Fascinating history reveals how the world’s most glorious house of worship emerged from decades of trial and scandal.
The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica spanned 120 years (1506–1626) and the reign of 27 popes. Scotti (Sudden Sea, 2003) argues convincingly that the project prompted Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation, nearly bankrupted the Catholic Church and threatened to sink the papacy. But it ultimately produced one of humanity’s most wondrous artistic achievements and revived the glory of Rome. The author deftly navigates the facts, dates and personalities involved, giving an immediacy and accessibility to this dense, complex saga. Not surprisingly, delicious ironies abound. Much of the funds to build St. Peter’s came from the pillaging of New World natives by Spanish conquistadors. The ancient obelisk that still anchors St. Peter’s Square was brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula, the most debauched of Roman emperors. The massive dome that sits atop St. Peter’s was partially constructed with material scavenged from the nearby Pantheon, a pagan temple. Naturally, heroes emerge in such a tale, among them Popes Julius II and Sixtus V, who took the massive project on their shoulders, and artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini, whose genius elevated the basilica from architecture to high art. The erratic Michelangelo took on the construction job reluctantly, then devoted his life to St. Peter’s for 17 years, until his death at the age of 89. Bernini spent even more time on the project, designing the massive bronze canopy that dwarfs the altar, the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square and many of the lavish fountains that still guide the faithful to the basilica’s front door.
In Scotti’s capable hands, the story of St. Peter’s becomes a riveting portrait of the papacy, complete with its triumphs, intrigue and excesses.