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Bernini, Saint Peter's Square

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Saint Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro), Vatican City, Rome, 1656-67 Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat funky music) - [Narrator] We're standing in the magnificent piazza designed by Bernini in the 17th century in front of the Basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican in Rome. - [Narrator] The piazza is filled with chairs and people exiting after Pope Francis gave an audience. - [Narrator] And that's exactly the purpose of this piazza, this grand public space designed by Bernini, to hold vast numbers of people who would come here to see the pope. - [Narrator] This site on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from central Rome, had held the ancient Roman circus of the Emperor Nero and it was here that St. Peter was buried, and around his grave was built the great early church, the first St. Peter's built by Emperor Constantine. - [Narrator] The church we refer to as the old St. Peter's, and this is a church that dates to the time of the High Renaissance to the early 1500s to the patronage of Pope Julius II who is also responsible for other amazing things here like commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or commissioning Raphael to paint frescoes in the stanza here in the Papal Palace. Bernini's piazza dates to more than 100 years later. - [Narrator] A lot had taken place during that 100 years. Most significantly Martin Luther sparks the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church responds with what is known as the Counter-Reformation. This piazza is central to understanding Counter-Reformation architecture. - [Narrator] The church recognized that art could be used to inspire the faithful and this piazza reaches out to do just that. In fact those are Bernini's words. He said, "These are the motherly arms of the church, "reaching out to embrace the faithful "and to reunite heretics with the church," and those heretics that Bernini was referring to are the Protestants. Those Christians who broke away from the authority of the pope in Rome in the 16th century. - [Narrator] 500 years later these double colonnades are still embracing the faithful as we saw earlier today. The geometry of the space is clearly no longer the idealized geometry of the High Renaissance. This is not squares and circles. We're now seeing ovals or ellipses and trapezoids. This is a more dynamic and more complex geometry. - [Narrator] Well, think about it. Here we have, as we look across the piazza, the High Renaissance church as designed by Bramante and then redesigned by Michelangelo and Raphael, but that's a church that stands alone. What Bernini did was activate the church so that it no longer was static, but something that moved out into the space in front of the church, moved out into the space of the viewer, and reached out to embrace us. - [Narrator] In fact the piazza reaches out into the city. It creates a transitional space between the secular space of the city and the spiritual space of the Basilica. - [Narrator] What we have essentially are two in a way arms or wings that reach out from the church itself, and those open up into this vast oval space at the center of which is an ancient obelisk -- - [Narrator] From Egypt. - [Narrator] And two gorgeous fountains sparkling with water on either side. - [Narrator] This creates a longitudinal axis that perfectly incorporates this existing architecture. - [Narrator] This oval is comprised of a colonnade that is four rows of columns that are massive in scale. - [Narrator] These are made of drums of travertine, round drums of stone that are stacked up one atop the other. - [Narrator] They are in the Tuscan order. That is they are very simple and unfluted. They're not decorated with those vertical lines that we see in the Doric order, for example, and for me what that does is it keeps the space of the piazza simple and focuses our attention on the facade of the Basilica of St. Peters. - [Narrator] The whiteness of the travertine of Bernini's columns makes my eyes more sensitive to the multiple colors that we see in Maderno's facade of the Basilica. - [Narrator] If we follow the colonnades around to the very end, we wee that they end in very simple temple fronts. They look like ancient Greek temples with columns carrying a frieze and a pediment above that. Very simple to create this vast, welcoming public space. - [Narrator] A space that is a perfect synthesis of symbolism and utility. (upbeat funky music)