Have you ever wondered why flash photographs are permitted in Saint Peter’s Basilica but not in the Vatican Museum? The reason you can take flash photography in the Basilica is that the paintings have been replaced with mosaics. The tiles are barely visible to the naked eye but if you look closely, you will spot them.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is peppered with optical illusions. When you first walk in, you will notice a gold strip with blue letters wrapping around the interior. All the gold you see is real gold and the blue letters are composed of lapis, a very expensive semi-precious stone. Once you enter, you will notice that the blue letters appear to be the same size all around the basilica. How is it possible? The letters should virtually diminish in size as they get farther away. How is this accomplished? The letters are actually larger along the walls that are farther away from the entry-point. Those that appear above Bernini’s bronze baldaquin are more than twice the size of those above the front doors.
Did you know that any artist that had ever been commissioned for work was prohibited from signing his own art? Like many business agreements, this possible deal-breaker was not always divulged in advance. The legend is that one Danish artist, Thorvaldsen, was almost finished with his sculpture of Pope Pius VII, when he learned about this clause. He was very angry, but in the end, he accepted it. After all, he would have his work shown in the ultimate gallery. When the time came for the unveiling of his piece, the crowd was left with their mouths agape. The artist had decided that if he could not sign his own work, then he would make a masterpiece that no one would ever forget. The ceremony for the deceased Pope continued under the gaze of the gigantic sculpture, but the face that looked down onto the crowd was not that of the Pope, but of the artist himself.
There is, however, one artist that signed his work in the Basilica. The only one who got away with it was Michelangelo. No, it was not his agent who procured this little extra. Michelangelo was commissioned “La Pieta” during his early 20s, when most Italian guys are busy picking up girls. He was not very well known at the time and there were better-known artists who were pompously taking credit for it. The legends say that one night, while out with his friends, Michelangelo overheard someone say, “I was told Cristoforo did it.” In a typical Italian fury – yes, they were dramatic even then – he broke into the basilica late at night and chiseled these words across the Madonna’s sash, “MICHEL ANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENT FACIBAT” (Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this). No one has forgotten his name since.
The Barberini family was as famous or as infamous as the Hilton clan, depending on which Hilton you are thinking of. Their logo was the trio of bumblebees that was included in any artwork that they commissioned. You can spot those Barberini bumblebees buzzing all over Rome. The bronze baldaquin, which is the canopy over the altar, was commissioned to Bernini by Pope Urbano VIII Barberini. During its construction, Bernini ran out of bronze. He approached the Pope and explained his dilemma. The Pope calmly waved him away telling him of a spot where he could get all the bronze he needed to complete his masterpiece. The next day, Rome awoke to find that their dear Pantheon, which had survived numerous invasions from the Barbarians, had been pilfered of its glorious bronze. From this, the saying survived: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (That which the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did).
Saint Peter’s Basilica is swimming with mysteries and interesting tales. It is up to you to go take all the photos you want and start learning about all the gossip that is now centuries old and yet remains as juicy as today’s news.