Friday, January 21, 2011

Keith Miller - St Peter's

The church of St Peter's is surely one of the most awe inspiring pieces of architecture in the world. Whether or not you find it beautiful, or whether you yourself inspired into religious excitement by it is a different question. It's a powerful statement of strength by the Catholic Church, perhaps summed up by one visitor, Florence Nightingale who wrote that:

"No event in my life except my death can ever be greater than that first entrance into St Peter's, the concenrtated spirit of the Christianity of so many years, the great image of our faith which is the worship of grief."

Keith Miller explores the buildings history and its links with the growing power of the Popes and the Church. The building itself is a strange amalgam, being built on the site (and incorporating some of the walls of a much older St. Peters). Miller points out that this may in part be deliberate - by re-using ancient materials, we get a sort of concrete (excuse the pun) statement about the triumph of the Christian church over paganism. Its architects seem inumerable and its inspirations are many. Fashion comes and goes in the world of bricks and mortar as much as in that of fashion, and the changes of style and design over the centuries are well documented here.

For the non architectural expert, some of the book is daunting. Like all experts there is a private language which, even in books that are attempting to be accessible can only serve to mask what is being said. What are pilasters for instance, and how do windows "snarl" as Michelangelos are supposed to? The book is perhaps also a little incomprehensible to those who haven't visited St Peters, unlike some of the others in this series, you really have to have been there. And perhaps this is the real aim of the book - it is a trawl through the history that frames St Peters - the stories of the ruling classes who have used the building, or sought to use its image to strengthen their own social position, rather than a blow by blow account of the building itself.

St Peter's continues to inspire - many buildings have borrowed its dome in particular - the Bank of England and St Paul's for instance. Though I was interested to learn that while a recent church in the Ivory Coast has done the same, their dome is bigger!

So if you're going to Rome, and plan to visit St Peter's this is a great guide book. It is fascinating and amusing and doesn't simply fall into the trap of listing sculpture after sculpture with some meaningless dates.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series
Watkin - The Roman Forum
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

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