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Monday, May 13, 2013

“Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's”, by R. A. Scotti


320 pages, Viking Press, ISBN-13: 978-0670037766

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's is a densely written (though by no means dense), thoroughly researched, and dramatically portrayed account of the building of St. Peter's in Vatican City. In this thoughtful and sweeping account, Ms. Scotti covers over 120 years of Church history and the reign of several Popes, discusses the political and other forces which both drove and stalled the construction of what is now one of the most recognizable sites in the world, and examines the fierce competition among the master artists (Bernini, Raphael, Michelangelo and others) to gain artistic control over the project. Despite its somewhat overwhelming scope, Ms. Scotti deftly weaves together all of these factors in a compelling narrative.

Basilica is in no way a dry account of the construction of St. Peter's. Rather, and Ms. Scotti has imparted a truly human element to this true-life drama. She discusses at length Michelangelo’s conflicted feelings about the project, his anguish over the abandonment of what he felt was to be his signature work (a planned marble tomb for Pope Julius II), his banishment to the Sistine Chapel and his triumphant completion of what many (including Michelangelo) thought was an impossible assignment: the fresco which covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to this very day. Ms. Scotti also clearly discusses the political effects that the proposed construction had on the Church and on Europe as a whole. She correctly identifies the project as one of (if not the seminal) financial abuses Martin Luther used as justification for the posting of his famous 95 Theses which, as we all know, led to the Reformation and the creation of the Lutheran Church, along with innumerable other Protestant Churches, and pulls no punches when describing the lack of fiscal responsibility exercised by the Medici Popes. Her description of one dinner party where the host casually tossed the dirty gold (real gold!) dishes into the river echoes recent newspaper accounts of some of the galas thrown by certain high-level executives in days before the recent corporate scandals. She also describes, in vivid detail, the competition between the prominent Italian families of the day to gain the papal seat, the fierce rivalry among now-legendary artists and their patrons, and how the construction of St. Peter's led to the rebuilding of Rome into the city that we know today.

Basilica is a rare find: an intriguing account of some of the foremost figures in the history of the Church and leaders of the Renaissance. The construction of St. Peter's was an immense undertaking, the scope of which was unparalleled, as were the egos of many of those involved. Working from a trove of research, including several first-party accounts, the author spins a delicious tale of intrigue, strife, power-mongering, corruption and waste which, amazingly, culminated in the completion of one of the most acclaimed and recognizable architectural monuments of all time.

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