Bs and Bees

February 25, 2015 / Art & Archaeology
Saint Peter's basilica, Vatican City State

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.”

baldacchino-close-up-columnsAnd so it is. An opulent, extraordinary monument to the power of the faith, of the institution of the papacy, of the Church of Rome, and of… bumble bees?


“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!


Giulia Bernardini

by Giulia Bernardini

Giulia, an instructor of art history and humanities at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the founder of WONDERFEAST, dedicated to providing art aficionados with unique artistic and cultural experiences in Italy and beyond.

Join Giulia for Sensuality and Splendor, an on-site art history seminar in Rome, Italy, from June 10-17, 2016.

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26 Responses to “Bs and Bees”

  1. Colleen Simpson

    What an amazing Note with gorgeous photos! Love the humor with all the interesting information. It is very timely too, as my son and family are visiting us in Umbria from Seattle for the first time in April and we plan three days in Rome. I will print this out for them when we visit the Vatican. Grazie mille, Giulia.

    • Thanks, Colleen. Glad that I could be with your son and his family from afar. About a year ago, I also wrote a note and made a little video on Caravaggio’s “St. Matthew and the Angel” in the exquisite Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. It’s definitely worth a visit. You can probably find the note and video by searching the site’s archives.

  2. Linda Hall

    The Barberini symbol was the horsefly until Urban VIII changed it to a bee.

    • Wow. Who knew?! Thanks, Linda. I had no idea. The sun and laurel leaves are also associated with the Barberini name, but horseflies?? Now THAT’S a note waiting to be written…

  3. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Looking past the beautiful art of it all, you cannot miss the hypocrisy. As war is effecting so many the concern is self …

    • It’s terrible, isn’t it? On the other hand, had it not been for his self-aggrandizing agenda, we wouldn’t have Urban’s magnificent, story-packed Baldacchino…

      • Giuseppe Spano
        Giuseppe Spano

        sempre un dilemma nel cuore e linea di principio, quando si supera l’altra … grazie Guillia

  4. Bernini also left a message of happiness in the crests with the three bees. If you walk around the baldacchino and study each crest you will see the surface expand indicating the pregnancy and happiness at the birth of a child. We were told many years ago that this was a niece of the pope. Our source for the story was a nun who was one of the two Dutch nuns who ran a guest house in Piazza Navona for many years. Many Americans stayed with them. Each morning at breakfast they gave new of the city and the led their guests on walking tours of Rome. Such happy times and wonderful memories.

    • Yes, a beautiful story. And the female face above the shield shows the woman going through the various stages of childbirth. Another note on this to come soon.

  5. Maryanne Maggio Hanisch

    Loved this! The works of art in the basilica are so numerous and overwhelming to view; it is nice to get “up close and personal” with the Baldacchino.

  6. Joy Huffines

    Thank you, Giulia, for a fun and memorable history lesson! I’ll be sure to look for the bees next time I visit!

    • Nice, Joy. And when you do, note that Barberini bees have been sighted on the defensive wall refurbished by Urban VIII in Trastevere and the Janiculum Hill, on Palazzo Barberini, and on the ceiling of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, among other places. Happy hunting!

  7. Barbara Ross

    I loved this post! Have been to St. Peter’s a half-dozen times but never knew the symbolism of the twisted columns. How did the Barberini family happen to adopt bees for their crest? Not a play on the first letter of their name, obviously, since that only works in English.

  8. Anstell Ricossa

    Mille grazie ! Wish I had know this when we were there!. Look forward to next time. (God willing)

  9. Donna Hass

    Will be joining Giulia for her Wonderfeast Tour on May 30.

  10. When I toured the Pantheon I was told that the roof of the colonnade used to be bronze, but the bronze was taken to build the baldacchino at St. Peter’s.


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