Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's

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In this dramatic journey through religious and artistic history, R. A. Scotti traces the defining event of a glorious epoch: the building of St. Peter's Basilica. Begun by the ferociously ambitious Pope Julius II in 1506, the endeavor would span two tumultuous centuries, challenge the greatest Renaissance masters-Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante-and enrage Martin Luther. By the time it was completed, Shakespeare had written all of his plays, the Mayflower had reached Plymouth-and Rome had risen with its ...

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In this dramatic journey through religious and artistic history, R. A. Scotti traces the defining event of a glorious epoch: the building of St. Peter's Basilica. Begun by the ferociously ambitious Pope Julius II in 1506, the endeavor would span two tumultuous centuries, challenge the greatest Renaissance masters-Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante-and enrage Martin Luther. By the time it was completed, Shakespeare had written all of his plays, the Mayflower had reached Plymouth-and Rome had risen with its astounding basilica to become Europe's holy metropolis. A dazzling portrait of human achievement and excess, Basilica is a triumph of historical writing.

In this swift, colorful narrative, Scotti brings to life the artists and the popes, the politics and the passions behind this audacious enterprise. Scotti turns sacred architecture into a spellbinding human epic of enormous daring, petty jealousy, and staggering genius. Unabridged. 7 CDs.

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Editorial Reviews

The Providence Journal-Bulletin
[Scotti] ... appreciates the epic quest and querulousness and leaves us wondering how anything of any merit ever gets designed, built, consecrated and celebrated.
Wall Street Journal
Astonishes. A sweeping account of the largest assemblage of artistic genius on any project in history.
Entertainment Weekly
With her vivid portrayals, Scotti turns a potentially dry architectural tale into a Vatican version of Dynasty.
National Review
A fair and fascinating examination of splendorous and scandalous events. Scotti is a dramatic storyteller.
Publishers Weekly
Absorbing. A fascinating tale of genius, power, and money.
First Things
A lovely book, filled with historical detail and lively depictions. Captures an extraordinary period in the Church's life.
Richard John Neuhaus
Publishers Weekly
In this absorbing story of the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome-the grandest architectural undertaking of the High Renaissance-Scotti (Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938) shows how the construction fed the ambitions of 30 popes, including the indomitable Julius II, who laid the first stone in 1506; Leo X, the Medici pope whose extravagant spending fueled the resentment toward the papacy that culminated in the Protestant Reformation; Clement VII, on whose watch Rome was sacked by Emperor Charles V; and Sixtus V, who restored the ravaged city and pushed, against all odds, to have the great dome completed during his lifetime. In 1506, the great architect Donato Bramante envisioned a gigantic central crossing topped by a dome of such daring design that many believed it could not be built. Throughout the 100 years of construction, numerous architects, most of them consumed with pride, lofty ambition and professional jealousy, followed. Among them were Raphael, who died at age 37; Michelangelo, who accepted the job reluctantly at the age of 71; and Giacomo della Porta, who, in 1590, succeeded in raising the grand cupola. All are brought to life in this fascinating tale of genius, power and money. B&w photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There is a rich and turbulent history within the two million tons of stone that make up St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Enthralled with its grand scale, unimagined costs (more than 46,800,052 ducats), and the confusion of ideas in building it, Scotti (Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938) undertook this history of the Basilica's design and history. Readers are also treated to the lives of artists and popes; a study of politics; and an examination of Roman culture. First constructed in the fourth century C.E. to honor the tomb of St. Peter, the early Christian edifice was gradually torn down and replaced by the current structure. Its construction spanned several centuries and involved many of the most brilliant architects of the early modern period, including Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bernini. More than 1300 years passed between Pope Sylvester I's dedication of Constantine's church (on which St. Peter's is built) and Pope Urban VIII's consecration of the new Basilica of St. Peter. For budget-conscious libraries, this may act as an alternative to William Tronzo's St. Peter's in the Vatican.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L., IA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating history reveals how the world's most glorious house of worship emerged from decades of trial and scandal. The construction of St. Peter's Basilica spanned 120 years (1506-1626) and the reign of 27 popes. Scotti (Sudden Sea, 2003) argues convincingly that the project prompted Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation, nearly bankrupted the Catholic Church and threatened to sink the papacy. But it ultimately produced one of humanity's most wondrous artistic achievements and revived the glory of Rome. The author deftly navigates the facts, dates and personalities involved, giving an immediacy and accessibility to this dense, complex saga. Not surprisingly, delicious ironies abound. Much of the funds to build St. Peter's came from the pillaging of New World natives by Spanish conquistadors. The ancient obelisk that still anchors St. Peter's Square was brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula, the most debauched of Roman emperors. The massive dome that sits atop St. Peter's was partially constructed with material scavenged from the nearby Pantheon, a pagan temple. Naturally, heroes emerge in such a tale, among them Popes Julius II and Sixtus V, who took the massive project on their shoulders, and artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini, whose genius elevated the basilica from architecture to high art. The erratic Michelangelo took on the construction job reluctantly, then devoted his life to St. Peter's for 17 years, until his death at the age of 89. Bernini spent even more time on the project, designing the massive bronze canopy that dwarfs the altar, the colonnades of St. Peter's Square and many of the lavish fountains that still guide the faithful to the basilica'sfront door. In Scotti's capable hands, the story of St. Peter's becomes a riveting portrait of the papacy, complete with its triumphs, intrigue and excesses.
From the Publisher
[Scotti] . . . appreciates the epic quest and querulousness and leaves us wondering how anything of any merit ever gets designed, built, consecrated and celebrated. (The Providence Journal-Bulletin)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400122349
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/14/2006
  • Format: Library Binding

Meet the Author

R. A. Scotti is the author of two previous works of nonfiction, including Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I The Christian Caesar 1503-1513
1 The first stone, April 1506 3
2 The first St. Peter's 13
3 Il Terribilis 23
4 A Trojan horse 31
5 A surprise winner 41
6 Imperial dimensions 49
7 Vaulting ambition 57
8 Onward Christian soldiers 67
9 A Christian imperium 75
10 A viper's nest 89
11 The death of Julius 101
Pt. II The deplorable Medici popes 1513-1534
12 The first Medici prince 113
13 An empty stage 123
14 A Roman candle 129
15 The revenge of the Sangallos 137
16 Salvation for sale 145
17 Sweet revenge 149
18 A brief moment of truth 155
19 Medici redux 159
Pt. III The Michelangelo imperative 1546-1626
20 A violent awakening 171
21 Julius's folly 183
22 Motu Proprio 191
23 An immovable object 203
24 The swineherd who built Rome 209
25 Raising the dome 215
26 A new century 227
27 The knaves of St. Peter's 231
28 1,300 years later 239
Pt. IV Bernini's grand illusions 1623-1667
29 The romance of the baroque 245
30 Full circle 259
App The popes from Nicholas V to Alexander VII
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Reading Group Guide

Covering nearly four acres and soaring 425 feet at its highest point, St. Peter’s Basilica is both a monument to the glory of God and a testament to the genius, ambition, and will of men. R. A. Scotti’s Basilica chronicles the epic construction effort behind this architectural treasure. Propelled by artistic inspiration, social upheaval, and political intrigue, the story spans two centuries and includes larger-than-life characters.

Pope Julius II—who took both his name and his disposition from the Roman emperor—conceived St. Peter’s at the height of the Renaissance to replace Constantine’s fourth-century basilica. It was completed some 150 years later during the Baroque papacy of Alexander VII. Along the way, the printing press revolutionized mass communication, the Catholic Church was shaken by the twin earthquakes of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and a vast New World was mapped across the Atlantic.

St. Peter’s is “catholic” in the truest sense of the word, encompassing aesthetic principles from classical Greece, ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. It brought together the greatest artistic and architectural minds of the time. Bramante, the basilica’s first architect, drew inspiration from the architecture of imperial Rome. His initial designs for the basilica—emphasizing proportional harmony and the aesthetics of space—were modified, embellished, and enhanced over the decades by a succession of legendary artists, including Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bernini.

St. Peter’s was not only an artistic triumph, but also a feat of engineering. Bramante envisioned “the dome of the Pantheon raised on the shoulders of the Basilica of Maxentius.” Yet the techniques used to create such masterworks of engineering had long since been lost to antiquity. Through scientific investigation, leaps of ingenuity, and luck, the builders recaptured this technology and accomplished such seemingly impossible tasks as raising the massive dome and repositioning Caligula’s 320-ton obelisk.

While work on St. Peter’s sputtered forward, the fortunes of the church it represented underwent dramatic reversals. Julius II’s triumphant war to reclaim the Papal States was followed by the excesses of his successor, Leo X, which spurred the rebellion of Martin Luther and sparked the Protestant Reformation. By the papacy of Clement VII, the Vatican’s extravagant expenditures on the basilica—both a symbol and a product of the Catholic Church’s fiscal and moral excesses—culminated with Charles V’s savage sack of Rome. Yet as the Reformation gave way to the Counter-Reformation, and both the city of Rome and the papacy struggled to rebuild; St. Peter’s was transformed into a symbol of healing and unity, its vast scale becoming a kind of atonement for the Church’s equally vast transgressions. With the 1667 erection of Bernini’s colonnade, construction came to an end, and the magnificent basilica stood at the center of a Catholic Church that Julius II could scarcely have imagined.


R. A. Scotti is the author of two previous works of nonfiction, including Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels.


What was your most surprising discovery in the course of researching the book?

This is more a conundrum than a discovery. Was the Basilica—the wonder of the High Renaissance and, ever since, the visible symbol of the Catholic Church, an architectural marvel recognized around the world—worth the spiritual, social, and political cost? Namely, the splintering of the Christian world.

Has architecture always been a particular passion of yours, or was St. Peter’s your inspiration for exploring it?

As I explain in the Author’s Note, St. Peter’s was the inspiration. The overwhelming emotion of coming upon the Basilica for the first time when I was a nineteen-year-old naïf has stayed with me always.

Do you look at St. Peter’s differently today—having spent so much time exploring its secrets—than you did before writing the book? Has the magic of the place been diminished or enhanced?

The magic can only be enhanced. First is the staggering fact that such an immense and ambitious edifice was erected with little more than manual tools. Add to that the wonder of how an architectural marvel emerged from such a confusion of ideas, talents, temperaments, and political machinations, and St. Peter’s truly seems to be a miracle in stone.

What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading Basilica?

An appreciation that the greatest accomplishments are not achieved in a smooth path. If you persevere through conflict, missteps, tragedy, delays, setbacks, and reversals of every kind, the goal can be reached triumphantly. Also, an understanding that the Catholic Church is not a monolith, and that an institution that has endured for 2000 years through the best and the worst merits serious, unbiased study.


  • The outrage sparked by the demolition of Constantine’s basilica to make way for the new St. Peter’s brings to mind modern battles between real estate developers and defenders of historic landmarks. And yet today, the “new” basilica is itself a historic treasure—one of the architectural marvels of the late Renaissance. To what degree do you believe a city’s architectural legacy should be preserved? Where do we draw the line between preserving the past and embracing the future?
  • Before reading Basilica, how aware were you of Renaissance-era papal practices, such as the selling of indulgences and venal offices, or of the questionable moral character of the era’s popes? Does the Vatican’s checkered history affect your perception of the institution today?
  • Scotti writes, “Religion is illusion . . . and the gleam of gold, the clouds of incense, . . . the sacred art and evocative music, create that illusion. Stripped bare of all but its dogma, it would be exponentially reduced.” Do you agree?
  • Scotti details the vast sums spent on the basilica at a time when most Catholics lived in abject poverty. Does this allocation of resources seem morally justifiable?
  • Like many monumental structures of antiquity, St. Peter’s was built on a scale and with a level of craftsmanship that seems inconceivable today. Are there any architectural achievements of the last century that seem on par with the construction of St. Peter’s?
  • Today, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is regarded as one of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements. But he saw the commission as a punishment—a distraction from what he considered his most important work: sculpting the tomb of Julius. Do you think Julius’s redirection of Michelangelo’s talent brought the artist to greater heights? Is there an argument to be made that artists, in general, create better work under direction?
  • The book describes the many personal rivalries and animosities among the artists who worked on the basilica. Do you think the great artists of the Renaissance—or of any era—could have reached the same heights without this competitiveness?
  • Of the many historic figures in Basilica—from Julius II to Raphael to Martin Luther—who would you most like to meet? If you could put a question to any one of them, what would it be?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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