Italian Renaissance Architecture: Brunelleschi, Sangallo, MichelangeloThe Cathedrals of Florence and Pavia, and St. Peter’s, Rome 1994 The National Gallery, Washington, DC, December 18, 1994March 19, 1995
The Renaissance from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo: The Representation of Architecture
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In Portrait of a Lady Isabelle Archer visits St. Peter’s at vespers, and Henry James uses the occasion to provide an emotive description of the church:
She had not been one of the superior tourists who are “disappointed” in Saint Peter’s and find it smaller than its fame; the first time she passed beneath the huge leathern curtain that strains and bangs at the entrance, the first time she found herself beneath the far-arching dome and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze, her conception of greatness rose and dizzily rose. After this it never lacked space to soar. She gazed and wondered like a child or a peasant, she paid her silent tribute to the seated sublime…. there is something almost profane in the vastness of the place, which seems meant as much for physical as for spiritual exercise…. In that splendid immensity individual discretion carries but a short distance.
Indeed St. Peter’s is an enormous building, the largest church in Christendom. But it is interesting to reflect that Michelangelo, who left more of a stamp on it than any other architect, refused to take on the commission unless he were allowed to effect a drastic reduction in the gargantuan project inherited from his predecessors. Among the dozens of projects submitted by Bramante, Fra Giocondo, Raphael, Peruzzi, and various members of the Sangallo clan, many of which were so large they would have destroyed some of the Vatican Palace or even the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s project is among the smallest. His reductions so shocked the administrators of the building that they wondered if they might have to change the name from S. Pietro to S. Pietrino.
Splendid immensity was the last thing on his mind. We must remember that the church we enter today was utterly transformed by the late-Renaissance popes who began to revet its white interior with colored marbles in 1575, and who added Carlo Maderno’s long nave and façade in 1606–1621. The “league statistics” on the present floor, which give the lengths of other great churches in Christendom that fall short of St. Peter’s, have nothing whatsoever to do with Michelangelo’s aesthetic.
For sheer size there was nothing like the great wooden model of Michelangelo’s immediate predecessor, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. Of course, there was no way Henry James could have seen it. For most of the time between 1813 and 1990 it was hidden in a vaulted chamber in the uppermost reaches of the basilica, accessible only to the few scholars allowed into the archives stored in the same space. It is a masterpiece of carpentry. It took seven years to build. In the end the workmen toiled by candlelight in the predawn hours to finish it before Sangallo’s death in 1546. It cost more than 5,500 scudi, a great sum, almost as much in all as …
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