Bernini’s Ingenious Stairs

The most difficult architectural problem Gianlorenzo Bernini ever faced was a staircase—a long, dark, ugly, treacherous set of stairs in the unseen part of the Vatican. It was the only way popes had to go down to St. Peter’s for Mass and it was scary as hell. Many old popes had to be carried down, which was as bad as trying to find their way themselves. On a swaying, tilting chair they held their breath as their grunting servants tried in the dark to find each step and get their footing. One hundred times.

Pope Alexander VII finally decided to end this daily Calvary. He called in Bernini. “Could you do something about those stairs? It’s getting to where I’m afraid to go down to Mass.”
“Can I do something?” said Bernini, a little too loud. “No, Holiness, I won’t. I won’t do ‘something’. Of that dingy tunnel of steps I’ll make the greatest stairs in Rome.”

Only then did he go and look at them. He liked a good problem and now he had one.

It wasn’t a nice space to fill. Most of it was a long, dark tunnel that varied in height and width. It started out low and narrow and ended tall and wide, like a long funnel.

But Bernini, as it turned out, was as good as his word. The stairway he made, the Scala Regia or Royal Stairs, is one of the most spectacular in the world. And his ingenious solutions to its problems have been helpful to architects ever since.

First, he vaulted the whole tunnel, which did away with the cave look of its ceiling and gave it a conforting regularity. The vault he supported with columns, which he put along the wall the entire length of the stairs.
The columns did more than hold up the vault. They deceived.
They deceived?
At the top, where the staircase was narrowest, Bernini set them against the wall and farther down where it widened, he moved them toward the middle, a little away from the wall. That way they were all in line and when you came from below and looked up, your eye followed the columns and you assumed the steps were the same width all the way up.
The columns weren’t the same height either. At the top of the long funnel where the ceiling was lower they were necessarily shorter. You noticed that but figured they only LOOKED shorter because of perspective.

Here is an illustration of the stairs from Howard Hibbard’s excellent book Bernini in the Penguin collection.

A view from the bottom of the stairs:

Notice the row of columns and the contrived look of regularity. Notice their size. That giantness is typical of Bernini. Everything had to be larger than life. You might think that when you saw the sick little pope actually coming down those gigantic steps you would have to hide a smile at the contrast (the mountain and the mouse). But Bernini thought the giant size and all the marble fanfare transferred magnificence to the man, or at least to his position, his office. Inside St. Peter’s everyone feels child-size.
At the top of the great arch is Pope Alexander VII’s coat of arms.

The irregularity of the tunnel was only one of the problems. There were two others: its discouraging (for the climber) length and its darkness.Bernini broke the long flight of stairs into two and put a big, friendly landing halfway along. And above the landing he raised a dome to give an even greater feeling of space.
For light he opened a window beside the landing. And at the top of the stairs he put another window, which not only lit up the second flight but served as a sort of comforting goal-post for a climber.

Bernini’s decoration of the stairway didn’t end here. He sculpted an equestrian statue of Constantine for a landing just where the columns start. Read about that impressive statue in another post.

(The dialog in this post between Bernini and the Pope is fictional.)


This entry was posted in art, art history, Baroque, Bernini, great artists, sculpture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Bernini’s Ingenious Stairs

  1. ivdanu – Quebec – Canadian visual artist of Romanian origin.
    ivdanu says:

    You say: “That giantness is typical of Bernini. Everything had to be larger than life. You might think that when you saw the sick little pope actually coming down those gigantic steps you would have to hide a smile at the contrast (the mountain and the mouse). But Bernini thought the giant size and all the marble fanfare transferred magnificence to the man, or at least to his position, his office.”

    I think you are right and Bernini’s wrong: contrast works that way… Maybe he tried to compensate: a big Cadillac for a small… Maybe…

  2. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Bernini always brings out the romantic in me. I admit, the more I read about him thanks to you, the more I admire him. Bernini personifies Baroque. Thus everything had to be about grandeur. That staircase is amazing. And fitting for all that the Vatican represented back then. The pope and everyone else must have been in awe.
    Danu, Danu, have you been reading Freud today? :) My beautiful thought is shattered now. :)

  3. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Should I tell you the ugly things that will make you dislike Bernini or keep them quiet until you read them yourself some day?
    When he caught his brother with his girl friend, the pretty Constanza, Bernini tried to kill him. He broke his ribs with an iron bar. Then he ordered a servant to go cut up Constanza’s face with a razor, which he did. Bernini was fined 3000 scudi but his friend the Pope waived the fine and the servant took the rap.
    “Well,” maybe you think, “a crime of passion. Understandable if not forgivable, especially in those days.” But there’s more. Remember where Constanza came from too: she was the wife of one of Bernini’s assistants.

    The Berninis worked as a family, the father included, and it was best to stay away from them. While they were doing the Scala Regia Bernini’s brother Luigi grabbed a boy who was working with them and brutally sodomized him, breaking sixteen bones. A judge made the family pay 2000 scudi to the boy’s father and 24,000 scudi to the public treasury.

    Bernini kept other sculptors away from the Pope. One of his enemies wrote: “That dragon who ceaselessly guards the orchards of the Hesperides made sure that no one else should snatch the golden apples of papal favor, and spat poison everywhere…”
    These facts are not in the Hibbard book. I got them from Leonardo’s Nephew, by James Fenton, who wonders why no complete biography of Bernini has ever been written. He got them from a book called Bernini: Genius of the Baroque by Charles Avery.

    That is Bernini the man—proud, jealous, mean. But he was another uomo universale and the more you read about his work, the more amazing he seems. He wrote plays and acted in them. He was an empresario as well as a playwright. He took on every kind of problem and solved it beautifully.
    Now you know.

  4. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    That’s not a pretty picture of the man. Some of the best were unlikeable persons. They seemed to get away with a lot more then the average people, due to their talent and fame. But after so many centuries is easy to separate the person from the work. Isn’t it?

    What seems puzzling to me: Bernini, Cellini and Caravaggio, bad tempered and mean as they were, how could they create such beautiful works?

  5. Rich says:

    Just love stairs and staircases and stairway wends.
    Guess they are a challenge for any achitect.
    This one by Bernini has just got grandeur.

    Are you also an architect, Swallows? At least you seem to have a deep understanding of architecture.
    A historian you are, an art expert, a sculptor…
    “All The Things You Are” is the title of a Jazz standard…
    anyway, there’s something universal about your blog.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Thanks for saying such flattering things but heck, I’m not any of those. If only it were as easy to do great things as to blab about them.
    In the Cathedral of Avila there’s a marble statue of a bishop nicknamed El Tostado. He had a reputation for being the most learned man of his time (fifteenth century?). There is a Spanish saying that you hear still today: That guy knows more than El Tostado (sabe más que El Tostado). Well, does anyone know El Tostado? All his learning now seems to us a mere period piece of ignorance. The statue of him remains, not his “knowledge”. (This comparison is no good. Tostado’s books are still around, after all. And the statue of him is pretty mediocre. Lousy art too goes under, and should.)

  7. Peggi Habets says:

    Wow, such a fascinating post. I should be outside mulching leaves, but here I am enjoying your story. Shame on you.

    First, details. How long did this “project” take? I’d love to know how many people worked/died for this. Do you have any idea what it cost? I can’t even imagine presenting an invoice for this :-)

    The appendage about Bernini really did taint my view of the staircase. Such an ugly family producing such beautfiul works? Almost seems implausible.

  8. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Can the average person go on these stairs? They would be a marvel to look at and walk.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Bill: I don’t know if the stairway is open to the public now. I once descended it and it was long, long. By the time you are down, your legs can’t stop and you stumble on the flat floor. Imagine what all those steps are like going UP. The poor man in the picture is already wondering whether he can make it to the first landing.
    Reminds me of the story Cortez’s sergeant tells about climbing that pyramid in Mexico City. Many steps and almost frighteningly steep. Montezuma’s servants carried him up and asked Cortez if he didn’t want help too. “No,” he says, “my men and I never tire.”
    Tough guys.
    But then on the way down Bernal Díaz said the older and sick Spanish soldiers did have a hard time. I think you said you were in Mexico City, Bill. Did you make the climb?

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Another wonderful piece of hiSTORY, 100swallows. As Peggi says it is easy to get distracted from something else to read the stories.

    It is always a surprise, especially the first time, when you find that the creator of something that you consider beautiful does not actually seem to be a good person. I think there is a basic tendency to assume goodness in the creator of beauty. But for some surprising reason or reasons that doesn’t always prove to be the case. I’ve never come up with any explanation, other than the very general one that people are often very complex…………….

  11. 100swallows says:

    Ken: Thanks a lot. You didn’t give me time to answer your last comment–I’m glad you are a patient and forgiving guy.

    In general artists are terrible egoists. That’s their thing, after all, they develop that. They stay in their own world and they learn to listen to their instincts, to cultivate and to follow them. They make a lord out of themselves. In the novel of their lives they are the only “round” character–all the rest are “flat” (E.M. Forster’s terms). All their sympathy is only empathy. How are they not going to use people and mistreat them? And to make something beautiful or to defend it they are willing to fight. They will lay low anyone who challenges it. That is how much they love it. It’s their baby.

  12. 100swallows says:

    You give me the rake and I’ll do the leaves while you read. O to be in America now that fall is here! The trees (Siberian elms) in front of my window are still full of green leaves–that’s fall in central Spain: no character to it.
    I don’t know the answers to your questions. Probably all the marbling took years, even with the armies of marblers working in Rome at the time. I wondered how long it took them a hundred years earlier to decorate Michelangelo’s Medici chapel in Florence. Bernini’s work obviously required even more skill and time. And as to the cost, no idea. Want me to check the papal records? I’ll just hop on a plane to Rome and ask my old buddies at the Vatican to let me rummage through their trunks with the receipts.

    Sorry to water down your admiration for the stairs. I feel like an old gossip who came and whispered those ugly stories about the Berninis.

  13. kimiam says:

    swallows, you present them as whole people.

  14. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    I think most of my comments are so long that I’d be foolish to expect that they all get answered:-). I’m amazed that you have time to write your two blogs and respond in as great a length as you already do. I’m sort of new to the blogging world but one thing that has hit me right off is that you can’t answer or expect to have answered every post that you write or read. People do what they have time for and that works very well.

    I’d forgotten ego and the artist. But I think that you’re right, even as it applies to myself as an artist. Art does require a lot of focus and concentration and that can lead to self-centeredness. But Bernini’s behavior seems to go a bit beyond self-centeredness. Still I’m sure it does help to explain it.

    Better get back to rake the leaves quickly. Here in eastern Pennsylvania the hard, cold rains of this week are making quick work of the remaining leaves……………

  15. Hiberniensis says:

    I just want to point out in Bernini’s defence that he did undergo a conversion at some point and lived the rest of his life in a devout and moral manner.

    I also can’t resist relating that I once — in a former state of life as a clerical student — had the privilege of descending those stairs in a full ceremonial procession for the removal of Pope John Paul II’s earthly remains from the Apostolic Palace into St. Peter’s. Even though it was a sad occassion, it still felt like a dream.

  16. 100swallows says:

    Hiberniensis: I’m glad you put in this nice comment before going under for the winter. Thanks. Now you’ll have us all dreaming of going down those great stairs in a “full ceremonial procession”. What a thrill that must have been!
    Yes, Bernini got married and had eleven kids and behaved himself ever after. And seems to have undergone a real conversion–one that lasted. “He consorted with Jesuits and Oratorians and devotions became an important feature of each day,” says Hibbard. “For years he walked to the church of the Gesù every evening for vespers.”

  17. Can y say me the staircase measure? Initially and at the end. If y know the hight of the step and its lenght. Thank y very much Lorenzo

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