BEST VIEWED LARGER
This artwork is derived from a photograph taken during a tour of Western Europe.
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Taken March 7/09 on a gorgeous day in Rome, Italy. I would have to killed to have my present camera that day to be able to do a proper panorama to view the entire square.
To the east of the basilica is the Piazza di San Pietro, (St. Peter’s Square). The present arrangement, constructed between 1656 and 1667, is the Baroque inspiration of Bernini who inherited a location already occupied by an Egyptian obelisk of the 13th century BC, which was centrally placed, (with some contrivance) to Maderno’s facade. The obelisk, known as “The Witness”, at 25.5 metres (84 ft) and a total height, including base and the cross on top, of 40 metres (130 ft), is the second largest standing obelisk, and the only one to remain standing since its removal from Egypt and re-erection at the Circus of Nero in 37 AD, where it is thought to have stood witness to the crucifixion of St Peter. Its removal to its present location by order of Pope Sixtus V and engineered by Domenico Fontana on September 28, 1586, was an operation fraught with difficulties and nearly ending in disaster when the ropes holding the obelisk began to smoke from the friction. Fortunately this problem was noticed by a sailor, and for his swift intervention, his village was granted the privilege of providing the palms that are used at the basilica each Palm Sunday.
The other object in the old square with which Bernini had to contend was a large fountain designed by Maderno in 1613 and set to one side of the obelisk, making a line parallel with the façade. Bernini’s plan uses this horizontal axis as a major feature of his unique, spatially dynamic and highly symbolic design. The most obvious solutions were either a rectangular piazza of vast proportions so that the obelisk stood centrally and the fountain (and a matching companion) could be included, or a trapezoid piazza which fanned out from the façade of the basilica like that in front of the Palazzo Publicco in Siena. The problems of the square plan are that the necessary width to include the fountain would entail the demolition of numerous buildings, including some of the Vatican, and would minimise the effect of the facade. The trapezoid plan, on the other hand, would maximise the apparent width of the façade, which was already perceived as a fault of the design.
At the front of the view are the backs of thirteen large statues that stand in along the edge of the facade. Beyond them can be seen the piazza which is in three parts. The nearest appears square, while the second widens into an oval surrounded on each side by the huge grey columns on the colonnade, and with the obelisk at its centre. Beyond that is a further square surrounded by pale pink buildings. A wide street leads from the square, at the end of which can be seen the river, a bridge and castle.
Bernini’s ingenious solution was to create a piazza in two sections. That part which is nearest the basilica is trapezoid, but rather than fanning out from the façade, it narrows. This gives the effect of countering the visual perspective. It means that from the second part of the piazza, the building looks nearer than it is, the breadth of the façade is minimised and its height appears greater in proportion to its width. The second section of the piazza is a huge elliptical circus which gently slopes downwards to the obelisk at its centre. The two distinct areas are framed by a colonnade formed by doubled pairs of columns supporting an entabulature of the simple Tuscan Order.
The part of the colonnade that is around the ellipse does not entirely encircle it, but reaches out in two arcs, symbolic of the arms of “the Roman Catholic Church reaching out to welcome its communicants”. The obelisk and Maderno’s fountain mark the widest axis of the ellipse. Bernini balanced the scheme with another fountain in 1675. The approach to the square used to be through a jumble of old buildings, which added an element of surprise to the vista that opened up upon passing through the colonnade. Nowadays a long wide street, the Via della Conciliazione, built by Mussolini after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaties, leads from the River Tiber to the piazza and gives distant views of St. Peter’s as the visitor approaches.
Bernini’s transformation of the site is entirely Baroque in concept. Where Bramante and Michelangelo conceived a building that stood in “self-sufficient isolation”, Bernini made the whole complex “expansively relate to its environment”. Banister Fletcher says “No other city has afforded such a wide-swept approach to its cathedral church, no other architect could have conceived a design of greater nobility…(it is) the greatest of all atriums before the greatest of all churches of Christendom.”