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  • St. Peter's in the Vatican
  • Meredith J. Gill
William Tronzo , ed. St. Peter's in the Vatican. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi + 320 pp. index. illus. bibl. $125. ISBN: 0-521-64096-2.

Is it possible, this book inspires us to ask, to write a kind of biography of a building in which its changing personalities — formal and symbolic — may be mapped not only at any given moment, and from different angles, but also across time? This is an especially compelling question for a locus as grandiose and as complicated as St. Peter's. As William Tronzo notes, the basilica offers a special vantage point from which to consider the enduring duality of antiquity and modernity, as well as the workings of memory itself. As he suggests, St. Peter's history cannot be told in a descriptive and linear narrative. He is surely right, then, to begin his thoughtful introduction in the middle, with a short account of the fifteenth-century visitor's arrival, noting the sensory impact of the ascent, the mystery of the atrium's treasures — such as the magical fountain of the Pigna and the Navicella mosaic — and the dimly lit interior in which one squinted at a colorful clutter of altars and tombs.

Tronzo suggests that the reader should think of this book "as a concatenation of individual views that embrace discrete, exemplary moments in the history of the church, each carefully constructed in itself, but forming a set, part of whose efficacy as a narrative device derives from the fact that it moves from one side of thestory to the other, from the beginning of the basilica to the twentieth century" (3). [End Page 859] This précis is helpful since it alerts us to the range of the essays, beginning with Glen W. Bowersock's specific analysis of Peter and Constantine and ending with Richard A. Etlin's examination of the "paradoxical colossus" in modern times.

Framed by these two brilliant chapters, the contributions of the remaining six authors offer original and informative soundings of different aspects of the life of St. Peter's. Following Bowersock's unveiling of the probable role of Constans — as opposed to Constantine — in the structure's founding, Dale Kinney presents a marvelously crystalline recounting of spolia. Antonio Iacobini surveys the basilica's patronage from Innocent III to Gregory IX (1198–1241), following which Christof Thoenes reprises his own magisterial engagement with the Renaissance St. Peter's. Henry A. Millon's elegant distillation of the fabric's history from Michelangelo to Marchionni (1546–1784) belies the sovereign acuity that informs it, while Irving Lavin's comprehensive portrayal of Bernini's projects, which extended through six pontificates and beyond the visible "psycholiturgy" of the crossing, includes the author's reflections on the historiography of Borromini-Bernini relations and on the typology of the baldacchino's Solomonic columns.

Alessandra Anselmi gives us a new perspective altogether in her investigation of the ephemeral architecture produced for saints' canonizations in the seventeenth century. She reminds us not only of the centrality of liturgical theater to a reconstruction of the aesthetic identity of the building but also, in particular, of how architects of the suggestum, the special platform used for canonizations, had to negotiate deftly between protocol and invention. In the most adventurous and provocative chapter, Richard A. Etlin begins with the colossal paradox of St. Peter's plan and its oscillation between Greek and Latin cross designs. Etlin addresses the question of St. Peter's metaphorical reverberations before, and especially after, Bramante. He takes us on an enthralling journey, beginning with the recapitulations of Pietro da Cortona's S. Luca e Martina, the Hôtel des Invalides, and Wren's St. Paul's. By the time we arrive at Étienne-Louis Boullée's "Metropolitan Church" project (ca. 1781–82), we appreciate the extended metaphor just as much as we understand eighteenth-century criticisms that St. Peter's appeared smaller than it really was. In the era after the Romantic revolution, in the "age of eclecticism," three churches testify to the Petrine foundation's afterlife: the Cathedral of the Kazan Mother of God in Saint Petersburg (1801–11), S...


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pp. 859-861
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Archived 2009
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