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TOPIC: A Structural Resurrection / St. Peter's / Michelangelo

A Structural Resurrection / St. Peter's / Michelangelo 1 week 2 days ago #387502

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A Structural Resurrection

When Michelangelo took over the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, it was a mess. But he turned it into an icon.


May 15, 2020

We think of Michelangelo as the lone genius who carved the David, the Pietà, and painted the Sistine ceiling. Legend leaves out more than 50 years of Michelangelo’s life and work—completing the Tomb of Pope Julius II, painting the Last Judgment and Pauline Chapel frescoes, as well as creating his greatest masterpiece: St. Peter’s Basilica.

In 1547 Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo, then age 71, to take over as architect of St. Peter’s. “I am not an architect,” the sculptor protested. But Michelangelo had also once claimed not to be a painter, and yet, pre-pandemic, more than 22,000 people lined up to visit the Sistine Chapel every day. Michelangelo could also protest that he was an old man—and he was. In an era when most people died by age 45, he had lived well beyond Renaissance life expectancy. He wanted to retire and return to Florence. But you do not say “No” to a pope.

The young Michelangelo who had done everything himself and had astonished the world by creating marvels was now intensely spiritual, preoccupied with death, sin and salvation. His age, a mounting number of incomplete projects, and a numbing series of losses of family and friends focused the artist’s attention on the one project that truly mattered. Although he knew he would never live to see it completed, he devoted the final 17 years of his life to St. Peter’s. He firmly believed that he was “put there by God,” that he was God’s architect.

The St. Peter’s Michelangelo inherited was a depressing mess. The project had begun in 1505 when Pope Julius II decided to replace the original basilica, built in the fourth century over the grave of the Apostle Peter. But after more than 40 years, the largest construction site in the world looked more like a Roman ruin than a new church. Broken pieces of the Early Christian church lay strewn about, pulled down by the first architect, Donato Bramante, properly maligned in his day as “Bramante Il Ruinante.” Vaults linked the four massive piers, but the central crossing over the apostle’s grave remained exposed to the elements. The entire structure was encased in scaffolding, festooned with ropes, cranes and hoists, and littered with disordered piles of stone, equipment, and animal droppings.

In addition, the building suffered from the incompatible designs and ill-conceived construction efforts of a half-dozen previous architects, none of whom had considered the most important problem of all: how to raise a dome the diameter of the Pantheon but nearly three times as tall. Michelangelo’s most urgent task, then, was to strengthen the four crossing piers and the basilica’s exterior walls, which together would support the weight and thrust of the enormous dome.

At St. Peter’s, Michelangelo was more than an architect and designer. He was the elderly overseer of a sprawling construction site: project engineer, CEO, business manager and public-relations officer. Every day he rode his horse to the worksite, conferred with his foremen, designed better ways to build, and solved engineering problems that had confounded his predecessors. To transport materials to the highest levels of construction, he designed gently inclined helical ramps inside the four external piers. Unaware of the prodigious height they were climbing, docile donkeys carried thousands of bricks, sand and lime for mortar, food and water for the fearless workers building the transept vaults over a 150-foot void.

There were so many other details to consider: How much travertine needed to be delivered each week to construct the 16 buttresses and 32 columns that would encircle the drum and support the majestic central dome? How many stone carvers should be assigned to the quarries to rough out the blocks? How many carters would be needed to get the material to St. Peter’s? How many donkeys and handlers should be retained? Were the hoists and ropes strong enough to lift a column drum?

St. Peter’s is crowned by an expansive, convex dome, a well-inflated dirigible pushing outward against its restraining skeleton of vertical ribs. The dome rests on a 50-foot-high tambour—a vertical cylinder of stone encircled by 16 massive buttresses, each fronted by a pair of colossal columns. Serving the same purpose as flying buttresses in a Gothic cathedral, those giant piers support and counteract the outward thrust of the dome. Each of the dome’s mighty ribs would spring from the paired columns, thus helping to determine the design of the dome that followed. Such were the means by which Michelangelo “brought the fabric of St. Peter’s to a stage in which my design could not be spoilt or altered.”

Michelangelo did not live to see the completion of the church, but ask anyone: Who built St. Peter’s? Few will answer Donato Bramante, Giacomo della Porta or Carlo Maderno, whose 1619 facade completed the church. The power and authority of Michelangelo’s vision, the clarity of his design, and the solutions he engineered guaranteed the successful completion of the project.

So, are you thinking of retiring? Just because you are in your 70s? Michelangelo was just entering the busiest and most creative years of his life. And look what he accomplished 52 years after completing the Sistine Chapel.

—Mr. Wallace is a professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis. His latest book, “Michelangelo, God’s Architect—The Story of His Final Years & Greatest Masterpiece,” was recently published by Princeton University Press.
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