St. Peter’s interior and the Pieta by Michelangelo, scala regia by Bernini

Something else that stands out when you walk across the square toward the entrance of St Peter’s is the clearly visible axis. Unfortunately, the big doors (of Filarete) in the narthex that give direct access to the church won’t be open. However, on the axis you are continually reminded of St Peter. Before you enter the church, you see the apostle’s statue with of course the keys in his hands. In the middle of the narthex, near the doors of Filarete, you will see a large number of relics connected to St Peter’s life. If you then continue your way along the vertical axis, which requires a minor detour via a side entrance, you immediately notice the enormous baldacchino.

Pannini St. Peter’s
Panini St Peter’s

It has been placed directly over St Peter’s grave. Also notable is the Cathedra Petri (St Peter’s seat), which can be seen through the baldacchino.

View through the baldacchino and the Cathedra Petri
View through the baldacchino and the Cathedra Petri St Peter's

pictures: Edgar González and @@@@@

If you continue along the central axis you will see a number of copper strips between the marble tiles of the floor (St Paul’s Cathedral London). Written below these strips is which European church would fit in the basilica at that point. Naturally, St Peter’s is the biggest. Also, in the centre of the floor there is a porphyry plate that indicates the spot where Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope.

Michelangelo’s Pietà zoom in
Pietà Michelangelo
Michelangelo Pietà detail
variant of the American photographer Xavier J. Peg

Before we take a closer look at the baldacchino, we first take a right turn immediately after entering the church to take a look at a famous sculpture by Michelangelo, the Pietà. Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498-1499.

Michelangelo Pietà detail Christ
Youtube Pietà  Khan Academy (3.38 minutes)    Youtube lecture Elizabeth Lev (27.42 minutes)
Pietà Michelangelo

This sculpture has unfortunately been placed behind armoured glass. Many years ago, when you could still get close to the sculpture, a visitor struck off the nose of the Virgin Mary. When we are standing in front of the glass, I will explain to you why this sculpture became so famous. The composition of a dead person lying on a mother’s lap is exceptionally difficult. It was not just sculptors had a hard time getting this right, but painters too like  Vittore Carpaccio or  Cosmè Tura.

Cosmè Tura ‘Pietà’ 1460 Correr Museum Venice
big format
Cosmè Tura 'Pietà' 1460 Correr Museum Venice

Michelangelo was the first to succeed in making it look beautiful. And yet, when you look closely, his solution came at the expense of realism, because there is something strange going on with the proportions of the bodies. Besides, there was fierce criticism of the Virgin Mary’s face. Her head was not the head of a mother, but that of a girl.

Two faces of the Pietà  The Virgin Mary and Christ
Pietà head Maria Michelangelo

Michelangelo reacted to this criticism with a simple defence, namely that those criticising him did not understand that:

‘[…] virginal, immaculate people for a long time preserve their perfectly unblemished appearance, while the opposite holds true for people such as Christ, who have suffered greatly.’ This is the only sculpture that Michelangelo signed, according to Vasari because: […] one day when Michelangelo entered the chapel (St Peter’s) that houses the sculpture, he encountered a large number of strangers, from Lombardy, who praised the work highly, and one of them asked another who had carved it, and this one replied: ‘Our Gobbo from Milan.’ Michelangelo just stood there and remained silent, but he was uncomfortable with the fact that his work was being ascribed to someone else; so one night he fetched his chisels and a lamp, had himself locked in, and inscribed his name on the statue.

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume 1 [original edition: 1568] 1992, page 207 and 106

Buonarroti signed the sculpture with: MICHEL.A [N]ELVS.BVONAROTVS.FLORENT.FACIEBA [T] which literally means: Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making (me). It is the statue that speaks, as it were, but in an imperfect tense. By omitting the final letter T, Michelangelo emphasised that his Pietá wasn’t finished yet. This is similar to what Pliny wrote about the way in which Apelles and Polyclitus signed their work. They used a provisional signature such as Faciebat Apelles (Polyclitus), as if art is always just a moment in a process. At the same time, the word faciebat expresses humility, after all, the work is not yet finished. (Rona Goffen, ‘Renaissance Rivals Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian’, Yale University Press, New Haven&London, 2002 page 113-114) This was also a useful defence against criticism. Michelangelo had included in the contract that his Pietá would eclipse all others. Let’s not forget that this is one of Buonarroti’s early works, and the composition was clearly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Buonarroti not only copied the triangular composition, but also how Leonardo painted his drapes. Da Vinci never signed his works; his style was his signature. After the Pietá, Michelangelo would never again sign any of his sculptures or paintings.

Michelangelo zou na de Pietà zijn beelden en schilderwerk nooit meer van zijn monogram voorzien.

Michelangelo Pietà and Leonardo da Vinci study
Pietà Michelangelo

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who greatly admired Michelangelo Buonarroti, used a completely different technique than his great Florentine predecessor. Michelangelo’s way of carving a figure from a block of marble was essentially still mediaeval, but more about that when we are in St Peter’s.

The great mother, Magna Mater Cybele, was very popular with the old Romans. Her right foot was kissed so often that it needed a replacement more than once. This custom can be found centuries later with Mary and Peter statues. The Catholics were wise enough to provide the right foot of the Saint with a copper or silver cover, as shown with the statue of the H. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio from c. 1250 in the St. Peter.

Arnolfo di Cambio St. Peter’s
Arnolfo di Cambio St. Peter's

picture: Francisco Aragão

Scala Regia

Scala Regia: entrance and the Scala Regia view from the top of the holy stairs
scala regia vatican

picture: @@@@@

Scala Regia big size
scala regia Bernini Vatican

Bernini renovated an existing stairway, that served as an entrance to the Sala Regia and had to connect the church to the palace. The old stairs dated from the 16th century and had been built by Bramante and Antonio da Sangallo the younger.

The Scala Regia is located between St Peter’s and the south wing of the Vatican palace. To gain access to the palace the visitor had to make all kinds of strange detours. This did not at all match with the neatly laid out big piazza in front of the basilica. Urban VIII and Bernini decided to demolish the old entrance to the palace and replace it with a closed corridor as opposed to an open colonnade like in the adjoining arm. The corridor begins in the north at the colonnade and ends at the steps of the old stairway. The corridor thus serves as a link between the colonnade and the church. The stairs and the corridor also connect the Sala Regia (official reception room for visitors) to the papal palace. The corridor on the left side of the square serves exclusively to lead visitors to the church.

Floor plan of the Scala Regia with the corridor Engraving by Carlo Fontana 1694
big format
Floor plan of the Scala Regia with the corridor Engraving by Carlo Fontana 1694

Gian Lorenzo needed much more than a corridor to create a beautiful stairway. The old one was narrow, quite dark and made a gloomy impression. The stairs ran under the old rooms of the palace (see floorplan under K), that were supported by the vaults of the corridor. Bernini radically renovated this corridor. A big window was built before the start of the steps and another at the landing halfway up the stairway. And finally a third window at the end of the stairs where a visitor has to make a 180 degree turn to walk up the Scala’s last flight of steps. This section leads to the door of the Sala Regia. Bernini did not make any major alterations to the narrow stairway just before the Sala Regia, he only put in a ceiling and new plastering on the walls. Bernini did create skylights in the new vault.

Scala regia view from the Sala Regia and a 180 degree turn
Scala regia view from the Sala Regia


Scala Regia Bernini’s first design drawing detail
scala regia vatican

Of the original six only two remain. When you walk up the stairs at the very beginning there are three skylights and after you have made the turn and walk up the final section of the stairway there are no less than six. This has the effect of a climax, which was done deliberately. The width and height of the stairway decrease as you climb the steps. Bernini built columns that become increasingly shorter. Because of the perspectival effect the first columns appear larger than they really are. The corridor also appears longer than it really is.

I will explain by means of an A3-sized copy of a design drawing by Bernini (now in Munich) how he struggled with the construction of the corridor. The main problem facing Gian Lorenzo was that the corridor’s vaults adjoined the papal palace and the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Furthermore, the vaults of the Scala supported the walls and the floor of the Sala Regia above. Bernini abandoned his initial design because he thought it was too dangerous. Don’t forget that the tower that Bernini had built near St Peter’s facade had to be demolished. The old foundation was too weak and the facade began showing cracks so the tower had to be torn down. He couldn’t afford a second capital blunder.

Ferdinando Cavallere Procession  Corpus Domini Gregorius XVI 1840
Ferdinando Cavallere Procession Corpus Domini Gregorius XVI 1840 Scala regia

The visitor, sorry, royal visitor walking down the long corridor and up the steps undergoes a very special experience, somewhat comparable to Borromini’s famous corridor in the Palazzo Spada that we will visit later. If you are lucky, you will be allowed to walk down Borromini’s corridor. When you come to the stairway, it appears quite long, but the actual distance proves to be much shorter. You reach the central landing much sooner than you thought you would. Your visual impression is negated by your physical experience. In other words, what you see is the opposite from what you experience.

Standing in the de narthex, you will not only see the corridor and the top of the Scala Regia, but also a larger-than-life-size statue by Bernini of the emperor Constantine sitting on a rearing horse and looking up in alarm.

Bernini Constantine sitting on a rearing horse
Bernini Constantine sitting on a rearing horse St. Peter's

The statue was initially intended for the interior of St Peter’s. Innocent X had commissioned the statue in 1654, during the final months of his papacy. The death of this pope and the fact that he had many other assignments meant that Gian Lorenzo did very little work on the statue. Only in 1662, under Pope Alexander VII, did he start working on it again, but so slowly that it was not finished until 1665 after he his return from France. It was not until 1669 that the statue was taken from Bernini’s workshop and transported to the landing at the bottom of the Scala Regia.

 preliminary sketch Academia de San Fernando Madrid
terracotta model (83,5 cm) Museum Salzburg
Bernini Constatine on horseback preliminary sketch Academia de San Fernando Madrid
Bernini model Constantine on horseback Hermitage
Bernini model Constantine on horseback Hermitage

A section of one of the walls of his workshop had to be demolished to get the huge statue out. It was then placed on a sled pulled by horses. Once at the Vatican, multiple winches and double the normal number of horses were needed to hoist the statue into place. The invoices for the repairs to Bernini’s workshop (near the Spanish Steps), for the horses and for fixing the potholes that had been caused by the transport can still be found in the Vatican archives. The invoices even include a post for the many candles that were needed to illuminate the road travelled by the statue on its sled. When the statue was hoisted onto its plinth, it was not yet completely finished. That was the moment when Bernini started working on the drapes hanging behind the rearing horse. These drapes, that serve as a backdrop to the statue, at the same time make it possible for the horse to rear up without the marble breaking off. Bernini himself paid the invoice for the scaffolding that was needed to continue working on the statue. An assistant from his workshop created the drapes in stucco. They were painted blue and were partly gilded. Gian Lorenzo found himself in serious trouble when his brother Luigi was caught making love to a young man behind the statue (continue reading at: San Francesco a Ripa).

The light was to come pouring in from the top right. Gian Lorenzo built an east-facing window above the barrel vault. It is known that the height of the window was increased at a later stage of the design process.

design for an angel with the banderole around 1663 window
‘In hoc signo vinces’
design for an angel with the banderole around 1663 Bernini

This also applies to the vault immediately before the stairs. A higher vault was needed to allow sufficient light to enter the room. Bernini probably did not get the idea to raise the vault until after he decided to put the statue of Constantine in this spot. Now that the statue would be placed here and no longer in St Peter’s, the need arose for more light and consequently for a higher vault. Raising the vault was a risky enterprise, because the floor of the Sala Regia almost adjoined it. However, Bernini decided to take the risk because the rearing horse and Constantine needed beautiful lighting. Emperor Constantine looks up at the heavens and sees a sign from God. Around a cross are the words: ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’, In this sign you will conquer.’ And yes, after seeing this sign, Constantine won the battle against his Roman rival Maxentius.

How did Bernini succeed in supporting the existing construction in such a way that he could build a higher vault and a higher arch? Carlo Maderno, a good engineer, said he was scared when he saw the temporary struts. He describes how Gian Lorenzo had two enormous wooden struts placed under and above the Sala Regia so that the room was kept in its place and construction of the new vault could begin. When the new vaults and the high Serlio arch were finished, the wooden struts were only partly removed. Just to make sure, several parts of the wooden struts were left in place for some time.

We re-enter the church, walk over to St Peter’s grave and down the steps under the baldacchino where we can catch a glimpse of the lamps burning at his grave.

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