Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2009
William Tronzo, ed. St. Peter's in the Vatican New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 336 pp.; 300 b/w ills. Paper $50.00 (9780521732109 )

Until recently, those wishing to study St. Peter’s, arguably the most important Catholic church in the world, would have had to fill a bookcase with publications in various languages to encompass its long and complicated history. In 2000, a four-volume work appeared in English and Italian editions that provided one of the first major syntheses: St. Peter’s in the Vatican, edited by Antonio Pinelli (Modena: Pannini Editore), is comprised by two text volumes (one of essays and a second with entries) and two volumes of color photographs of each and every corner of New St. Peter’s. With its emphasis on New St. Peter’s (the catalogue is entirely devoted to the standing building), Pinelli’s volume treated Old St. Peter’s in just two essays. The price and bulk of Pinelli’s publication has, however, limited its circulation. In addition to this synthetic work, two hefty conference acts published over the past ten years captured the research of an army of art historians on their corners of St. Peter’s: fifty-one art historians contributed to Gianfranco Spagnesi’s L’Architettura della Basilica di San Pietro: Storia e Costruzione (Gianfranco Spagnesi, ed., L’Architettura della Basilica di San Pietro: Storia e Costruzione. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi. Roma, Castel S. Angelo, 7–10 Novembre 1995, Rome: Bonsignori, 1997) and twenty-seven to Sebastian Schütze and Georg Satzinger’s St. Peter in Rom 1506–2006 (Sebastian Schütze and Georg Satzinger, eds., St. Peter in Rom 1506–2006: Akten der Internationalen Tagung 22.–25.02.2006 in Bonn, Munich: Hirmer, 2008). The book under review here, William Tronzo’s comparatively slender but utterly packed single-edited volume St. Peter’s in the Vatican, treats the history of the two buildings as one, now providing a single source for judiciously chosen moments in the history of both buildings. This well-conceived volume (consisting of an introduction and eight essays, organized chronologically) does not merely summarize existing scholarship but also presents bold new theses, new interpretations of important aspects of the two-church history, and new syntheses by preeminent specialists. All in all Tronzo has assembled a remarkably new book on what, it turns out, was not such a well-studied church.

Glen Bowersock’s opening essay, “Peter and Constantine” (a revised and illustrated version of his recent contribution to a Festschrift [Glen Bowersock, “Peter and Constantine,” in Humana Sapit: Études d’antiquité tardive offertes à Lellia Cracco Ruggini, Jean-Michel Carrié and Rita Lizzi Testa, eds., Turnhout: Brepols, 2002, 209–17]), establishes a very important foundation for the rest of the book by pointing to the “mirage-like” truism, repeated in art-historical accounts of the basilica, that it was founded by the Emperor Constantine. Bowersock alerts the reader to the “interestedness” of history in this critical point: that the very foundation of the basilica was attributed to an emperor rather than the popes. Not from the start, but from very early on, the basilica was imbricated with imperial power.

What is more, Bowersock (who recently translated Lorenzo Valla’s treatise On the Donation of Constantine [Lorenzo Valla, On the Donation of Constantine, trans. Glen Bowersock, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007]) takes a very critical view of a variety of arguments that have been put forth for the dating and attribution to Constantine of the foundation of St. Peter’s. He suggests that the little evidence that exists, and which is insecurely dated, attests only to what was believed later rather than providing proof of it. In place of this thesis, resuscitated most pressingly by Cardinal Baronio in the Counter-Reformation, Bowersock offers what Tronzo hails as “an important new frame of reference—chronological and cultural—for understanding the foundation” (3)—namely that the basilica was founded by Constantine’s son Constans and that St. Peter’s was either a response to his brother’s church projects in Constantinople or the stimulus for those projects in the eastern part of the empire. In addition to being truly exciting reading, this essay provides a new attribution and addresses from the outset the investment of historians in tales of origin. It is perhaps a testament to the power of this investment that the other contributors to the volume did not take up Bowersock’s bold thesis or even entertain it.

Dale Kinney’s comprehensive essay, “Spolia,” traces the motifs of the pagan world that remain in St. Peter’s, suggestively tracking their symbolic and material origins, and showing the extent to which the pagan world is present in the successive basilicas (with an emphasis on Old St. Peter’s). Kinney, long dedicated in her scholarship to the meaning of spolia, gives the reader a good sense of what is at stake in the genre in her discussion of the four long rows of twenty-two columns assembled in Old St. Peter’s from ancient buildings that comprised the central architectural feature of the late antique building. Were spolia “natural symbols of succession” in their design for one context and reuse in another? Were they marks of haste and economy? Did they pertain to an aesthetic principle (like the variety favored in late antique rhetoric, or the “jeweled style” described by Michael Roberts [Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989])? Or, as Kinney prefers, were they a “default virtue,” a practical turn to bricolage, valuing the paradigmatic over the “classical syntagma of the column” at the moment that quarry production broke down? In addition to posing these fundamental questions about the late antique instances, Kinney analyzes the origins, meanings, and reuse in New St. Peter’s of the most important spolia in Old St. Peter’s: the nave columns, the famed twisted columns around the high altar, the pine cone in the atrium, and the obelisk. In so doing Kinney pays close attention to the legends around these artifacts, weighing attitudes toward them as alibis for their reuse.

The limitations of Kinney’s strong materialist arguments may be exemplified by the author’s assessment of a medieval description of the provenance of the twisted columns as those upon which Christ leaned while preaching and praying. Kinney says the tale may have been justified by a passage in St. John’s Gospel describing Christ disputing with the Jews while “walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon,” but notes that “in every other respect, the association of the Dionysian twisted marble shafts in St. Peter’s with any of the buildings in Solomon’s precinct seems almost perverse. If nothing else, everyone should have known that the distinctive columns of the Temple, Ioachin and Booz, were of bronze” (35). To my mind the tale offers a Christological origin for a form. The column is both the architectural embodiment of the figure and a metaphor: “pillar of the church” emphasizes the strength of the column as support. Twisted columns, though, seem to offer less support than charismatic energy. Thus the image of Christ leaning on the column (not walking) suggests a divine origin for the torque of the solomonic columns: leaning, Christ displaced its material, creating a new and even more organic form than the column so often likened to the human body. Kinney’s approach is similar to that of another contributor, Richard Etlin, in making judgments about the erroneous understanding and use of St. Peter’s. This reader would have preferred that rather than “misuses” or errors detected in retrospect, one could conceive such instances more along Bowersock’s lines as symptoms.

Antonio Iacobini’s contribution, “Est haec sacra principis aedes: The Vatican Basilica from Innocent III to Gregory IX (1198–1241)” was first published in Italian in 1997. In this essay, Iacobini, a distinguished scholar of medieval art, both reconstructs the interventions of the two popes and tracks the history of the artifacts in the period of their dispersal in the Counter-Reformation and their sometimes ironic fate in modern times. The essay focuses on key and interrelated interventions in the decoration of the medieval church by two pontiffs of the Conti family. Innocent III renovated the apse, commissioning a mosaic for the semi-dome and an elaborate and dazzling pallium to cover the niche that held the pallia distributed to new bishops by the popes. Gregory IX was responsible for the new mosaic on the façade. Both mosaic projects elaborated earlier iconographies, Iacobini argues, motivated by the particular political concerns of the late thirteenth-century papacy to establish itself as a theocracy. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani, and engaging in scholarly debates with G. B. Ladner, Marie-Madeleine, and others, Iacobini argues very convincingly that the iconographic changes were motivated by the need to establish papal authority. This was manifest in the commissioning of a new cathedra to resemble that believed to have been Peter’s; in the new prominence and centrality of the image of the pope, paired with ecclesia and in direct alignment with Christ; in the metal pallium niche-door decoration depicting a pallium-clad pope surrounded by future bishops who have not yet received theirs (pointing to the pope’s authority to give them); and, in the façade mosaic, with the pope appearing again in a position that Iacobini follows Ladner in reading as deriving from the feudal rite of commendation (the placing of a vassal’s joined hands inside those of his own lord’s as a sign of submission and loyalty [G. B. Ladner, “The Gestures of Prayer in Papal Iconography of the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries,” in Didascaliae: Studies in Honor of Anselm M. Albareda, Sesto Prete, ed., New York: Rosenthal, 1961, 220–25]). With the pope represented as vassal of Christ, the image established a “precise hierarchical scale which placed him in direct contact with the divinity” (60). This reader had a few minor quibbles in this otherwise persuasive and coherently argued essay; they involve the political drive behind the imagery of Old St. Peter’s: the essay does not make good on explaining the theocratic context for the decorations, and the relations between pope and the various rulers are named but not explained. Because Iacobini does not make detailed arguments about the visual evidence, some jarring discrepancies among the images are not addressed.

Christof Thoenes was an inspired choice for the essay on the Renaissance architectural projects for new St. Peter’s, one of the most complicated and exemplary problems in the study of architectural history. For decades Thoenes has published in German and Italian on different aspects of the Renaissance church, and this is his first publication in English. In other publications Thoenes noted the general unawareness in the field of the specialized research and debates over St. Peter’s, and this pertains especially to his own key essays. This chapter could and should be assigned to undergraduates and graduate students. What is more, English readers will now be able to compare Thoenes’s view to that of Christoph Frommel, with whom he has been in dialogue about the plans for St. Peter’s for many years.

Thoenes begins with a summary of his previous research on Pope Nicholas V’s plan for the renovation of the choir of St. Peter’s. Considering practical issues (like the poor condition of the basilica) as insufficient motive, Thoenes argues that the pope’s requirement that there be no tombs in the new choir points to the wish to modernize as the key motivation. This, he argues, “is a revolutionary motif and as such truly amazing in the history of the papacy. To understand it one must keep in mind two conditions contained in the person of this pope: his humanistic education and his ideas concerning the authority of the apostolic chair” (69). Given Thoenes’s premise concerning Nicholas’s modernity, his surmisal as to why the fifteenth-century projects failed is ascribed, perhaps not surprisingly, to a vague teleological force that set it out of the pope’s control: “One might say the time was not yet ripe for it, that the forces of change were as yet insufficient to begin this gigantic work. . . . The Nicholas plan shows the limits of what an employer alone can achieve without a congenial artistic partner” (72).

Thoenes’s thesis about what drove Julius II’s breakthrough decision to rebuild St. Peter’s altogether could easily pass by a reader not alerted to the originality of the ideas. In Thoenes’s account, Bramante’s design for a central plan church arose in the midst of a political struggle to maintain the power of the papacy against conciliar ambitions and questions about the pope’s leadership. Thoenes suggests that the pope’s appropriation of powers of communal institutions as a means of centralizing the Church-State produced a central plan—a metaphor for the authority of the papacy, of the Church-State’s “centrality.” This notion that architecture expresses the form of the state has a long tradition in art history in the work of Heinrich Wölfflin, Cornelius Gurlitt, Hans Sedlmayr, and others who saw architecture as embodying impersonal forces and expressing political relationships. (This kind of “political formalism” is also the subject of my current project, “Barock: Art History and Politics from Burckhardt to Hitler.”) These Burckhardtian impersonal forces, though, can only be brought to form by great patrons working with great artists. So while Nicholas V failed at St. Peter’s without a collaborating spirit, the “hour of the architect” arrived under Julius II with Bramante. Because documents are scarce, Thoenes is more circumspect than others about their relationship: “Most likely, the contact between them was less tight and less permanent than we are inclined to assume” (75). Nevertheless, he argues that the pope hid behind Bramante lest he be blamed for the destruction of Old St. Peter’s. For Thoenes, the pope remains the fundamental ideator with the autonomous artist as providing an alibi for the papacy’s greatest act of modernization.

The rest of the essay is devoted to an analysis of the numerous surviving sixteenth-century drawings from the reign of Julius II to that of Paul III. As Thoenes notes, these drawings (and models) mark the first time in the history of architecture that drawings allow insight into the building’s coming into being. Yet, many lacunae and contradictions have made these drawings among the most debated in architectural history. With this essay further discussion will be provoked by a bold thesis that hinges on Uffizi 20 A, a famous red chalk plan by Bramante that Thoenes reads as proposing a hybrid central and longitudinal plan church. Thoenes speaks eloquently about the Uffizi parchment plan as “acting like a work of art,” as an irresistible cipher and herald of things to come. There is in this essay an almost wistful sense that in spite of the insight permitted by such a rich inventory of plans we will never know these buildings.

Henry Millon’s “Michelangelo to Marchionni, 1546–1784” focuses on the construction of the fabric of New St. Peter’s, its programmatic needs, and the formal character of the building. This essay lays out in detail and with precision the contributions of Michelangelo, della Porta, Maderno, and Marchionni (who finally built the sacristy in the middle of the eighteenth century), lucidly presenting, in particular, the evidence of Michelangelo’s designs and what was known about his intentions by those who succeeded him in completing the building. Its succinct account of the progress of construction and appointment of architects, without extensive apparatus, demystifies a building that looks remarkably of one piece but which was constructed over a great span of time.

Irving Lavin’s lengthy contribution to the volume, “Bernini at St. Peter’s,” is largely a reprint of an essay that appeared in Pinelli’s St. Peter’s in the Vatican, to which a few sections have been added. Those familiar with Lavin’s work on Bernini over the past forty years will see rehearsed here many familiar arguments, but he has made additions and clarified certain points, e.g., he has rethought the crossing and now writes at length on aspects of Bernini’s work in and around St. Peter’s (especially the Ponte Sant’Angelo) about which he has not written before. This is a stimulating essay, full of passionate arguments, but one that will be most appreciated by those already abreast of the debates. The approach is familiar from Lavin’s Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts: a massive marshalling of precedents that converge in a unique study that meaningfully draws upon works Bernini was likely to have known (Irving Lavin, Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts, 2 vols., New York and London: Pierpont Morgan Library and Oxford University Press, 1980). As in Lavin’s earlier scholarship, here the Eucharist is central. For instance, he re-reads Bernini’s piazza as instantiating the Eucharist that Alexander VII had made so central in the Corpus Christi processions with which he was personally identified.

If for Thoenes the political interests of the papacy drove the revolutionary designs of Renaissance St. Peter’s, for Lavin the political writ large is anathema to the art-historical project of interpretation, even at St. Peter’s. For Lavin focus should not be on the political actors, the popes, but instead on the artist Bernini who made the revolutionary moves that brought thematic coherence to the completed building in the seventeenth century. Lavin’s essay begins with an anecdote from Bernini’s first published biography, by Filippo Baldinucci (1682), in which Bernini as a child responds to Annibale Carracci’s purported prophesy of an artist to come who will fill the crossing and apse of Saint Peter’s with a work of a scale fitting to it. For Lavin, the anecdote offers a “profound insight”: both that a very young Bernini responded to an artist’s judgment of the church and that, while it is not literally true, Bernini had a view of the whole church in mind for his whole life. Though popes and circumstances changed,” and Bernini’s’ “vision evolved in detail,” it remained constant enough that Bernini “was able to impress his conceptual and visual stamp on the greatest building in Christendom and create the salient image of an entire epoch” (112). To make the identification of artist and oeuvre complete, Lavin applies to St. Peter’s the motto that appeared on a medal cast in Bernini’s honor in France: “singular in each, unique in all.”

In spite of the attribution by Lavin of some involvement by the popes, his fundamental view is of a coherent program of St. Peter’s as Bernini’s own creation. Key for Lavin is that authorship of the program and the works pertains to Bernini alone. Accordingly, as he says at the outset, he excludes from his account the team-produced works, and he strenuously defends Bernini’s sole authorship of the Baldachin from scholars who believe that Borromini’s drawings for it suggest a productive role in the project. In more ways than one, Lavin follows the agenda of Bernini’s biographers who isolated Bernini’s accomplishments from other actors, and who, in showing Bernini’s seamless transition from papacy to papacy, had Bernini dominate an entire epoch. While the singularity of Bernini’s authorship is one way to argue for a unified conception of St. Peter’s (Bernini stayed while each and every pope died away), it does turn a blind eye to changing circumstances and the insistence that each pope had on the singularity of his reign and times. In contrast to the previous essays in the volume, Lavin for the most part vaults over politics and does not imagine that Bernini himself changed over time—an idea that perpetuates the biographical view of Bernini as an artist who was born practically already formed and who was throughout his career “always himself” (see, Robert Williams, “‘Always Like Himself’: Character and Genius in Bernini’s Biographies,” in Bernini’s Biographies: Critical Essays, Maarten Delbeke, Evonne Levy, and Steven F. Ostrow, eds., University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006, 181–200).

Lavin eschews instrumentality, propaganda, and politics most directly in the section of his essay entitled “Roma Alessandrina: Urban Unity, Public Welfare,” which reads as a belated review of Richard Krautheimer’s Rome of Alexander VII (Richard Krautheimer, The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655–1667, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). From a methodological perspective this section is a particularly important indicator of Lavin’s underlying sympathies. The view Lavin passionately conveys is that of an artist (with his pope kneeling piously in the shadows) whose own quest for unity and singularity was directly impressed upon this church, built on a foundation of faith alone. The papacy steams ahead unopposed and sure in its fundamental spiritual goals as if the pressures of confessionalization did not exist and as if the separation of Church and State had already occurred in the seventeenth century. With his faith in the innovative qualities of Bernini’s art, its essential modernity, and its isolation from the banality of politics, Lavin’s St. Peter’s stands out from the rest of the volume as somehow an exceptional period in the basilica’s history. In implying that our optic must be on the artist alone, he produces a disconcertingly one-sided view of a lone actor rising above historical circumstances—above the political machinations of the period that are so well documented and in which Bernini himself was implicated. If one did not keep in mind the urgency for art historians of a postwar or Cold War generation to put art in the hands of artists rather than potentates, one might find Lavin’s also a very Catholic view.

Alessandra Anselmi’s essay, “Theatres for the Canonization of Saints,” on the temporary teatri erected in St. Peter’s on the occasion of canonization ceremonies, is a welcome survey of a difficult-to-study aspect of St. Peter’s architectural and liturgical history. The elaborate wood structures erected in the apse of St. Peter’s from the late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries are recorded in engravings and descriptions that must be carefully assessed; as Anselmi points out, since the images were prepared in advance and circulated at the ceremonies, they were inevitably inaccurate. Anselmi’s tightly focused essay is not a philological reconstruction but zeroes in on a specific aspect of these multi-faceted projects: the temporary suggestum or platform erected for the papal throne, altar, and most important members of the papal retinue. She demonstrates the progressively public character of the ceremony reflected by changes in the design of the suggestum. In 1588 the ceremonies were effectively in a public space but visible to no one who did not find a place on the platform; in 1625 the mass became visible to spectators by moving its celebration from a temporary altar on the suggestum to the altar beneath the temporary Baldachin over the tomb of St. Peter. The suggestum was now sloped down toward the crossing. Finally, in a design of 1665 that would become the model until the end of the eighteenth century, Bernini raised the far end of the suggestum (where the papal throne sat) so high that every part of the ceremony and specifically the pope would now be visible. As Anselmi notes, what motivated this change was a desire to emphasize papal authority, looking over the shoulder to the Protestants who had refuted the pope’s power to make saints at all. Through the seventeenth century the suggestum offers a good index, Anselmi argues, of the papacy’s growing confidence in its traditional (though now contested) role in saint-making. While Anselmi’s essay opens up many more questions than she attempts to answer, her focus on the meaning of the suggestum for the papacy rather than the particular iconographies of the saints in each decoration scheme contributes to the major themes that emerge from this collection of essays.

Richard Etlin’s essay, “St. Peter’s in the Modern Era: The Paradoxical Colossus,” revealingly draws together several centuries of imitations of St. Peter’s in the most prominent churches, and later industrial and government buildings, from Paris to London to Washington, DC and St. Petersburg. This densely packed chapter does a lot of work in a small space. In the first of four sections, on the immediate reception, Etlin looks at early responses in buildings from down the street (in SS. Luca and Martina), to Genoa, Milan, Paris, and London. In the second section the role of the church in the eighteenth century as a “pivot for reconsideration of architectural aesthetics” is extremely finely argued. Etlin shows the value placed on the synthesis of central and longitudinal plans, the basis for a translation of Baroque scale and splendor into a Neoclassical sublime, and how Boullé and Piranesi resolved what they saw as a problem: that St. Peter’s was unsuccessful in expressing its scale.

In the third section of his essay, Etlin gathers a range of imitations and now copies of St. Peter’s, showing the uses to which its forms were put in an increasingly secular world. From the gesture of reconciliation with the Western Church that Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg (with dome and St. Peter’s-like piazza) was meant to express, to the employment of a similar combination of forms opposite the royal palace in French Naples in 1814, to the actual copy of the façade in St. Jacques in Montreal, Etlin shows that the use of the specific forms of St. Peter’s was explicit and often politically motivated (in the sense of both state and confessional politics). The case of Montreal raises a methodological issue, though, around the question of copies in the age of historicism. Etlin does not distinguish the architectural procedure of “imitation” from a politically motivated form of citation. Are copies always already historicist or isn’t the point of the copy that style either doesn’t matter or, rather, comes with the prototype and is not the first consideration?

Etlin’s discussion of the great glass structures of the nineteenth century shows how the imitation of the dome of St. Peter’s in a feat of steel and glass construction functioned metonymically. The form and especially the scale of the building became a figure for technical greatness, progress, commerce. In the domed Capitol building in Washington, Etlin notes how the form came to stand for world power and “a moral order as well.” That this claim was also made for Albert Speer’s great domed hall for Berlin, which was explicitly likened to St. Peter’s, leads Etlin to hasten back to the Romantics. He ends by rescuing St. Peter’s from its association with Nazism by quoting the satisfaction of eighteenth-century viewer Charles de Brosses with St. Peter’s. After having suggested throughout that St. Peter’s was for centuries at the center of a politically driven architecture, Etlin retreats into a kind of aestheticism.

Because of the centrality of religious and political messages throughout the history of St. Peter’s, the essays in Tronzo’s St. Peter’s in the Vatican offer rich fodder for rethinking enduring methodological issues. Central among them is the extent to which patrons or their artists are responsible for works of art of an official character. These essays extend from late Antiquity to today, straddling the early modern period when we begin to know as much or at times more about the artists than their patrons. Taken together with the relative stability and well-documented character of the papacy as an institution through the entire period in question, the issue of responsibility could be and is put into clear evidence in the essays assembled here.

While this volume is rich in ideas and poses central methodological problems, the book as an artifact does not always rise to the efforts of its authors. Many of the extremely detailed illustrations of infrequently reproduced engravings in Anselmi’s essay are of such poor quality that they are practically useless. And in several essays (especially Millon’s and Lavin’s), the illustrations are pages away from the text where they are discussed or do not adequately support the text’s arguments. In spite of the deficiencies of Cambridge’s production, these essays, expertly assembled by Tronzo, all written by preeminent specialists with distinct points of view, should be read and re-read by anyone interested in the basilica’s history.

Evonne Levy
Professor, Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto