BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo
(b. 1598, Napoli, d. 1680, Roma)

General view

St. Peter's Square, Rome

Bernini's greatest architectural achievement is the Piazza San Pietro, begun in 1656 under Alexander VII and completed in 1667. The construction of the square and colonnade was an undertaking of immense proportions and complexity. In transforming the small existing piazza, Bernini was expected to cater for several functions. First, he had to provide a suitable space for the throngs who assemble for the papal blessing delivered from the Benediction Loggia above the main portal of the façade. He had to allow a view of the window in the Vatican Palace on the north side of the square from which the pope gives his Sunday blessing. It was also necessary to create a monumental, dignified approach to St Peter's, one that expressed its special status as the primary church of Christendom. On a more practical level, passageways protected from the elements were required for ceremonial processions as well as for pedestrian and coach traffic.

Bernini's solution was to regularize the narrow, sloping space immediately in front of the church and to demolish the medieval and Renaissance buildings impinging upon the planned site. He laid out a vast oval area, its long axis parallel to the façade of the basilica and with the great obelisk erected by Sixtus V at the centre. This space was defined and framed by two immense, curved, free-standing colonnades, each composed of four rows of Doric columns. Viewed from the square, these lines of massive columns produce a powerful sculptural effect capped by the legions of travertine saints populating the balustrade and silhouetted against the sky.

This architectural complex creates a ceremonial space of the utmost grandeur. Moreover, the purposely low profile of the colonnade arms, their heavy proportions and linkage to the outer edge of St Peter's stressed the vertical thrust of Maderno's façade with its lighter Corinthian columns and so helped to diminish the sense of excessive width caused by the addition of two bays as foundations for the unrealized bell-towers.

In his original plan for the square Bernini envisaged a third, free-standing section of colonnade, at the now open end of the piazza, to close off the arms and to screen the visitor's view upon his approach. This arm was never built, and the broad avenue created in 1937 with its vista towards the Tiber distorts Bernini's intention that the colonnades should 'embrace Catholics to reinforce their belief, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to enlighten them with true faith'.