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VATICAN LETTER Jul-9-2010 (780 words) With photos posted July 6. xxxi

In with the new: Vatican's artistic landscape keeps changing

A statue of St. Annibale Di Francia is unveiled for Pope Benedict XVI to bless outside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican July 7. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Commissioning another statue for Vatican City might sound like overkill in a place where thousands of sculpted figures crowd the landscape.

But the Vatican is on a campaign to fill every niche. When Pope Benedict XVI stopped to bless a 16-foot-tall marble statue of St. Annibale Di Francia July 7, it was cause for celebration. Carved out of a single block of milky-white Carrara marble, it was placed in one of a series of recesses that run along the outside of St. Peter's Basilica.

In 1999, over the objections of architectural purists, the Vatican began filling the basilica's external niches, which were originally designed to be vacant. A whole section has since been occupied with founders of religious orders, including such figures as St. Bridget of Sweden, who established the Brigittines, and St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who founded Opus Dei.

Not just anyone gets a niche at St. Peter's. First of all, you have to be a saint. Second, someone needs to pay for the statue, which can cost more than $250,000. The size and design of the work must be pre-approved, and the sculptor must use the prized Carrara marble.

From their pedestals, the marble saints look out upon the Vatican's modern guest house and its gas station. They have a backdoor view from St. Peter's and will be seen primarily by those who live and work in Vatican City.

The Vatican is home to far more stone figures than living residents -- many times more, if you count the Vatican Museums' approximately 20,000 statues.

Why add more? That question was asked in the 1600s, when the remaining 39 empty niches inside St. Peter's began filling up with founders of religious orders. Already the interior was crowded with more than 300 statues of popes, bishops and saints, not to mention the winged cherubs that appear all over the place.

Yet it is traditional at the Vatican to keep adding works of art and decorative architecture. That's why visitors to the Vatican Museums can wander into rooms full of contemporary painting and sculpture, part of a vast collection of modern art works assembled under Pope Paul VI.

The fact that they're housed in the former bedroom of a 15th-century pope is a little incongruous, but no more so than finding Arnaldo Pomodoro's giant bronze spheres among the Belvedere Courtyard's collection of Roman statues.

Over the centuries, Vatican City has become one of the world's most jam-packed repositories of art and artifacts. The walled city-state is only 109 acres, smaller than a decent-sized golf course, yet it contains more than 150,000 museum-worthy items. Many are larger than life, like the 140 statues of saints that ring the colonnade around St. Peter's Square.

The Vatican Gardens host a wide variety of statuary from ancient and modern times, ranging from the sculpture of the River Nile to Our Lady of Fatima. The gardens are well-kept, and Pope Benedict walks there most afternoons, praying the rosary and chatting with his personal secretary.

It's a quiet environment, far from the din of Roman traffic, and the sound of water is everywhere. In early July, the pope inaugurated the 100th fountain inside the Vatican, this one dedicated to St. Joseph -- in honor of the German pontiff's namesake.

As Vatican fountains go, this one was simple: The water cascades into two elliptical stone basins. Some of the other fountains in Vatican City are intricate and playful, dedicated to eagles, sea creatures and dolphins, dragons, frogs, mirrors, an old maid and a 15-foot model sailing ship.

This largely hidden part of Vatican City is not all flowers and fountains, though. On the skyline can be seen the governor's mansion, an out-of-use train station, a heliport and a radio tower -- all built in the last century. Below ground are several subterranean parking lots, constructed in recent decades.

One thing Pope Benedict doesn't see on his afternoon walk is a statue of Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer condemned by the church in the 17th century for maintaining that the earth revolves around the sun, and rehabilitated in 1992 by a Vatican commission.

Last year, a large statue of Galileo was to have been commissioned for placement near the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is located inside the Vatican Gardens. The project was quietly scrapped, however, with no official explanation.

"What we heard was that now you have to be a saint to have your statue in the Vatican," said one Vatican source.

Instead, a much smaller, 24-inch-tall statue of Galileo, holding a book in one hand and a telescope in the other, was completed and today sits in the library of the Pontifical Council for Culture.


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