The first basilica constructed to house Christian worship on the site where St. Peter was buried fulfilled the liturgical needs of the early (make that very early: fourth-century-early) Church precisely. With the patronage of the first professing Christian emperor behind it, the church was built solidly and was intended to last the centuries.
With proper maintenance, it would still be standing there in its brick-walled, timber-roofed, mixed-up spolia glory. But Constantine’s big basilica ran afoul of the new developments in aesthetic theory and specifically the revived sense of beauty that was current in the early sixteenth century. Humanism happened, and what we now call the Renaissance was well underway. Pope Julius II (1503-13), one of the tastiest popes in history, ordered the destruction of the old barn of a church to make way for something beautiful to modern eyes, something that would be a more appropriate formal setting for the rituals of the Church, given the revived interest in the glorious of ancient Rome and its prominence in Church history.
About a century and a half (and almost two dozen popes, not to mention a gaggle of architects, sculptors and other artists) later, the church stood complete, pretty much in today’s final form: Michelangelo’s great dome rose over the mass fronted by Maderno’s great facade that features the balcony of appearances, while Bernini’s lengthy colonnades swept forward to define the piazza. It is, truly, a glorious setting: one that at once celebrates the power of the Roman Catholic Church and provides a proper setting for its head.
It was to this stage that so many of us turned on 13 March 2013, especially as news of the white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel spread through the airwaves and over the internets. Fortunate souls in Rome swarmed the streets in a migration of pilgrims to the piazza, filling it by the tens of thousands. Around the world the rest of us looked on from a distance, electronically-enabled to be brought visually into the piazza through the medium of whatever screen was most easily accessible.
Almost four centuries ago, the piazza’s architect, Bernini, famously described his design as the “motherly arms of the Church;” the colonnades were designed to “reach out with open arms to embrace Catholics to reaffirm their belief, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to enlighten them with the true faith.” Surely he never dreamt that his concetto would work on such a scale, the piazza embracing not only those who could be physically in the place, but also onlookers from thousands of miles away.
On this Wednesday, the attention of everyone in the piazza–both really, and virtually, there–centered on the new head of the Church. By all accounts, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, is a simple and humble man, as indicated by his choice of name that references the willfully impoverished saint of Assisi. His walk supports the talk: in his home country he visited slums, rode the bus, prepared his own meals. On the evening of his election, the image of his silhouetted form, simple white against the dark drapes of the balcony, reinforced his apparent nature, which is emphasized by the difference between it and his environment. In this way, the architectural setting of the Vatican works in a very different manner than its original patrons intended. While so many popes luxuriated in the richness of their position (Leo X, pope from 1513-21, infamously proclaimed “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” and enthusiastically set about emptying Vatican coffers as only a Medici could do), their material culture works both for and against their church and its head. On the one hand, the spectacular glory of the place and its piazza is a fitting monument to such a powerful denomination, some 1.2 billion members strong and two millennia old. However, it is also a reminder of grotesque excesses, the kind that got Martin Luther and his lot all in a lather.
But that excess can now be turned to new expressive purpose. The elegance and expense is also a foil for simplicity and prudence, reinforcing the reforms of recent popes. The statement of poverty made by the casket that held the body of Pope John Paul II–a simple wooden vessel for the one of clay within–, was made all the more powerful by its placement within the monument of Renaissance and Baroque artistry. Likewise, St. Peter’s scale and majesty made the lone figure of the new pope all the more small and humble, communicating that this leader of millions is, in many ways, very much alone.
It is a simple truth of architectural history that some of its great monuments, from palaces to churches and mausoleums to capitols, were built by people who were not, on the whole, praiseworthy–some of them could barely be described as occasionally honorable. That is what separates the past (the fact that certain ignoble people built noble things) from history (what we do with those things they left behind). Goodness or badness of person is not necessarily reflected in their buildings: we are blessed by the wondrous artistic fruits of great as well as corrupt people. What we choose to do with and to them, and how we maintain and preserve, utilize and adapt, or neglect and destroy, is what articulates our contemporary values. Likewise, the way that Francis utilizes the incomparable architectural heritage and the traditions of patronage to which he is now heir will say a lot about him.
Initial–at this point, indeed, very initial–speculation about the pontificate of Pope Francis suggests that he will not produce very much good architecture, but he may indeed produce very much good.