Just out from Viking is Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal of Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti. It is a lovely book, filled with historical detail and lively depictions of the main players, beginning with the unstoppable Pope Julius II, who in 1505 decided to demolish the basilica built by the emperor Constantine 1,200 years earlier and laid the first stone of the new St. Peter’s a year later. In fits and starts, punctuated by war, corruption, and stunning incompetence, the work proceeded until the new basilica was dedicated 120 years later, in 1626.

Along the way, the author offers memorable portraits of Donato Bramante, the first chief architect, and Gianlorenzo Bernini, the last. Her trenchant depiction of Michelangelo—the sensitive and bull-headed prince of geniuses—is especially compelling. Any honest account of the pontificates of the period is not terribly edifying, but Scotti never descends to scoffing, although the temptation to scoff is hard to resist, and she leaves no doubt that some of the popes, Leo X for a notable example, had a lot to answer for.

On my first viewing of St. Peter’s many years ago, a Catholic friend said, "Isn’t it magnificent." To which I responded, "Was it worth the division of the Church?" Of course, that was in my Lutheran days, but it’s still a good question. To be sure, there were many other causes of the Reformation, but the abuse of indulgence peddling to build St. Peter’s played a large part. In the Rome of the time, a quarrelsome monk in Germany did not rank as an issue of major concern. Scotti reports that Leo took a few moments out from an afternoon of hunting to sign some routine papers, including the excommunication of Luther. I don’t know her source for that, but it is quite believable.

I used to have something of an aversion to the Baroque art that dominates the churches and monuments of Rome. The innumerable putti , those cherubic babies flying about or lolling on pillars, are at best cute, and saints sticking their legs through ceilings are more than a bit much. The clutter of the Baroque leaves no room for the imagination, I thought. It is pushy, competitive, and demanding of attention it frequently does not deserve. I have over the years become somewhat more appreciative of the style, however, and was struck by this reflection by Scotti:

The Baroque is to art what opera is to music—the elevation of pathos; a spectacle of color, emotion, and drama; fantasy rising to frenzied ecstasy. Bernini’s Baroque was art designed to serve religion, and more specifically to serve the needs of the Counter-Reformation. Whether it was contrived to meet a clear purpose or whether it was a spontaneous expression, it fulfilled the mandate of the resurgent Church. The static perfection of the Renaissance was the art of the elite. The hot, intense Baroque was art to move the masses. It was popular art in the truest sense—cinematic special effects without a camera lens.

It is hard to argue with that, and I’m not inclined to try. R.A. Scotti’s Basilica nicely captures an extraordinary period in the Church’s life. With the building of St. Peter’s, with the artistic effulgence of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Bernini, with the troubled politics of the Italian states, with the discoveries and attendant wealth of the New World, and with the daring missionary excursions into Asia, one can almost sympathize with Leo’s view of what would come to be called the Reformation as a peripheral distraction. Almost.


In addition to which :

Father Richard John Neuhaus will be among the speakers in Philadelphia next Saturday and Sunday at the EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Celebration. He will be speaking 9:30 to 10:30 Saturday morning at the Liacouras Center of Temple University, and will be a guest, along with Peggy Noonan, for a live version of Raymond Arroyo’s television program, The World Over , that evening. He will also be signing his new book, Catholic Matters . He says he would be very glad to see you there.


In the June/July issue of First Things , Jason Byassee, assistant editor of Christian Century, examines the sad story told by his former teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church. Byassee writes: “For those younger than Taylor, it seems apparent that for any interesting rebellion we have to leave the deconstructive work and reembrace historic Christian doctrine and practice. I’m glad Taylor helped teach me what a joy that embrace can be—before she herself left the Church.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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