St. Peter's Baldachin (Baldacchino)
By Gian Lorenzo Bernini
At the center, above the altar, rises the bronze Baldacchino designed by Bernini during the Baroque era. It has a very peculiar story. When the Basilica had finally been finished it seemed as though something was still missing: there was no connection between the main body designed by Maderno and Michelangelo’s majestic dome. The former was enormous and flat, it seemed almost naked and formless, while all the pillars that held up the dome created a sort of bottleneck right in the center.
So Bernini came up with a gigantic solution that had the job of slimming the shapes and raising the gaze, in precisely the most important spot. He designed the baldacchino, like the ones that are carried during processions, but of monstrous proportions, and he placed it in the most holy spot in the entire church, right above the tomb of Saint Peter, as if the crowds of faithful had brought it and placed it there over the body of the apostle.
A rather improbable feat if you think about it, since the baldacchino is the largest bronze sculpture of the Roman Baroque era, higher than a 9-storey building and weighs tens of tons! When it was created it was higher than any building in Rome!
Thanks to Bernini’s ingenious idea, when you enter the Basilica you’re not crushed by its immensity but instead there is shock, a surprise, and you’re pulled towards the center in a sort of crescendo; the spiral columns, in fact, seem to carry upwards, inevitably leading your gaze towards the dome, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
This marvel also has a darker side: such beauty paid a high price since to create the splendid baldacchino, the bronze roof of the Pantheon was removed and sacrificed, without too much thought, by the Barberini pope. From the apse behind the baldacchino is the beautiful reliquary, also by Bernini, that encloses the “Chair” of Saint Peter, the throne where the Pope sat, taken from the medieval basilica.