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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 129-131
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Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican. By Sarah McPhee. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2003. Pp. xi, 353. $60.00.)
To students of seventeenth-century Rome, the title of Sarah McPhee's book will bring to mind the city's most famous artist, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and the one great failure in his otherwise remarkably successful life. The author, however, has replaced the familiar biographical narrative with a more complex and less personal history. The dramatic components of the story are still there—the façade of St. Peter's cracking under the weight of the bell tower built by [End Page 129] Bernini, the subsequent recriminations and criticism of his design, the artist's hasty preparations for flight, and with the dismantling of the tower, his defiant answer to his critics in an over life-sized statuary group representing Truth Revealed by Time—but they have been handled critically and subsumed in a larger narrative about the history of St. Peter's and the institutional practices that govern the Church even today.
Replacing the original Constantinian basilica with what was to be the grandest and most splendidly decorated church in Europe proved to be no easy task for the Popes, either ideologically or physically. Old St. Peter's and its millennial history cast a long shadow; the Papacy had changing needs for representation, and the vast scope of the project meant that design, decision making, and execution had to pass through the hands of a permanent bureaucracy attached to the church. McPhee shows how all of these factors played into the failed attempt by three popes, Paul V, Urban VIII, and Innocent X, to complete the twin towers flanking Carlo Maderno's façade.
The book is especially good on the workings and politics of the Fabbrica of St. Peter's, which consisted of a Congregation of Cardinals charged with overseeing work on the church and its salaried technical staff headed by an architect, the office held first by Maderno and then, following his death in 1629, by Bernini. The author adduces numerous new documents regarding the Fabbrica and its deliberations and in the process overturns many old assumptions underlying previous histories of the towers. Bernini, better known as a sculptor and frequently described as lacking architectural experience, acquires engineering skill in the person of his brother, Luigi; Virgilio Spada, usually thought to be a partisan of Francesco Borromini, Bernini's chief critic, is revealed to beasupporter, along with his brother, Cardinal Bernardino Spada, of the artist's project; Innocent X, often charged with being indifferent to the arts, appears keenly interested in architecture; and what usually appears a devastating cacophony of criticism directed at Bernini and the tower he built resolves into an orderly debate grounded in reason and professional expertise and one from which the artist actually emerges the clear winner.
The chronology and nature of the many projects for the towers are carefully and convincingly reconstructed by the author on the basis of the extant textual and visual documents, though the non-specialist may find the argument from the visual evidence heavy going. The principal written sources, most previously unpublished, are collected at the end of the book and are followed by a catalogue of the drawings directly related to the period 1645-46, when the Fabbrica widely canvassed solutions for the perceived defects of Bernini's design. That the towers were never completed (the aedicules with clocks now flanking the façade were added by Giuseppe Valadier in the nineteenth century) was rooted in the fear that the foundations were too weak to support towers large enough to be properly impressive. But why no remedy of either reinforcement or redesign was subsequently pursued unfortunately remains uncertain. [End Page 130]
Following the decision to dismantle Bernini's tower, the meetings of the Fabbrica cease to address the question, and by 1653 the material that had been preserved for reuse as the tower came down was being...