Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter’s

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, 1624-33, 100′ high, gilded bronze (Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in Rome, and a mass just ended. We could barely see the cardinal.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] The scale of this space is difficult to comprehend. Thanks to the Baldacchino by Bernini, we have a little bit of a bridge between the vastness of this space and the scale of the human body. The Baldacchino is this eight-story-high canopy that marks the exact crossing of the church.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] This is the point where the nave — the long hallway in the center of the church — intersects with a perpendicular hallway known as the transept. The Baldacchino, therefore, is set right below Michelangelo’s dome. It is a space that is so big that it’s almost impossible to judge. The Baldacchino, which is almost 100 feet tall, does function as a kind of intermediary.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] It also marks the important site of the burial of Saint Peter in the crypt right below.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] It’s one of the two primary altars in this church, so this is the place the pope might actually lead mass.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] It’s important to remember, too, that Saint Peter was understood to be the first pope, given that job by Christ himself. By marking the site of the tomb of Saint Peter, this monument expresses the sole legitimacy of the Catholic Church, led by the pope here in the Vatican.

[1:22] Remember, this is little more than a century after the challenge to the church by Martin Luther and the Protestants.

Dr. Zucker: [1:28] This is very much the reassertion of the supremacy of the pope during the Counter-Reformation in a style that we call the Baroque, but a little bit more on what a Baldacchino is. This is architecture and it’s sculpture simultaneously, but it references a much more modest canopy that might actually be made out of cloth.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] There is a long tradition of the baldacchino marking an important spot, but not on the scale that we have here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] The symbolism doesn’t stop with the marking of its location. The very columns are symbolic. Note that these are not Doric or Ionic or Corinthian columns. These are not coming out of the classical tradition.

[2:05] Instead, these are spiral columns that refer to the columns of the old Saint Peter’s and to the columns from the Temple of Solomon.

Dr. Harris: [2:13] We’re standing in the new Saint Peter’s, rebuilt in the early 16th century. The old Saint Peter’s dated back to the time of Constantine, first Christian Roman emperor.

[2:22] At the top, on the corners, we see angels, and Bernini has created what looks like fabric hanging down between them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] Then, above all of that is the cross and orb, a symbol of the triumph of the Church throughout the world.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] The orb, a symbol of power. This is all about the triumph of the Church, especially in this context of the Counter-Reformation.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] It’s also about an individual. It’s about Pope Urban VIII, the pope that commissioned this. He came from one of the leading families of Rome, the Barberini.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] Their insignia was a bee, and so when we look up, we see bees on the Baldacchino.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] This is about the Church, but it’s also about the individual contribution of this particular Baroque pope.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] As we look through the Baldacchino, we look to another monument by Bernini, and that’s the Chair of Saint Peter.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] The Baldacchino is huge, and it required a lot of bronze.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] Bronze is very expensive.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Right, bronze is mostly copper, which is tremendously expensive, mixed with a little bit of tin to make it stronger. We think that much of the bronze for this project actually had been stripped from the portico of the Pantheon, that ancient building in Rome.

[3:28] The Pantheon, of course, is a temple to all of the gods. It is the epitome of the polytheism of the ancients, but here brought into a Catholic church.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] Although we can see that in many places in Rome, the way that ancient Roman monuments were reused by Christians. For example, Michelangelo created the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli from ancient Roman baths.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] I know much of the inspiration for the Baldacchino was to help humanize the vast scale of Saint Peter’s Basilica, but the vast scale of the Baldacchino itself is still overwhelming for me.

Dr. Harris: [4:01] It’s still really daunting.

[4:02] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter’s," in Smarthistory, July 19, 2015, accessed April 20, 2024,