Transfer of the Covenant

Jerusalem on the Hill: Rome and the Vision of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Renaissance

by Marie Tanner
2012 Turnhout, 288 pages

Saint Peter’s Basilica was founded by Constantine around 325 AD and built in a fashion typical of early Christian architecture. By the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 1400s, this structure was dilapidated and in urgent need of repair. Restructuring was begun in the middle of the fifteenth century, but less than fifty years later the goal of shoring up the edifice was supplanted by the grand idea of a completely new building. This campaign was famously sponsored by Pope Julius II (1503-13) and continued by his successors for roughly one hundred years. Direction of the works was first entrusted to the High Renaissance architect Bramante, and he was succeeded by a chain of illustrious followers from Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to Michelangelo, Domenico Fontana, and Giacomo Della Porta. 

What were the goals of these men? What sort of intellectual program did they embrace, observe, modify, or develop over this long period? To what extent did any programmatic concerns reflect the earlier history of the fabric, contemporary political realities, or individual aspirations and tastes? These are some of the questions taken up in Marie Tanner’s book on Saint Peter’s. Simply put, the book is an interpretation of the Basilica of Saint Peter as the author believes it was conceived by its Renaissance architects and patrons. It also suggests how the building may have been understood and used by informed contemporaries. The presentation is divided into two parts, the first aimed at arguing for a “programmatic antiquarianism” in the concept of the new building (Julius II’s New Saint Peter’s), and the second part introducing a broader group of influences on the design and meaning of the architecture. These two clusters of concerns are fleshed out in a dozen chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically, so that the richness of individual themes is encouraged while sequences of ideas are slurred. The programmatic integrity of the building is emphasized over the more usual parsing of developments over time. With a scope so broad and rich, no reviewer’s account can do real justice to the author’s erudition. What follows will account for some of the concerns raised in the first section of the text.

The first chapter proposes a thematic link between the Basilica and “Etruscan temple” forms, as well as the architecture of ancient Roman baths. The thrust of the argument is that the incorporation of these typically Italic forms in the planning process “served to solidify papal pretensions to Italic primacy in the context of universal theocratic rule.” The second chapter introduces the influence of the “Temple of Peace,” better known today as the Basilica of Maxentius in the planning efforts of Saint Peter’s. The influence is based on associations between this “temple” (although it was never a place of worship) and Roman baths, and their mutual relations to Etruscan tradition as a fitting basis from which a “new Christian architecture” could emerge. In the third chapter the author introduces a literary association of the builders of New Saint Peter’s with Noah as founder of the Etruscan race, propagator of the Etruscan temple, and symbol of papal succession from Old Testament priests and kings. These associations can be found in the writings of Annius of Viterbo, a Master of the Vatican Palace in 1499, and the influential Egidio da Viterbo a few years later, that is, just before the foundation of the New Saint Peter’s in 1506.

The fourth chapter attempts to link Bramante’s archaeological interests in the ancient baths, the “Temple of Peace” (Basilica of Maxentius), and Etruscan tradition. Particular emphasis is laid on the Temple of Peace because, the author explains, it was “the repository of spoils brought by Titus from the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple, demonstrating God’s Covenant with the Jews.” This in turn was construed as proof of the transfer of the covenant to Rome. In chapter five this theme is expanded in pages discussing the figure of Titus in ancient and early Christian history. The theme of the sixth chapter is “spoils,” meaning the association of the Titus-legend, the Jewish spoils from Jerusalem, and relics of Saint Peter’s, especially Veronica’s sudarium and the spiral columns that adorned the high altar, both of which reputedly came from the temple at Jerusalem. Titus belonged to the Flavian dynasty in Roman times, and the author makes a case for the builder of the new basilica of Saint Peter (Julius II) identifying with this emperor. The argument rests on a treatise written in 1508 in anticipation of a Crusade to return the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslim to Christian rule, and associations seen in the fabrics of the Vatican Palace and Saint Peter’s. This, in any event, is the subject of chapter seven, which closes Part One of the book.

In Part Two, the chapters take up the concerns of Nicholas V, who attempted to rebuild the basilica around 1450; the role of Alberti at the court of Nicholas V; the connections between Julius II and the architect of New Saint Peter’s, Bramante; Bramante’s interest in the Holy Sepulchre; and the contributions of Bramante’s followers to these themes.

Drawing by E. Duperac of Michelangelo’s design proposal for the Basilica of Saint Peter (Photo: Jerusalem on the Hill)

Those who spend time with this book will discover a wealth of associative material pertaining, closely or loosely, to the conception of the papacy in the Renaissance and its program for New Saint Peter’s. Regardless of whether those associations entirely convince the reader, one cannot leave the book without a deeply enriched sense of the connections between the Basilica and imagery derived from Roman antiquity, Renaissance theory, and knowledge of Jerusalem. A huge part of the argument is sustained by impressive photographs of all visual aspects of these associations. For these images alone the book is essential for specialists. There they will find one of the most lavishly produced pieces of scholarship on Saint Peter’s to appear in recent decades. If one’s approach to the construction of Saint Peter’s is ideological, literary, and associational—rather than aesthetic or technical—there is no better reference to the history of the Basilica.


Tod A. Marder, Ph.D., is professor of art history at Rutgers University. He is an expert in the art of Bernini, the city of ancient and modern Rome, and Renaissance and baroque art. He has published Bernini’s Scala Regia at the Vatican Palace: Architecture, Sculpture and Ritual (Cambridge University Press) and Bernini and the Art of Architecture (Abbeville Press).