Truth Unveiled: Bernini’s Bell Towers and the Allegory of TruthUrban VIII’s Bell Towers
–Chelsea Neal

Figure 7. Bernini, Bust of Pope Urban VIII, 1640. Bronze. Source: ARTstor

In 1623 Cardinal Maffeo Barberini ascended to the Papacy, becoming Urban VIII (Fig. 7). Despite a promising beginning, it soon became apparent that this Pope was less interested in being the spiritual leader of the Catholic faith and more committed to promoting members of his own family to positions of power whilst leaving his mark on Rome through a series of expensive artistic and architectural projects. Foremost among these was the completion of the façade of St. Peter’s. Urban wanted to see this project finished within his own lifetime in order to bring “a new noble dignity to the basilica.”[1] Of course his own legacy was never very far from his mind, and the result was that Maderno’s unfinished bell towers became something of a papal pet project—a factor that would quickly prove to be a double-edged sword for the new chief architect in whom Urban had placed his hopes that “in his pontificate Rome would produce another Michelangelo.”[2] This ambition put a good deal of pressure on Bernini and forced him to walk a fine line between designing a sound structure and serving the grandiose ambitions of his patron.

Figure 8. Bernini, Proposal for bell tower of St. Peter’s (Attic Story), 1637. Black chalk and brown ink on paper. Source: Bernini’s Rome.

Urban had long been a critic of Bernini’s predecessor, Carlo Maderno. His disapproval of the architect’s work stemmed largely from the Maderno’s design for the longitudinal nave of St. Peters, which was widely condemned for obscuring Michelangelo’s dome.[3] When the Pope gave the commission to Bernini he therefore requested that a new design to be submitted for consideration. Baldinucci describes Bernini’s tower as being comprised of “two orders of columns and pilasters, the first order being Corinthian” and “a third or attic story formed of pilasters and two columns on either side of the open archway in the center” (Fig. 8). [4] In addition to this, four statues of Victory were to be positioned on each corner, along with the Barberini coat of arms. This was a good deal larger and far more expensive than the original one story structure conceived of by Maderno, but according to Domenico Bernini, the design nevertheless “received the approval of this wise pontiff and the general applause of all the cardinals of the congregation of the Fabbrica,” the latter being the group of cardinals charged with the administration of such projects.[5]

Urban desired the towers to be completed by a very specific date: the 29th of June 1641, the feast day dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. To this end an order was issued which stated that “all work should take a second seat to that of the campanile.”[7] In working to meet this deadline the construction process appears to have been a rushed and messy affair, with changes and additions being made even as the towers were going up. A letter written by Bernini in May of that year reveals a certain amount of nervousness on the part of the architect as he describes how the construction “‘…is turning out to be very large and is growing in such a manner that it is necessary to intervene…’”[8]

Figure 9. Israel Silvestre, Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome showing Bernini’s tower under construction seen from the South, 1639. Source: ARTstor.

The south tower was completed on time even in spite of these issues, but records show that in the wake of the unveiling the Pope was not content with what he saw and he ordered the top level of Bernini’s tower removed. His criticisms were, it would seem, purely aesthetic in nature. There do not appear to have been structural issues at this stage—Urban had simply judged the tower too small, and criticized Bernini in such a manner that the architect is said to have fallen gravely ill.[9]

The uppermost tier was dismantled so that the structure could be made even grander.[10] The tower continued to grow, and as the construction began to settle the first cracks started to appear followed by Urban’s infamous public admonishment of his architect. The fact that Urban had in fact ordered the towers to be made grander than even Bernini had anticipated was conveniently forgotten. As soon as problems started to arise Bernini’s “institutional patron and partner [withdrew], and the endless discussions and critiques that led him to push the towers ever higher [were] recast as his independent initiative.”[11]

In 1642 all work on both towers came to a halt. Bernini’s ambiguous position with his patron was perhaps partly to blame, but the more likely explanation is that the stall in construction was the result of a war Urban VIII had started in Castro in an ill-advised attempt to expand the Papal territories. The depletion of funds halted construction, leaving the work incomplete and Bernini’s reputation hanging precariously in the balance.

In light of all of this it would seem that the charges of hubris brought on by Bernini’s critics were more or less invalid. While Bernini had intended the towers to be much taller than called for in Maderno’s original design, he had never intended for them to grow as large as they did. It was Urban VIII who had pressured the architect to build ever-grander constructs that served as a reflection of his own ambition. Truth Unveiled by Time might be considered here as a testament to the fact that it only when problems started to arise did the project come to be viewed as Bernini’s personal failure.[12]


[1] Morrissey, Genius in the Design, 144.

[2] Fillippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini. Trans. Catherine Enggass. (University Park: Pennsylvannia State University Press, 1966), 15.

[3] Morrissey, Genius in the Design, 143.

[4] Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, 30-31.

[5] Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Trans. Franco Mormando. (University Park: Pennsylvannia State University Press, 2011), 140.

[6] Morrissey, Genius in the Design, 145.

[7] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 50.

[8] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 69.

[9] Schama, The Power of Art, 109.

[10] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 74.

[11] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 76.

[12]McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 35.