The Colonnades of Bernini

Valeria Cernei & Yvonne Zijlstra - Faculty of Behavioral and Social Sciences
The colonnades seen from above
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) designed the colonnades in the St. Peter’s Piazza. The project, which included the layout of the entire piazza and the colonnades themselves, was commissioned by Pope Alexander V11 (1599-1667) and lasted from 1656 to 1667[2]. In this period, the Baroque artistic movement was at its peak. Given the religious and political context at the time, the colonnades are relevant as both an art object, and a political and religious statement.
 
 
Contents
Introduction
Level I: religious problem
Level II: political problem
Level III: artistic problem
Level IV: practical problem
Conclusion
Sources

Introduction

The colonnades serve a multidimensional function, and represent a solution to a multi-layered problem. The problem can be broadly defined along four levels of analysis: political level, religious level, artistic level and technical level, which are meant to disentangle the various forces that shape public art. Firstly, from a political perspective, the colonnades solve the problem of the Pope’s shattered authority both in Italy and on the international political arena, because they create an image of a powerful papal institution. From a religious perspective, the colonnades transmit the message of the Counter-Reformation and show the power of the Catholic Church. From an artistic perspective, the colonnades are an expression of the Baroque artistic credo. Bernini, as one of the main Baroque architects, resorts to key Baroque elements in creating the colonnades, such as visual illusions (the imaginative use of light and shadow), dynamic composition, and the metaphor of the theatre of life. Lastly, the colonnades solve several practical problems created by the physical characteristics of the square and the surrounding buildings. Even though the colonnades solve different problems as function of the level of analysis employed, these solutions are complementary. Moreover, the complexity of this art object is revealed and enhanced by the elaborate and dynamic environment which they are part of.

Level I: religious problem

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther criticized several essential teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in his Ninety-five Theses (1517), disputing the Catholic view on indulgences that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money. [3] This challenge to the authority and office of the Pope resulted in increasingly more people identifying with Luther’s wider teachings. A new theological orientation, Protestantism, originated with the Reformation, which was a movement against the criticized in Luther’s Theses practices of the Catholic Church. Subsequently, the Catholic Church started to lose its people, while Protestantism was becoming increasingly popular. As a response, the Catholic Church started the Counter-Reformation, with the main aim of consolidating the position of the Catholicism as the dominant religious doctrine. To make the Catholic faith more attractive, countless churches, monuments, and fountains for the glory of the holy chair were built.


Art and architecture were crucial tools for spreading the prestige and the doctrine of The Church.[4] For this reason, The Church became the most important patron of art and architecture, which resulted in the Papacy using art as a form of propaganda to sway the masses in favour of their ideology over that of the Protestants. The colonnades, as a relevant element of the main scene for important religious gatherings, St. Peter’s Square, had to “persuade” a disappointed and sceptical audience about the values of the Catholic Church by shaping the religious experience of those visiting St. Peter’s. [5]


The piazza of St. Peter’s creates a transitional space between the secular space of the city and the spiritual space of the basilica. The colonnades serve as a metaphor for the arms of “Mother Church”, extended to welcome those who come, enclosing the Catholics to strengthen their faith, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and unbelievers to repent them through true faith.[6] The oval shape of the piazza and the colonnades is intended to allow as many visitors as possible to directly see and hear the Pope give his blessing either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a balcony of the Vatican Palace. Therefore, the ethos created by the typical Baroque notion of the theatre of life emphasizes the central role of the Pope by means of the construction itself. The Doric style of the colonnades further moves one’s attentional focus towards St. Peter’s basilica. As such, the colonnades define the sacred space of the piazza, which, in the spirit of the Baroque art, serves as the theatre scene of the Catholic faith. Bernini himself called St. Peter’s Square “the piazza il teatro di Pietro”.

The colonnades are made in the Doric style [7]

The colonnades serve as a metaphor: they are the arms of Mother Church [8]

Bernini’s colonnades give expression to the perpetuity and triumph of the Church, and the glory of Faith and sacrifice, by gradually defining the religious experience of the (un)faithful, which is meant to culminate inside St. Peter’s basilica. It starts on entering the street of the Borgo with seeing the entrance to the papal palace. Stepping out of the Borgo into the piazza, symbol of the all-embracing Church, one’s eyes meet the hosts of saints and martyrs at colonnades’ top, representing the reassuring pillars of faith.[9]

Here, the visitor is confronted with the immeasurable oval space of the Piazza, a transition from darkness and insignificance to light and space.[12] When one stands under the portico of St. Peter’s, the statue of Constantine, testimony of Christ’s conquest of the worldly empire, appears to the right like an apparition. After the piazza, the space narrows again to the stairs to the St. Peter.[13] When one enters the church through the central door, one sees a mirage between the dark-bronze columns over St. Peter’s tomb, at the farthest end of the apse, and the throne in which is vested the passing on of the spiritual power to St. Peters and his successors.[14]When walking along the nave, one is surrounded by early popes who bear witness to the age, struggle and victory of the Church.
 
The religious experience starts from Ponte S. Angelo till St. Peters [10] Stepping out of the Borgo in the piazza, symbol of the all-embracing Church, one’s eyes
meet the hosts of saints and martyrs at colonnades’ top, representing the reassuring
pillars of faith
[11]

When one enters the church through the central door, one sees a mirage
between the dark-bronze columns over St. Peter’s tomb, at the farthest
end of the apse, the throne in which is vested the passing on of the
spiritual power to St. Peters and his successors. [15]

Facilitated the multitude of impressions any of these works may evoke when walking along from the Ponte St. Angelo, Bernini achieves the total subordination of architecture, sculpture and decoration to an overriding spiritual conception.[16] In many of Bernini’s works he creates a supra-real world in which the transitions seem obliterated between real and imaginary space, past and present, phenomenal and actual existence, life and death. In both cases an emotionally stirring and often overwhelming chain of ‘true’ impression induced the beholder to forget his everyday existence and to participate in the pictorial reality before his eyes. Religious enthusiasm had never found such realization in Renaissance or post-Renaissance sculpture. Bernini’s ability to portray it singled him out as the chief visual interpreter of the Catholic Restoration. [17]


Level II: political problem

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Pope and the Papal State has experienced a decline in authority on the international political arena. [18]One of the reasons for the growing scepticism towards the validity of Pope’s manifestations of power was Lorenzo Valla’s (1407-1457) discovery that the document of the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. This forged imperial decree, supposedly written by Constantine the Great, has been used to validate Pope’s claims of authority over the Western part of the former Roman Empire for centuries. The fundament of Pope’s authority having been shattered, the Papal State was faced with the problem of regaining its position on the political arena. Thus, the colonnades had to show the regenerative power of the city and the empire.


Given that colonnades are a symbol of the heritage of Greece passed to Rome, and the heritage of ancient times passed to modern times, Pope Alexander VII sought to assert the Church as the legitimate heir to that tradition.[19] The papacy makes appeal to ethos through the symbol of the colonnades, in order for the credibility and high moral ideals associated with the ancient world to be transferred upon the Papal institution. On the image below, the shape of the colonnades in the context of the piazza is easily identifiable. The reference to the ancient tradition through the colonnades is meant to validate Pope’s role as a legitimate perpetuator of the Roman Empire and substantiate Pope’s claims over the Western Europe. By means of an association between the colonnades and the ancient world, the audience is being told that the Pope perpetuates this glorious ancient tradition.

The colonnades filled with people. This is one of the
functions of the piazza: listening to the pope [20]

Moreover, the colonnades also involve a pathos-driven rhetorical discourse, in that the artwork generates a feeling of the sublime through its architectural grandeur: the high, massive colonnades embrace the piazza creating a sacred scene. The impression is inflated by the statues of saints located at the top of the colonnades, and the Egyptian obelisk of red granite, 25.5 metres tall, supported on bronze lions and surmounted by the Chigi arms in bronze. The Church counted on a transference of the architectural grandeur upon the papal institution, by means of a both explicit and implicit association between the Pope and the artwork. St. Peter’s Square has been papacy’s main stage for political and religious ceremonies for centuries. Therefore, the piazza has a significant role in shaping the atmosphere of such gatherings, and, subsequently, shaping papacy’s image in an international context. The colonnades are meant to project the image of a powerful Church, fundamented in ancient tradition, but gloriously contemporary, omnipresent, and undeniable, just like the colonnades themselves. In this case, the pathos-driven rhetorical discourse seeks to inspire feelings of awe and grandeur through the dramatic impression created by the colonnades. As one approaches St. Peter’s, the colonnades unfold as two arms, both powerful and welcoming, opening a breathtaking perspective upon St. Peter’s Church. Thus, at the political level of analysis, St. Peter’s Square serves as a power tool: greatness conveys power. [21]

Moving towards St. Peter's [27]
Section of the southern colonnade seen from the central point of the circle:
the distant rows of the columns being are perceived as moving back
while the front lines of columns move forward[30]
The space circulates freely between the solid forms, but the
colonnades give the piazza a sharp boundary [31]

Level III: artistic problem

Given the scale of the project of the colonnades and its importance this artwork was bound to play a central role in Bernini’s wider oeuvre.[22] The artistic spirit of the period was defined by an ardent quest of redefining the artistic ideals set during the Renaissance. Baroque art came as an expression of the supreme creative powers of humans, able to surpass the “perfect” shapes of the Renaissance. The peak of artistic mastery achieved in Renaissance art was challenged by the new forms of Baroque art, characterized by heavy ornamentation, dynamic shapes, visual illusions and exuberance.[23] Artists no longer separated different forms of artistic expression, but rather resorted to blending the boundaries between ornaments and architecture. Therefore, Bernini's aim, as a one of the most important Baroque architects, was to express the artistic spirit of the time through the colonnades, which one may regard as an architectural ars poetica. [24]


In line with Pope Alexander VII's demand to have the colonnades compare favourably with the works of Rome’s ancient emperor and reclaim some of city’s long-lost glory, Bernini revitalizes the classical colonnades, merging freely the rules of antiquity and Renaissance.[25] By incorporating visual illusions into the construction, Bernini eliminates the barrier between the work of art and the beholder, breaking the psychological barrier between two worlds.[26] One way of using visual illusions is resorting to an imaginative use of light and shadow. As one moves towards St. Peter’s, the piazza gradually dissolves into darkness, the columns near the viewer fading into shadow row by row. As a consequence, the row of columns closest to the viewer passes the eye more quickly than the rows behind it, with a stereoscopic visual impact.

This leads to the distant rows of columns being perceived as moving back while the front lines of columns move forward, shrinking the apparent distance between itself and the rest of the city. Thus, a mesmerizing magnetic power is projected from St. Peter’s, which overflows the space between the basilica and the polis.[29]

Movement, key element of Baroque art, is conveyed in a state-of-the-art manner, as a lived experience rather than a property inherent to the art object. Furthermore, the colonnades themselves also have a dynamic sculptural function, which is underlined by the furious oval arc of the square. The space circulates freely between the solid forms, but the colonnades give the piazza a sharp boundary. [33]Each of the arms of the colonnades is divided into three continuous passages, namely, two narrower pedestrian walks flanking a wider carriage path, further shaping movement. The columns marking these passages are radially aligned as though set along the spokes of a wheel whose hubs are points located between the fountains and the obelisk, thus establishing a visual elasticity between side and central elements. [34] This gives a sense of energy, which is typical for the Baroque style.

Visual elasticity between side and central elements
which give a sense of energy[32]

One important aspect of the Baroque is the metaphor of the theatre of life.[35] This metaphor in Baroque art is based on the interplay between an actual or symbolic audience and a performer. Bernini’s creation is often interpreted in terms of Baroque theatre, given his works of art render a spiritual rapture, representing the summit of sublime emotions, intensified and revealed in a dramatic and powerful manner.[36] The colonnades are intended to do just that, they create an alternate experiential space, a supra-real world. As on a theatre stage, one is implicitly invited by the colonnades and the entire space of the piazza to surrender to and contribute to the creation of a transcendent reality. The performers have a metamorphic identity, depending on the intentions and perspective of the audience, they can either be Bernini, the Pope, or the institution of the Catholic Church. Moreover, one might perceive the identity of the performer as multiple, each conveying their message simultaneously and creating a unique harmony. Given the audience of Baroque art consisted largely of the masses, art had to convey its message by and of itself, without depending on complex allegory or symbolism. This was achieved by making appeal to pathos, namely, the emotional experience inspired by an art object is employed as both the channel of communication and the message. [37]


Level IV: technical problem

Bernini had to take include the obelisk and the fountains in the design [38]
The square indicates the blessing loggia [41]
Piazza Obliqua and piazza Retta [43]

Besides the political, religious, and artistic problems and challenges, both the architect and the commissioner had to deal with matters of a more practical nature, such as the funding of the project, the time constraints, and the physical reality of the piazza and the city. All these factors have influenced the final result in important ways, which are worth addressing.

The papal resources were under severe strain in 1661, and there was internal resistance and intrigue within the curie against the building of the colonnades. [39] Nevertheless, the Pope insisted on project’s realization. The papal tribunals were heavily involved in solving the arising problems in transporting and acquiring materials, despite farmers’ protests whose work was being hampered by the construction. Given Pope’s high involvement in this project, he had several requirements from the architect, which needed to be taken into account when designing the colonnades, namely, Alexander VII wanted a forecourt that would properly set St. Peter’s off from the surrounding city; the colonnades needed to define the space for a formal processional approach to the church and offer shelter from the elements; furthermore, the view towards the blessing loggia needed not be hampered in any way. [40]

To accomplish the first requirement of setting St. Peter’s off from the surrounding city, Bernini designed the first square with an elliptical shape (Piazza Obliqua), such that when the visitor looks at the entrance of the square to the church entrance, the perspective distortion diminishes, and the church seems as wide as the entrance of the square. As the visitor moves toward the basilica, a two-part expansion of dimensions, first oval, then trapezoidal, contributes to the dynamic character of the piazza. [42] The Piazza Obliqua consists of two arcs of a circle pulled apart to form an oval space, thus avoiding the static contours of a closed circle or rectangle. Next to it, the Piazza Retta appears as a rectangle splayed into a trapezoid whose wider side has been shouldered apart by the assertive facade of Saint Peter’s.

In order to for the colonnades to define a formal processional approach to the church, and offer shelter from the elements, Bernini designed three passageways inside the colonnades, which protect from rain and offer shadow. Moreover, the shape of the colonnades allows everyone to walk through them at any point, making the square accessible from any side. This offers the colonnades a welcoming character. Lastly, to allow the pope to be seen from any point of the piazza while he gives his blessing, the limited height of both the curved colonnade and the straight passageways offers clear sightlines from the square to the papal balconies. The entire set piece serves as an optical corrective for St. Peter’s, because the lowness of the straight passageways as they approach the church makes the wide facade of the basilica look taller and narrower than it actually is.


The physical layout of the piazza, with its width greater than its depth, inspired an oval shape of the colonnades arranged on an axis perpendicular to the main orientation of the basilica.[44]Moreover, the double orientation of the piazza, both towards the Benediction Loggia located in the middle of Maderno’s façade and towards a window of Pope’s private apartment located on the uppermost floor of the palace, is well served by the oval shape of the colonnades. Furthermore, the resulting trapezoidal shape of Piazza Retta in front of St. Peter’s offers an enhanced perspective over the façade of the basilica, creating the feeling that one must enter the church. The oval piazza and the subsequent trapezoidal piazza leads the visitor’s attention towards the church. What is more, Bernini was able to accommodate the design of the colonnades to the fact that the walls of the basilica and the palace did not run parallel. The architect designed, on both sides of the staircase,
a series of columns that become narrower as one’s gaze moves forward, giving the
impression that the walls do not run towards each other. Lastly, Bernini had to take
into account the fact that the closer one gets to the façade, the more the dome recedes behind it.
In order to allow the visitor to see the great dome and the imposing façade of St. Peter’s
at the same time, Bernini provided ample space to the façade without hiding the dome.

When one comes closer to the facade, the more the domes recedes behind it [45]

Conclusion

Arm of the colonnades with the saints on top

All the forces that have shaped the creation of the colonnades were at the time of the construction, and still are in a continuous interaction. The artistic reality was a response to the political and religious struggles of the time, and the decrease of papal authority affected the community on both a political level, but also in terms of the image of the church in the eyes of the faithful. Lastly, to solve the more abstract problems the architect had to reconcile all possible solutions with the physical reality of the piazza and the surroundings.

The colonnades persuade a sceptical audience about the value of the Catholic Church by shaping visitors' religious experience as they enter the piazza and head towards St. Peter's basilica. Bernini draws on the rhetorical power of Baroque in order to literally build an answer in response to the emerging Protestantism. Various Baroque means of artistic expression converge to communicate the superiority of the Catholic faith and the Papal institution. For example, the visual illusions, which Bernini juggles with such mastery, transform the space of the city surrounding the piazza in a way that reveals the church from its best perspective. Moreover, the construction of the colonnades and the layout of the piazza emphasize - the central role of the Pope, serving as the stage for the Baroque theatre of life. Moreover, the ancient symbol of the colonnades plays a role in an implicit transference of the values of the ancient Greece upon the Papal State, conveying, in this way, Pope's legitimacy over the territories assigned to him through the document of the Donation of Constantine. The grandeur of this artwork generates a pathos-driven rhetorical discourse meant to sculpt an image of a powerful and sacred Church. The succession of the saints at the top of the colonnades creates a framework that raises the pope to the level of a saint and places him in the biblical narrative. As a performer of this narrative, the Pope addresses the audience in the piazza from the heights of biblical timelessness. By their sheer scale and the underlying story, the colonnades fulfilled the desire of the Counter-Reformation to represent a powerful version of itself. This is also one of the main aims of Baroque art: to restore Roman Catholicism's predominance and centrality [40].

Simultaneously, the colonnades are telling an everlasting story about universal human values, such as faith and the aspiration for the divine. Baroque art hosts an emotional experience, in which nothing is given, and everything is in flight. The oeuvre is dynamic, actively engaging the audience to participate in a transformative experience. Ultimately, Baroque art speaks of the endless creative potential that humans have been endowed with. Bernini's artwork raises and answers a question: "Can we? Yes, we can". The colonnades are not only a symbol of the triumph of the creative power of humanity, but also the result of immense strategic work, and artistic genius.


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