Who Designed St. Peter’s?

Pope Julius approving Bramante's design for St. Peter's Pope Julius approving Bramante’s design for S. Peter’s  by Horace Vernet (wikipainting.org  public domain photo)

There was a contest and Bramante won it (1506) with this design:

It was  a simple (Greek) cross inside a square.  The arms protruded slightly and were rounded off in apses.
That big circle in the middle was the dome over St. Peter’s tomb. It would be the biggest in the world.
There were four little domes between the arms of the cross.

Bramante died before construction was far along. Over the next forty years other popes ordered other architects to improve Bramante’s design but none did. Finally, Paul III gave the job to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo Takes Over

He studied all the designs and decided to keep Bramante’s. He knew a good thing when he saw it, even if it was the work of an old enemy of his.  The present-day sanctuary or east end of St. Peter’s is essentially Bramante’s with Michelangelo’s alterations.

Michelangelo’s design (1546-1564)

Just what alterations did Michelangelo make?
He decorated.   He added endless moldings and wall decorations, windows and niches. He gave the apses a slightly greater bulge and then put in a bridge wall between them and the corners of the square.  He hid the simple shape of the building by putting a sort of folding screen around it, with lots of panels, tying them all together with a huge “ribbon” (the cornice).

This is what St. Peter’s now looks like from the back, where Michelangelo’s design is best seen.

None of that was built while Michelangelo was alive, however. Construction was only as far as the dome–or rather, the drum for the dome.

Here is Vasari’s painting of its construction, also seen from the back. That’s Pope Paul III giving orders.

The cupola design (the cupola is the roof over a dome) gave Michelangelo a lot of trouble. An assistant helped him with the wooden model.

Michelangelo’s wooden model, altered by Giacomo della Porta

Is his the same as the present-day cupola?

Almost.  Michelangelo’s was hemispherical. A later architect, Giacomo della Porta, stretched it, made it taller.

At Michelangelo’s death only the drum (round base for the dome) was completed.  It was still attached to the old fourth-century basilica.

An engraving showing St. Peter’s from the front six years after Michelangelo’s death

Eventually Old St. Peter’s was torn down to make room for the big naves and facade  that were added by Carlo Maderna. This is his, the final floor-plan.

His facade

was based on the old Roman Pantheon’s:

Bramante had also been thinking of the Pantheon when he came up with the original design for St. Peter’s.


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13 Responses to Who Designed St. Peter’s?

  1. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Facinating history of men and a building!

  2. Rich says:

    The pope was determined to tackle and venture upon the giant and awe inspiring building of St.Peter.

    This quotation of Vasari precedes an essay called “The Weight of the World” – a fictitious dialogue between Bramante and Machiavelli. It is one of a compilation of such dialogues in a book written by Georg Friedrich Juenger.
    This St.Peter’s story made me remember it and re-read with great pleasure.

  3. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Don’t desert us – you are one of the very few with intelligent posts.

  4. Rich says:

    I don’t agree.

  5. Rich says:

    I’m afraid, Swallows, this book entitled “Gespräche” is out of print since long and hasn’t ever been translated.
    Just for a sample – the dialogue opens with Machiavelli:

    “Messer Bramante, let me know: aren’t you afraid to lay hands on buildings of such giant proportions? They seem without end, compared with the brief shortlivedness of human lives. They belong to the supreme efforts human beings are capable of. And these ventures, even if enacted to the glory of God, as the saying goes; me I sometimes wonder if human measures will not suffer in view of such works. What a bold attempt! What you keep telling stirs in me an amazement and giddiness. What weights, what measures and numbers you go on untiringly specifying. And who is going to arch this cupola?

    Bramante: “If I should be given the privilege it shall be none than me to arch it. And it will happen with great ease and defy gravity.

    …and so on….

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich, thanks. It’s easy to forget how long it used to take to build great buildings. Cathedrals, for instance. So that one architect had to take over the project and uncompleted building of another, with all its faults. Of course St. Peter’s would have gone further in Bramante’s time if Julius had lived and had had the money. Did you see? They say he tried to raise money by selling indulgences, which was the last straw for Luther.
      It’s too bad architecture has become such a specialist’s thing.

  6. marco says:

    The great ‘arms’ stretching around the main square of St. Peters were added by Bernini. The symbolism of the arms of the church around the believers is still strong today, just look at a broadcast of the Pope speaking.

  7. Michael says:

    I was at St Peter’s Basilica in 1998. I stood directly between the obelisk and the cathedral on the unbroken circle at the 12:00 point. There, alone, my knee was healed for a prayer. I was limping with great pain and upon the last word of the prayer, the pain vanished instantaneously and I could run if I wanted to. This experience lit me up to where, as of today, I’ve been studying esoteric teachings for 17 years now. Although these truths came through the ancient texts of many cultures, I could see them as true because of the Christ consciousness I developed from my Christian roots. I studied most world religions, philosophies and esoteric schools of thought and found the idea of Oneness common to them all. Living out of this understanding has changed my life of normal suffering to a life of uncommon spiritual bliss. To share these ideas, from my perspective, I wrote a book called “The Oneness Factor” and hope to publish it soon. There, this story is given in more detail.

    Today, although I still approach our Source with the awe and wonder of a child, I feel replete and fulfilled with every understanding I’ve asked for. I believe there is a buildup of healing energy intention at this site, (which is also a sundial) that amplifies the healing energy always available to each of us everywhere in every moment. The purpose of such occurrences, what we call miracles, is revelation. This experience revealed to me how much understanding there was to reach for and the experiences and knowledge my search has rendered is, to me, priceless. St. Peter’s is a magical place!

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