Bernini and the Bell Towers

Architecture and Politics at the Vatican

Sarah McPhee

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In 1638, the great artist-architect Gianlorenzo Bernini began one of the most ambitious architectural projects of his career: to design and construct massive twin bell towers atop St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. But the project failed spectacularly. Bernini’s reputation was permanently tarnished, and the scandal of the bell towers sparked a controversy that persists to this day. What happened? Who was responsible? How did events unfold in this dramatic episode of architectural history?

This engaging and beautifully illustrated book tells the complete story of the bell towers for the first time. Presenting a wealth of new visual and documentary evidence, Sarah McPhee reconstructs the entire affair, the architectural and political milieu, the evolution of the designs, and the varying influences of all those involved in the project. McPhee examines the multiple constraints under which Bernini worked, including the ambitions of the pope, the criticisms of rival architects, the financial and political constraints of the building committee, the monumental history of the basilica, and the geology of the site. She reinterprets Bernini’s role as architect and shows convincingly that the failure of the bell tower was not Bernini’s own. Instead, it was the failure of the institution of the Vatican, driven by liturgical and political imperatives, that doomed the project despite the architect’s heroic efforts.

Sarah McPhee is associate professor of art history at Emory University.

“Animated by a considerable cast of characters—well-known popes, their trusted agents, prominent architects, even lowly masons and contractors—this is art history at its best.”—John A. Pinto, coauthor of Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy



“MacPhee’s investigation of the bell tower fiasco represents the fruit of much intense, insightful research in archives and libraries in Rome and elsewhere in Europe. Based on her remarkable expert knowledge—technical, historical and aesthetic—of the physical fabric of St. Peter’s, Bernini and the Bell Tower is an awe-inspiring, laudable monument of scholarship, worthy of its subject. . . . McPhee’s book will long remain the definitive study on this topic. Her research appears exhaustive and her scholarly analysis impeccable.”—Franco Mormando, America

“[A] superb study. . . . For the first time the history of the towers is told in detail and their failure is assigned not to Bernini but to the Vatican’s concern with liturgical and political imperatives. This complete and wide-ranging work includes every aspect of the towers including their influence on later buildings throughout Europe. An outstanding study. Highly recommended.”—Choice
 

"Discovering overlooked yet revelatory details in drawings and prints, exploring the visible and hidden fabric of the Vatican basilica itself, and patiently examining consistencies and discrepancies in narratives preserved in archival and printed sources, Sarah McPhee deftly reconstructs the professional and bureaucratic rhythms of architectural practice while attending to larger issues of patronage and symbolism. . . . The production qualities of this volume are lavish. . . . Scholars will find much to illuminate fascinating moments in the history of a venerable building and a no-less-venerable institution."—John E. Moore, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

“McPhee’s meticulously researched and extremely readable text offers a much-needed interdisciplinary explication of the extensive documentation related to the affair. . . . [A] well-organized presentation. . . . Carefully documented and clearly recounted.”—Kristin A. Triff, Renaissance Quarterly

“This is fascinating history and an engaging narrative—architectural history at its best.”—William E. Wallace, Sixteenth Century Journal

"Sarah McPhee defly reconstructs the professional and bureaucratic rhythms of architectural practice while attending to larger issues of patronage and symbolism. . . . Scholars will find much to illuminate fascinating moments in the history of a venerable building and a no-less-venerable institution." —John E. Moore, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

ISBN: 9780300089820
Publication Date: January 11, 2003
368 pages, 8 1/2 x 11
150 b/w + 21 color illus.
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