miércoles, 22 de junio de 2011

St Peter's Basilica: Bramante

One of the most prominent names in all of High Renaissance Italy and the most ambitious of all building projects in all of the 16th century; and yet, all we have of Bramante’s St Peter’s Basilica is an engraving on a coin and a floor plan. 

All that was built in Bramante’s time were the central piers, which ultimately proved to be spectacularly inadequate for the task and had to be enlarged and strengthened by successive architects.

Bramante produced some of the most enduring building types of modern European architecture. His iconic Tempietto (pictured above), though not very practical, was copied widely in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Palazzo Caprini, also known as Raphael’s House, set the standard for classical urban buildings across Europe and his Cortile de Belvedere was also hugely influential. 

Raphael’s House has since been demolished and the Cortile has been heavily altered. The basilica was the most ambitious of his projects and was only finished more than 100 years after his death. Its design also evolved significantly during that period. Yet, the essential concept is still recognisable in the completed building.

It is commonly believed that Bramante wanted to rebuild the basilica as a centrally planned structure, and the surviving floor plan supports this idea. The concept was popular with Italian renaissance architects but seldom got off the drawing board. Leonardo da Vinci for instance, who Bramante knew in Milan, made a number of sketches on the theme.

Centrally planned spaces were built from Filippo Brunelleschi onwards but these were generally part of a wider complex. It is in fact possible that this was the case also in Bramante's project. The floor plan could represent a proposal to rebuild the choir rather than the church as a whole.

One of the few churches to be completed on the principle of a central plan during this period is Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi.  

It has been suggested that the central plan represents a shift in philosophy, based on humanism and secularism, but there is little to suggest that Bramante wanted to challenge religious dogma. It is more likely that he saw the central plan as appropriate for a martyrium, a shrine to commemorate the tomb of St Peter. The Tempietto, also centrally planned, similarly marks the spot of St. Peter’s crucifixion.

Given this relationship with the Tempietto, one could expect St. Peter’s Basilica to follow similar lines. However, judging by the engraved coin, that is not exactly what we find.

The Pantheon was widely admired and clearly provided a model for the dome, but the rest of the building seems to look to other sources for inspiration.  

One possibility is Alberti’s San Sebastiano in Mantua, which also represented the classical language in a rather bare form, with pilasters providing much of the surface treatment.

The principal facade is obscured by a domed chapel, which incorporates the entrance apse of the main structure behind it. It is flanked by two towers and above rises a massive hemispherical dome. The latter sit on a drum ringed with columns, making it look like a giant version of the Tempietto lifted on top of another building.

Chapels at the four corners of the main structure are also crowned with small domes.

The multiplication of domes and the towers may suggest an attempt to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which had fallen to the Turks only half a century earlier. It is doubtful, however, whether Bramante had any meaningful knowledge about that building. It is also possible that Bramante used Roman churches from the early Christian period as models.

Nothing quite like Bramante’s St. Peter’s was ever built but his designs did have an influence on contemporary buildings. 

For a sense of how the basilica might have looked, the church of San Bagio in Montepulciano offers some clues. Only one of the towers was actually built in this case but if you can imagine a similar structure on a larger scale, with a heftier dome, and domed chapels at the corners, then suddenly, Bramante’s St. Peter’s almost comes alive. 

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