Anyone who builds software for a living sees the similarities between the architecture and engineering of real-world structures and the software we build every day. And anyone who is trying to build something original, authentic, detailed, and beautiful can’t help but look at the real-world structure of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with awe as one of the most incredibly beautiful physical creations they’ve ever seen. At least that’s how I felt. Stunning doesn’t do it justice. When I saw the book Basilica, The Splendor and The Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, I knew I had to read it. (And the “scandal” was a bonus.)
The book was quite enjoyable to read. I’m a fan of history books told in a narrative form. I do wonder sometimes when the author is claiming that someone felt this way or that how the hell they know (clearly they don’t). But you allow them some license to make it a good story. And the authors of this type of book usually use devices such as “So-and-so must have thought…”. That aside, getting to see what went into creating St. Peters is super interesting. Fans of engineering will immediately relate to the challenges they had during construction.
“Instead of the thirty months allowed by Sixtus, della Porta and Fontana had achieved the impossible with time to spare. They had raised the highest dome ever built in just twenty-two months. Dwarfing every other construction, it soared 438 feet and spanned a 138-foot diameter. The dome of St. Peter’s is three times the height of the Pantheon dome, more than twice the height of the Hagia Sophia dome, and 100 feet higher than the Duomo in Florence.”
Including the cross, ball, and lantern, more than 616,000 tons rest on Michelangelo’s drum, and the height from the ground to the tip of the cross is 452 feet.
In order to make the layout around the basilica make sense they had to move the obelisk to its current location in the plaza well in front of St. Peter’s.
Since the imperial days of Rome, an Egyptian obelisk had stood in what had once been the Circus of Caligula. The obelisk had posed a nagging problem for every pontiff whose ambitions turned to a new Basilica. Its position on the south side of the old St. Peter’s was a distraction, drawing the eye away from the main entrance. In Nicholas V’s utopian plan for a papal Palatine, the obelisk was positioned where it is today, int he center of the piazza in front of the Basilica. But 320 tons of granite rising eighty-three feet in the air are not easily dislodged, let alone moved, and no engineer could figure out how to reposition it.
If you “enjoy” the politics of engineering within the confines of a large international corporation (which is essentially what the Church was even 500 years ago) then there’s plenty of fun moments. Remember, the construction of St. Peters started in spirit with Julius II being installed as Pope. It didn’t “end” (no project of this size ever truly ends) until roughly 150 years later. In that span there were 22 popes, and at least 7 chief architects one of which was Michelangelo himself! There is no organizational dysfunction that this project didn’t experience. And just imagine, you might be worried about the direction your project will take when you go on vacation. These guys had to worry about what happened when they died since there was no way anyone working on the project at the beginning or the middle would see its end.
At one point the corruption and lack of progress was so bad that the Pope installed a committee to oversee the construction and make sure everything was going according to plan (sound familiar?) – the Fabbrica. While they definitely helped early on when the project was completely in disarray, (and this is certainly no comment on the Fabbrica of today which cares for St. Peter’s) there was definitely a point where they were the committee designing the horse that ended up with a camel. When Michelangelo was brought onto lead the effort (after already having worked on various efforts around the Vatican) he was already an old man, but knew he needed absolute control. His deal was that he answered to the Pope and nobody else.
“Still a firebrand defending truth and beauty, Michelangelo built with undiminished fervor – and received the unwavering support of a succession of popes. Although repeatedly challenged by younger architects and Fabbrica administrators, he would not concede a pilaster, a cornice, or a column. For seventeen years, through five pontificates, he battled attempts to dislodge him or dilute his authority… [Finally, one of the Popes, Marcellus II, tried to be more conciliatory. In an appearance of evenhandedness, he allowed the Fabbrica a hearing to vent its grievances. The officials rebuked [Michelangelo] with bitterness.”
Michelangelo’s response to their complaints of their impotency?
“I am not and will not be obliged to tell either you or any of the deputies what I expect to do. Your only business is to collect and administer the funds, and see that they are not squandered or stolen; as regards plans and designs, leave that care to me.”
Basically, go fuck yourself.
Finally, the insight that made the biggest impression on me was the unbelievable dedication of some of the leaders of the time (not every Pope, but many of them) to art and beauty. To be clear, it wasn’t necessarily an altruistic or idealistic viewpoint they had. Art was the communication medium of the time. People couldn’t read. Art told the story. It was Hollywood, the internet, newspapers, tv and everything else rolled into one. And the leaders knew not only that controlling the message was key to controlling the people, but that great art was a way to preserve their legacy. There is one story about how there are a team of painters making frescoes all over St. Peter’s. And then in 1508 Raphael Sanzio arrived in Rome. (Yes, that Raphael.) Raphael was only twenty-five. His long-time mentor Perugino was already hard at work with the other painters with most of the rooms at the Vatican already frescoed.
“When [Pope] Julius saw Raphael’s first fresco, he recognized a special gift. Overnight, Perugino, and the rest found themselves unemployed, their paintings obliterated, and the entire work of frescoing the papal apartments given to the boy-genius ‘so that he alone might have the glory.’
The more seasoned and celebrated artists were packing their cases when the workmen came in. They brought chisels to chip off the old frescos and cloth bags of sand and lime to mix into plaster to recoat the walls. As the frescoes began disappearing, the floors were covered with a blanket of brilliant flakes, the labor of months now broken plaster. Raphael would not allow the work of his old teacher Perugino to be touched, but the other walls were chiseled bare, then replastered, rendered smooth and blank to receive the genius of the wunderkind.”
All in all there’s a lot in this book for every good software designer and engineer (and even manager) to love in Basilica. Just imagine a 150 year long project with enormous egos, constantly shifting plans, tons of corruption, and the highest stakes in society. Now your project doesn’t seem that tough.