2000 Years of Roman History, Part Five: Straw Angels
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
The final post of this five-part Roman art series showcases the grand finale of the seventeenth century Italian art scene. If the seventeenth century was the last hurrah, it went out in the form of a great monument - a chair.
Once again, we turn to St. Peter’s as a showcase of Italian art and the two personalities who put a defining plan in place to finish it. What Pope Julius II founded; another pope finished. What Michelangelo constructed; Gian Lorenzo Bernini decorated.
Bernini and St. Peter’s
The Italian art dynamic duo from 1655-67 was no other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and the Pontifex Maximus, Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667). Bernini, the very rich and internationally famous sculptor, architect, and jack of all trades, had more commissions than one artist could manage. He was general building contractor for the pope’s whims and wishes, and some of those wishes were big. At this point in his career had worked for quite a few popes, cardinals, and Roman aristocracy.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, Galleria Borghese, Rome, mid 1620s.
In 1656 Bernini was allotted 60 scudi a month for five years, on top of all the other money he received from papal work as chief architect of St. Peters, to construct the Piazza of St. Peter’s. Already a multi-millionaire, Bernini had few dry spells in his career. He emerged early on in the art scene working for Cardinal Barberini and continued to make art for nearly sixty years. As an earnings comparison, a papal musician or skilled mason earned about 84 scudi a year, a field worker 50 scudi a year. At the time he started the Piazza and Colonnade Bernini was an ancient 59 by seventeenth century standards.
St. Peter’s Colonnade cost about one million scudi, funded partly by selling indulgences, putting pressure on parish churches, and averting the basic needs of the Roman public, such as housing, clean water, garbage removal, improved infrastructure, jobs, and quality of living. Exactly what Romans still demand from their government today. The Colonnade was not publicly popular. Neither was Bernini, although he was revered by the elite. Stepping into the Piazza continues to impress today. Meant to represent the church’s arms opening up to receive the faithful, the symbolic effort has endured even though it was seen as unnecessary at the time.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s Piazza and Colonnade at night, Rome, 1657-63.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s Piazza and Colonnade, Rome. Pixabay, public domain.
Questions about Bernini cooking the books and paying people off were never substantiated but they dogged him until he died in his eighties. Bernini was always careful to manage his public persona and was a skilled networker who had high level connections in Italy, England, and France. Like Michelangelo, Titian, or Raphael, everyone who was someone wanted Bernini to make something for them. He worked for and knew all the powerful families in Rome - Barberini, Chigi, and Pamphilj to name a few. Hot tempered and libidinous, he was reportedly sincerely religious in his later life. But that was after he tried to kill his brother Luigi, fighting over a woman who was mistress to both brothers.
Character aside, at this point in his career Bernini had amassed a long list of famous artworks: marble portraits of the elite, Apollo and Daphne, David, the Baldacchino in St. Peter’s, Roman fountains, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. What could be left? After he began the colonnade, he was commissioned to create an art work for St. Peter’s that would incorporate and pay the deepest honor to the church – a multi-medium art monument containing the relics of the Chair of St. Peter.
The Cathedra Petri, or Chair of St. Peter, is a symbol of the founder of the church. It was vitally important to remind the faithful of the church’s foundation in Rome by St. Peter, as commanded by Christ, and as a legacy of the Old and New Testament. To place the artwork in context, the Mayflower pilgrims landed in America forty years prior, and during Bernini’s construction, England was embroiled in a Civil War, Louis XIV was King of France, and there was still turmoil in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Nave of St. Peter’s with Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri in background, Rome.
The Catholic church actively sought out and commissioned art work that reinforced its authority. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation’s penchant for plainness and lack of decorative religious motifs, the Catholic church doubled down on big, expensive, visually impactful artwork. The Reformation challenged Roman Catholic theology and the church responded with a strong defense, using art as its weapon. Bernini was their man.
The Cathedra is made of bronze, glass, stucco, and marble, and it all blends together seamlessly. The four Doctors of the church (organizers), the chair, and base are bronze, the gold angels and rays of light stucco, the window is alabaster and glass, and lastly, the columns and the base of the four church Doctors are marble. The golden window, designed by Michelangelo, was incorporated into the design at the end of the process. The glass is separated into twelve sections representing the twelve apostles with the Holy Spirit in the center.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri as seen through the columns of the Baldacchino, St. Peter’s, Rome, 1656-66.
The bronze chair effortlessly floats above the main altar in St. Peter’s. The four Doctors hover around the chair, not so much grounding it but more likely to keep it from going adrift into the heavens. An eruption of stucco angels, one hardly distinguishable from another, tumble out of the golden alabaster window. There is so much gilt stucco and bronze it is sometimes easy to miss the chair from the entire montage. The Chair of St. Peter, believed to be an actual chair St. Peter used, is a symbolic representation of the Roman bishop. The artwork is not an exaltation of a piece of furniture but rather honors the concept of church leadership and reminder of church history. Today the Roman Catholic church celebrates February 22 the Chair of St. Peter Feast Day.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.
The ensemble is reminiscent of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1645-52) in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria, also made of marble, stucco, and with a hidden window. Both works use multi-medium approach to representing the subject, best described in Italian as a bel composto – a beautiful whole. The Cathedra Petri bel composto is evident when one enters St. Peter’s and takes in the entire nave, Bernini’s Baldacchino, and glimpses the Cathedra Petri through the twisted columns of the altar covering. The entire concept of church, Eucharist, and authority of the Pope is stunningly tied together for the viewer. The Cathedra only makes sense when experienced in the environment of St. Peter's.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri, St. Peter’s, Rome, 1656-66.
From Models to Finished Product
Bernini had many talents, and one of them was managing a large studio with carpenters, plasterers, carvers, polishers, bronze casters, and other highly skilled artisans. Because he worked included diverse media in his compositions and handled many commissions simultaneously, he needed a lot of technical assistance. He was first and foremost a sculptor. His engineer brother Luigi (they made up after the near-death experience) was his right-hand man. In essence Bernini was CEO of a large art factory responsible for project management, patron relationships, supervising employees, and finances.While we don’t have a step by step documentation for the Cathedra Petri work, we can surmise how the project evolved. Some brief terminology for Italian art production:
Bozzetto (plural bozzetti) a sketch, a rough sculpture, the first thoughts of the artist. Usually small in scale.
Modello (plural modelli) a model, a more refined idea. Larger in scale. Often presented to the patron before final sculpting or painting. For sculpture, the three-dimensional modello or bozzetto might be made of wax, wood, clay, or terracotta.
We don’t know exactly how much of the Cathedra work can be directly attributed to Bernini. Starting in 1657 Bernini spent three years designing and re-designing the work, which ended up twice the size he originally envisioned. Bernini planned it, presented a sketch and bozzetti to the pope who approved it, and his studio, under his guidance, made modelli. From the models tweaks and changes were made before the final casting for bronze or the finished stucco process.
Studies show Bernini’s clay bozzetti show extensive use of hands only to push, pull, add and subtract the clay, especially with smaller scale models of about one foot high, to achieve the desired pose, gesture, or stance. The smaller models are rough without detail – just enough working from the master to achieve the desired results. Close examination reveals fingerprints, fingernail impressions, and finger pinches to mold the clay.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Angel Models for the Cathedra Petri, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome.
The Vatican Pinacoteca, part of the Musei Vaticani, has modelli of angels for the Cathedra Petri and for other work inside St. Peter’s. It’s as close as one can get to understanding the creative process and details of the sculpture. These larger Vatican angel models are part of a later development in the process, closer to the final modelli prior to production. A metal frame forms the “skeleton” of the angels, straw was added as “muscle” and over the frame and the clay acts as “skin”. These appear to be close to the size of the finished product. Bernini and his assistants used a combination of tools and hands-on methods to mold and shape the clay on the models.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Angel Model for St. Peter’s Tabernacle, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome. The straw is visible in the arm and back.
The finished products in either stucco or bronze required little hands on from Bernini, as he relied on highly skilled artisans. Stucco is a mixture of marble powder, sand, and brick mixed with a binder in a water-based solution. The mixture is highly mailable which can be polished and made into highly decorative elements. The gilt gives it a gold like appearance. A bronze cast was made from the models, usually using the lost wax method. Bronze was the most expensive art method, more expensive than marble.
The Empty Chair
Bernini encased the relic of the chair into the bronze. If the chair is inside the bronze, what does it look like? In 1968 the chair was taken down and apart for examination, the casing removed and the chair inspected. We learned what was really was in the chair, and it wasn’t a throne from St. Peter.
The chair is made of oak, with eighteen ivory panels depicting the Labors of Hercules, hardly what one would expect on a throne for the church’s first bishop. There are some imaginary medieval animals carved in the ivory. There’s even an identifiable portrait of Charles the Bald, born in 823, great grandson of Charlemagne. The style of the throne is not at all from Roman or Greek origin. So how did this come to be known as the Chair of St. Peter?
There’s a very marginal connection from Charles the Bald to Rome, who ruled in northeast France, bordering Luxembourg and Belgium. Charles ended up in Rome because his brother forced him out of power. Pope Leo III crowned Charles Roman Emperor, based on a forged document giving the Pope authority to bestow emperor status on rulers, in order to distinguish Western Christianity in Rome from Eastern Christianity. Essentially crowning Charles created a Holy Roman Empire of pope plus king. It was all about power. The chair is called the throne of St. Peter as early as 1130.
In sum, the Chair of St. Peter is an urban legend. But did Bernini know? I think he must have, as the style and decorative motifs would have obviously been from a different time period than that of St. Peter. Presumably the Chair of St. Peter would have Christian decorative motifs common to early Christian art, such as a fish or shepherd. As an employee of the Pope, Bernini complied, whatever he really thought of the chair’s authenticity. However, what the pope asked for, Bernini made.
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Gaskell, Ivan, and Henry Lie. “Sketches in Clay for Projects by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Theoretical, Technical, and Case Studies.” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 3, 1999, pp. 1–179.
Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Penguin: 1990.
Moffitt, John F. “Bernini’s Cathedra Petri and the Constitutum Constantini.” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 23-31.
Mormando, Franco. Bernini: His Life and His Rome. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.