St. Peter's Baldachin

7:00 AM

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's Baldachin, 1623-34
In 1623 the Basilica of St. Peter was vastly under-decorated. The golden ceilings, tapestries, paintings, murals, sculptures, altars, and carvings were nice to look at, sure, but they didn't give the church the class that the Papacy was looking for. And so it came to pass that Pope Urban VIII, sick of worshipping in such a destitute chapel, ordered Gian Lorenzo Bernini to begin work on a marker for St. Peter's resting place. Something nice and flashy that would pull the room together, like a favorite rug might. So began the plans for St. Peter's Baldachin. 

Detail of St. Peter's Baldachin: columns and canopy 
The first problem that faced Bernini was creating a structure large enough to fill the space under the giant dome of the Basilica. He responded by fighting fire with fire, and built the canopy 95 feet high. In order to build the structure to such a massive height, Bernini and his benefactors were forced to borrow materials - especially bronze - from older, less interesting creations like the Pantheon. So much bronze was scavenged from the city's architecture that the people of Rome began to whisper quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini, or "what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did." Truly, a reputation worth all the bronze in Europe. But at least the beautiful, twisted, Solomonic columns that called for all of the material were one of Bernini's finer ideas, right? Alas, even the idea was pillaged from an architect by the name of Carlo Maderno, who had drawn up a design of his own not long before Bernini was put on the job.

Detail of St. Peter's Baldachin: coat of arms
While some of what went into the construction of the Baldachin suggested that Bernini and his bosses were devoid of moral fibre, some of it showed a severe deficiency. The Baldachin is credited entirely to Bernini, scholars aren't entirely certain which parts of the structure he actually contributed to. The project marked the first time that Bernini acted as an administrative figure, rather than primary artist, giving way to an age of uncertainty regarding his works and their true authorship. Of course, artists have always had their assistants and apprentices, but its a practice rooted in a brand of ego found only in the department store of fame. And though the Baldachin bears St. Peter's name and marks his grave, Bernini made sure to cover it with the sigil of his very own patron saint, Urban VIII. The base of each of the columns has a carved Barberini coat of arms. What better way to ensure future employment than to memorialize your employer in stone?

And yet, despite all of my griping about the politics surrounding the piece, I cannot bring myself to dismiss it. How could I? Its soaring columns, dramatic statuary, and massive scale command the eye in a building already filled to the brim with beautiful decorum. And whatever kissing up Bernini may have done pales in comparison to the masterful planning and execution that went into the coats of arms. Each represents a stage in childbirth - from conception through delivery - in a tasteful, yet daring show of talent. Sure, the methods may have been questionable, but what the Barberini built, barbaric or not, no one else could have.

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