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Monday, January 16, 2006

Little-known archive reveals details of St. Peter's Basilica construction

Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For every sack of cement that was purchased, for every block of stone quarried and hauled to Rome, architects in charge of building St. Peter's Basilica filled out and filed away receipts and penned detailed notations in thick, bound ledgers.

Even every artisan and worker hired, every on-the-job accident, lawsuit and progress report on the construction of the world's largest church were recorded and stored away in a little-known -- but priceless -- Vatican archive.

The archives of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Vatican office responsible for the basilica's construction matters, certainly do not carry the same recognition as the Vatican Secret Archives, perhaps because their contents may seem more mundane.

Instead of 20th-century Vatican intrigue, one is more likely to find a Renaissance master's to-do list, crinkled pay stubs and requests addressed to patrons holding the purse strings.

More than 10,000 pieces of parchment, documents, slips and scraps of paper are catalogued and tucked away in fat, hardcover volumes. Each volume, bursting with notes and folios, is wrapped with yellowed ribbon or graying twine and stands in unlocked glass cabinets that line the archive's octagon-shaped rooms. The rooms are located on an upper floor near the back of the basilica, overlooking the organ pipes.

From inside St. Peter's Basilica, authorized guests can access the climate-controlled collection by going through a door underneath the massive, marble monument to Pope Alexander VII, which means ducking under a life-size, bronze skeleton representing death; it triumphantly brandishes an hourglass.

"The archives preserve the entire history of the basilica," said Simona Turriziani, one of the four people who work cataloging and caring for the Fabbrica's archives.

"It's not a huge archive, but it's incredibly rich because all the important architects of the 1500s to the 1600s came through (the basilica), because it was the most important construction site at the time," she told journalists in late December.

Donato Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Carlo Maderno, Giovanni Bernini and Francesco Borromini's handwritten notes, instructions, reports and requests are all housed there.

These Renaissance and Baroque artists each had a hand in the design or building of St. Peter's Basilica, whose construction began 500 years ago on April 18, 1506.

That day Pope Julius II set the first cornerstone of the new basilica. He mobilized the resources and the artists to finally do what popes before him had been concerned about -- saving from collapse the ancient basilica built at the time of Constantine.

But Pope Julius wanted a large, grandiose basilica to replace the smaller, deteriorating original that sat atop the underground tomb of St. Peter.

Construction on the new church lasted more than 100 years. The project was not only enormous, but sometimes work was stalled as earlier plans and designs were scrapped or revised by successive architects.

Antonio da San Gallo the Younger, for example, wrote a letter to the pope criticizing what Raphael, San Gallo's predecessor, had done.

San Gallo "complained that a ton of money was being wasted and the work was being done poorly," Turriziani said.

But Michelangelo later tossed out San Gallo's own blueprint for the basilica, saying the design was too elaborate and created too many dark, winding corridors.

Michelangelo complained there would be too many hiding places for prowling pickpockets and not enough natural light to help pilgrims see if they were getting counterfeit coins with their change, said Pietro Zander, an official with the Fabbrica.

Michelangelo told his papal patron that he could create a more luminous and far simpler basilica in less time, and his design was accepted.

Michelangelo, like many people involved in the project, never lived to see the church completed in 1620. But he dedicated almost 20 years of his life, 1546-1564, to being head architect.

One of the archive's most prized pieces is a letter dated Feb. 18, 1562, in which Michelangelo tells the cardinals in charge of the Fabbrica that they should hire his friend, Pietro Luigi, as head supervisor of the workers.

But Michelangelo knew the idea might not be well received since the Fabbrica was already paying a certain Cesare as foreman. So he wrote in the letter, "If you don't want to do it, then I will personally" pay the man's salary "because I am not working to make money; for St. Peter, I dedicate my body and soul."

Perhaps the meticulous notes were considered to be just humdrum information by bookkeepers at the time, but today scholars find the details fascinating.

The washerwoman, Pacifica de' Crescioni, who hauled travertine blocks with her cart from a nearby quarry to the construction site, has been recorded in history along with Victoria Pericali, a glass cutter, who cut enamel pieces for some of the basilica's two and a half acres of mosaics.

Turriziani said the Vatican was preparing to mark the basilica's 500th anniversary this year with a number of unconfirmed events and celebrations.

She emphasized the basilica's collection was still "a living archive" and that everything sent to the Fabbrica was still recorded and preserved.

Even the letter the Vatican press office sent requesting permission for Vatican journalists to visit the archives in late December "has been catalogued and filed away," she said.

Thus the paper trail continues as seemingly more mundane materials of today are safely tucked away with ancient parchments to stand the test of time.

  • Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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