Friday, 4 July 2014

52. Wonder: St Peter's Basilica

(For the St Peter's Basilica preview, please click here.)

Thunder erupted as I crossed the road into St Peter's Square. A little over an hour later, after a tour of the underground necropolis and the very moment I set foot onto the nave of the basilica, an even larger peal of thunder exploded above. The heavens had opened. Feeling insignificant within the immaculate space of one of Christendom's most important centres, I wondered if I'd finally pushed the Big Man's patience too far. It's all very well allowing unbelievers to visit His many homes of worship - and Catholicism is very amenable to unbelievers popping by - but I'd got married in one such home just last year. To test His patience further, since getting married, I've been touring around, rating and ranking His holy churches against each other. Now, as the world crashed and banged outside, I looked up at the 16th Century, 137-metre high, 42-metre diameter dome of one of His most holy homes, notebook in hand, prepared to give it a score... surely this was a step too far.

There can be few better debuts to St Peter's than emerging from the tombs underground right into the heart of the interior, whether accompanied by thunder or not. A glorious home of the Catholic world, St Peter's is an astonishing tour de force of a church, built over 150 years by ten architects across the reign of 21 popes. It was built within the foundations and ruins of an older St Peter's, which first dated from the 4th Century. This first St Peter's was built at the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted the civilisation to Christianity, and had the church built upon the tomb of St Peter, who was crucified upside-down a few centuries earlier. Wandering through the catacombs, seeing ancient pagan and Christian tombs combined, seeing the niche in the wall where St Peter's bones were seemingly discovered in the 1940s, then emerging into the truly massive basilica interior, overwhelmed by a deluge of art and sculpture and vast space... it's impressive.

Yes, St Peter's is impressive. And it's meant to be. While, at its core, it is a church built around an altar which is built over the tomb of a humble fisherman disciple of Jesus, it is also a place of great ceremony on the grandest of scales. The dome is the tallest such dome in the world; at almost 137 metres, you could comfortably fit Big Ben underneath. The overall length is 211 metres, but it's the interior space that makes the impression. 187 metres at its longest, 140 metres wide, and 46 metres from floor to ceiling, St Peter's makes the visitor seem very small indeed. Subtlety is not part of the design. St Peter's is an opulent show of majesty, it is the Catholic church puffing out its chest and showing who's the daddy. The riches inside, the spectacular scale, the basilica is a kind of boast of power. It's also a knee-jerk reaction: the Protestant Reformation took place at the same time as St Peter's construction. Which is where the deep irony lies. St Peter's, this supreme centre of Catholicism, is in part responsible for the Reformation, one of the greatest crises the Catholic Church has ever seen.

We'll come to that in time. Arriving inside St Peter's, your first thought is not irony. It's simply space and splendour. St Peter's is big, and unashamedly so. Depending on who you want to believe, it's the biggest church interior in the world. It's over 25,616 square metres, and in case that number doesn't mean very much to you, it's like a thousand decent-sized living rooms stitched together, with a 46-metre-high ceiling. Or five Notre-Dames. Over 20,000 people can fit inside. There wasn't quite that many for my visits, but on the first day I visited several thousand tourists were milling around; the space is such that as long as I avoided the clumps of tour groups, it didn't feel too crowded. As any regular reader will know, I've seen plenty of other church and cathedral interiors over the last few months. They were designed to evoke the heavens, and they certainly do. The vast vaults of the Gothic cathedrals especially draw the eyes upwards, heavenwards, and make the glory of God seem tangible - or at least make you say "wow". St Peter's is next level. It is very, very big. You could park a plane in there. In fact, I made a little schematic to demonstrate this: it looks like you could park quite a few planes in there. Here's St Peter's with a Boeing 737 inside (that's the sort that Ryanair use).

It might cause a fair bit of damage getting through the doors, so I don't think the Vatican would approve. Other details also differentiate St Peter's from an aircraft hanger. St Peter's is packed with decoration. Many types of sculpture, gilding, mosaics, marble, and other art and materials are lavishly adorned throughout the basilica's interior, creating a seamless and ostentatious spectacle of wealth. It's rather dazzling. We have a man called Gian Lorenzo Bernini to thank for this. He did most of the interior decor throughout the 17th Century, in the Baroque style. In fact, he is more-or-less credited with creating the entire style, which is like Renaissance notched up several melodramatic levels. His masterpiece was the Baldachin, which is the 20-metre high solid bronze canopy right in the middle of the basilica. It's not something you're going to miss easily. It's wonderful - definitely the highlight of the interior.

Despite being old, St Peter's doesn't quite have the appearance of age you might expect. This is interesting to behold. To give this some perspective, St Peter's is around the same age as Machu Picchu. It is the same age as much of the Great Wall of China. But it is as far from ruined as you could imagine. It was built from the 16th Century to the mid-17th Century, but since then has been continually added to. When another pope dies, another monument is added, usually in the Vatican grottoes immediately below the floor of the basilica. The building is scrupulously maintained, continuously restored; it is perfect, almost good as new. As I've seen with other buildings, maintaining a pristine condition is a fine line - when do you cross the line from regular maintenance to an over-restored Disney-like edifice? Can you be immaculate without being fake? St Peter's demonstrates: yes you can. An aging building is not like an aging person, whereby multiple facelifts becomes a weird fakeness. St Peter's keeps its integrity: it acts its age and looks spotless into the bargain.

That's the inside. The outside isn't quite so flawless. And that's because throughout most of St Peter's construction, nobody really had a clue what the plan was.

Take St Paul's, in London. It is the single coordinated work of one man, Christopher Wren, and built within his lifetime. St Peter's, on the other hand, was the work of many men - at least seven architects worked on it, with even more being involved with plans. Twenty popes oversaw construction (21 popes if you include St Peter's Square), from 1506 to its official opening in 1626, and many of them got stuck in. From the very beginning, there was never a fixed plan - the architect or the pope would die, and everything would change.

Work officially begun in 1506, under Pope Julius II, an ambitious emperor-style pope with an aggressive foreign policy and grand plans for rebuilding Rome. The old St Peter's was a shambolic mess and he wanted a new and improved version. He wasn't the first such pope to want this. When Pope Urban V returned (temporarily) from Avignon in 1367, the old St Peter's had been abandoned for years, with cows grazing off weeds inside. One account had wolves living there. Ever since being been started by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, it had been added to and tweaked for centuries. It was chock-a-block with tombs and memorials to popes. But earthquakes, assaults by barbarians, and a total lack of maintenance saw the building at the point of collapse. When Pope Nicholas V came to power in 1447, he'd had enough. He wanted the thing pulled down and rebuilt - and ordered no less than the demolition of the Colosseum to kickstart things! 2522 cartloads of stone were removed from the Colosseum and put aside for the construction, and had he not died in 1455, aged 57, and work stopped, we might not have much of the Colosseum left to admire these days.

It all went quiet for 50 years until Julius II, and he used the architect Donato Bramante to begin work on the new St Peter's. Most of his work was simple destruction. Using around 2500 workmen, the old church was dismantled, somewhat hastily, getting rid of almost all the art, statues, and even the old tombs, giving Bramante the nickname of "il ruinante". He even wanted to change the position of St Peter's tomb, but Julius II refused this. Julius died in 1513 and Bramante in 1514, and not much had really changed - the whole place still resembled a pile of ruins.

But the ball was rolling, albeit slowly. For a few decades, various architects and artisits - including the artist Raphael - were put in charge of the construction, but they mostly just made a series of plans. Because something else was on the agenda - the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was the split in Western Christianity, prompted by the German monk Martin Luther in 1517. He was fed up with corruption in the Catholic Church, as well as their interpretation of the bible, and soon lots of other people joined him. Rebellions, wars, and a new Christian movement formed - Protestantism, the name deriving from the word "protest". We can see the consequences today, with large parts of Europe, northern Europe especially, Protestant, and no longer subject to the pope. In short, it was a right screw-up by the Catholic Church and perhaps their biggest crisis ever seen. The construction of St Peter's was part of the reason. Pope Julius II, just before he died, set it off. He promised an "extension of indulgences" to people who contributed towards the funding. In effect, if you help pay for our church, you get some time off in purgatory. Some preachers exploited this, treating it like a sale, like selling tickets to heaven, and Martin Luther and his mates didn't like this at all. A crisis began. In some ways it has never ended - just go to Northern Ireland to see some blind religious hatred alive and well, or go to a Rangers-Celtic game. Only in 1648 were Protestants formally recognised, ending many decades of war. Funnily enough, that's almost exactly the same time it took to build St Peter's.

Therefore, as the Reformation was rocking Europe, St Peter's was being built in fits and bursts. And what better way to react to a crisis of faith than to build something glorious, to show the opposition who's boss? In the words of the architectural historian James Lees-Milne: "The basilica was meant then to be not only a colossal token of victory but an instrument of propaganda."

It was Pope Paul III that got things moving again, in 1546, and he brought in a star name - Michelangelo. Twelve years earlier, upon becoming pope, he'd asked Michelangelo to come on board. Michelangelo had refused: he was too old, and large-scale architecture wasn't really his thing. This time Paul III didn't take no for an answer - he commanded Michelangelo to take charge. The poor sod was 71 at the time, and not really in the mood, but until his death 18 years later, he got stuck in. And he did a pretty good job. Taking the bits and pieces his predecessors had started, he turned it into a cohesive whole. The side and rear outside walls went up. More significantly, St Peter's most distinguished feature was designed and started - the dome. Work slowed after Michelangelo's death in 1564, but in 1589 Pope Sixtus V decided he wanted it done. Under a newly appointed architect, Giacomo della Porta, 800 men worked day and night. By 1590 it was complete.

Wandering around St Peter's is certainly a highlight, and climbing the dome certainly is too. It takes 7 and 511 steps, or for 2 more you can take the lift and climb a still-formidable 320 steps. Michelangelo et al clearly weren't thinking of the modern tourist - the latter part of the climb is a tight, steep affair, with the curve of the dome forcing you into an angled shuffle at points. Is it worth it?

Of course it is. Climbing up tall things is always worth it. It's from the dome that St Peter's Square makes sense. It was another thing designed by Bernini, from 1656 to 1667. The two colonnades - pillared corridors - stretch out from the church, and they are topped by 140 statues of saints. This was a totally original design, without precedent. Over 350,000 people can fit inside. Right in the middle of the square is a 4400-year-old Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome by the Roman emperor Caligula in 37 AD.

From the ground, the design and symmetry of the colonnades and square aren't immediately apparent. It's from the dome that Bernini's plan becomes clear. The arms of St Peter's stretch out, embracing Rome and humanity.

St Peter's Square only appeared after the basilica was completed, but by the turn of the 17th Century, St Peter's was still a mess - half old, half new, with a great dome, but no facade. The final remnants of the old basilica were removed in 1606, then it was time for another architect to get on board, Carlo Maderno. He's the man to thank for the grand rectangular front. I've got mixed feelings about it. It's grand, no doubt, but looks a little too rigid and blocky for my liking. From a distance it makes more sense, crowned by the dome, but walk closer and suddenly the dome becomes obscured by the overbearing front. The statues on top teeter like over-sized suicidal people ready to make the leap.

Church facades are often the stand-out piece, and it's surprising that St Peter's, which has so many other outstanding features, falls short on this mark. But then, it should be remembered that it was originally designed to look like this.

The first is an early 16th Century design, the second early-to-mid 17th Century. As you can see, bell towers were a key feature. It looks a lot better. What happened? From 1626, Bernini spent his years getting St Peter's looking as nice as possible, focussing mostly on the interior and later the square. But he also intended to build the two bell towers. And in 1638, he did so, building the south tower. But within a year, cracks began showing, likely due to inadequate foundations. The tower was taken down in a rush and never reattempted. Maderno's blocky facade was left as is.

What to make of St Peter's then? Vastly opulent, vastly vast, it's an immense beast of a building, a true historical heavyweight and loaded - absolutely loaded - with power and meaning. This is where popes are buried, this is the focal point of the largest denomination of the most popular religion in the world. Some of the world's greatest artists have created it. In terms of size and splendour, St Peter's is one of the world's big boys. Everything is big: big interior, big dome, big facade, big square. That's the intended effect and it is pulled off successfully. But perhaps, this is where St Peter's slips up a little - it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. For me, if I was to be converted to religion by a building, it wouldn't be St Peter's. Much more likely it would be by one of the grand Gothic cathedrals, within their mystical atmosphere. St Peter's is a building of great set pieces, but it has a strangely two-dimensional quality. Perhaps that's because it's virtually only ever seen from the front (there is no obvious access to the side or rear), and the front is a fairly straightforward rectangular shape. The dome is terrific, but is let down by the facade, which is fine but not sensational. I don't think many people would be surprised to hear that they were designed by different people, from different generations, as part of a constantly changing series of plans. St Peter's doesn't altogether work as a whole. It gets away with it because it's famous, it's prestigious, and it's very grand, but it's not terribly elegant or sophisticated. Exquisite, sometimes yes, impressive, no doubt, but elegant? And would I consider it beautiful? Perhaps some of the decor, but I'd describe St Peter's as being glamorous rather than beautiful, and there's a difference.

Of course, simple beauty isn't necessary in a Wonder. A Wonder is usually more about size, impact, and a sense of distinct identity. These qualities are all present with St Peter's, but the final one perhaps stumbles. St Peter's falls into the trap that most, if not all, churches fall into - they are intrinsically less distinct because so many other churches exist in the world. St Peter's is a church and it looks like one. It's part of a style rather than the definition of a style. It doesn't quite has the personality of the world's most recognisable man-made structures, such as the Pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, or the Eiffel Tower. No church does. I suppose this is Church Syndrome, an unfortunate impediment of churches by simply existing. It's powerful, but not otherworldly, not transfixing.

These are, of course, uber-criticisms, nit-picking because I have to. St Peter's may lack a certain smooth subtlety, but it hammers home its intended goals. It shocks and awes. It booms like thunder. And talking of thunder, the torrential rain and lightning continued for some time upon my debut into the basilica. Danielle and I hovered by the main exit, without an umbrella, pondering our escape. Eventually the rain eased off a little and we we went for it. We weren't the only ones.

Some criteria then.

Size: The dome reaches 137 metres high, and the overall length of the basilica is 211 metres. These numbers alone show this is a pretty super-sized church. But numbers are only part of the story, St Peter's also successfully conveys the impression of grandeur, especially inside.
Engineering: Not especially boundary-pushing, although the dome was clearly a technical feat. Essentially just a very large church, in terms of construction.
Artistry: Packed full of exquisite art and sculpture, the interior is immaculate. The dome looks great. The facade is a little disappointing, but the space and design of St Peter's Square make amends. Overall, St Peter's is a grand work of set pieces rather than a cohesive whole.
Age: Begun around 500 years ago, mostly finished about 350 years ago. That makes it middle-aged in church terms rather than old.
Fame/Iconicity: It's the centre of the Catholic world - that's no small claim. I think its reputation is based upon its status rather than its looks alone. Many people will have heard of St Peter's, or the Vatican even moreso, without necessarily recognising it. As I was writing this review, I happened to show my brother a picture of it and he asked "Where's that?" When I told him, he immediately knew, but the name is bigger than the building.
Context: You can't ask for much more than to be a key part of the Eternal City. Additionally, St Peter's Square and the Via Della Conciliazione allow for a terrific approach.
Back Story: It goes way back to the 1st Century, with St Peter being martyred, according to Catholic tradition, in Rome. St Peter's is then directly built upon his tomb. We have from here the story of the popes and a religion, with St Peter's always at the core. 
Originality/Distinctiveness: The only truly original feature is the arm-like colonnades of St Peter's Square. Otherwise, we have, in basic terms, a very large church. I think almost all Catholics, or even Christians, would recognise it, but Church Syndrome means it's not as distinctive as some of the world's most famous structures.
Wow Factor: Turning the corner from Via San Pio X to Via Della Conciliazione, and suddenly seeing it, the grand dome with the arms of the square reaching out, it's a powerful-looking building.

I think a lot of people might call St Peter's a Wonder. It has the bombastic qualities, and it has the weight of history behind it. It's an important building. For me, no doubt about it, it's a heavyweight. It has the swagger of a Wonder, and the brute size. But it lacks a critical ingredient - it doesn't defy belief, not quite. The top bunch on my list all have a certain irregularity, however that is manifested, that makes them stand out out. They are true originals. St Peter's doesn't feel this way. It is incredible in its immensity and importance, but doesn't have that spark of bewitching uniqueness to make it truly stand out. In terms of the actual building, I would say it is the inferior of St Paul's in London; however, its significance elevates it above, not to mention its far superior surroundings - Rome allows St Peter's to bloom whereas London strangles St Paul's. Likewise, I believe Chartres Cathedral to be a superior structure, but St Peter's just shades it for me overall because of its position in the Christian world and its wonderful history. And that's where I'd place St Peter's: just above Chartres Cathedral, but below the quirky, transfixingly improbable, and wholly distinctive Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers 

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha  

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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