The architectural initiatives of the first pontiffs who at the beginning of the 15th century had returned along with their courts from Avignon to Rome, had as their field of action the group of buildings on Vatican hill. The Lateran Palace, which had been used as the residence of the pontiffs before the Papal court went to Avignon, was located in a distant place in the most abandoned part of Rome. On the other hand, the Vatican, located on the right bank of the Tiber, shared boundaries with the populated center of Trastevere, a populous neighborhood. For this reason the Papal Court moved there and consequently the architectural reforms on Vatican hill began during the pontificates of Nicholas V, Pius II and the two Borgia popes, Calixtus III and Alexander VI.
On the year of the death of the second Borgia pope, Alexander VI, Giuliano della Rovere (a cardinal with a bellicose spirit) was elected pontiff precisely at the beginning of the 16th century in the year 1503. He took the name of Julius II and his pontificate lasted almost ten years, long enough for a man of his character to accomplish grandiose projects. His successor, Leo X, was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. A cardinal since the age of 14 Leo was, by birth and education, of very refined tastes. Julius II and Leo X mark in the History of Art the move of the spirit of the Renaissance from Florence to Rome. Their names are linked to those of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, and so many other artists who, coming from afar, worked mainly in Rome. Both Popes came from illustrious families and could use the unlimited funds of the Roman Curia, not only from the tithes they received from subsidiary churches, but also from the sale of privileges and indulgences, which the Emperor Charles V (King of Spain) already taught his son Philip II was an enviable income system the pontiffs used.
Money was never an obstacle for the Popes of the Renaissance. Perhaps for the first time, after the great eastern monarchies, there was a power on Earth that didn’t have to count what it spent. During the Middle Ages, guilds and cities had to postpone many times construction works of their cathedrals because of lack of resources, but the Renaissance Popes didn’t have to deal with that concern. The grandiose new church of Saint Peter consumed the income of a few years, but there was never a lack of resources to continue its gigantic plan. The men who succeed each other in the direction of this monumental construction didn’t encounter pecuniary obstacles; each Pope wished to perpetuate his name with some new beautification for that church built on the tomb of the humble fisherman of Galilee.
In Constantine’s time a primitive five-nave basilica had been built on Vatican hill. The humanist Pope Nicholas V was the first who felt the desire to tear it down to replace it with a more modern construction, and in a previous essay we have mentioned how he called to Rome his friend Leon Battista Alberti who gave him an initial plan for the foundations of the new apse. But none of the subsequent Popes took up this project anymore. In the frescoes by Pinturicchio, in the Piccolomini Library in the cathedral of Siena, we can see the interior of the old Constantinian basilica of Saint Peter, with the mosaic of the apse still intact. Julius II decided that the Roman church that stood on the tomb of the prince of the Apostles didn’t have to be an old and venerable basilica full of relics, but a colossal temple, unique in the world for its wealth and dimensions, the physical incarnation of the triumphant Catholic Church. Two years after being promoted to the pontificate, in 1505, Julius II called a kind of private contest to examine the new project and, according to Vasari, to everyone’s surprise the ideas of an architect from Milan, named Donato Bramante, established in Rome a few years ago and oblivious to the circle of Florentine artists that surrounded Julius II since before his election when he was only a cardinal, were the favorite among the Papal circle. Bramante’s ideas, modified in some details, persisted like an obsession in the minds of those who succeeded him directing the construction works. Bramante, on his part, from that moment on thought of nothing more than the great church, and the Popes even housed him in the Vatican until he died, hosting him in a room in the Belvedere palace.
Bramante had been born Donato d’Augnolo in Fermignano near Urbino in 1444, and there, in the school of Luciano Laurana, the exquisite court artist of the Duke’s Palace, he learned an elegance that never abandoned, not even when designing gigantic buildings such as the church of Saint Peter. From Urbino he went to Milan around 1474, leaving testimony of his passage in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro and in that of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The church of San Satiro was a small circular pre-Romanesque temple from the 9th century. Bramante remodeled its exterior (keeping its Carolingian interior) and, next to it, he built the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, whose works had already begun. This is a church with a Latin cross plan. In one of its arms, the one corresponding to the presbytery and the apse, there was no space due to the position of the adjacent street. Bramante saved this insurmountable difficulty by using an eminently pictorial resource: he suggested the existence of a larger space thanks to an optical effect in perspective achieved with moldings and paint on stucco. This trompe l’oeil conceived by Bramante replaces real space, which doesn’t exist, with the illusion of space: it is a fantastic optical spectacle. Bramante’s other Milanese work, Santa Maria delle Grazie, also involved the completion of a building already started by other architect: Guiniforte Solari, who built a beautiful three-nave church with only the apse missing. When, around 1492, Bramante was commissioned to complete it, he resolved the joint between the two constructions using the same geometric rhythm, but boldly increasing the architectural orders until transforming it into a type of his own with a masterful result. Thus, the three naves built by Solari are crowned by a high cubic space on which a dome with a high drum rises. The three outer faces of this cube are occupied by three high semi-cylindrical apses. Bramante built next to it a marvelous arched cloister “à la Brunelleschi“, following the formula of the Hospital of the Innocents in Florence. From this cloister one can see Bramante’s work with much greater emotion than from the bustling street of the Corso Magenta adjoining the church.
After almost 20 years working in Milan in the difficult environment of the court of Ludovico Sforza, his patron, an environment that forced Bramante to momentarily flee in 1493 to protest the modifications that were being introduced in his project for Santa Maria delle Grazie, Bramante moved to Rome, the last and transcendental stage of his artistic career.
The Mannerist architect Sebastiano Serlio tells us in his treatise Tutte l’opere d’architettura et prospetiva (“All the Works of Architecture and Perspective”, published in 1486) that Bramante started out as a painter; but it can be certain that only when Bramante was about 60 years old (the age when he arrived in Rome), his artistic spirit completed its education. The ruins of ancient Rome made him shudder as if he were a 20 year old man, awakening in him a burning desire to imitate the ancients, not only in details as the 15th century artists had done, but in the general arrangement and construction techniques of the ancient Eternal City.
Two of Bramante’s architectural works prior to the projects for the new Saint Peter’s Basilica remain in Rome. One of them is the cloister of the church of Santa Maria della Pace begun for Cardinal Carafa in the summer of 1500. This work consists of a clear superposition of galleries: the lower one, with simple semicircular arches; the upper one, with Ionic columns and alternating pilasters, without any adornment, already stripped of the profusion of garlands, palmettes and medallions with which Quattrocento architects tried to “dress” their buildings in the Classical style.
Bramante’s second work in Rome is the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, which is considered as the starting point of the genuinely Roman style of Renaissance architecture. It is a small circular building, surrounded by a portico of Tuscan columns; the central body rises higher forming a second floor with windows and topped with a spherical dome. Here, what it’s interesting is its general arrangement and its very classical structure. This small temple, tiny for its size but immense for its perfection, was erected in 1502 at the request of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs to commemorate the place where, according to tradition, Saint Peter had been crucified and beheaded. The very elegant 16-column circular peristyle is placed on a small plinth, and supports a frieze with triglyphs and a tiny balustrade that encircles the upper body like a transparent belt. This is the ideal Platonic temple, dreamed of by the Christian Platonism preached by Marsilio Ficino and his Florentine companions of the Medici Palace as we saw it imagined in paintings by Perugino and in the famous “Marriage of the Virgin” by Raphael (from 1504).
These two secondary buildings speak in every way of what was Bramante’s main concern in Rome. Today, we have to imagine Bramante’s original design for the new church of Saint Peter, separating all the elements that were added by the architects who succeeded him in the direction of the works and adding the parts that they removed or modified. Fortunately we have the archive of drawings that the Medici gathered in Florence, which include multitude of studies with Bramante’s original ideas for the construction of Saint Peter. There is also a complete floor plan for the Basilica on a large parchment, drawn only in one half, but which offers all the details of the construction. The faded brownish ink marks in a precisely drawn outline the floor plan of a square building crowned by a central dome. When we lift our eyes from this parchment, it seems as if they were searching in the air for a great temple with porticoes open on the four facades, and five domes, one of them central and larger which crowns the whole.
This floor plan by Bramante, with its five domes, has something of Byzantine; it reminds us of the descriptions of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and that of Saint Mark in Venice. After ten centuries the same problem of building a temple that would be the largest in Christendom was again resurging, and both the architects of Hagia Sophia and those of St. Peter of Rome adopted the idea of the dome as the predominant motif. We have already seen that Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence rises above a church with three naves and that his structural solution had something of medieval improvisation. Bramante was happy to attack this problem again by giving the dome an equal thrust in every way. It seems that he rationally claimed a square or circular floor plan to equally support it around its periphery. Bramante’s centralized, Byzantine floor plan solution for St. Peter’s in Rome will not seem so strange if it’s noted that, coming from Milan, he had to keep in mind some semi-Byzantine buildings from Venice and some other early Christian from Milan and Lombardy, and perhaps also the churches of Ravenna.
Rome gave Bramante a great opportunity to display all his genius. As he himself said, his idea was to place the spherical dome of the Pantheon over the intersection of two large barrel-vaulted naves like those of the Basilica of Constantine. These two naves, forming a Greek cross, would end internally in four apses, with a portico on each side forming the facades. In the four spaces that were diagonally in the four angles of the crossed naves, there would be four smaller domes and four rooms for sacristies. To conceal the enormous masses of pillars and walls, Bramante intended to use grandiose niches, such as those that could still be seen in ancient Roman buildings.
Although the works of St. Peter’s Basilica weren’t executed according to this plan, it seems that the artists of the time perfectly took over the project and in a smaller scale it was developed in rural churches that today are precious, because they give us a reflection of what Saint Peter would have been if Bramante’s original plan was followed. Following Bramante’s original disposition, that is with a dome over the four arms of a Greek cross floor plan, are the churches of Santa Maria della Consolazione, in Todi, and that of San Biagio, in Montepulciano, both neighboring Rome. The first church was started by Cola da Caprarola, a native of Caprarola, in 1508, and the second is the work of the Florentine Antonio da Sangallo, which proves that Bramante’s ideas were accepted without hesitation. Julius II himself had a medal coined with Bramante’s portrait on one side and a view of the church on the other, as if Saint Peter was already finished, with the legend: Templi Petri instauratio. The first stone of Saint Peter was laid on April 18, 1506. The Pope himself descended into the enormous excavation made for the foundations of the new church, and after proclaiming the indulgences granted to the benefactors of the work, he returned to the Vatican palace in procession raising a cross.
The construction works of Saint Peter began at the rear part of the Basilica: the apse and the dome’s pillars. Julius II allowed Bramante to tear down whatever was necessary of the ancient early Christian basilica built by Constantine between 324 and 330. It was only forbidden to Bramante to touch the central place, where the confession of Saint Peter is, a kind of well that had never been violated and in which excavations have recently been carried out (1940’s and 1960’s) in search of the tomb of Saint Peter Apostle. For a long time the cult was practiced in what was left of the old church; later a provisional chapel was built over the tomb, until the basilica was completely finished. A minimum part of what was believed worthy of being preserved from the old Constantinian Basilica was stored, with great disorder, in the subterranean areas between the old pavement and that of the current basilica, which is much higher. There are fragments of sculptures from the tombs of the old pontiffs, certain altars and the tomb of Otto II, which was in the courtyard in front the façade of the old church. But all the decoration of ancient Christian mosaics, Giotto’s frescoes and other beautiful works of the Early Renaissance were destroyed without respect. The people of Rome, including some cardinals, didn’t witness with indifference this vandalism; officials made the excuse that the old building threatened ruin, but even so, protest voices were raised, especially against Bramante. “He would have destroyed the whole of Rome and the Universe if he could have,” says a writer of the time. The Romans, always so sharp, said in their satires that Bramante would have to stay out of heaven because Saint Peter, irritated at having destroyed his old basilica, would not let him enter. An indeed Donato Bramante died on 11 April 1514 without even seeing his most monumental work finished.
Exedra: A semicirccular architectural recess or platform, sometimes crowned by a semi-dome, and either set into a building’s façade or free-standing. An exedra may also be expressed by a curved break in a colonnade, perhaps with a semicircular seat.
Tribune: In Medieval, and later, ecclesiastical architecture, the term tribune applies to an area within a vaulted or semi-domed apse in a room or church. In this sense a tribune may contain a high altar or bishop’s seat (cathedra). These features were particularly common in Roman and Byzantine church architecture. In Christian basilicas the term is often retained for the semicircular recess behind the choir.