Julius II's Big Gamble; a Gift Museum

The New St. Peter's Marks 500 Years

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 27, 2006 (Zenit.org).- After a week of anniversaries and birthdays, openings and commemorations it seems clear that Rome has blossomed into spring. A date that no Catholic in the world would want to miss is the 500th anniversary of the foundation of St. Peter's Basilica which fell on April 18.

Stamps, medals, new publications and upcoming exhibits will commemorate the solemn occasion of a half-millennium ago when Pope Julius II della Rovere laid the foundation stone to start the construction of the "new" St. Peter's designed by the brilliant Renaissance architect Donato Bramante.

At the time, the project caused much controversy because in order to erect the new basilica, the millennium-old St. Peter's, traditionally held to have been built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, would have to be destroyed. This seemed like sacrilege to many and Bramante took the brunt of the criticism being dubbed by the papal master of ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, "Bramante, Maestro Ruinante."

The centuries have revealed how far-seeing Julius II was to undertake this project. The principal motivation for the new basilica was the structural instability of the old St. Peter's. The underground springs around the site, the addition of numerous side chapels punched into the walls, and the wear and tear of 1,000 years had made the Constantinian basilica unstable. Pope Nicholas V stated in 1451 that the building was in danger of collapse and was planning major restructuring.

Julius II also knew that the other cities in Italy had profited from the papal absence in Avignon to construct far grander churches than St. Peter's. The Duomo of Florence was the largest church in the world and was crowned by Brunelleschi's mighty dome. Milan, Pisa and Siena all had magnificent churches and by contrast Rome's great basilica looked poor and run-down.

Julius intended to restore the glory of the site of St. Peter's tomb as well as evoke the authority of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter. Giles da Vitterbo, theologian to Julius II, explained that the faithful who entered the church would be "shaken and overwhelmed by the sight of this huge building" and as a result, their faith would be confirmed and reinforced.

A commemorative coin struck in 1506 by Cristoforo Foppa shows the original plan for the new St. Peter's. It was intended as a Greek cross plan so that the heart and center of the church would be the tomb of the prince of the apostles.

Bramante's design called for four great piers to support an enormous dome based on that of the Pantheon. The building drew on the grandeur of Roman architecture, the structures that had earned Rome the title of Eternal City, to serve Christian purposes. The brilliant plan also reflected new developments in history -- the discovery of the New World in 1492.

Egido da Vitterbo described Bramante's St. Peter's as "mundus," or world. The theologian claimed that "the Roman foundation and seat of the prince of the apostles, along with the highest priests, instituted and dedicated as a temple" was to be constructed for "the new propagation of the empire."

Although the church underwent many changes in the 120 years it took to build it, Julius II and Bramante would be proud to see their project, started as a single stone in the ground 500 years ago, flourishing today as the parish church of the whole world and magnet for pilgrims from all over the globe.

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Birthday Boon

On April 21, Rome's birthday, the city gave itself a spectacular gift -- a new museum. The museum houses the Ara Pacis, the altar of peace built in honor of Emperor Augustus by the Roman senate in 13 B.C. after his victories in Spain and Gaul.

The museum stands by the Tiber River and is flanked by the Mausoleum of Augustus where the emperor's ashes were laid after his death in A.D. 14. It replaces an earlier structure built by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. Plans for the museum now include a park, a fountain and the creation of a pedestrian area all the way to the river.

The monument was originally erected further away from the river on an axis comprising an obelisk, the altar and the mausoleum. The obelisk, one of the first two brought by Augustus after conquering Egypt, was set up as a meridian and every Sept. 23, the emperor's birthday, it would cast its shadow on the Ara Pacis, symbolizing the connection between the birth of Augustus and the advent of peace throughout the Roman Empire.

This fact was not lost on the Christians. It was during the Pax Romana, the era of peace brought by Augustus, that Christ was born. The Church of the Ara Coeli, on the Capitoline Hill, was built to commemorate Augustus' role in the history of Christianity.

The monument was lost until 1903, when it was rediscovered under a palace next door to the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Archaeologists were unable to excavate it, however, as the area was riddled with underground springs and the building was in danger of collapsing.

Mussolini found an ingenious solution by bringing a giant refrigeration system to the area and freezing the site until the monument could be removed. He then moved the Ara Pacis to its present location to celebrate in 1937 the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.

Mussolini's structure, damaged by decades of car exhaust, was more of an eyesore than a monument to the past glories of Rome and in the 1990s, plans for a new museum were prepared. The architect chosen was Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and famous in Rome as creator of the millennium church in Tor Tre Teste, built for the Vatican in 2000.

The appointment of Meier has had more than its share of polemics and detractors call the museum "Rome's newest gas station." But Meier was all smiles during the inauguration, marveling that 50 years ago when he came as an architecture student to Rome, he never imagined that one day he would be adding his work next to the great monuments of Rome's past.

Meier's work recalls Rome's history as well as looks toward the future of the Eternal City. He uses travertine and cement, the two preferred building materials of Imperial Rome, lightened by tempered glass panels that allow the famous Roman light to penetrate the edifice and create striking effects (they also, thank heavens, keep out the traffic noise).

Mayor Walter Veltroni made an interesting point during the opening ceremonies. He noted that a great city does not just rest on the laurels of its past but lives in its present and looks to ensure its continued glory in the future.

Standing in front of the monument celebrating the great acts of Augustus, Veltroni spoke of the modern deeds of a city ready to reclaim its former status of "caput mundi."

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In Line for Reform

Anyone who has visited the Vatican Museums over the past couple of years knows that the line to enter it can reach epic, if not tragic, lengths. Visitors marvel at the queue which stretches a quarter-mile or so along the walls of Vatican City from the entrance. On a really tough day, the wait starts all the way back at the colonnade of St. Peter's Square.

If it weren't enough to have to stand outside pelted by rain or baked by sun, the parasitic life that proliferates around the line makes the wait an exercise in corporal mortification. Seedy characters offering "no-wait" tours, pickpockets weaving in and around groups, and institutionalized line-cutting all indicate that the Vatican Museums appear to bring out the worst in people rather than the best.

In an attempt to solve this problem, the Vatican Museums opened a new ultra-modern entrance in 2000. This three-story structure, dug out of Vatican property, succeeded in lessening the wait for a short while but is now engulfed by the crowds which total about 17,000 to 23,000 per day.

But now the city of Rome is coming to the rescue. Mayor Walter Veltroni has announced plans to construct a new subterranean entrance on the site of present-day Piazza Risorgimento. Similar to the Louvre, the entrance will have a glass pyramid for illumination as well as its own metro stop.

Vatican engineers are collaborating with the Rome city planners in a team effort as exciting as the project for the Via della Conciliazione, "the road of reconciliation" built by Mussolini in 1929 as a grand entrance to St. Peter's Basilica.

Visiting the museums in this day and age has become a truly daunting task, and even this new entrance is at least four years away. But I'm happy to report that people still think that Michelangelo is worth the wait.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.