The Influence of Michelangelo on Bernini: the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica vs the Baldacchino

Rachel Crist


Fig. 12, Gianlorenzo Bernini, “Baldacchino”, 1634, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

st. petere exterior

Fig. 13, Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (exterior)”, 1547, Rome (Source: Wikimedia Commons)











In terms of architecture, both artists were skilled in making magnificent plans for buildings. Michelangelo’s dome was one of the most innovative pieces of architecture in his time. After the death of Antonio Da Sangallo in August of 1546, Michelangelo took over the incredible job of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Like any educated artist of his time, Michelangelo researched the job he was taking on before he decided on anything. He studied the models of both Bramante, who had been previously working on the dome as well, and Sangallo. During this research he found some issues with Sangallo’s work that needed to be changed, or so was his opinion. First, the outer ambulatory of Sangallo’s design blocked light from the interior resulting in many dark spaces at two levels within the basilica.[1] “Additionally, Michelangelo felt that the enlargement proposed by Sangallo’s design would necessitate the destruction of the Pauline Chapel, the offices of the Piombo, of the Ruota, and perhaps the Sistine Chapel itself.”[2] This destruction of necessary building interior could not happen, of course, and would have to be changed immediately. Many of the assistants and helpers protested against the change in plans because it not only included abandoning Sangallo’s whole model, but also it reduced the size of the planned basilica, dismantled the walls and foundations of the south ambulatory, and dismissed most of the administrative group working on the supervision of Sangallo’s plan.[3] However, this did not deter Michelangelo from his set initiative. He was going to make the best architecture possible for the dome of St. Peter’s even if that meant not upholding old plans and making new ones of his own design. In this new design, Michelangelo tried to make the dome both innovative and traditional. In his reduced plan, there are satellite chapels and vaulted spaces between the chapels and apses, making the dome a dominating central area. The plan is simpler and more focused than any of the previous plans. His original design was one similar to the Florence architecture, where there are two shells of brick, which were fewer than what Sangallo had planned for. Michelangelo also intended the dome to be an ovoid shape, instead of hemispherical. This allows for more stability and further prevents the dome from caving in.[4] Michelangelo died before he could see his work finished, but Pope Pius V and the following Pope Sixtus made sure that his plans were not overlooked as a new designer was commissioned.

Bernini’s Baldacchino is one of the most renowned pieces of architecture in St. Peter’s Basilica; not only because of its immense form, but also because of the aura it creates as people examine it in wonder and fascination. This piece on architecture that sits in the middle of such a large and somewhat overwhelming building, could not be more perfect in its design or construction. Bernini started the design of this work in 1623, when Pope Urban VIII approached him with the dilemma of creating a new spirit of alliance and unification within the church.[5] “His initial design consisted of four spiral columns supporting semicircular ribs that intersected diagonally; from the apex, crowning the whole structure, rose a figure of the Resurrected Christ holding the bannered cross.”[6] After further deliberation, Bernini decided to change this design to make the structure simpler. Also, he feared that the weight of the figures on top and how some protruded outward would cause the columns to give away. The final solution had three major changes. “First, the load of the top was lightened by substituting for the drapery-swathed figure of Christ, a simple cross. Next, the semicircular ribs were transformed into spring-like, curving volutes that served to raise the center of gravity and keep the structure balanced. Finally, the canopy was lowered to coincide with the tops of the columns so that a continuous band would tie the columns together.”[7] This immense structure served as a new, innovative way for construction in the Baroque period.

Michelangelo with the dome of St. Peter’s basilica and Bernini’s Baldacchino are just two small examples of what these artists were capable of. When analyzing both structures, the viewer is once again faced with the influence Michelangelo had on Bernini. When Bernini was making the sketches and researching St. Peter’s for the Baldacchino, his influence was directly above him, in the same building as he was constructing his work of art. He was quite literally influenced by Michelangelo the throughout the entire construction of the Baldacchino.

Also, in terms of symbolism, the placement of the two structures can be described as representations of a larger meaning to the outer society of the world. Michelangelo’s dome is part of a structure for the entire catholic religion to depend on and look up to, while Bernini’s Baldacchino is right above the altar in which the most important member of that religion stands to recognize the faith and principles the people live up to everyday. So, both of the works can be described as symbols of the religion in different ways.


st. pertere interior

Fig. 14, Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (Interior)”, 1547, Rome (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


[1] Henry A. Millon et al., St. Peter’s in the Vatican, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 93

[2] Millon et al., St. Peter’s in the Vatican, 93

[3] Millon et al., St. Peter’s in the Vatican, 93

[4] Millon et al, St. Peter’s in the Vatican, 95-96

[5] Rudolf Preimesberger, et al; Dictionary of Art. (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1996). S.v. “Gianlorenzo Bernini.”, 830

[6] Millon et al, St. Peter’s in the Vatican, 116

[7] Millon et al, St. Peter’s in the Vatican, 117