Because Saint Peter's, located in the Vatican in Rome, is the "mother" church of Roman Catholicism, it has historically been one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. Even during the Renaissance, a new structure was needed to accommodate the large crowd of visitors, and in 1505 a reconstruction campaign was initiated by Pope Julius II. Old Saint Peter's, as the original church came to be called, was so revered that during its reconstruction detailed sketches were made to document its earliest appearance. Old Saint Peter's followed the traditional basilica-style plan, which was based upon such Ancient Roman government buildings as the Basilica of Maxentius, located southeast of the Imperial Forums in Rome and begun around AD 306. Emperor Maxentius requested that this rectangular basilica, his administrative seat, not be constructed with a columned interior such as seen in the earlier Basilica Ulpia (AD 113). Instead, the building featured groined vaults down its tall center and two shorter side aisles, with barrel vaults to buttress the center and provide room for clerestory windows above. The vaults were made of brick and concrete and allowed for a large, unencumbered interior space. Most Roman basilicas were entered from the longer sides of the building, but Maxentius's entrance was at one of the short ends, allowing for a strongly axial direction toward the apse at the far end. Although Constantine later added a side door, this original axial direction, as well as the tripartite interior division, was adapted for use in the earliest Christian churches. These churches either employed a columned interior and flat timber roof or piers to support a vaulted roof. The basilica format, instead of a traditional temple plan, served to distance this new religion from that in which the pagan gods were still worshipped, although the classical rotunda was often still used for baptisteries and funerary monuments. Despite the government-supported pagan religious beliefs, Emperor Constantine is credited with ending the persecution of Christians in Rome and allowing them to worship in public.
   Old Saint Peter's Church dates to Constantine's reign and was constructed beginning in AD 326 on the site where the apostle Saint Peter was buried. This burial site came to include a full crypt that lies beneath the church. Old Saint Peter's was a large basilica church with a long nave separated from the double side aisles with rows of columns that supported a timber roof. Clerestory windows allowed light into the nave, and the entrance was placed on an axis with the high altar, located at the far end of the church. Toward the apse was an early, less fully formed, proto-transept called the bema, and a high altar that featured a large triumphal arch. Saint Peter's bones were placed beneath the altar, and a large ciborium was constructed over the altar to commemorate this location. To enter the church, the visitor walked up a series of stairs that served to elevate the sacred space, passed through an arched entrance that led into an open courtyard lined with a covered colonnade, called either an atrium or a forecourt, and then walked through the narthex, or church foyer, and into the nave. The narthex, which provides a transitional area from the secular world to the sacred, was retained on many early Christian churches, but is rarely used today.
   Because Old Saint Peter's had been restored on several occasions, by the time of the Renaissance, it was in such poor shape that Julius II decided to rebuild it as the largest Christian church in the world. At the time, Christianity had been fully established across Europe, but the city of Rome, which never fully recovered its ancient grandeur through the Middle Ages, did not reflect its importance as the seat of the papacy. Therefore, the renovation of Saint Peter's Church eventually included the completion of the Vatican apartments with frescoes by Raphael, the completion of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's frescoes, and the construction of numerous other administrative buildings, gardens, paved paths and roads, and a large square, or piazza, in front of the church.
   This monumental project was initiated by Donato Bramante in 1506, but only a few years later, his death and the death of Pope Julius II briefly interrupted construction. Bramante had designed a massive domed, centrally planned church, which, by the time of the Renaissance, was considered the superior church plan due to its perfect symmetry. In this case, the domed church also functioned as a martyrium (a sacred edifice, usually a tomb, built to commemorate a Christian martyr or saint). Disagreements began almost immediately, however, resulting mostly from the concern that a centrally planned church cannot accommodate the same number of congregants as a church with a long nave. The resulting dispute concerning the idealistic views versus the realistic church plan led to a series of proposals for a basilica-plan church, and Michelangelo's design from the 1540s was selected. Michelangelo retained Bramante's original centrally planned design but reduced the number of smaller internal rooms and reinforced the central piers, which already showed signs of cracking. He began construction in the crossing and around the back of the church, and he created a dome design, but it had to be constructed after his death by his student Giacomo della Porta, who in the 1580s lengthened the height of the drum but otherwise retained the essential features of Michelangelo's plan.
   By the late 1500s, the Counter-Reformation led to the larger, more theatrical and sculptural Baroque style that was showing its first signs of development. The reforms of the Council of Trent included encouragement for the use of basilica-plan churches, which could accommodate the large crowds of people anticipated in the fight against the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, in 1606, Pope Paul V commissioned Carlo Maderno to complete Saint Peter's in a modified basilica plan that would include a wide three-bay nave attached to Michelangelo's design, a narthex, and a wide façade. The façade is truly monumental, with a colossal portico entrance of disengaged columns superimposed onto the center of a tripartite design, with pilasters on the sides and two tall stories, a thick entablature, and then a high attic level capping the façade. The dome rises above the façade, but twin bell towers that were initially planned for the sides of the façade were never completed due to problems with cracking. The cathedral complex was finally completed in the 1650s by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who constructed a huge oval piazza that stretches out like the arms of the church to encircle its congregants. This oval piazza comes out from the smaller trapezoidal entrance square, or forecourt, right in front of the narthex.
   Because Saint Peter's was originally designed as a centrally planned church (also called Greek-cross-plan) but received a longitudinal nave, it ultimately illustrated the basilica, or Latin-cross-plan, church. This solution was a compromise and resulted in two high altars. In the 1620s, Bernini completed a massive bronze baldacchino over the crossing altar of Saint Peter's, and in the 1660s he finished the bronze "Cathedra Petri," or Chair of Saint Peter, over the apse altar. Although the majority of the church was finally completed in the Baroque era, the importance of Saint Peter's as the "mother" church of Roman Catholicism today means that its interior decoration remains an ongoing process.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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