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VATICAN LETTER Oct-20-2006 (780 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

When building St. Peter's, great minds did not always think alike

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While the outcome invokes awe, the construction of St. Peter's Basilica was not a smooth project that brought together hundreds of artists and artisans thinking only holy thoughts.

Backbiting, criticism and running to the pope to tattle occurred repeatedly during the 120 years it took to build the world's largest church.

Letters relaying gripes and a stinging satire written in 1517 are on display at a Vatican exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the basilica's construction.

The modest exhibit housed in a gallery in St. Peter's Square opened Oct. 12 and is scheduled to continue through March 8.

Of course, the story of the basilica's construction is not mainly one of controversy, even though a building project so massive, so expensive and involving Italy's greatest Renaissance artists was bound to hit some snags.

The exhibit offers visitors a tiny hint of what the site's fourth-century basilica looked like; a sampling of drawings for projects dropped, changed or realized; a brief look at how other artists paid homage to St. Peter; and a short reflection on the basilica's importance in the lives of three well-known Catholics.

A well-worn pair of sandals belonging to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a tattered habit belonging to St. Francis of Assisi and a facsimile of St. Therese of Lisieux's handwritten autobiography are part of the exhibit's final section, "Devotion to the Apostle Peter."

St. Therese, writing from her Carmelite cloister at the age of 22, recalls a pilgrimage she made to Rome with her father and other French pilgrims when she was 14 years old. She recounts her emotion at finding herself in the city where Sts. Peter and Paul preached and were martyred.

Mother Teresa's sandals are sitting next to her 1948 handwritten letter to the Vatican asking to be released from the Sisters of Loreto in order to devote herself to "complete poverty" in serving the sick and the dying. After founding the Missionaries of Charity, she would come to Rome each year to visit the pope and pray at the tomb of St. Peter.

St. Francis' rough woolen cloak and hood give the exhibit an opportunity to recount one of his many visits to the old Basilica of St. Peter, where he sat and ate with the poor who gathered outside the church each day.

The church St. Francis visited was built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; it was almost completely demolished by Donato Bramante after the cornerstone for the current basilica was laid by Pope Julius II in 1506.

The satire on display in the exhibit is a work called "Simia," a play on the Italian word for "ape."

In the satire, Bramante, who died in 1514, stands before St. Peter at the gates of heaven making suggestions for improvements, including adding a grand spiraling staircase leading to the entrance and the complete destruction of the current heaven so he could design something more "modern, elegant, comfortable and functional."

St. Peter vetoed Bramante's plans, but also told him he would have to wait outside the pearly gates until construction on St. Peter's Basilica was complete, which would happen a mere 112 years later.

While money and materials were a problem, the delays were increased by a succession of chief architects who, with papal approval, dramatically changed their predecessor's blueprints.

Then there were the Vatican officials who supposedly were in charge of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office overseeing the building, but who felt left out of the decision-making process, especially after Pope Paul III named Michelangelo Buonarroti chief architect in 1547.

The exhibit catalogue says Michelangelo's rapport with the three deputies of the Fabbrica was rocky from the beginning.

Less than three months after Michelangelo took over, two of the deputies wrote to the third, full of alarm that Michelangelo had completely changed the building plans without consulting or informing anyone.

Apparently, things did not improve.

A letter on display from Michelangelo, written five years later, to the Fabbrica deputies complains about their failure to pay one of his assistants and politely, but pointedly, explains that he will take the bill directly to the pope if the money is not forthcoming.

Despite all the trouble that went into its construction, the finished St. Peter's Basilica is a treasure trove of Renaissance masterpieces in praise of God and the "Prince of the Apostles."

Inaugurating the exhibit Oct. 11, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, thanked the cardinals, bishops, priests, architects, artisans, plumbers, masons, ushers and cleaners who continue to work to ensure that the basilica is not only structurally sound, but inspires prayer.


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