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The Baldachin


The Baldachin was created by the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Urban VIII Barberini between 1624 and 1635. Its history begins exactly four hundred years ago when Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) directly assigned to his trusted architect the task of creating the grand Baldachin (from Baldac, the ancient name of Baghdad, where precious fabrics originated), after a kind of pro forma competition in June 1624. For the high altar of St. Peter's, from the early 1600s, there was indeed a plan for a ciborium that would evoke in its form a covering with precious fabrics. In the endeavor of the Baldachin, Bernini worked alongside his father Pietro and his brother Luigi, assisted by Francesco Borromini, specialized craftsmen, and numerous sculptors including Agostino Radi, Stefano Speranza, François Duquesnoy, Andrea Bolgi, and Giuliano Finelli. To these, we must add the name of the famous cabinetmaker Giovanni Battista Soria.

Thanks to numerous drawings, wooden models were first created using a 1:1 scale, then a version in plaster was created, and finally, the molds for casting. In the documents related to the crucial and very complex bronze casting work, the names Domenico and Gregorio di Rossi, Orazio Albrizzi, and of the gilder Simone Lagi, appear frequently. The inauguration of the Baldachin took place on June 29, 1633, but the work continued for two more years until 1635. The gilded bronze monument, which is almost 29 meters tall, rises on four slender twisted columns (which was presented in the basilica on June 29, 1627) which were inspired by the marble columns arranged around Peter's tomb in the ancient basilica. The columns were believed to have been taken from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and can be admired today on the four mighty pillars supporting the great dome near the so-called Loggias of the Relics. The last major and radical intervention on St. Peter's Baldachin dates back to the year 1758: a substantial team of workers and specialized craftsmen (up to sixty people per day) worked on it for about three months. The baldachin was then meticulously cleaned, the numerous parts damaged by oxidations were removed, various components were made more stable and secured, damaged or missing parts were repaired or replaced, and, above all, extensive gilding work was undertaken or redone. The documents preserved in the Historical Archive of the Fabric of St Peter provide extensive information on these works.





The baldachin is almost 29 meters tall (28.74 meters to be precise), a height equivalent to that of a ten-story building. Its estimated weight is approximately 63 tons (63,000 kg). It stands on four magnificent columns, each of which is 11.20 meters high and weighs about 9 tons. Each column is divided into three sections and to enhance its static stability, it is partly filled with concrete. The columns are placed on tall pedestals (2.60 meters) which feature the papal coats of arms with the symbolic "Barberini bees." The four bronze columns, adorned with laurel branches and cherubs, are topped with Corinthian capitals; the architrave features two different decorations: a band of grotesques and another of dolphins, while the frieze displays the Barberini symbol of the sun, along with ovoli, grotesque faces, and laurel leaves. The slightly concave frame has a large drapery made up of six gilded copper lambrequins on all four sides (1.56 meters x 1.12 meters), which are adorned on the outside with cherubs and bees, and on the inside with papal symbols and bees. Below the frame, there are large hanging tassels, decorative elements which evoke hanging fabrics and decorations. The author thus intended to make the work resemble a grand processional baldachin. The crowning pediment is completed with pairs of putti (= in the Italian history of Art a putto is a chubby male child usually come to represent a small angel, similar to a cherub; translator’s note) supporting the symbols of Peter and Paul, while the so-called "sky" – the ceiling of the inner part – is made of painted and gilded wood. The dove of the Holy Spirit is placed at the center, within a frame with harpies, acanthus spirals, and once again, the Barberini bees. The latter is a decorative element which recurs in dozens of examples, along with many other small naturalistic details drawn from late 16th-century Roman tradition. These details can be found, for instance, at the base of the columns, namely: a papal medal or a rosary on the southwest side, a fly on the southeast side, a lizard devouring a scorpion on the northeast side, and again, a lizard and a medal on the northwest side. Fine decorations, drawn from reality, as well as the contrast between the dark colour of the bronze and the gold, make the monumental architectural structure very similar to a sublime golden artefact.
The upper part of the attic features four tripartite dolphin-back volutes and large palm leaves, at the base of which are four stylized angels (about 4 meters tall and weighing approximately 2.5 tons), created between 1628 and 1633, holding laurel wreaths. The four large angels alternate – as already mentioned – with four pairs of putti (which are about 2.2 meters tall) bearing the keys and the papal tiara of St. Peter and St. Paul’s sword and his book. The finial is dominated by the cross (which is 2.2 meters tall) which is placed on a globe, or rather, on an ovoid, in order to offer the visitor a better view from below. Initially, as the crowning element of the Baldachin, Bernini had planned a golden statue of the Saviour, which would have been 3.50 meters tall and which was worked on until just a few months before the inauguration. The baldachin can be considered a monumental multimaterial work. While it appears to be made only of bronze and gilded bronze, it was actually created using other materials as well, such as woods of different types and physical characteristics for decorative and structural parts, iron for armatures, including iron wire for bindings, copper worked into embossed sheets in order to create figures and decorative details, marbles for the four base dice under the columns, and a concrete-like mortar to fill the columns and provide the capacity to support the weight of the large upper part. The internal ceiling is made of wood, and the dozens of different gilded bronze parts are assembled through concealed structures and iron armatures. Dozens of archival documents also specify the works which were undertaken and the materials which were used: which concrete and building materials, which types of wood and iron for the structure, which kinds of copper, bronze, and gold for the decorations.

Furthermore, we should not overlook the marble parts of the four column plinths. Their gilding was made using mercury amalgam, leaf, and contact gilding. Overall, the symbols of the Barberini family – bees and a radiant sun, along with putti, tree branches, leafy heads, little animals, and cherubs – recur almost obsessively in the work.