In this book extract Keith Miller says St Peter’s offers a warm welcome to Catholic, aesthete and unbeliever alike here is an elegant phrase noted down in the archive of Fabio Chigi, who, as Pope Alexander VII, commissioned the last significant works to be carried out at St Peter’s. It probably dates from the 1650s and has often been attributed either to the Pope himself or to the basilica’s then architect, the flamboyant Gian Lorenzo Bernini. “The Church of St Peter,” it says, “being, as it were, the model for all the others, will have to have a portico which can at once receive Catholics mother-like, with open arms, to confirm them in their belief: heretics, to reunite them with the Church; and unbelievers, to light their way to the true faith.” Quite a tall order for a portico. But the church of St Peter had, and to a degree retains, a sort of maternal status among Catholics (the Italian word I’ve translated as “model” is matrice, which means “womb” as well as “model”, “mould” or “template”). Confusingly, it isn’t the chiesa madre, the mother church that is St John Lateran, across town, where the Pope, in his secondary role as Bishop of Rome, has his ossesso , his official seat In fact the Vatican only became the main papal residence, and St Peter’s next door the de facto papal church, in the 15th century. The status of the basilica derives from its history founded by the convert emperor Constantine, or maybe his son Constans, to honour the tomb of Christ’s apostle; richly stocked with relics; rebuilt and redecorated by the most famous artists in Italy. By the mid-17th century St Peter’s had become the most important pilgrimage church in Europe. It would soon also loom large on the itinerary of even the least devout Grand Tourist, as Alexander VII well understood. It was the various needs, be they spiritual, emotional or aesthetic, of both tourist and pilgrim which Bernini’s new portico, and the piazza framed by it, was to serve, and which, mutatis mutandis, it serves today.
In fact, the portico – a vague term denoting a covered, partly open space propped up by columns – does achieve a remarkable range of effects. It is two great arcs, each made up of four rows of gigantic travertine columns, with 140 stone saints writhing above them, all knitted together by two vast sickleshaped entablatures which spring from either side of the church’s wide façade. The complex piazza created by the portico, an oval joined on to a trapezium, is unquestionably one of the bestknown and most spectacular urban spaces in the world. At times, at Easter, or on the festival of St Peter and St Paul, it can function as a huge outdoor church; during the last illness of Pope John Paul II and the swift selection of his friend Joseph Ratzinger to succeed him, it witnessed extraordinary concentrations of passion and devotion. To the sceptic or agnostic, the aesthete, the tourist – the “unbeliever” of the Codex Chigi – the piazza is scarcely less rewarding. The art lover will see in it an essay in Baroque architecture urbanism which can hardly be bettered; the traveller will find distilled in it a quintessence of Rome and Italy. Like grand urban spaces, it seems at first to be nothing but a celebration of itself. Well, you say to yourself as you pace its shape or stand in its centre: here I am. On St Cecilia’s November 1786, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wilhelm Tischbein visited St Peter’s. In his journal Goethe records how “We walked up and down until we felt too hot, when we sat in the shade of the great obelisk it was just wide enough for two and ate some grapes we had bought nearby.” Ordinary human actions are elevated by such a setting to an almost ritualistic level. But in fact Piazza San Pietro serves many more specific purposes. It filters and processes arrivals to the church; it frames archetypal, endlessly reproduced views of St Peter’s in one direction and the city of Rome in the other. Most of all it proclaims to visitors that they are crossing a boundary It does this by means of a nuanced appeal to history and religious belief as well as the spatial drama which grips the senses more overtly.
The Piazza San Pietro was the last major element of the architectural complex at St Peter’s to be built (it was finished in 1667), but it is usually the first thing visitors see. Faithful, heretic and unbeliever all arrive jumbled together: on foot along the Via del Conciliazione, a long boulevard, poker straight and somewhat bombastic, designed by Marcello Piacentini in the Thirties and completed after the war; by metro, to Ottaviano-San Pietro station by the walls of the Vatican enclave a kilometre to the north, refurbished for the Jubilee in 2000 but already showing signs of wear and tear again; or packed like battery animals into the speciale borseggiatori, the “pickpocket special”, the number 64 bus from Termini railway station. Unlike most Italian piazzas, Piazza San Pietro has no pavement cafes, just a couple of news kiosks and, tucked away to one side, a stall selling rosaries and images of the Virgin, the late Pope, Padre Pio and other Catholic notables. The imposing space, with an obelisk looted from Egypt by the Roman emperor Caligula towering in the centre of it and two roaring fountains either side, is rarely empty of people, but has few of the distractions – cars, shops and the rest – that you would expect to find in had a conventional urban space, especially an Italian one. But it is important to remember that we are not in Italy any more.
Romans who scurry across the piazza to send their letters by the fleet-footed Vatican post rather than its sluggardly Italian counterpart understand better than they would realise that this is a zone of transition, a soft but unmistakable boundary between a secular, democratic republic on one side, a scant 137 years old, and the rump of an ancient and granitically conservative theocracy on the other.
On February 11 1929 Pope Pius XI signed a treaty with King Victor Emmanuel III and his head of state, Benito Mussolini, recognising Italian sovereignty over what had been the Papal States. These had ceased to exist in practice nearly 60 years before, with the creation of a unified Italian state centred on Rome; but the papacy had been slow to concede its earthly powers in principle. Indeed it had been Pius’s namesake Pius IX who, having spent most of his office battling against political reform, had initiated a policy of passive resistance against the Italian Occupation, as loyalist ultras continued to call the Risorgimento well into 20th century. With the treaty of 1929 the Pope’s temporal dominions shrank to their present Ruritanian dimensions: St John Lateran, some churches and palaces around Rome and the citadel, palaces, churches and gardens on the Vatican hill. In return Italy gave the Pope 750 million lire in cash and bonds worth five million a year, and agreed that even if Church and State were to be formally separate, Catholic canon law would continue to form the Italian legislation on marriage, divorce, abortion and so forth.
The arrangement was re-negotiated in the elegant decrepitude of Raphael’s never-finished Villa Madama in 1984, but battles continue to be fought on these fronts today. One of the Italian Church’s first actions after Bene dict XVI’s enthronement in May 2005 was to encourage Catholics to abstain from a referendum which sought to liberalise or secularise the law on various issues to do with assisted fertility and stem-cell research.
The space between the “arms” of Bernini’s piazza is the only entirely open frontier between Italy and Vatican City. During the nervous days of the 19th century the piazza was often used for troop exercises, shows of strength by ancien régime allies in support of the threatened principle of papal sovereignty, the socalled “temporal power”. Popular demonstrations tended to take place elsewhere, on the Capitoline or in the Piazza del Popolo (though the occupying French did celebrate a Festival of Federation in the Piazza San Pietro in 1798, even if this is best understood as a colonial rather than an emancipatory gesture; they built a catafalque to Napoleon’s assassinated general Duphot there in the same year).