Creating St. Peter's: Architectural Treasures of the Vatican
A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin
About the show:
The building and maintenance of New St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in Christendom and the world, is the subject of a rare, two-floor special exhibition at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. Due to overwhelming popular demand, Creating St. Peter's: Architectural Treasures of the Vatican, originally scheduled to close last August after an eight-month run, was given a four-month holiday extension. It will conclude its American appearance on January 9, 2005. The exhibition's more than 100 artifacts, scale models and works of art have since been augmented by some forty more objects. Most of the show's pieces are rarely on view in Rome and have never traveled to the United States before. They come from the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Vatican's office charged with maintaining and preserving St. Peter's Basilica.
In the museum's lobby, a series of oversized hanging banners describes the Renaissance and Catholic Reformation popes involved in the creation of New St. Peter's Basilica. This serves as an educational backdrop to the first room of the show. There the viewer finds dioramas, drawings, documents and instruments related to the basilica's construction and the erection of the Egyptian stone obelisk that stands prominently in St. Peter's Square. Among them is the large iron compass purportedly used by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475-1564). Also in the same gallery is one of the original six-foot winches that was utilized in the elevation of the breathtaking obelisk.
Scale Model: The Ancient Basilica of St. Peter's
© Vatican Museums, Rome
Detailed scale models of the basilica's various architectural components abound in the first room, too. One of the better known ones, Old St. Peter's Basilica (above), founded by the Early Christian Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), is there for the viewer to examine with more modern models of New St. Peter's.
It was on the old basilica's site that the new one was constructed. Between roughly 320 and 330 AD, the original structure was built over the remains of the necropolis (burial ground) that from about 270 AD was reputed to house a shrine with the remains of St. Peter, one of Christ's disciples and the first pope. The enormous building with its approximately 110-foot-high roof was entered through a large open atrium or forecourt. By the Fifteenth Century, it had fallen into increasing disrepair. Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) recognized the need for the basilica's restoration.
The vicissitudes of war and the pope's later fifteenth-century successors' preoccupations with regional political intrigues, growing religious dissent and personal intellectual pursuits precluded any substantial restoration work from being done on the original basilica. It wasn't until the papacy of Julius II (1503-13), the "warrior pope," that construction began on the New St. Peter's that one recognizes today. Financing its building partially through the sale of indulgences (remissions of temporal punishments due to sin) infuriated many faithful Christians north of the Alps. This abuse was a major factor that contributed to the development of Martin Luther's Reformation, a significant historical fact conveniently glossed over in this Catholic museum's explanatory texts and labels.
Building New St. Peter's Basilica in the Sixteenth Century was linked intrinsically with the shifting sands of papal personalities and their artistic, political, financial and religious ambitions. The new structure was designed principally by Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and subsequently by Antonio da Sangallo (1455-ca. 1534). Pope Paul III (1534-49) hired the temperamental Michelangelo as New St. Peter's chief architect in 1546 at the age of 72.
Commissioned by Michelangelo (1475-1564),
Study Model for the Dome of New St. Peter's, ca. 1558-61
Height: 16 ft. 5 in. © Fabbrica di San Pietro in Vaticano, Rome
Michelangelo's famous dome, also the largest in the world, is represented in the museum's lobby by the 16-foot-five-inch-high, hand-crafted Study Model (ca. 1558-61) (above). It was commissioned by the artist for his work on the new basilica. The monumental wooden model, the only one of several left, illustrates the new dome's interior and exterior in graphic detail. Michelangelo's brick and stone dome is a miracle of Renaissance engineering and a testament to his artistic genius and vision.
The second floor of the show features a large gallery of papal portraits in oil and an interesting photographic exhibition that illustrates conservation work at the present-day basilica.
About the catalogue:
Unfortunately there is no catalogue for this special exhibition. The show has a free color brochure at its entrance. A theater in the museum regularly shows Inside the Vatican, a 90-minute National Geographic film.
For further reading:
O'Neill, John. The Vatican.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.
Raggio, Olga, et al. The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art
(exh. cat.). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.
"Creating St. Peter's: Architectural Treasures of the Vatican" is on view until January 9, 2005. Open to the public seven days a week from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM for the remainder of the show's duration, the Knights of Columbus Museum is located at One State Street, New Haven, CT 06511-6702 (Telephone: 203-865-0400; Website). Admission and parking are both free year-round.
From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.