Saturday, November 2, 2013



This is a detail of the figure of Death writing the name of Pope Urban VIII onto a scroll of the dead. It is part of the tomb of Urban VIII in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Maffeo Barberini was born in April 1568 in Florence, Italy, into the nouveau riche Barberini family. His extended family were merchants who were quickly growing mega-rich on the newly-established trade routes with the Far East and New World. Maffeo received a private education, and a law degree in 1589.

Practicing law and trade, Maffeo helped to rapidly enlarge his family's wealth. His wealth and financial expertise captured the attention of Pope Clement VIII, who desperately needed capable administrators to help run the Vatican. Maffeo's uncle was made an apostolic protonotary, one of just 12 protonotaries who ran the vast papal empire (which at the time covered a third of central Italy geographically, and whose income ran into the billions of dollars). Maffeo's uncle got Pope Clement VIII to name the 33-year-old Maffeo the pope's ambassador to France. Three years later, EVEN THOUGH MAFFEO WAS NOT A PRIEST, Clement made Maffeo an archbishop. (Money, we are reassured by the papacy, had absolutely nothing to do with this.) He also named him bishop of Cannes. This brought Maffeo a significant income, and tied him to the papacy. Maffeo's uncle died shortly thereafter, and Maffeo inherited his vast wealth. He bought a palace in Rome, and moved there. Clement made Maffeo a protonotary and special ambassador to France the same year (again, we are told, because money had nothing to do with it).

In 1605, Clement died and Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici became Pope Leo XI. He was the "Lightning Pope" – because he died just 26 days later. So Camillo Borghese (of the ultra-wealthy Borghese family of Siena) became Pope Paul V. In early 1606, Paul appointed Archbishop Barberini to the Roman Curia – the highest administrative body of the Catholic Church (and the pope's inner circle). Later that year, Paul named him a Cardinal and ambassador to Bologna. A spate of additional archbishoprics and cardinalates came over the next decade, adding more income to Maffeo Barberini's accounts.

Paul V died in 1621, and his long-time assistant Alessandro Ludovisi was named pope. But Pope Gregory XV died in 1623 after just two years.

There were two principal factions at the papal conclave of 1623, one which backed Cardinal Scipione Borghese and another which supported Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (nephew of the late Pope Gregory). Neither could be elected pope because the opposition was larger than their supporters. But if they could find a compromise candidate, who they could control but who would not generate a such intense opposition, that faction could gain control of the papal purse….uh, I mean, could lead the faithful. This was the first papal election where the ballots were secret, which greatly reduced the pressure on each elector and made it far more difficult for outside forces (like France and Spain) to influence the outcome. Ludovisi had enough votes to veto any of the Borghese candidates, of whom Barberini was one. But at the same time, Maffeo Barberini was a favorite of Pope Gregory (Ludovisi), and Cardinal Borghese left the conclave after coming down with malaria. He was elected on August 6, 1623, at the young age of 56, and took the name Urban VIII.

Urban VIII loved the arts, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini was his favorite artist. Indeed, Urban doubled the debt of the Catholic Church both by expanding his secular nation (he destroyed the city of Castro doing so, and it lies unbuilt to this day) and by renovating numerous churches – including St. Peter's.

Urban contacted Bernini in 1627, asking him to design a mega-huge tomb for him. With St. Peter's undergoing massive renovations, Urban decided to junk a couple of older papal tombs and statuary so he could clear space for himself and his successors. Now, St. Peter's Basilica is an unusual church. Most cathedrals are built in the form of a cross. Where the two arms (the transept) meet is the "crossing". The top of the cross is the chancel, and at the back of the chancel is the altar. To the left of the altar would be the "cathedra", the seat of the presiding bishop. But not in St. Peter's: Here, the altar is in the crossing, so more people can see it. Where the chancel would be is the "cathedra" and it faces the altar and is not off to the side.

Originally, Urban thought his tomb should be visible from the audience standing in the crossing. This would have put his tomb in the southwestern pier of the south transept (where that of Pope Alexander VII is today).

But there were two biiiig niches on either side of the cathedra at St. Peter's. The one to the right was occupied by the tomb of Pope Paul III (1534-1539), designed by Guglielmo della Porta in 1575. The other was supposed to be occupied by the tomb of Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Michelangelo designed Julius' tomb, but it was never built here. (Instead, it was built in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Julius' remains are in the floor at St. Peter's, though.)

Urban changed his mind in 1628, and decided his tomb should be paired with that of Paul III's and occupy the empty niche next to the cathedra. He didn't like that his tomb would be on the left (the less "preferred" position), so he had Paul III's tomb moved to the left in 1629 and his tomb built in the niche to the right. Because of limited space here, the freestanding statues of Peace and Abundance were moved ABOVE the statue and set on a pediment high over the round-headed niche in which it now sat. A grotesque mask, representing Death, was removed and destroyed.

Della Porta's "Tomb of Paul III" is triangular in design, and that meant that Bernini's had to be as well. Della Porta's tomb has a wide base on which Justice (left) and Prudence rest on inclined scrollwork, their feet slightly canted outward and away from the tomb. Behind them is the sarcophagus. Atop the sarcophagus is a plinth framed by delicate scrollwork. An ebony medallion engraved with gold contains the name of Paul III. The pope himself is stop the plinth, seated and one leg forward. He gestures to his right in blessing, his head turned to his right and cocked slightly downward. While the lower statues, sarcophagus, and plinth are of white and pink marble, the statue of Paul III is dark bronze with gold gilding.

Bernini first thought to mimic della Porta's revised monument by having statues of Peace and Abundance recline slightly against the broken pediment above the round-headed niche. Statues of Justice and Prudence would stand, but recline slightly, against a low sarcophagus. The design for the sarcophagus was stolen from one designed by Michelangelo, with a skull resting on the skeletal arms as if in sleep atop it. Skeletal wings would emanate from behind the sarcophagus to embrace Justice and Prudence. Behind the sarcophagus would be a pedestal, a plinth, and a bronze of the seated Urban VIII, crowned and robed and gesturing upward with his right hand in blessing. This, too, was a stolen design, taken from statues of Julius II designed by Vincenzo Danti (in Perugia) and Alessandro Menganti (in Bologna).

The niche began to be clad in marble in 1628, work which took three years. Bernini worked very quickly on the statue of Urban. The full-size model was complete in December 1628, and casting completed by April 1631.

Eight more years would pass before additional work was done, largely because Urban wanted Bernini to work on "more important" projects – including the massive solomonic Baldachino of St. Peter's, the massive bronze canopy over the high altar under the crossing. Work on the baldachin began in 1623, and was completed in 1634.

Unlike della Porta's tomb, where the statuary figures are blank-faced, Bernini decided that his statues should show intense grief. To help accomplish this, he changed the figure of Prudence to one of Love, and had her suckling a fat infant. Love looks across her right shoulder and downward at another infant standing at her feet, clutching at her robes, his arm raised and his face contorted in a wail of grief. This change occurred in 1627, although Bernini would later put Love on a diet and slim her down as well as make her more upright. Bernini experimented with adding a third child about 1630, but he'd dropped this idea by 1634. By 1639, when carving on the marble began in earnest, Bernini had softened the features of Love to look like those of his mistress, Costanza Bonarelli.

Bernini worked on Justice equally hard. At first, Justice was cowled and pensive, looking off to its left in grief (away from the deceased pope). Bernini abandoned this pose for a cross-legged Justice, her elbow resting on an open law book precariously posed on the sarcophagus. Her right cheek rests on the back of her cocked right hand, and she stares upward as if daydreaming. In her left arm was added a sword, swathed in her own gown. At her feet are two children. One lies half-hidden behind her robes, between Justice and the sarcophagus. He's playing with the scales of justice, one of which he has in his hands while the chains and other scale lie at his feet. To the other side of justice, the other child – his back turned to us, revealing his firm buttocks -- struggles to push upright the fasces (the ancient Roman symbol of the law).

But the great central motif of the tomb – and the thing that makes it so astonishing – is the figure of Death which Bernini remodeled.

Bernini junked his original idea of Death as a silent, almost sleeping, figure resting on the sarcophagus. Instead, he drew inspiration from the tomb of Erard de la Marck, a Prince-Bishop of Li├Ęge in Belgium. De la Marck's tomb (destroyed during the French Revolution) showed the bishop kneeling to the right of his tomb. Popping up through a hole in the tomb is a skeleton, which is bent forward, thrusting an hourglass at de la Marck. Bernini liked the idea, but probably was unthrilled at the awkward posing.

Bernini immediately hit on the idea of having Death sitting on the tomb, facing the viewer's right. It leans slightly backward on its feathery wings. Bernini wanted to get ride of the hourglass idea, and instead chose a "Book of Death" theme. He sketched out a number of different poses: holding to the top of a firm tablet on which Death writes with a pen; holding the side of a flimsy tablet on which Death writes with a pen; arm behind and holding the top of a book, Death's head cocked to the left to read the names of dead popes, while the right hand writes the name of Urban VIII with a quill; and arm behind and holding the top of a stiff book, facing the the page, and writing with a pen.

In the end, Bernini settled on something entirely more creepy: Death's torso is turned toward the monument behind it, but Death's head is facing to toward Justice and the viewer's right. It appears to be putting up the inscription which should be on the face of the monument behind it. The sheet on which the inscription (URBANUS VIII * BARBERINUS * PONT MAX) is written is slightly flimsy, bending and warping as Death puts it into place. In its right hand, Death holds a bone, with which it appears to have written the inscription. Behind the inscription is another piece of paper. Just visible is that of Urban's predecessor, Gregory.

Just visible behind the S-scrollwork of the sarcophagus is Death's bony leg, bent backward beneath it. A scythe lies unused on the top of the sarcophagus. Death's head and a part of Death's torso are covered with the now-unused pall which formerly covered the papal coffin.

The round pediment above the tomb was adorned with the Barberini coat of arms in red marble. A chubby putti (wingless cherub) on the right holds it in place. A second putti carries the enormous "Keys of the Kingdom" (symbol of the papacy) upward to attach them to the front of the coat of arms. His face is obscured by one of the giant keys. Partial bronze swags of laurel dangle from their arms.

Here and there all over the sarcophagus, statues, and monument are bronze bees – the beehive being the symbol of the Barberini family. This whimsical feature was something which the Barberini family loved. Three more bronze bees are near the putti overhead, as if having escaped from the beehive in the coat of arms.

Urban VIII died on July 29, 1644. His tomb was unveiled in early 1647, 30 months after the pope's death.





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