Vanity Project

I tried to avoid the obvious locations when I last visited Rome; what would I gain from seeing the Coliseum once more, or ambling through the Forum and Imperial ruins for the third time in my life? There were two particular exceptions to this; the Musei Vaticani was one, for how could a few hours possibly reveal all of the wonders there?  St Peter’s Basilica was the other.  Despite my atheism the Catholic Church had got my attention.  The museum contents are of course full of what were once private collections of the popes, but from its design and construction throughout the 16th Century the church was a very public display; a display of wealth, power, and influence.  Remember that the popes of this period had a powerful military at their disposal too. Which is why many of the great artists of the period were called upon to design and build what would be the world’s largest church on the supposed site of St Peter’s burial.  (Incidentally this doesn’t make it the most important; Rome’s cathedral is actually the older Archbasilica of St John Lateran which is a few kilometres away from the Vatican.)  Michelangelo contributed a design for the church, and in particular its famous dome that dominates the city and his Pietá sculpture.
Pieta, Michelangelo
Bernini of course gave us the great welcoming arms of the colonnade that encircles St Peter’s Square and the magnificent bronze baldacchino at the heart of the church.  The Chair of St Peter, a wooden relic thought to have been the saint’s seat as the first bishop of the city, is encased in another of his confections. Bramante, Raphael, Giacomo della Porta, Sangallo and more worked on designs during the century and the great facade was added by Carlo Madermo.  Then there are the numerous artisans who added the polychromatic marble, the dramatic and imposing statuary and the gilt ceiling details. Now if you look carefully at the last image in the gallery above you’ll see two separate pieces of symbolism.  The keys in the lower half are of course associated with St Peter who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The upper symbol is a peculiar piece of headgear worn by popes for centuries and is usually combined with the keys as an overall symbol of the papacy.  This headgear or papal tiara is properly known as the triregnum, comprising as it does of three crowns.  Three!  Though there are multiple crowns in the Queen’s jewels neither she nor any of there predecessors would wear them all at once.  Combined with the keys there is an underlying threat that you’d better comply with the authority of the Pope. There was little chance you might forget it either… Some years ago I undertook a development project in a Tanzanian village called Mahida.  The poverty was striking, and the two main features in the village, the school and the community centre, both benefitted from some repair work that we undertook.  In a clearing just outside the village centre was another structure.  Bigger, sturdier, unimaginatively designed, and completely at odds with the surroundings.  It was a catholic church.
Welcome to the jungle
Postscript:  the header image in this piece isn’t St Peter, it’s St Paul.  My own piece of vanity.
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Levels of Recognition

Perhaps the young amphibian martial artists of New York’s sewers are to blame, but when it comes to the artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, some getter a better deal than others in the public eye.  Perhaps Caravaggio was just a syllable too many to be a catchy name for a super hero, but no more so than Michelangelo who did make it to turtle status!

I’m being flippant of course and wonder how many of the public at large appreciate why Raphael and Donatello might be names that they recognise when   Giotto, Cimabue, or Brunelleschi might not.  How does one differentiate between levels of genius?

You’re probably well aware of Bernini if you’ve ever visited Rome;  the grand colonnade that fronts St Peter’s, the bronze baldacchino over the altar within are probably on a par with Michelangelo’s dome above the basilica and his Pieta inside in terms of public recognition.  Michelangelo holds the trump card with the Sistine Chapel of course, but Bernini has other works to offer.

Why is he as a sculptor and architect any less worthy of recognition?  It can’t be down to his patronage for Bernini enjoyed the favour of popes, cardinals and European royalty.  He lived in a different era of course so perhaps he lacks the glamour of being a pioneer in his field.  Bernini was a master of the Baroque rather than the Renaissance.   All the same he fares better than his contemporary Borromini.

Most visitors to the Piazza Navona stroll the length of the former arena and pause either to partake of the many caffés or to pose for the obligatory selfie by the attention grabbing Fountain of the Four Rivers; one of Bernini’s more famous works.  The fountain stands outside a fantastic baroque church, Sant’Agnese in Agone which was partly designed by Borromini.

Located elsewhere the church would have real presence, yet here it is relegated to backdrop.  (There is a popular myth that Bernini’s fountain exacerbates this by having the statues which personify the rivers turn in horror from Borromini’s facade, though the story is not consistent with the construction dates of both).

Then there is that baldacchino.  Actually a joint enterprise by both men, it has become known as “Bernini’s Baldacchino”.

St Agnes, Borromini

My visit to Sant’Agnese was curtailed by the church clearing visitors, presumably ahead of some daily service, but not before I could take in the frescoes and interior decoration which draw the eye with their bright colours, colours which Borromini’s design did not include.  His vision was one of white stucco throughout but a change of pope saw him lose favour and he resigned the commission, a decision he may have regretted when he saw the results.

Whether real or perceived, Borromini was probably a depressive for whom such slights can easily take on great significance.  He took his own life at the age of 67 which doubtless further impacted his reputation.

It’s not all about the work.