Happy Birthday, Michelangelo. The artistic genius of the Italian Renaissance was born 530 years ago tomorrow, and in Northeast Washington today, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate.On display at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is Michelangelo’s model of his dome for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The 18-foot-tall wooden mock-up, completed in 1560, is an architectural gem in its own right.
Most people know Michelangelo as the painter of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel adjacent to St. Peter’s. But during the last decades of his life, the artist became an accomplished architect, and his dome for St. Peter’s epitomizes his bold, forward-looking designs.
Dramatically lit in a darkened gallery off the lobby, this enormous model presents a cross section of the dome. The cutaway view reveals that the structure actually comprises two domes — a shallower inner shell and a taller outer one — resting on a tall drum.
A double-shell dome wasn’t unprecedented at the time — Florence Cathedral boasted one created by the ingenious Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400s. Michelangelo, however, set a new direction by designing the structure to appear more hemispherical and soaring than earlier domes. He accentuated the outer shell with thick ribs and a tall lantern and cupola on top to draw the eye upward. He made the drum look taller and lighter by encircling it with windows and buttresses accented by paired columns and statuary.
The architecture is so assured that almost every dome built since has emulated Michelangelo’s design.
The display allows visitors to walk around the model and examine its stunning details, down to the herringbone-patterned brick on the terraces around the drum. It may be hard, however, to grasp the vast size of the dome represented by the model because miniature people aren’t included to provide a sense of scale. As built, the dome is 138 feet in diameter and reaches a height of 404 feet from the church floor. As it stands, the model’s monumental classicism is best understood by comparing the tiny doorways to the huge windows around the drum.
If Michelangelo’s magnificent model were the only artifact on display, that would be reason enough to visit this show. However, the wooden dome turns out to be the centerpiece, albeit at a remove, of an exhibition on the second floor that traces the development of St. Peter’s, though not always in the clearest way.
The upper-level galleries also display some fascinating architectural models as well as historical prints that place Michel-angelo’s dome within the perspective of St. Peter’s centuries-long construction. All of the items are on loan from the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the Vatican office responsible for maintaining the buildings of St. Peter’s, and were previously exhibited at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven,Conn.
One of Christianity’s holiest sites, St. Peter’s originated with a shrine erected over the remains of the Apostle for whom the basilica is named. Over this tomb, Roman Emperor Constantine built a huge church that survived more than 1,000 years. Several 17th-century engravings show that the design of this early Christian structure was also grand, and its five-aisle plan laid the groundwork for the “new” St. Peter’s.
Plans to remodel and expand the ancient basilica began in 1450 and continued for more than 150 years. They were carried out by a succession of popes (depicted here in reproductions of period portraits) who had the good sense to hire the best architects of their day.
Michelangelo began work on St. Peter’s at the ripe old age of 72, succeeding several architects, including the Renaissance master Bramante, whose concepts he tried to preserve. Included in the show is Michelangelo’s iron drawing compass, which may have been used for drafting his dome.
Though he died before his design was completed, Michelangelo made several models to ensure that his vision would be constructed as intended. It wasn’t followed exactly, and several prints in the exhibit show how his dome became more slender and his Greek-cross-shaped plan more elongated.
His only model to survive, the wooden dome in the exhibit still serves as a guide when renovations are needed. Letters painted onto the model, such as the “S” on the ceiling coffers, indicate places where structural problems have been identified and repaired.
More architects changed the design of St. Peter’s after Michelangelo’s death, and an impressive gypsum model testifies to the enormity of the current-day basilica and its oval plaza. The contributions of these successors, however, aren’t clearly spelled out, save for an awkwardly mounted timeline encountered on the way out of the show that presents the chronology in reverse order.
One of most fascinating parts of the exhibit focuses on the obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square. Brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula, the Egyptian monument was placed in a large racetrack, called a circus, where Peter was crucified. Viewed by Christians as a symbol of the saint’s martyrdom, the obelisk was relocated in 1586 from the side of the basilica to where it now stands in the square, directly in front of St. Peter’s.
Moving this 98-foot-tall, 331-ton stone monolith involved a herculean feat of engineering, as dramatically documented in several old prints. (It was so difficult that Michelangelo turned down the job, fearing an accident that could ruin his reputation.) The obelisk was laid on its side and inched along a track using winches and ropes pulled by horses and hundreds of workers. To raise it, a tower of wood scaffolding was erected, and more winches and pulleys were used to hoist the monument into place.
Looking at the Vatican obelisk, visitors will no doubt be reminded of the Washington Monument, just as they will think of the U.S. Capitol dome after seeing Michelangelo’s model. The exhibit, unfortunately, doesn’t present comparisons to show St. Peter’s influence on our own city’s monuments.
Instead, it remains focused on the enormous effort — and faith — that it took to construct the world’s largest church. In doing so, this show offers the rare opportunity to admire an architectural marvel of the Italian Renaissance and a Michelangelo masterpiece in the same visit.
WHAT: “Creating St. Peter’s: Architectural Treasures of the Vatican”
WHERE: Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, 3900 Harewood Road NE
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through May 31.
TICKETS: By donation.