It’s a… actually, what is it?! Scholars have a hard time deciding how to categorize Gianlorenzo Bernini’s giant, 66ft.-tall bronze baldacchino (canopy) in St. Peter’s Basilica. The sheer scale of the structure bumps it out of the category of sculpture and into… awe-inspiring-giant-thingness? Maybe even architecture?
Flashback to the year 1623: Cardinal Maffeo Barberini has just ascended to the papal throne as Urban VIII. War has been raging between Protestants and Catholics since 1618 and there seems to be no end in sight. Of greater immediate importance to the new pope, however, is the expansion of the Papal States (he’ll be the last pope to do so by use of force) and especially the consolidation of the Barberini family name in the Roman social and political hierarchy. Patronage of the arts is a surefire way to leave one’s mark and what better place to do so than in the great basilica of Peter – the first of the popes of the Church of Rome, the spiritual father of all the successive guardians of the keys of heaven – atop his holy grave?
Enter Bernini, by now a close buddy of many years to Maffeo.
“A canopy, Your Holiness? Of course, in keeping with tradition. Large? Yes, we can make it large. And bronze? Definitely. Gilt bronze. We’ll drop gold into the molten metal so that when it’s burnished, it will shine like the glory of the Mother Church. And it will have twisted columns, yes? A subtle reference to the intertwining of the Old and New Testaments, to the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem (believed to have been decorated with twisted columns) and, finally, to the first Basilica of St. Peter, erected by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, whose altar atop the tomb of St. Peter was decorated with twisted columns.”
“Certainly, Your Holiness. We will ensure that your family name is exalted in the structure as well. The symbol from Your Holiness’ illustrious coat of arms will adorn the Baldacchino, spreading the fame of the Barberini name far and wide throughout the Basilica, the Papal States, and beyond.”
Sure enough, look a little more closely and you see the Barberini bees still buzzing around the Baldacchino almost four hundred years later. Fitting for a Baldacchino, designed by Bernini for the Barberini pope!