On the Eve of Reconstruction

Eyewitness to Old Saint Peter’s: A study of Maffeo Vegio’s “Remembering the Ancient History of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome,” with translation and a digital reconstruction of the church.

by Christine Smith and Joseph F. O'Connor
2019 Cambridge University Press, 307 pages, $99.99
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Reconstruction of the nave of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Maffeo Vegio (1407-58) was a man of many talents: a humanist, a master of Latin prose whose mentors and patrons were scattered across Florence and Rome, and a canon of Saint Peter’s in Rome. But above all he was a learned and articulate witness to the great late-antique and medieval basilica of Saint Peter’s—Old Saint Peter’s—on the threshold of its destruction, which began significantly in the pontificate of Nicholas V (d. 1455).

Nicholas was the pope who began to deconstruct the basilica (and in so doing unearthed treasures from the past), with the aim of rebuilding the edifice on a new and grander scale that eventually resulted in the Renaissance/Baroque masterpiece we have before us today. Maffeo’s contribution to the enduring interest in and discussion of this vivid and prolonged drama was a text entitled “Remembering the Ancient History of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.”

The text incorporates what Maffeo learned by research, both visual and verbal, as he states at the very beginning, collecting and discussing the evidence of reading and looking that struck him as “significant and worth remembering,” and thus worthy of being drawn together in a single account. The text is divided into three sections that draw on various archival and narrative sources, observations on the material fabric of the building, as well as a close study of finds unearthed in the incipient rebuilding process that the pope in particular directed him to inspect and interpret.

The text, first published by the Bollandistes in the eighteenth century, forms the subject of Eyewitness to Old Saint Peter’s, a true labor of love on the part of two scholars, Christine Smith and Joseph F. O’Connor, who have devoted their lives to the study of Renaissance architecture, literature, and culture. In translating the text into English, they were able to consult an early unpublished manuscript not taken into account by the Bollandistes.

The translation in turn is framed by a lengthy introduction, which sets out to contextualize and explicate both the work and the man, and by an essay describing the method and evidence for the digital reconstruction of the interior of the church as Maffeo knew it, which accompanies the work. Each section of the book is densely annotated with footnotes that are truly a treasure trove of information and data for anyone interested in the period or the building.

The lengthy discussion of the problems and questions posed by attempting a digital reconstruction of the building as it existed in Maffeo’s time is illuminating. The end result, frozen in digital images, presents us with a building that is literally all there, with little or no sense of the degree of the hypothetical embedded in any reconstructed form. It might have been interesting to think about how to suggest, in visual terms, different degrees of the hypothetical in a given feature. (For example, the number of columns in the nave colonnade is known but their specific material is not: what color/type of marble, etc.?).

Maffeo’s Judgments

The authors’ goal is a more precise understanding of the building and its complicated history, in the service of which they very interestingly situate Maffeo within the framework of the major documenters of Old Saint Peter’s that we possess, such as Onofrio Panvinio, Tiberio Alfarano, Giacomo Grimaldi, and Maarten van Heemskerck.

The accent in this book is decidedly on the building, which is ostensibly Maffeo’s subject. But the full force of his direct encounter with the edifice only really emerges in the final section of his text. What precedes it is a treatment of the historical setting of the building and site with a long discussion of the major players across a broad arc of time from antiquity to the fifteenth century, who are rigorously critiqued with regard to their ambitions and intentions. Maffeo’s historical narrative is threaded through with character judgments on the part of the author, as if to illustrate the eternal conflict of the good and the bad in history.

Hence I pose a question: could Maffeo’s text be read as a kind of Speculum principis—a Mirror of Princes—an instruction in the guise of historical events and actors on how to handle the actual building with respect, deference, and compassion? It might be interesting to consider it within the context of this genre, directed here to the powers that be, i.e. the popes, who had the supreme authority to make decisions about the fate of the ancient church fabric and its contents—and who exercised it with increasingly momentous consequences in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.