MICHELANGELO Buonarroti
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Project for St Peter's in Rome

1547
Engraving
British Museum, London

All extant documents and the results of modern research attest that the Old Basilica of Saint Peter's was a beautiful church and the joy of every pilgrim. But it was falling to pieces, and the prevalent taste for the spectacular determined the Popes to pull down the venerable building and replace it by a new and more imposing church. Many plans were advanced and discarded; many changes made. Each Pope and each newly appointed architect criticized, chopped and changed the earlier plans. What emerged were bits and fragments, the most excellent being those left by Bramante, though artists like Raphael, Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger had made their contributions. Weighty tomes were compiled recording the complicated history of this building. In 1547 Pope Paul III entrusted Michelangelo with the supervision of the plans, but years went by before he managed to introduce some order into them and impose unity on the inchoate mass of designs and materials. He reduced Bramante's elaborate plans to a central edifice and a mighty dome. This dome, finished after his death, became the largest in the world. The central aisle has been spoilt by a nave and a façade whose cold secularity is redeemed solely by Bernini's magnificent colonnades. One must see Michelangelo's Saint Peter's from the west side to appreciate what was intended here; likewise one should cross the nave and, disregarding the bronze canopy and all later Baroque additions, look at the cruciform transepts and up towards the vaulted cupola.

Bramante had envisaged a square dome with four towers and a light, balanced arrangement of aisles and cloisters, the whole made up of autonomous and coordinated parts. Michelangelo's plan was grander and more simple, with an elliptical parabolic cupola dominating the whole design. The internal structure of the church is cruciform, with barrel vaulting in Bramante's manner, while the castle-like façade suggests worldly rather than spiritual dominion. The gallery at the base of the cupola is almost Gothic in character. The walls below, broken by superimposed windows in groups of two and three, wedged between steeply rising pilasters with angulate Corinthian capitals, support the architrave, the cornice and the powerful attic storey. All this is but a basis for, and a prelude to, the great dome which dominates and blesses the Campagna Romana, or what is left of it today.

The engraving shown in the picture was executed by Étienne Dupérac (1525-1604) in 1568.