“In the footsteps of history”

Restoration work on the gilded bronze canopy of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican

Vatican News

At 11.30 this morning, the Press Conference presenting the restoration work on the Baldachin of St. Peter’s Basilica took place via live-streaming from the Holy See Press Office.

Speakers: His Eminence Card. Mauro Gambetti, O.F.M. Conv., Archpriest of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, Vicar General of His Holiness for the Vatican City and President of the Fabric of St. Peter; Mr. Patrick Kelly, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus; the Eng. Alberto Capitanucci, Head of the Technical Area of the St. Peter’s Factory in the Vatican; and Dr. Pietro Zander, Head of the Necropolis and Artistic Heritage Section of the Fabbrica di San Pietro in the Vatican.

We report the interventions below:

Speech by Card. Mauro Gambetti, O.F.M. Conv.

Good morning everyone, and welcome. We are here to present the restoration efforts of the gilded bronze Baldachin in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. This is a restoration of significant symbolic value because the Baldacchino, standing solemnly above the main altar, marks with its magnificence the place of the Tomb of the Apostle Peter to whom the Basilica of St. Peter is dedicated.

It has been a challenging and necessary restoration, as will be explained during this press conference, but it is also a restoration of particular significance as it has been undertaken with a view to the upcoming Jubilee of 2025. The work that His Holiness Pope Francis has been pleased to authorize and which is being announced today will be concluded in December of this year, just before the opening of the Holy Door.

An extremely modest tomb beneath the papal altar holds the remains of the Apostle Peter: it was a simple pit dug in the soil of the Vatican Hill by the early Christians of Rome during the time of the Emperor Nero. This burial place has always been venerated, and upon it Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine erected a first grand basilica in the 4th century. At the behest of Pope Julius II della Rovere, it was replaced in the 16th century by the one we know today. These two buildings, of imposing dimensions, were designed as large from the very beginning for their innate vocation to welcome, to be able to host a multitude of people coming from every part of the world.

For almost two thousand years, Peter’s burial place has exerted a strong call to all the peoples of the earth. In this regard, I would like to recall how Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, a contemporary and friend of Constantine, described the apostolic tomb in the Vatican: “a splendid tomb in front of the city, a tomb to which countless throngs from every part of the Roman Empire come, as to a great sanctuary and temple of God” (Theophany, 47).

The Baldachin as tall as a ten-story building, can be seen from any point in the Basilica. It is the focal point of the Basilica, it highlights Peter’s presence in the Vatican Confession, and represents the axis around which the entire architecture of the Basilica revolves. Motivated by a careful and dutiful concern for conservation, this restoration takes place on the eve of a jubilee year and, after the end of the Holy Year, with a view to the fourth centenary of the Dedication of the new Vatican Basilica, which occurred – as is known – on November 18, 1626, with Pope Urban VIII Barberini.

I also want to point out that this necessary intervention is being undertaken – for the first time in a systematic and complete manner – 250 years after the significant 18th-century restorations and precisely 400 years after the start of the works for the Baldachin. It was indeed Urban VIII, who entrusted the oversight of the work to the twenty-six-year-old Gianlorenzo Bernini in the summer of 1624. He was an architect and sculptor trusted by the pope, who, however, was not alone in this endeavor: he was assisted by Francesco Borromini and a large number of skilled sculptors, foundrymen, carpenters, and specialized craftsmen.

In about ten years of intensive work, many people, in various capacities, completed this masterpiece: we extend our grateful thoughts to them, not only to the famous architects and sculptors. For the main altar on Peter’s tomb, a ciborium was designed, in order to evoke, in its form, a covering with precious fabrics, a structure similar to what was used for the solemn display of important relics. Indeed, the term Baldachin derives from Baldac, the ancient name of Baghdad, the place from where the most precious fabrics came. In St. Peter’s Basilica, the four pillars that supported these textile coverings have been replaced by gigantic twisted bronze columns: a clear reference to the vine-like columns that were placed around Peter’s tomb in the ancient basilica.

The reference to those marble columns, significantly reused by Bernini in the Loggias on the pillars supporting the dome, also constitutes a strong allusion to Christ Jesus, because it was believed that those twisted columns came from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

Returning to the restoration, the work on the Baldachin of St. Peter is characterized as particularly complex and articulated due to the importance of the documentation, of logistics, archival research, scientific investigations, the setup of scaffolding, the organization of the construction site in conjunction with the activities and the liturgical life of the basilica, and, of course, the importance of various interventions aimed at conservation.

The provisional works and the works on the construction site will not hinder the celebration of papal ceremonies on the main altar. Indeed, just as during the construction of the Basilica, it will be possible to continue celebrating Holy Mass at Peter’s Tomb. For this reason, I thank in advance the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, the Prefecture of the Papal Household, the Floreria of the Governorate, the Dicastery for Communication, and all those who will work on identifying the most appropriate solutions for the regular conduct of these celebrations, especially during the rites performed during Holy Week and Easter.

The restoration is entirely supported [€700,000] by the meritorious Order of the Knights of Columbus in a spirit of service to the Church and the Pope. Moreover it aligns with the project for the enhancement and new lighting of the Vatican necropolis, also supported by the Knights of Columbus.

For this generous support, I heartily thank Mr. Patrick Kelly, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, for wanting to share with the Fabric of St. Peter this additional restoration project in the wake of a long, established, and active collaboration: a cooperation now four decades old and dedicated to the loving preservation of the Basilica and its many works of art and faith.

I also thank His Eminence Cardinal Fernando Vergez, President of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, for having arranged, with an appreciated spirit of collaboration among Vatican institutions, the scientific support of the Directorate of the Vatican Museums for the execution of indispensable diagnostic investigations. I therefore thank, Dr. Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums, and Dr. Fabio Morresi, Head of the Cabinet of Scientific Research applied to Cultural Heritage of the same Vatican Museums.

I am pleased to introduce here the team that, under the technical-scientific direction of the Fabric of St. Peter, will undertake the complex restoration work along with their collaborators. They are professionals of clear renown and long-standing experience: Giorgio Capriotti, Sante Guido, Giuseppe Mantella, Carlo Usai, and Susanna Sarmati. For the photographic documentation: Mallio Falcioni.

[Original text: Italian]