Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
As archaeologists have discovered through excavations of the church, the structure in its present-day form was probably first built in the 4th century AD, on the site of an earlier Christian structure, most likely a “domus ecclesiae,” or domestic church. This early structure was taken down, and then rebuilt by Pope Sixtus III, probably between 420 and 450. Thanks to openings between the columns dividing the nave of the church from the right aisle, it is still possible to see the original floor level of the older structure. The basic architectural form of the church has remained largely intact to this day.
Originally dedicated to both Saints Peter and Paul, it became associated solely with Saint Peter after the 6th century AD. It is also known as the “Basilica Eudossiana,” in honor of the Empress Licinia Eudoxia, who gave the church its most important relic: the chains with which Saint Peter was bound during his imprisonments in Jerusalem. According to legend, these chains, which the Empress gave to Pope Saint Leo I the Great miraculously fused with the chains which were used to imprison Saint Peter in the Mamertine prison in Rome, and it is the combined chain which can now be seen in the church itself.
The first major modifications were undertaken by Pope Sixtus IV, originally Francesco della Rovere. After rising through the ranks of the church, including a position as cardinal of San Pietro in Vincoli, Francesco was elected pope on August 9, 1571, and took the name of Sixtus IV, after Sixtus III, the pope who first consecrated the basilica as it is known today. He began the construction of the Palazzo del Cardinale Titolare to the north of the church between 1467 and 1471, which was finished by Cardinal Leonardo Grosso della Rovere. It was also around this time that the grand porch was added to the front of the church.
Sixtus’s nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, enacted major changes to the church during his later reign as Pope Julius II, including the addition of a convent, which later became the Faculty of Engineering for the University of Rome, and where the original cloister can still be seen. His best-known contribution to the church, however, was Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses, which was to have been part of the pope’s tomb. This tomb was commissioned by the pope in 1505, and was envisioned by Michelangelo as a grandiose, free-standing structure, along the lines of the mausoleums of ancient Roman emperors, with more than forty marble statues, of which the Moses was to have been only a corner. However, this project went through a series of setbacks which led to the final product which we see today.
The first was Julius II’s decision to rebuild Saint Peter’s basilica, where he had decided to have his tomb placed instead of its original destination in San Pietro in Vincoli. This immediately brought Michelangelo’s own project to a halt, leaving him with one hundred tons of marble and extreme difficulties in getting an audience with the pope to determine the future of the tomb. Offended by his treatment and seeing little prospect of an end to this project, Michelangelo left Rome in 1506.
The pope’s next commission for Michelangelo took him even further from the tomb: Julius commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the new church which had been built by his uncle, Sixtus IV. Michelangelo was extremely reluctant to accept this commission, not only because he knew it would mean almost certain doom for the project of the tomb, but also because he had done little to no fresco work in the course of his career. After repeated summonses from Julius to Michelangelo in Florence, he finally accepted the commission and started work on the ceiling in 1508, a project which was to consume all of his energies until its unveiling in 1512.
Almost immediately after completing the ceiling, Michelangelo turned his attention back the project closer to his heart: Julius’s tomb. However, in 1513, Julius’s death and the reluctance of his heirs to carry out such a vast undertaking led to a reduction of the plans for the project, in both 1513 and again in 1516, to become the one that we see today, completed in February of 1545.
Other changes were made to the church itself, most noticeably during the pontificate of Clement XI, when the ceiling was completely redone and many of the wall frescoes were added. A new reliquary for the chains was donated to the church in 1856 by Cardinal Nicola Clarelli Paracciani, replacing the 17th century silver holder. The Moses and surrounding tomb were recently cleaned, and alterations were made to nearby windows to allow more light to illuminate the monument, in a five-year process which ended in 2004.
The church itself has a fairly typical form, with a central nave leading to an apse partitioned off from the aisles at each side by two rows of Doric columns, eleven on each side. The three-part transept was somewhat of a rare architectural feature when it was added, and was not part of the original structure. In the front is a porch with travertine pillars, an ornate iron fence, and a few wooden benches. Once inside the church, the walls to the right and left are lined with altars and funeral monuments. Particularly noteworthy are the funeral monument of Cardinal Cinzio Passeri Aldobrandini and a rare mosaic of Saint Sebastian, both located in the left aisle of the church. Saint Sebastian is associated with the church through a story involving a plague in 680 AD, when an angel appeared to a hermit and told him that if an altar was erected to Saint Sebastian in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, the plague would end. This story is evoked again in a wall fresco to the left of the entrance which depicts a procession that took place during a plague of 1476, under the reign of Pope Sixtus IV. In the procession the face of the pope is painted to resemble that of Sixtus, thus tying Sixtus in with the earlier plague and the miracle which took place.
At the end of the nave, in front of the apse and the ornate high altar, stands the confessione, the area under the altar which generally contains spoils or relics. In the confessione, accessible by two small flights of marble stairs, is an altar, upon which stands the reliquary containing the sacred chains of Saint Peter, from which the church got its name. The altar is decorated simply, with two statues of Saint Peter and an angel, but the main focus is clearly on the chains, which are housed in a crystal reliquary which is topped by a small statuary group representing the liberation of Peter. These chains have a history of miracles, including one which is shown in the fresco on the ceiling, where an Ottoman count is shown touching the chains and thus being freed from the demons that were possessing him.
The left aisle ends in a chapel, where mass is held, and which contains an altarpiece of the immaculate conception by Luigi Bravi. The right aisle also ends in a chapel housing a painting of Santa Margherita by Guercino. The chapel, however, is inaccessible, due to the placement of Michelangelo’s tomb for Julius II.
This tomb is located in the right transept of the church, directly in front of the apse containing the chapel. In its final form, much reduced from Michelangelo’s as well as Julius’s own grand visions, it stands against the wall and is comprised of seven major sculptural figures, only three of which are the works of Michelangelo himself. On the upper part of the tomb, the central focus is the reclining image of Pope Julius II, sculpted by Tommaso di Pietro Boscoli. In contrast to the original plan, in which a ten-foot tall representation of the pope wearing a tiara would have topped the tomb, this figure is much smaller than the Moses, and does not draw the eye as the main focus of the tomb. Above it is a small statue of the Madonna and Child, which along with the flanking figures of the Sibyl and the Prophet dressed as messengers of the coming of Christ was carried out by Raffaello da Montelupo, one of Michelangelo’s assistants.
The lower part of the tomb contains the only three figures produced by Michelangelo, from left to right: Rachel, Moses and Leah. Of the two Biblical sisters, Rachel and Leah, Rachel is intended to represent the active life, while Leah represents the contemplative life. These can also be seen in the light of religious discussions going on at the time, as representative of good works and faith.
The Moses is clearly the central figure in the tomb, and is widely considered to be one of Michelangelo’s finest works. It inspires a range of emotions in the viewer, and many articles written on the topic relate to the visceral impact of the sculpture on its audience. George Stillman Hillard, who wrote a 19th century book about his travels in Italy, writes about his own personal reaction to the statue:
"That any one should stand before this statue in a scoffing mood, is to me perfectly inexplicable. My own emotions were more nearly akin to absolute bodily fear. At an irreverent word, I should have expected the brow to contract into a darker frown, and the marble lips to unclose in rebuke." (p. 339)
The statue is indeed striking, even without an in-depth study of its subject. It stands about eight feet tall, as a seated representation, and is made of marble. Moses is shown in a dramatic pose, with his head turned off to the side, so that those approaching from the right aisle are confronted with his stony stare. Under his right arm, he holds the Tables of the Ten Commandments, and his right hand is lightly pressing his beard. His right foot is firmly planted on the ground, while his left leg rests behind him, pushing off at the toes. He is clothed in a flowing garment, which is bunched in his lap to reveal his enormous right calf. On his face is a look seemingly of alarm or foreboding, with wide eyes and a closed mouth. His beard flows down in thick locks almost to his waist, twisted to the right under his right hand. On his head are what appear to be a pair of horns. This is a result of a mistranslation in the Vulgate, the Italian Bible. Instead of describing Moses with rays of light emanating from his head, the translation described him with horns, and this is how Michelangelo chose to represent his Moses, despite the fact that he knew it was a mistranslation.
There has been some debate about whether or not the statue represents a precise moment in time or merely an attitude representative of Moses and his character. Those who believe it depicts a specific event in the life of Moses generally believe it to represent the Biblical passage when Moses, after coming down from Mount Sinai, finds that the people of his camp have created a golden calf and are worshipping it as an idol. While some believe that Moses is in the act of springing to his feet, and that the Tables are about to slip from his grasp, others find it unlikely that Michelangelo would have portrayed such a dramatic moment in a sculpture destined to occupy only a corner of the larger, more intricate structure that the tomb was meant to become. After in-depth psychoanalysis of the statue, Sigmund Freud concluded instead that Michelangelo took some liberties with the Biblical version of the story, portraying instead a moment in which Moses was stopping the tablets from slipping out from under his arm, resisting the urge to break the tablets. This show of restraint rather than fury, he proposed, could also have been an expression of Michelangelo’s own perception of the dangers to which not only Julius’s but Michelangelo’s own “violent force of will” could cause.
In its original version, the tomb would have been even more awe-inspiring, bringing to mind the mausoleums of Roman emperors such as Augustus and Hadrian, and thus linking Julius himself with their memories and accomplishments. During his time as pope, Julius’s main goals were to regain control of the papal lands, much like his uncle Sixtus IV, and to drive out the foreign powers in Italy. Julius also undertook many building projects to restore Rome to its place as “caput mundi,” or head of the world. In addition to rebuilding Saint Peter’s basilica, Julius built two streets along the river, via Giulia and via della Lungara, and commissioned the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the papal apartments. He also tried to restore Rome intellectually to the level of the classical age, encouraging classical learning with his support for the Vatican Library, among other institutions.
Julius, who was also known as the warrior pope for the many battles he engaged in to preserve or recover papal lands, wanted to preserve his memory as one of the greatest popes of all time, and perhaps also to equate himself with those legendary Roman emperors who had been the last to build tombs on such a grand scale. All of those who saw this tomb, especially with the della Rovere images included in the original plan, would have been reminded not only of Julius, but of his family and its greatness as well. This was important because, unlike his uncle Sixtus, Julius did not use rampant nepotism to promote his family. While Sixtus IV made six of his nephews in to cardinals, and put his family in control of papal lands which he regained, Julius rarely placed members of his family in positions of power. The monuments and works of art which he commissioned thus became the vehicles through which he could glorify himself and the della Rovere name.
During Julius’s reign, Rome went through a rather turbulent period. As the “warrior pope,” Julius led his troops in battles against cities such as Bologna and Ferrara, in addition to the French. While many Romans supported the pope, there were also vocal opponents to his military actions, such as Giovanni Battista Casali, who preached against warfare in the Sistine Chapel itself in 1510. By building a grand tomb which called to mind the great Roman emperors, and by placing it in Saint Peter’s, the grand new basilica that he was building, Julius hoped to link himself to the Roman emperors, who waged legendary wars for the good of the empire.
While Julius commissioned his tomb almost immediately after coming into power, his loss of interest and abandonment of the project in favor of others left it to the mercy of his heirs and successor after his death, who naturally didn’t want to pay for the large-scale plan of Michelangelo’s vision. As the plans changed in 1513, and again in 1516, the tomb lost its muscular, secular nude figures, such as the “unfinished” slaves which can be seen in the Accademia of Florence and the Louvre. Instead, it moved towards the Christian iconography which can be seen today, and of which the central focus has clearly become the statue of Moses.
While the tomb may not be the awe-inspiring monument of the original plans, the Moses still stirs and impresses modern-day visitors to the church and scholars all over the world. Even a casual observer is compelled to speculate on the motives of this powerful Moses, so rich in detail and emotion. Whether this is because of the sheer power of the art, or whether, as Freud did, we feel the need to psychoanalyze the subject and thus its author, can be known only by the individual. However, the fact that the Biblical story is a familiar one lends the Moses special significance, especially to Christian viewers. Even those who don’t know Moses’ story are taken aback by the powerful, evocative sculpture itself, and find themselves having their own personal, emotional reactions to the sculpture, as in the case of George Stillman Hillard, the traveler mentioned earlier. The Moses lends the entire structure, even in its reduced form, a relevance and significance which continues to draw visitors to the site.
When the question of whether the tomb itself actually fulfilled its purpose is proposed, however, one must conclude that, as beautiful as it may be, it failed to achieve any of the lofty goals set out at the beginning of the project. Its physical purpose, to contain the body of Julius, was never fulfilled, as Julius’s body was placed in Saint Peter’s basilica after his death to await completion of the tomb, then never moved. It remains there to this day, in a nondescript resting place that doesn’t draw nearly as much attention as Michelangelo’s statue. The less tangible goal, of immortalizing Julius and his family, also does not appear to have been reached. Those who come to the church today come to see “Michelangelo’s Moses,” and rarely even know or care that it was meant to be part of the tomb of Julius II. While Julius is certainly still remembered for his accomplishments, especially the commissioning of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and the Stanze, as well as for his military exploits, the tomb itself is not particularly evocative of the pope or his family. Thus, instead of glorifying Michelangelo and his della Rovere family, the tomb of Julius came to glorify Michelangelo and his work. The man who was to have been the tool through which the glorification was achieved became instead the object of the glorification, and scholars as well as visitors generally focus on the statue alone, disregarding the works of the tomb that were not done by Michelangelo.
This is somewhat surprising, since the story of Julius II and his tumultuous relationship with Michelangelo is well-known, and the tomb project epitomizes this relationship. The artistic passion of Michelangelo came up against the ambitious passion of Julius, and led to a result which can be clearly seen, since we still have the original plans for the tomb to compare with the final product. While finding articles or observations about the Moses and the tomb was not terribly difficult, there was nothing compared to the sheer volume of authorship about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, involving the same two principal characters and a similar clashing of personality. Michelangelo was not even famous in his time for his fresco work before he did the Sistine Chapel, and in fact did very little fresco work at all, focusing on sculpture. He was certainly very reluctant to work on the Chapel ceiling, and was far more passionate about the tomb. Yet the ceiling remains by far the better-known work of art. The tourist crowd in the front of the Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli pales in comparison to the sea of people gaping at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In addition, very few people in either crowd are equipped with the knowledge or the desire to look for the della Rovere symbols, or to analyze the works for allegories of Julius’s reign or his relationship with Michelangelo. While guidebooks and articles usually mention the pope, and occasionally mention his family, the artist is the one who continues to inspire us to this day with his works, and who has left the more lasting legacy. The spirit and memory of Julius remain in the tomb to this day, but are overshadowed by the “genius” of Michelangelo, who, inadvertently or not, created instead a monument to himself.
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