The massive remains of the Colosseum and Pantheon lend the gravitas of antiquity to Rome’s urban proscenium, but it was the Baroque era in the seventeenth century that transformed all of Rome into a stage and it denizens into players. Many of its magnificent monuments—the Spanish steps, Saint Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona—still delight pilgrims and tourists alike, but few recognize that their dramatic presentations served a deeper purpose.
These exhibitionistic exteriors were intended as early “teaser trailers” to lure passersby into the churches placed prominently on the sites: Trinità dei Monti above the Spanish steps, Saint Peter’s Basilica at the heart of the embrace of the square’s colonnade, and Saint Agnes’ shrine beyond the sparkle of Bernini’s Four Rivers’ Fountain in the piazza. For inside Rome’s Baroque churches awaited the sacramental equivalent of the staging of Aida, temporary structures built for the Forty Hours devotion called the macchine delle Quarant’ Ore, the “machines of the Forty Hours.”
These elaborate constructions in the sanctuary were a brilliant blend of engineering and creative fantasy that countered the post-Protestant Reformation challenges to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Made of perishable materials—wood, wax, paper, and paste—most were destroyed after forty hours. Descriptions, sketches, and one surviving example demonstrate how the Baroque employed the passion for theater to inflame hearts with the love of Christ.
The practice of the Quarant’ Ore devotion exposed the Eucharist for worship for forty continuous hours on specially decorated altars. Probably originated by Franciscans in the late fourteenth century, it centered around the activities of the Easter Triduum, but its greatest growth was during the Catholic Restoration, when it became a powerful means of sacramental persuasion.
The Forty Hours honored the time that Christ lay in the tomb, from his death on Good Friday until Easter Sunday. The vigil before the body of Christ present in the Eucharist connected the faithful with those first hours of waiting before his resurrection. In the tradition of the Church, the number forty carried deep symbolism. The forty days of the flood, the Israelites’ forty years in the desert, and the forty days of Christ in the desert all symbolized purification.
The practice of the Forty Hours was alluded to in session thirteen of the Council of Trent in 1551, which affirmed the teaching on the Eucharist and proclaimed that it should be publicly adored. “It behooves the victorious truth to celebrate a triumph over falsehood and heresy,” said the Council, “that in the sight of so much splendor and in the midst of so great joy of the universal Church, her enemies may either vanish weakened and broken, or, overcome with shame and confounded, may at length repent.”
Herein lay the seedlings of the great Baroque theaters of adoration, to proclaim triumph and urge conversion.
The Forty Hours devotion was first recorded in Milan in the 1520s and 30s, but in 1550 Saint Philip Neri brought the practice to Rome. The Jesuits immediately embraced the practice and their spectacular church of the Gesù, completed in 1575 with an elaborate tabernacle raised high in the apse, could be considered a permanent version of the temporary macchine. The Forty Hours usually began around Shrove Tuesday to expiate the excesses of Carnival.
Pope Clement VIII catapulted the practice into the Diocese of Rome during the Jubilee year 1600 when he had the Eucharist adored for forty hours in succession from church to church all through the year.
Even the Pope’s personal devotion became an example of Baroque theater: every night Clement knelt before an altar in tears and contemporary witnesses recalled that those present were visibly moved.
The same Clement would provide guidelines for the decoration of the altar (instructions that were almost immediately ignored), particularly warning about excesses in décor and urging moderation in the number of candles employed.
In 1608, the Gesù, which would become one of Rome’s greatest centers for adoration, produced a four-storied creation, surrounded by tapestries, and illuminated by such a number of silver lamps and towering tapers that some compared it to a starry sky. Amid the singing, incense, flames, and the vision of the Eucharist glowing at the center of this sunburst, worshippers participated in some way in the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, having all their senses engaged by the composition of the macchina to meditate on the presence of Christ before them.
The fourteenth-century prototypes of the Quarant’ Ore had taken place in front of a pseudo-sepulchre—a vigil after Christ’s crucifixion. The seventeenth-century macchine celebrated Jesus’ triumph over sin and death and the return of the light, having vanquished the darkness.
Pietro da Cortona and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the two most brilliant artists of the Baroque era, vied to produce the most spectacular macchine—orchestrating the inexpensive lightweight materials into a symphony of Eucharistic splendor.
In 1628, a thirty-year-old Bernini was invited to produce a macchina for the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican for the adoration of the papal court. Surrounded by Michelangelo’s final fresco cycle, the pressure was on.
Bernini created the first pictorial arrangement for a macchina, adding painted tableaux to juxtapose floating clouds with the faux architectural framework, countering the pseudo-solidity of human constructions with the glory of paradise. He created a collective ecstatic vision of the Eucharist concealing over two thousand lamps amid his fabricated clouds, so that the consecrated host appears as the source of light.
Bernini dabbled in writing and producing plays and he brought this theatrical experience to dazzle the most sophisticated of viewers—the papal court—with the splendor of the Blessed Sacrament. Bernini’s use of painted tableaux would become a standard for seventeenth-century Quarant’ Ore decoration.
Not to be outdone, Pietro da Cortona, whose magical brush was renowned for bringing both biblical and mythological histories to life, produced another theater of the Eucharist in 1633 in the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Damaso for Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew to Pope Urban VIII.
Wooden classical architecture, gilt paper mâché statues, and clouds painted on wisps of canvas transformed the dark interior of the ancient church into a glowing stage where an illusionistic parade of columns led the eye to the host, framed by a triumphal arch with cherubs spilling out from parting clouds. Few candles adorned the altar (a nod to the norms of Pope Clement VIII) but hundreds filled the architectural setting, creating the effect of a blaze of light. The most expensive macchina of its kind, it was kept and used for fifteen years.
Pietro had just completed staging the opera of Sant’ Alessio (libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, the future Clement IX, with music by Stefano Landi, composer of the music for the Quarant’ Ore in Piazza Barberini), so, like Bernini, he understood the close relationship between theater and the macchine of adoration.
What I’ve just described is taken from records. The ephemeral nature of the materials and the brevity of their use meant that all but one of these amazing creative efforts have been lost to the sands of time. That one remains in Rome, a lone ghost to recall past days of glory.
Every year at the church of Santa Maria dell’Orto, nestled in the heart of the Trastevere district, the macchina for the Quarant’ Ore is lovingly reconstructed on the altar for Holy Thursday. With 213 candles in a gilt wood frame, it is a far cry from Bernini’s two thousand oil lamps and Pietro da Cortona’s architectural façades, but nonetheless, thousands still come to see and pray before Blessed Sacrament in its stunning cornice.
In what Pope Francis has deemed a “throwaway culture” addicted to frivolity and the ephemeral, Shakespeare’s description of the human condition in Macbeth seems more apt than ever: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
In Baroque Eucharistic theater, designed to delight and astound, the wondrous displays of the Eucharist in the macchine delle Quarant’ Ore invited beholders to act so as to be able to partake in the lasting glory awaiting after the final curtain has fallen.