Today, I was exposed to the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica once again on a tour with my Baroque Art class. One of the best parts about my UCEAP Rome program is its focus on on-site learning and lecturing; which is especially embodied with this Art History class. Rather than looking at slides and power-points in a classroom we go out and see the art, architecture and sculptures right before our eyes. Having a personal experience with the works — being exposed to the beauty in the flesh — is the best way to learn Art History. I find it hard to sense the true essence of a piece without seeing the details in person.
Rome is the center for Baroque Art so everywhere you look you can find examples. I feel so much more connected to the city and knowledgeable on its history after taking this class. I have a stronger understanding of the layout of the land since we go around to different churches and galleries for every lecture, and a deeper respect and appreciation for all of the public works I pass by every day.
My professor, Paolo Alei, is brilliant. I’m convinced he might be one of the most knowledgeable experts on Roman Baroque and Renaissance art in the world. He knows the material like the back of his hands and his lectures are pieces of art in themselves. He will take us into a gallery and talk about only 4 pieces of art for 3 hours, have every student captivated the entire time, and use the works in a specific order to take you on a conceptual journey that ends with a grand crescendo finale. This class has been a blessing because of everything I’ve learned and how actively I am able to use the knowledge every single day. I’ll pass by the facade of a building, notice 3 marble bees placed on a column, and know that it was commissioned by the papal Barbarini family as a form of political propaganda and that it’s a symbol of their coat of arms which alludes to the bees swarming at the founding of Rome after the Fall of Troy in Virgil’s The Aeneid.
In the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays we meet at a cathedral or piazza or gallery and spend the next 3 hours looking at art or buildings or sculptures while ferociously write down all of the gold our professor has to say. But this week was different. You are not allowed to (well, not supposed to) speak in St. Peter’s Basilica so for the first time we met in class on Tuesday so he could lecture us in preparation for our visit to the Vatican on Thursday. This was actually pretty awesome for a change, because it led to a much more relaxed experience. Since we had learned all of the information beforehand, we were able to just see and explore independently.
Our professor took us up to the cupola which was very exciting. It is the 360 degree viewpoint around the top of the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. I have been wanting to reach this vantage point for months now and it was one of the most breath-taking views I’ve ever seen. I am almost glad I waited to go to the cupola till this late in the semester, because it was so nice to know what a lot of the buildings and parks were that I saw. I had a moment of retrospective nostalgia as I thought about all of the memories associated to each of the places I could pick out.
After being blown away by the vista point, we went back down the hundreds of stairs incapsulated in narrow, slanted, disorienting stairwells back down to the main part of the basilica. I have been here before, but every time I am blown away. It is unbelievably massive and gorgeous. We then were sent free to explore the grounds on our own.
We are studying the architecture of the basilica as well as the piazza, the marble tile work, the wall and ceiling decoration and the sculptures. The architecture was a collaborative feat by the legendary Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Bernini. The height at the central part of the dome is almost 500 feet and its stature makes it hard to imagine the basilica was made by man, and even crazier in the 16th and early 17th century for that matter.
Since Bernini is the Baroque master of sculpture, we payed particular attention to his embellishments to the basilica, the incredible bronze baldacchino, the throne of St. Peter and the massive statues in the pilasters of the dome that surround the main alter. I learned that Bernini began by designing the baldacchino, the massive canopy structure in the center of the basilica. It is almost 100 feet tall (believed to be one of the largest bronze statues in the world) and most of the bronze was stripped from the Pantheon. The alter and baldacchino are supposed to be directly above St. Peter’s grave in the necropolis below the basilica and create a very particular vertical access that moves from St. Peter’s remains, to the alter where the eucharist occurs and then continues on to the dove underneath the baldacchino, to the cross atop the canopy and then ultimately to the fresco of god who is painted at the top of the dome (representing god, the son and the holy spirit).
I spent the next couple of hours taking in all of the art that surrounded me and recalled all of the information I obtained from the lecture before. I sauntered around the basilica, constantly in awe, until I was eventually kicked out when the basilica closed. I was one of the last out of the glorious building and left feeling very satisfied. I always gain so much more appreciation for works once I learn about them.