There are two periods in Italian history that would make for exciting movies and novels. One has been taken for good by Umberto Eco, whose masterful telling of the times of upheaval in the Middle Ages in The Name of the Rose define that very time in most people’s minds.
The early modern era, which in Italy coincides with the Renaissance, is the other period whose trials, tribulations, and poisoned victims make for good reading and viewing. There is nobody, though, that staked a claim to that period yet.
Basilica looks at the time in a single-minded focused fashion: it tells the story of the construction of the greatest Church of Catholicism, and largest church in the world for many centuries, St. Peter in Vatican. Despite the focus, this novel is outstandingly narrated and brings back to life a period of popes with children, of artists with passion, and of a populace that was illitterate, poor, and devout.
What you probably didn’t know is that the popes didn’t always reside in the Vatican. Actually, they didn’t use to reside there at all: the first church in Rome was St. Giovanni in Laterano (St. John in Lateran) – to this day the cathedral church of Rome. As the cathedral, it was the home church of the bishop of Rome, who is of course the pope himself. And the pope used to live in the Lateran Palace.
So how did the pope move to the Vatican? Well, looking back in time, Constantine converted to Christianity in the 300s, just before becoming the emperor of Rome. Actually, he believed he had vanquished all his enemies thanks to the god of the Christians. So he decided to dedicate a church to this god, and settled on a convenient spot outside the city walls. The Vatican was a pretty useless place, back then, and people said St. Peter lay buried there. St. Peter it was: they knew the location of the grave, and Constantine built a Roman basilica on top of it.
Fast forward 1200 years, and the popes come back from Avignon. Rome has turned into a small city, huddled around the river banks of the Tiber. The Lateran palace is far away, in the middle of a wilderness close to the old city gates, and the popes move to the Vatican palace, which used to be for visiting heads of state, but is closer to the river and in better shape.
St. Peter’s is rotting and showing signs of disrepair. The pope, Julius II, wants to improve the conditions of his new home church, but is loathe to spend the money. What do you know, he’s got this hot-shot architect who tells him for the same money he’d need to fix the building he can have a completely new building, and off they go: 1200 years of history are razed to the ground, under an enormous outcry, and the architect, Bramante, starts building a colossal replacement.
Julius lives and dies, and a succession of popes does, too, Architects come in and out, the only one continuously (pre)occupied with the construction is Michelangelo, who stays on the project from his youth to his death. And yet, despite dying old, he won’t see the end of it.
It takes another generation for the church to be completed, and another architect, more popes. It’s an exciting run, a fascinating story, and nobody tells it better than the author. We follow in awe, reading about all these personages whose names come alive, all of them described in a vivid fashion, by an author that patently writes fiction in her day job.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in history and art. It’s extremely easy to read, an excellent introduction to the history of modern Rome. You won’t regret it!