The building grounds of St. Peter’s Basilica were the “school” for the Roman architects of the time. One of Michelangelo‘s disciples, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), wrote a treatise on architecture: Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura (“Canon of the five orders of architecture”), published in 1562. Vignola was the architect of the Church of the Gesù (the mother church of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits) in Rome. As in St. Peter’s Basilica, this Church of the Gesù also includes a dome and a single nave with side chapels, and thus represents the final development of the architectural idea started by Leon Battista Alberti in the Basilica of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua. In the Church of the Gesù, the wide transept is illuminated by the dome; the barrel vault is counteracted by large buttresses, while the spaces between them house the side chapels.
This interior of the church of the Gesù, begun in 1568, served as a model for thousands of Baroque churches distributed throughout Europe, a design whose functionality is rooted in the needs of the Catholic architecture of the Counter-Reformation (1545-1648). During the last period of the Renaissance this religious movement, led by the Jesuits, was in need of large spaces without columns, suitable for preaching. The decisive step marked by Vignola’s Church of the Gesù with respect to Alberti’s Sant’ Andrea in Mantua, is determined by the role of the dome as a light-distributing element, throughout which light falls in abundance to the interior of the church, in contrast to the moderate illumination of the areas of the nave and the presbitery. Thus, for the first time, this element that would be of capital importance in Baroque architecture appears in the organization of interior spaces: light.
The façade of the church of the Gesù was done later (in 1573) by Giacomo della Porta, who introduced some non-classical decoration details showing some progress towards Baroquism. Above the door there is a crest with some hanging garlands following a Michelangelesque style, although more complicated and twisted. The general arrangement of this façade closely follows that proposed by Leon Battista Alberti in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, a model that was traditionally followed since the previous century: a lower zone, with an order of pilasters, and an upper one that ends in a pediment. As the lower zone is wider because runs along the width of the three naves (or the central nave and the chapels) and the upper one is no wider than the central nave, these two levels are joined at the sides by an undulating curve which ends in two corresponding giant scrolls. Thus, the narrower upper zone is cleverly widened to blend in with the wider lower zone. This solution, popularized by the treatises of the Renaissance, achieved singular popularity.
More than pious men, the Popes of the Renaissance were statesmen, like Julius II, or scholars and art amateurs and aficionados, like Leo X and Paul III. Their main concern was to restore Classical life in all its details, and this was reflected in the most social of all the arts: architecture. The first “residential” building that must be mentioned from this time is the Vatican palace itself, or as it is also known, the Apostolic Palace. This group of buildings is a complex construction in which each Pope has introduced new dependencies; but its overall plan can be reduced, in its essential elements, to the dependencies that surround the San Damaso courtyard and the two long parallel wings that join this nucleus of buildings to the Villa Belvedere, now housing the vast Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, characteristic accessories of the pontifical palace.
The San Damaso courtyard, the work of Bramante and Raphael, has four floors with porticoes designed with a classic simplicity that recalls Roman monuments. It is curious that this palace originally had only three wings built, leaving the courtyard open to the side that faces Rome. On its ground floor are the offices of the Curia. The dependencies built around this courtyard include the Borgia apartments, the private rooms of the current Popes (Papal Apartments), and the halls for public audiences and large receptions. They also include the rooms of Julius II (the Stanze di Raffaello), decorated by Raphael, the chapel of Nicolas V (Niccoline Chapel) and the great room (or Sala Regia) of Paul III.
These are the services installed around the U shaped courtyard of San Damaso, opened at that time on the side facing the large St. Peter’s square. Vast communication galleries, or loggias, encircled each floor, beautifully decorated by Raphael and his disciples. This nucleus of rooms and dependencies around the San Damaso courtyard was at first separated from the Villa Belvedere located beyond the gardens and dominating the entire city from its small hill. It was also Bramante, commissioned by Julius II who, after having completed the decoration of the buildings surrounding the courtyard of San Damaso, reunited them with the Villa Belvedere by means of two 300 meter long wings that ended up enclosing an immense rectangular courtyard called the Cortile del Belvedere (Belvedere Courtyard). This courtyard is closed, on the Belvedere side, by a high niche which produces a grandiose perspective effect at one end of the great patio. This effect was even greater in Bramante’s original project as this long courtyard was later divided in two by a transversal building, in order to connect the two 300-meter wings half way through the length of the patio. In consequence, the large initial Cortile was divided in two: the side of the Belvedere is now known as Cortile della Pigna, and the opposite courtyard retains its original name of Cortile del Belvedere. The long lateral wings of this courtyard, as well as the newer transverse addition joining them, now house the Vatican Museums, archives and library, including the famous Gallery of Maps; indeed, no residence of any other sovereign in the world has granted these services such an extensive space. The group of buildings for residences and receptions surrounding the San Damaso courtyard is much smaller than the area occupied by the long wings enclosing the courtyard destined to house galleries for statues, deposit of precious manuscripts, tombstones and liturgical objects, all accumulated in the Vatican museums and library. The buildings are extremely sumptuous, even in their layout: the statues and paintings are placed with all the dignity that befits the great treasures of ancient Rome, so assiduously collected by the pontiffs of the Renaissance.
S.P.Q.R.: Abbreviation for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, a phrase from Classical Latin meaning: “The Senate and People of Rome”. This is an emblematic abbreviated phrase referring to the government of the ancient Roman Republic. It appeared on Roman currency, at the end of documents made public by an inscription in stone or metal, and in dedications of monuments and public and civil works.