Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's

by R. A. Scotti


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In this dramatic journey through religious and artistic history, R. A. Scotti traces the defining event of a glorious epoch: the building of St. Peter?s Basilica. Begun by the ferociously ambitious Pope Julius II in 1506, the endeavor would span two tumultuous centuries, challenge the greatest Renaissance masters?Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante?and enrage Martin Luther. By the time it was completed, Shakespeare had written all of his plays, the Mayflower had reached Plymouth?and Rome had risen with its astounding basilica to become Europe?s holy metropolis. A dazzling portrait of human achievement and excess, Basilica is a triumph of historical writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452288607
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/29/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 598,338
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

R. A. Scotti is the author of two previous works of nonfiction, including Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[Scotti] . . . appreciates the epic quest and querulousness and leaves us wondering how anything of any merit ever gets designed, built, consecrated and celebrated. (The Providence Journal-Bulletin)

Reading Group Guide

Covering nearly four acres and soaring 425 feet at its highest point, St. Peter’s Basilica is both a monument to the glory of God and a testament to the genius, ambition, and will of men. R. A. Scotti’s Basilica chronicles the epic construction effort behind this architectural treasure. Propelled by artistic inspiration, social upheaval, and political intrigue, the story spans two centuries and includes larger-than-life characters.

Pope Julius II—who took both his name and his disposition from the Roman emperor—conceived St. Peter’s at the height of the Renaissance to replace Constantine’s fourth-century basilica. It was completed some 150 years later during the Baroque papacy of Alexander VII. Along the way, the printing press revolutionized mass communication, the Catholic Church was shaken by the twin earthquakes of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and a vast New World was mapped across the Atlantic.

St. Peter’s is “catholic” in the truest sense of the word, encompassing aesthetic principles from classical Greece, ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. It brought together the greatest artistic and architectural minds of the time. Bramante, the basilica’s first architect, drew inspiration from the architecture of imperial Rome. His initial designs for the basilica—emphasizing proportional harmony and the aesthetics of space—were modified, embellished, and enhanced over the decades by a succession of legendary artists, including Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bernini.

St. Peter’s was not only an artistic triumph, but also a feat of engineering. Bramante envisioned “the dome of the Pantheon raised on the shoulders of the Basilica of Maxentius.” Yet the techniques used to create such masterworks of engineering had long since been lost to antiquity. Through scientific investigation, leaps of ingenuity, and luck, the builders recaptured this technology and accomplished such seemingly impossible tasks as raising the massive dome and repositioning Caligula’s 320-ton obelisk.

While work on St. Peter’s sputtered forward, the fortunes of the church it represented underwent dramatic reversals. Julius II’s triumphant war to reclaim the Papal States was followed by the excesses of his successor, Leo X, which spurred the rebellion of Martin Luther and sparked the Protestant Reformation. By the papacy of Clement VII, the Vatican’s extravagant expenditures on the basilica—both a symbol and a product of the Catholic Church’s fiscal and moral excesses—culminated with Charles V’s savage sack of Rome. Yet as the Reformation gave way to the Counter-Reformation, and both the city of Rome and the papacy struggled to rebuild; St. Peter’s was transformed into a symbol of healing and unity, its vast scale becoming a kind of atonement for the Church’s equally vast transgressions. With the 1667 erection of Bernini’s colonnade, construction came to an end, and the magnificent basilica stood at the center of a Catholic Church that Julius II could scarcely have imagined.



R. A. Scotti is the author of two previous works of nonfiction, including Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels.



What was your most surprising discovery in the course of researching the book?

This is more a conundrum than a discovery. Was the Basilica—the wonder of the High Renaissance and, ever since, the visible symbol of the Catholic Church, an architectural marvel recognized around the world—worth the spiritual, social, and political cost? Namely, the splintering of the Christian world.

Has architecture always been a particular passion of yours, or was St. Peter’s your inspiration for exploring it?

As I explain in the Author’s Note, St. Peter’s was the inspiration. The overwhelming emotion of coming upon the Basilica for the first time when I was a nineteen-year-old naïf has stayed with me always.

Do you look at St. Peter’s differently today—having spent so much time exploring its secrets—than you did before writing the book? Has the magic of the place been diminished or enhanced?

The magic can only be enhanced. First is the staggering fact that such an immense and ambitious edifice was erected with little more than manual tools. Add to that the wonder of how an architectural marvel emerged from such a confusion of ideas, talents, temperaments, and political machinations, and St. Peter’s truly seems to be a miracle in stone.

What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading Basilica?

An appreciation that the greatest accomplishments are not achieved in a smooth path. If you persevere through conflict, missteps, tragedy, delays, setbacks, and reversals of every kind, the goal can be reached triumphantly. Also, an understanding that the Catholic Church is not a monolith, and that an institution that has endured for 2000 years through the best and the worst merits serious, unbiased study.


  • The outrage sparked by the demolition of Constantine’s basilica to make way for the new St. Peter’s brings to mind modern battles between real estate developers and defenders of historic landmarks. And yet today, the “new” basilica is itself a historic treasure—one of the architectural marvels of the late Renaissance. To what degree do you believe a city’s architectural legacy should be preserved? Where do we draw the line between preserving the past and embracing the future?
  • Before reading Basilica, how aware were you of Renaissance-era papal practices, such as the selling of indulgences and venal offices, or of the questionable moral character of the era’s popes? Does the Vatican’s checkered history affect your perception of the institution today?
  • Scotti writes, “Religion is illusion . . . and the gleam of gold, the clouds of incense, . . . the sacred art and evocative music, create that illusion. Stripped bare of all but its dogma, it would be exponentially reduced.” Do you agree?
  • Scotti details the vast sums spent on the basilica at a time when most Catholics lived in abject poverty. Does this allocation of resources seem morally justifiable?
  • Like many monumental structures of antiquity, St. Peter’s was built on a scale and with a level of craftsmanship that seems inconceivable today. Are there any architectural achievements of the last century that seem on par with the construction of St. Peter’s?
  • Today, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is regarded as one of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements. But he saw the commission as a punishment—a distraction from what he considered his most important work: sculpting the tomb of Julius. Do you think Julius’s redirection of Michelangelo’s talent brought the artist to greater heights? Is there an argument to be made that artists, in general, create better work under direction?
  • The book describes the many personal rivalries and animosities among the artists who worked on the basilica. Do you think the great artists of the Renaissance—or of any era—could have reached the same heights without this competitiveness?
  • Of the many historic figures in Basilica—from Julius II to Raphael to Martin Luther—who would you most like to meet? If you could put a question to any one of them, what would it be?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I have been to St. Peters Basilica myself. As a boy I was fascinated by it. I've done the research, read countless books on the great artists who served as architects, even sketched it, and while I've been fascinated with it all my life I've never been able to translate my wonder to anyone without myself either going overboard or boring them to tears. However, this author makes it simple and understandable. She neither glosses over the poisonous Popes who were failures, nor does she cover up the enormous mistakes that led to the schism between Catholic and Protestant faiths. Instead what she does manage to tell is how a church the length of 2 football fields that took over a century to build came into being at all. It could have been a tremendous failure (and it very nearly did) but what happened instead made it a glory to God and a marvel of man. If you want a simple read that's thorough and fun you need to try this out.
    LoveHistoryVA More than 1 year ago
    When you think of the confidence and hutzpah required to tear down the original church of St. Peter and begin the process of calling on some of the great artistic and architectural geniuses ever known, you can begin to see the scope of this informative history of St. Peter's basilica. I've not only read this book I have given it as gifts.
    MichaelEM More than 1 year ago
    Scotti details the intrigue, inspiration, planning, and lack of planning that went into the hundreds of years of building St. Peter's Basilica. She describes the personalities and the politics of getting it all started. The Basilica takes on a life of its own in her writing and she convinces us that the many disparate voices that were used to create this wonder somehow added value to their creation. The Basilica, conceived by Pope Leo, was a wonder from its inception but became even greater as it was changed and added to for the next few hundred years. Perhaps it is a real example of divine inspiration. The writing is very clear and concise. Her research is impressive and the final product is compelling. She particularly stresses the Renaissance and Baroque period when the Basilica was in its greatest danger of being destroyed or forgotten. The play of personalities is immense and she conveys this sense of lack of overall direction but somehow it grew to be the marvel it is today. This is a fascinating story well told. Scotti tells er tale in simple strightforward language. For those who have visited St. Peter's Basilica it was enlightening and for those who haven't seen it it would be tantilizing.
    Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Not my favourite piece of architecture, but nevertheless an incredibly imposing structure, St. Peter¿s Basilica has a fascinating history. Built on St. Peter¿s burial site, it replaced a much simpler shrine emperor Constantine had erected. Started in 1506 by Pope Julius II, it became a pet project of many successive popes and architects with each one of them trying to leave a mark on it. In the end, it went through the hands of such artists as Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini among others. It took almost a century to complete and expressed such vanities and ran up such huge bills that it might have caused Reformation just on its own. Scotti writes very well about all the intricate twists and turns of its construction, and the whole book reads almost like a thriller.
    ORFisHome on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    An interesting and easy read. There was a great deal about the architecture and actual building of St. Peter's, but there was just as much of the history of the papacy and personalities involved in the more than a century it took to complete the building. Scotti's writing was easy to read but not at all dumbed-down. Things moved along perhaps a little too fast at the end, like she was ready to get the book finished. For me, this was an escape from my ordinary reading topics, but I really enjoyed it.
    JGolomb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    R.A. Scotti's "Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's" is more than just a biography of one of the world's great architectural wonder's. ¿Basilica¿ is a wonderfully readable historical narrative of the mid and late Renaissance in a plot-thick story of warrior-popes, international intrigue, angst-riddled artistes all intersecting, orbiting and colliding at this historical inflection point.The building itself was constructed under the leadership of thirty different popes. Scotti writes, "...the convulsions of history became a backdrop that changed like a series of stage sets. Over the decades of construction, the Church evolved, and the world evolved with it and sometimes because of it." Pope Julius II placed the first stone over the very spot where Jesus' disciple Peter was buried. She writes, "The enterprise was audacious, but so were the times. Gutenberg had invented the printing press, Columbus had stumbled on a new continent, and the Renaissance was in full bloom." The list of characters who played central and supporting roles is like a who's who of 15th and 16th Century European stars: Michelangelo, Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), numerous di' Medicis, Bramante, Sangallo (Older AND Younger), Raphael, Martin Luther, Columbus, Pizarro, King Charles V, and the list goes on and on. It¿s a Renaissance Festival on the Love Boat.¿Basilica¿ is not a historical treatise weighed heavily down by obscure footnotes, and archival trivia. It's not intended to be. It's an episodic narrative, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the tortured, anguished, aggressive, pious, unethical and enlightened personalities that drove, and were driven, by the 15th and 16th century Renaissance. While Florence was the beating heart of the Renaissance, pumping its blood across Europe, Scotti writes ¿Rome, this city of Caesars and cradle of Christianity, was a hellhole, the imperial relics overgrown, buried, or turned into animal lairs.¿ This was not unnoticed by the nuovo-Caesar Popes, who thought, as one papal biographer wrote, that the ¿Vatican should outshine in magnificence the Palatine of the Emperors.¿ This vision was not such a stretch as, Scotti writes, ¿The Renaissance papacy became a government more than a religion, led by statesmen and sometimes warriors who could rarely afford to be saints.¿One of the stars of ¿Basilica¿ is Pope Julius II ¿ known as the Warrior-Pope. He¿d survived and outlasted his Borgia enemies, and took full advantage of his time in papal office. He was a human hurricane, driving away, or over, anything in his path. One contemporary wrote that he was ¿full of fury and extravagant conceptions.¿ This hurricane was the driving force of a new St. Peter¿s Basilica¿if not in it¿s modern state, then certainly in its conception.Scotti writes, ¿He brought recalcitrant princes to heel, reclaimed papal territories¿and ennobled the world with art.¿ A scholar wrote, ¿It was through him that Rome became the Classical City of the World¿and the Papacy the pioneer of civilization.¿And while the Renaissance recognized an explosion in new thinking, it¿s most visible manifestation is its explosion of art. Art became a mechanism for mass communication. Think of it as an ancient twitter ¿ instead of 140 characters ¿ think of 140 pounds of marble¿Julius knew the beauty and power of art, and wanted it to be an integral part of this new monument to God and Christianity (and to a lesser, but still significant extent, to him). Art and architecture were inextricably connected during the Renaissance. And so some of the most famous painters of the time were also key members of the Basilica¿s architectural `staff¿ ¿ namely Raphael and Michelangelo.The story of the Basilica is not (only) a story of a building. It¿s a story of personalities. If Julius II is one of the leads, then Michelangelo is his co-star. Michelangelo is absolutely a tortured soul¿tormented by his talent and his need to create. He comes across as the most
    NielsenGW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Scotti puts together a great history of the 160-year saga of the building of St. Peter¿s Basilica in Rome. Since it takes so long, the author can only spend a little time getting into the biographies of all those involved. With artists rangings from Michelangelo to Raphael to Bernini working on the project, there were twenty-two popes who reigned during its construction. There are interesting tidbits about architecture and the morphology of the church, as well as a few historical vignettes. A quick and easy read.
    archmpa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Interesting reading but written in the style of a historical novel instead of a simple discourse. There are inaccuracies as well as an over abundance of enthusiasm for the papacy and Roman Catholicism.
    Harrod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Great from start to finish
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Guest More than 1 year ago
    An excellent read and has led me to look into other works by R. A. Scotti. Far from a heavy read, it is light and even suspenseful.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I just finished Basilica: The Splendor and The Scandal-Building St.Peters and I must say I am struck by how rich with detail and personality it was. It has been my experience that books of this vain tend to be cold and rather hard to get through, but not this one. The intimacy with which Scotti talks about each pope and artist brings them so clearly to life that you do not want to stop reading. I would recomend this book to anyone looking for a rich read. Scotti has found the perfect balance of architectural history and personal drama. I understand now what makes some books page turners.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    From tthe front,it looks like good,interesting book
    DMP613 More than 1 year ago
    Nothing special about this book.