The princes and artists of the Italian Renaissance strove mightily to revive the glories of classical Greek and Roman culture. In one respect, they certainly hit the mark: Even the more outlandish of the Caesars had nothing on the colorful bunch of men who ascended to the papacy in those years, though most of the popes were a tad less likely to kill their relatives.
From the intellectual Nicholas V through the warrior Julius II and on to the Counterreformation popes, these were guys with big ideas. The biggest, at least in material terms, was tearing down the hallowed Basilica of St. Peter, dating to 326, and replacing it with the St. Peter's that many today consider the architectural highpoint of the Roman Catholic Church. While Nicholas conceived the idea around 1450, it was Julius who laid the first stone of the new church on April 18, 1506 500 years ago. To mark that anniversary, author R.A. Scotti has written Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal, Building St. Peter's, a brisk and satisfying narrative history of the two-century building project that involved a procession of hero-artists: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini. Raphael was a young man during his brief tenure running the project, but Scotti makes it clear that it was old men in a hurry who really drove the work forward. That was particularly true of the storied dome, an engineering marvel. Scotti writes of Bramante setting the foundation piers that made the Basilica his own, Michelangelo approaching his 89th year and staving off death to assure that his dome would crown the mother church, [Pope] Sixtus V holding his architects to a frenzied schedule. By the time Bernini put the finishing touches on the basilica in the mid-17th century, the world of the Roman Church had changed. The project itself helped trigger the Reformation, as Martin Luther protested what he perceived as the popes' outrageous fundraising to pay its massive expense. The popes who followed responded aggressively, in part with the crowd-pleasing Baroque style that Bernini's work epitomized. Combining as it does Renaissance brilliance and Baroque drama, Scotti writes, the Basilica was truly catholic. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.