Reading the Symbols of Bernini's Piazza

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Bernini's work on the colonnade-framed piazza of St Peter's in Rome is incontestably artful. In simply viewing the colonnade one is struck immediately by the size and scope of the project, immediately following an appraisal of the skill of craft and the majestic symbolism for which Bernini was known. In looking at the symbols adorning the colonnade one can locate the ideological potency behind the work, and its significance for Rome and for the specific historic period.

Before discussing the symbolic aspects of the colonnades, a visual framework will be of importance in understanding how to situate each symbol's importance, not only for the artist, or the Pope under whom it was commissioned, but also for the Catholic public, and the larger architectural field. The colonnades employ perspective to draw the colonnades closer to the viewer, and similarly, as Fred Kleiner notes, emphasize the facade's height in just this way, by compensating for its girth. This use of traditional Baroque art methods works to transcend the level of architecture by integrating methods for sculpture and painting into the structure. Bernini further employed elements from Greek architecture, specifically, William Tronzo says, “the frieze of triglyphs, of the traditional Doric order.” Tronzo continues to find similarities between the Greek's Colosseum, and the piazza, “whose oval shape the piazza most clearly echoes.” The Colosseum was a place of death for Christians, and this allusion to the martyrs was certainly not lost on those Catholics who were educated in the Classics.

The simple analysis of the structure necessarily gives way to the order of symbolism. Bernini himself proclaimed the themes within the piazza, defining his own ideas of the colonnades, which he saw as arms reaching out to hug all those in the world, even non-Christians: “The church of St. Peter, being virtually the mother of all the others, had to have a portico that would in fact appear to maternally receive with open arms Catholics to be confirmed in faith, heretics to be reunited with the Church, and unbelievers to be enlightened by true faith.” Though this explanation may not be inherent in the structure itself, the feeling of being enfolded by the arms of the colonnades is an experience often reported. There is a sense in looking at the structure of its unification. Because it has a formal ground and an elevation, the piazza and church come together as one, much in the way the Catholics and non-believers are seen to be embraced all together.

Tronzo's scholarship on Bernini's piazza has led him to believe that Bernini's quadruple colonnades which made up three covered passageways, were not drawn from Classical or traditional sources: “The motif constitutes a brilliant architectural neologism that melds classical and biblical references, and so embodies the fundamental concept of Christianity's historical role.” There are many such analyses which can be made of Bernini's great work, which was created at the behest of Pope Innocent X, to whom Bernini paid homage to in the form of a Pamphili dove resting at the apex of the obelisk in the middle of the piazza. An excavation of the symbols would demonstrate the attention Bernini paid to each element of the piazza. In weaving classic Greek and Roman elements, and referencing Christianity, Bernini crafts a piece of theater, ripe with history and steeped in metaphor, in one of the greatest and most complex Baroque masterpieces.


Gardner, Helen, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's art through the ages: A concise global history. 2nd ed. Australia: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2009.

Tronzo, William. St. Peter's in the Vatican. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.