times a month during his papacy (Marder 123). All of this made Bernini the logical choice for designing the square.
Bernini started work on the piazza in 1656 and it lasted until 1667. Bernini’s first design for the square was trapezoidal. After a while he switched to circular, than square, and finally to an oval shaped design, which is what we see today. The piazza is also considered to be in the shape of an elliptical and has a central obelisk. The square measures 1,115 feet by 787 feet.
Bernini had many problems that he had to consider when designing the piazza. First, the piazza had to hold the maximum number of people for mass which meant that the piazza had to be very large. Secondly, the maximum number of people in the square had to be able to see the pope when he blessed them during the Loggia della Benediction from St. Peter’s Basilica. Third, the maximum number of people in the square had to be able to see the pope from the papal apartments, located on the northern side of the piazza, for when the pope blessed the pilgrims. Bernini was also told that part of the square had to include areas that were covered in the square for the many processions that take place at St. Peter’s. These areas had to provide relief from the sun and shelter from storms. The piazza also had to incorporate the obelisk that was slightly to the right of the axis of the Basilica’s façade. Also the original entrance to the Vatican had to be retained. Nevertheless Bernini was able to design a piazza that successfully worked with all of the considerations and problems.
As a result of all of the problems and considerations it took two years for Bernini to plan the piazza. As he was designing the piazza he also had to work with the Fabbrica di San Pietro, which was a group of cardinals who oversaw everything that was done to St. Peter’s including the square. They often complained about his designs. Since Bernini design would most likely require demolishing buildings they wanted two-story colonnades, with the second story providing apartments. However, Bernini rejected this idea and stuck with the one-story colonnade design that we see today. When Bernini’s final design was unveiled it was criticized because in order to build the square the Cibo and Cesi palaces as well as the Penitenzieria had to be demolished. The cardinals were worried that when the foundations were dug it would cause malaria and make the Borgo and Vatican uninhabitable (Krautheimer 70). The cardinals’ main concern however, was the cost of building such a grandiose square that was just for show. The plague had struck Rome the year before and Alexander had spent a lot of his money on other architectural projects and so the papal finances were low. When Bernini presented the transverse oval plan to the Congregation he credited the pope with the invention. Alexander defended Bernini’s design (Krautheimer 70). He said that the piazza would relieve some of the congestion of the streets because it could be used as a parking lot. Alexander also believed in providing jobs for the poor rather than giving arms, and the construction of Piazza di San Pietro would provide many jobs for the poor. The elliptical shape was commissioned by Alexander on August 28, 1656. Five days later, Bernini presented Alexander with the final sketch and that is the transverse oval plan is what we see today.
On August 28, 1671 the first stone of the piazza was laid. For the foundation ceremony Alexander had a medal struck. The medal shows the third colonnade that was never built. When Bernini originally designed the square it was to be composed of three colonnades that wrap around the square. Unfortunately, in February of 1667 Alexander became very sick and was also worried about the papal finances. So rather than building the third arm he had the piazza paved. Alexander died a few months later. The third colonnade played a major role in the intention of the design of the square. With the third colonnade in place, pilgrims traveling to the square would not be able to see the façade of St. Peter’s. They would have to first walk through one of the colonnades and be wrapped in the motherly arms of the church before they could gaze upon Maderna’s façade.
Before Alexander died he saw the first two colonnades of Bernini’s design. Work began in the square in 1658 with stone coming from Tivoli and Monertondo. In 1659 work on the Northern colonnade began and was finished in 1662, while the northern corridor axis that went to the Scala Regia started in 1663 and was completed in 1666. In 1660 work on the Southern colonnade began and was completed in 1664. The southern corridor was not completed until after Alexander died. As a result the southern corridor contains the coat of arms of Clement IX. It is the only other coat of arms in the piazza other than the Chigi coat of Arms for Alexander.
The square that we see today is Baroque in style and constructed from bearing masonry and cut stone. It contains a central obelisk, two identical fountains, and two colonnades. The red granite obelisk was moved to the square in 1586 under the orders of Sixtus V, and was the first element of the piazza. 16 days after it was erected Sixtus exorcised the pagan cross and placed a cross on the top. The next element that was added was the fountains. Pope Paul V instructed Carlo Maderna to built two twin fountains for the piazza. The southern fountain was completed in 1613 by Maderna. The northern was finished sixty years later in 1673 by Bernini under the pontificate of Pope Clement X, since Pope Alexander VII died in 1667.
The main element of the square is the two colonnades that encircle it. The colonnades are made up of 284 Doric columns. Each colonnade has 88 pillars, is four rows deep, and has an Ionic entablature. The entablatures support 140 travertine statues of saints and martyrs, and are surmounted by a balustrade. The saints are 12 feet tall and 96 of the 140 were designed by Bernini. The other 44 were created more than 20 years later after Bernini died during the reign of Clement XI in 1700-1721. As the saints and martyrs look down on visitors in the square, their active poses and presence turn them into “actors and audience for the oval theater space” (Marder 145). On the western portion of the northern colonnade the statues are of the saints of the Early Church. The eastern range supports female saints and male founders of religious orders. On the southern colonnade higher ranking men can be seen on the western portion of the colonnade, while newer saints are seen on the eastern side. The “saints compose a heavenly gathering over the space dominated by the obelisk, which is a symbol of triumph over death at the site of St. Peter’s tomb” (Marder 145). The 140 saints add to the extravagant design of Piazza di San Pietro.The colonnades are similar to ancient Roman porticoes. The four rows form three pathways much like the ancient porticoes did (Marder 136). The central pathway was designed for carriages while the side passages were meant for pedestrians. The pathways were created to provide shelter from the sun and from storms. The colonnades are also surmounted by gigantic coats of arms of Alexander VII, which display the mountains and the oaks. The columns also “work to be the motherly arms of the church that stretch out to receive Catholics, so as to confirm them in their faith, heretics to reunite them with the church, and infidels to enlighten them in the true faith” (Scribner 98). The colonnades work to provide a nurturing enclose that protects all those who enter into the piazza.
The colonnades also serve to fix the excessive width of Maderna’s façade. When Bernini designed the colonnades he kept them as low as possible at 52 feet and also extended them horizontally against the façade. Because of this the colonnades “optically correct the excessive width… and make it appear taller” (Scribner 98). Originally the façade was to have two large bell towers. Bernini built one of the towers under Urban VIII. However, the ground was too instable and the tower had to be demolished. Also since the façade has slender Corinthian columns, Bernini chose the “simple, sturdy, Tuscan order for the columns of his colonnades to contrast with… and accentuate” them (Marder 126). Bernini worked hard to fix Maderna’s mistake.
The colonnades also contain three different inscriptions written by Alexander. The North West inscription and the southern inscription “invites the beholder to ascend to the mountain of the Lord to worship in his holy temple” (Marder 143). The North East inscription refers to the function of the colonnades as “secure” protection against inclement weather. The furthest south inscription reads 1661 and refers to Alexander as Pontifex maximus.
Piazza di San Pietro is a combination of three different piazzas. The first is the Piazza Retta. It is located immediately in front of the St. Peter’s façade and is shaped like a trapezoid with the bottom part widening into the ellipse. The Piazza Retta rises towards the church and the ascension is accelerated through the stairs. The colonnades also do not meet the façade in a right angle. All of these in turn function to make the façade appear narrower. The second is Piazza Oblique. The piazza is an oval arranged on an axis that is perpendicular to the main orientation of the Basilica. The obelisk defines the center of Bernini’s design while the fountains on either side develop the lateral dimensions of the layout. The design in turn creates spatial tension (Zucker 4). Also the piazza appears to be an ellipsoid through the pattern in the pavement, but it was actually constructed as two half circles with a rectangle located between them. The pattern seen in the pavement had not only 2-D importance but 3-D as well. The spikes radiate from the obelisk and tie together the colonnades, fountains, and the obelisk, forming the image of a flat shell (Zucker 5). The third is Piazza Rusticucci. Its main function is to collect and direct visitors to Piazza Oblique. However, due to the lack of funds at the end of Alexander’s life Piazza Rusticucci was never brought into artistic shape.
The piazza that was constructed in 1648 was designed to address the three roads that lead towards it. Also at this time only two small narrow paths led from the Tiber River to St. Peters. Pilgrims traveling on one of these paths would come upon the square suddenly, and the “vast piazza in front of St. Peter’s came as a surprise, as an unexpected explosion of space” (McClendon 39). So in 1936, Mussolini decided to link the piazza to the Tiber River with a large road. However, the Via della Conciliazione was too grand, and was detrimental to the feel and function of Bernini’s design. In particular the illusion that St. Peter’s façade was actually taller and narrower that was created by the colonnades was ruined. The illusion only works in the piazza and so with the large road, pilgrims could see the wide façade from far away. In 1950, two arms were built at the end of the road to narrow it in an attempt to recapture the effect of the optical illusion. If Bernini’s third colonnade had been built the two arms added in 1950 would have not been needed. Bernini originally had planned for a large road to connect the Tiber River to the piazza since the area where the road is now was crowded with buildings and that is why his design included three arms.
The colonnades of Piazza di San Pietro also play with the light that passes through their columns. As one views the columns, the “sunlit columns nearest the viewer in the piazza gradually fade into darkness row by row in three installments” (Marder 134). Also “behind the light bathed in brightness the shafts fall into progressively deeper shadow,” and you also get a “flickering effect of solid and void, light and dark” (Marder 134). Finally the “rows of columns closest to the viewer pass the eye more quickly than the rows behind it, so the visual impact is stereoscopic: the more distant rows appear to move backward as the line of columns in the front moves forward” (Marder 134). The Piazza too plays with the viewer. The Basilica seems closer than it really is so it feels like it takes longer to cross the piazza. This long journey is like a pilgrimage and prepares the pilgrims for entering the holy church. Also is the viewer stands on of the two circles located on the axis that connects the fountains to the obelisk, the columns on one side of the colonnade perfectly line up, so the view can only see a single set of columns.
Piazza di San Pietro is said to be one of Alexander’s and Bernini’s grandest accomplishments. It is said to have the “ideal relationship between space and movement to the artists of [the] late baroque” (Zucker 3). The piazza is often compared to the ancient Roman amphitheaters and in particular the coliseum (Scribner 98). This refers back to the idea of Alexander building up Rome to its past glory.
Bernini did an incredible job building a piazza that was exceptionally large and grandiose without taking away from the splendor of St. Peters. Piazza di San Pietro is considered to be one of the greatest Baroque architecture works. It works to welcome in pilgrims into the nurturing arms of the church. The piazza is also the entrance to St. Peters and displays the incredible papal power and wealth that Alexander had.
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Hibbert, Christopher. Rome the Biography of a City. London: Penguin book,
Krautheimer, Richard. The Rome of Alexander VII 1655-1667. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1985.
Kruft, Hanno-Walter. "The Origin of the Oval in Bernini's Piazza S. Pietro." The
Burlington Magazine 121(1979): 796-801.
Marder, T.A.. Bernini and the Art of Architecture. New York: Abbeville Press
McClendon, Charles. “The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.”
Perspecta. 25 (1989): 32-65.
Scribner III, Charles. Bernini. New York: Harry N. Abrams, INC., 1991
Zucker, Paul. "Space and Movement in High Baroque City Planning." The
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Pictures of Piazza di San Pietro
Piazza di San Pietro, taken from “The Origin of the Oval in Bernini's Piazza S. Pietro"
Side picture of Piazza di San Pietro from the top of the southern colonnade taken from “The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome”.
View of St. Peter’s square from the Mussolini’s road built in 1936 and taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Before and after aerial shots of Mussolini’s new road, and taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Another aerial shot taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
Pilgrims coming upon the Piazza and seeing it as “an unexpected explosion of space” (McClendon 39).
Picture taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
One of the designs made to criticize Bernini’s idea of a trapezoid opening into an ellipse. St. Peter’s is superimposed on the design. Bernini’s drawing is on the left and shows the unnatural bending of his arms. Picture taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
Medal showing the planned bell towers to go on Monderna’s façade. Taken from The History of the Site of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
Medal commissioned by Alexander VII showing the third arm of the Piazza that was never built. Picture taken from Bernini and the Art of Architecture.