St Peter's at last
22 April 2010
After three quarters of an hour with gel filler and a shower, Pip was ready to join Sarah on a jaunt to Rome. Top of the list was a visit to the Basilica of St Peter, one of Rome's great sights and one we haven't visited yet.
Much to our surprise and delight, there was no queue. In all the hoo-ha about the ash cloud over Europe, we hadn't thought that of course all the tourists have been unable to get here, making the city remarkably empty. There are of course millions of pictures and books of the cathedral, so we've just made a small album in the gallery. The picture above is of the wonderful swelling belly of the niece of Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the baldachini over the altar from Bernini. The niece (whose name is not recorded) vowed to support the columns if she had a successful pregnancy. Bernini carved nine of these women, on the faces of the plinths supporting the columns, recording each month of the pregnancy, and on a tenth face there is a baby! The bees on her stomach honour the Berberini family of the pope.
The columns themselves are fantastical twists, like brown sherbet sticks. They are made from 927 tons of metal removed from the roof of the Parthenon. These twists mirror the ones in the galleries beneath the dome (not pictured) which are the oldest part of the building; apparently they go back to Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who sent six of them from Greece when he commissioned the first temple over the burial place of St Peter.
The dome itself is of course magnificent. Designed by the elderly Michelangelo, he died before it was completed. It is difficult to give an idea of its size, but the letters of the inscription around the lower layer are nearly 2m high. It has enormous grace and lightness, seeming to hover above the frantic bronze of Bernini like the feathered sky of a spring morning.
At the other end of the basilica is the beautiful Pieta carved by the young Michelangelo, when he was only 24. Even at a distance and behind glass it is an astonishing carving, the marble seeming to flow and ripple, so that, like Mary, you expect the dead body in her arms to move and breathe. It is the only work he ever signed, to stop it being attributed to anyone else.
In addition to these outstanding pieces, there is the throne of St Peter, also by Bernini. Its central window is a dove within a great sunburst. This is but one of many images of the rising sun scattered throughout St Peter's and many liturgical vestments used either by the Pope himself or to adorn the altar. There is an irony here. The first cathedral on this spot was built when it was still customary for the entrance doors to face the sunrise, or east, rather than for the altar to encourage the congregation to face Jerusalem, as most extant churches do. This caused problems for Pope Leo the Great in 460, as in his time, the early Christians then turned round and bowed to the sun, in an echo of the third century sun-cult, itself a successor to the worship of Apollo or Mithras. Leo's fulminating sermons against this practice still exist.
There is a wonderful bronze of St Peter, seated, which on festival days is draped in Papal raiment. It is considered good luck to touch the statue's feet, which we saw many people do, and his toes are worn quite smooth with the optimism of millions.
Apart from the Popes there's an eclectic mix of people buried in St Peter's, and there are probably whole guidebooks on the subject. We particularly noticed Pope Innocent XIII, who financed Queen Isabella of Spain for the Reconquista, and thus Columbus' voyages to the Americas. He got a good return on his investment, but there's a man with a lot to answer for! We could not help noticing the shapely angels that adorn the tomb of the last of the Stuarts, pretenders to the English throne and unacceptable because of their Catholicism.
There are five women buried amongst all these masculine dead, and of these the most interesting to us is of course King Christina of Sweden, whose tomb is marked by a very ugly medallion mounted on a pillar in the north aisle. She was brought up as a prince, and King was her proper title, though she is usually called Queen. She abdicated in 1654 and moved to Rome, where she continued her patronage of philosophers and artists. Most notoriously she had a wide range of sensual tastes, including passionate relationships with women.