Truth Unveiled: Bernini’s Bell Towers and the Allegory of Truth: The Bell Tower Disaster
–Chelsea Neal

Plans to add campanili, or bell towers, to the façade of St. Peter’s had been tossed back and forth around the Vatican as early as 1608, during the reign of Pope Paul V. Actual work was underway by 1612 under the direction of Bernini’s predecessor Carlo Maderno, but even in its earliest stages it would seem that the project was plagued by setbacks. The biggest of these occurred 1618: while in the process of excavating foundations for the south tower, workers accidently stumbled across subterranean springs. Not only did this cause significant delays in the project, but the water also resulted in dangerously unstable ground, “‘…so sandy, it gave way if you so much as looked at it,’” and in the formation of several cracks in surrounding buildings.[1]

Figure 3. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Italy. Photo Credit: Andreas Tille

Afterwards construction proceeded so slowly that only the tower bases were completed upon Paul V’s death in 1621.[2] His successor, Gregory XV lived for only two years after his election before being succeeded by Urban VIII Barberini. Bernini had already been considered one of Urban’s favorites and although many resented it, few were surprised when the new Pope selected his protégé to fill the vacancy left by Carlo Maderno’s death in 1629. As the new head architect of St. Peter’s Bernini inherited a number of the projects left unfinished by his predecessor including the Baldachinno, work on the Crossing of St. Peter’s, and, in 1637, the ill-fated bell towers.

The story of the Bernini’s involvement in the bell tower debacle as it has been traditionally told is as follows: the new chief architect, who had a certain reputation for hubris, decided to alter the original design of the bell towers. He forfeited Maderno’s modest structures, which would have risen only one story above the façade, in favor of grandiose three-story affairs, six times heavier than the original towers, that would rise up to frame Michelangelo’s great dome.[3] An anonymous report dating to 1637 warned that Bernini’s towers were simply too heavy for the original foundations and that disaster was imminent, but the warning was ultimately ignored and the Vatican went ahead with Bernini’s plans. A fresco in the Apartment of the Noble Guards in the Vatican Palace, part of  a series portraying Barberini building projects, optimistically depicts an image of the completed towers that dates to around the same time that construction was beginning (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Simone Lagi and Marco Tullio Montagna, Facade of St. Peter’s with bell towers, 1637. Fresco. Vatican Palace. Source: Bernini’s Rome

Within a few months of the unveiling of the first tower, however, several cracks began to appear in the foundations. These soon spread to the façade of St. Peter’s, and there appear to have been real fears that the towers would fall and take the entire façade down with them.[4] Rightly or wrongly, the blame for this was laid entirely at Bernini’s door. One source reports that:

…the Cavaliere Bernini, who has undertaken to build a campanile at St. Peter’s, has failed and that the great weight of the tower will bring the façade down. This having come to the notice of the pope, he called Bernini to him and severely reprimanded him for not having wanted to take the advice of anyone.[5]

The delays created by the cracks combined with a war-driven lack of funds once again brought the construction of the bell towers to a halt. To make matters worse, Urban VIII, Bernini’s greatest patron and the most fervent supporter of the entire project, died in 1644, and with him any lingering protection the artist might have enjoyed from his critics. Bernini’s reputation and credibility as an architect, already in a precarious position following appearance of the cracks, came under brutal and entirely unhindered assault by his detractors, all of whom found a ready ear for their complaints in the form of the new Pope Innocent X whose hatred of the Barberini Pope (and consequently his favorites) was well-known.[6]

All of these events conspired to ensure that Bernini’s failure could not possibly have come at a worse time. The new Pope ultimately ordered the bell towers torn down and with them went Bernini’s reputation. Although he did not lose his position as the architect of St. Peter’s he was nevertheless held in disgrace and his reputation reduced to tatters by his critics, many of whom doubtlessly felt that such disfavor, after a lifetime of success and exclusivity, was long overdue. This was the harrowing environment that inspired the sculptor to create Truth Unveiled by Time.

 


[1] Jake Morrissey, The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 142.

[2] Sarah McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican (New Haven: Yale University Press), 28.

[3] Simon Schama, The Power of Art (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 107.

[4] Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011),137

[5] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 75.

[6] Howard Hibbard, Bernini, (Westford: The Murray Printing Company, 1965), 188.