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Europe 1300 - 1800

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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  • leaf green style avatar for user John
    Did the obelisk in the center of the piazza come from ancient Egypt, or was it too, like the classical architecture, inspired by previous styles?
    (16 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user FinallyGoodAtMath
      Yes, it was transported to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD. The Vatican Obelisk was originally created in Heliopolis around 2400 BC. Augustus had it moved to Alexandria during his reign. In 37 AD, Caligula had the obelisk moved to Rome and placed in the Circus of Nero, which is about where the Vatican is today. In 1586, it was moved to it's current location by Domenico Fontana for Pope Sixtus V.
      (24 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Arien
    Dr. Zucker sounds like he is shivering....
    (5 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user John
    Was Bernini (or presumably his studio) responsible for all of the figures as well?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user marianalaura.val
    I love this site. Not only the videos are great, but there's always a piece of information I don't find on books. While studying Art History at University, I find them quite useful and watch them often as a dinamic break from the sometimes tedious reading.
    (7 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Noodlebasher
    Who was the pope when this was designed?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Aimee
    I know the colonnades are supposed to represent the Church's embrace, but (I may be thinking too far into this) from above the view reminds me of a keyhole. Traditionally, St. Peter was given the keys to heaven, and since this is St. Peter's Square, the symbolism would make sense. Does this sound plausible to anyone else?
    (3 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user acolbath
    At : who are the figures above the columns? They seem rather important, maybe other popes or something.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lisaa.palt
    In the square in front of St. Peter's at the Vatican there is a brick that has the eternal heart carved on it. It is just one of the hundreds of thousands of bricks that make up the plaza. It was purportedly carved by someone famous (Michelangelo or Bernini or other). Can you direct me to a resource that would have a picture of this brick? I was told tourist make a point of seeking out this brick when they visit St. Peter's Plaza. Thank you in advance.
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Suzanne
    How long did it take to build this?
    (1 vote)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
    At about , they remark that the pediments at the ends of the colonnades hark back to ancient Rome and Greece. So does the array of sculptures on the top of those colonnades. Sculptures often topped public buildings and lined the sides of pools.
    (1 vote)
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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)