Forma Novae Basilicae D. Petri in Vaticano quam omnes spirant / Disegno nel quale si rappresentano le cerimonie fatte d’ordine di N. S. a di 26 di 1586 in venerdi nella consecration della Croce, che s’haveva da porre sopra la Guglia. Domenico FONTANA, Natale / GUERRA / BONIFACIO, Giovanni.
The Vatican Obelisk and a (Premature) Vision of New Saint Peter’s in Rome
A Valuable Image of Michelangelo’s Unrealized Design
Rome, Bartolomeo Grassi, 1587.

Forma Novae Basilicae D. Petri in Vaticano quam omnes spirant / Disegno nel quale si rappresentano le cerimonie fatte d’ordine di N. S. a di 26 di 1586 in venerdi nella consecration della Croce, che s’haveva da porre sopra la Guglia.

Large folio [50.3 x 37.0 cm], (1) single-sheet engraving. Trimmed to the platemark, minor mostly marginal staining and edge wear, with small (1 cm) loss to left border, folds visible on verso, with the stamps of Anna Laetitia Pecci-Blunt (1885-1971) on bottom border and verso.

Rare, separately issued etching/engraving commemorating the consecration on 26 September 1586 of the Vatican Obelisk, an event which followed shortly after the dramatic re-erection of the obelisk in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica by the architect-engineer Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) on 10 September. The ceremonial blessing of the obelisk was the culmination of a highly risky, highly public engineering feat whose technical difficulty had few if any parallels since antiquity. The engraving is one of 4 outstandingly ambitious printed images that were issued under the supervision of Fontana as the project progressed (and thus carried the de facto imprimatur of Pope Sixtus V himself). This consecration print is of still further art historical importance in that it depicts New Saint Peter’s – which in 1586 was still very much under construction – as a completed church built according to the plans of Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s design was promoted by Sixtus V but would be abandoned after the pontiff’s death in 1590 in favor of the plans drawn up by Carlo Maderno (built between 1606 and 1615). This print is thus a highly unusual temporal hybrid depicting at once a contemporary event which took place at a specific date and time and a prospective, idealized view of a monument which would not be completed to the degree or form depicted until decades later.

The print, published in 1587 by Bartolomeo Grassi, was etched/engraved by Natale Bonifacio (1537-92) after a design by the Modenese painter Giovanni Guerra (c. 1544-1618), who took direction from Fontana himself. This team of artists had already collaborated on three other prints: two spectacular 3-sheet etchings, and one single-sheet technical plan. The first 3-sheet print appeared by the end of March 1586 and described the methods Fontana soon would use to lower, move, and re-erect the obelisk. The second 3-sheet print, which depicts the actual lowering of the obelisk on 30 April, was released in August 1586, i.e., while the obelisk lay prone waiting to be lifted into its final position on 10 September. The third separately issued etching by Fontana, Guerra, Bonifacio, and Grassi (undated, but attested by 1587) was a single-sheet folio piece showing in plan the (complex) positions of the capstans used to lower the obelisk (see M. Bury, pp. 102-4, no. 63). The present consecration print was the fourth collaborative work by the team and provided a symbolic, forward-looking narrative that completed the anticipatory, eyewitness, and technical qualities of the other three prints.

Fontana, Guerra, and Bonifacio would again collaborate on Fontana’s 1590 Della trasportatione dell’obelisco, “the greatest illustrated architectural book of the sixteenth century” [Avery’s Choice, no. 24], in which the finished Vatican obelisk project was treated retrospectively, with imagery from the original prints broken down into constituent parts and re-engraved as simpler compositions more easily digested in a smaller format and by a wider audience.

The present print depicts in the foreground the procession and ceremony to exorcise and re-consecrate the obelisk, which had been crowned with the papal insignia and cross. Text at the left provides the names of prominent participants. A cartouche in the upper central part of the sheet describes the events of the day, while at the upper right is text outlining the physical characteristics of the obelisk. Inset are texts of the newly cut inscriptions on the base of the obelisk (referring to its repurposing for the Christian faith) as well as the ancient inscription present from the time it served as the spina at the center of the Circus of Nero. At the bottom left is an indulgence to be granted to those who pray in the presence of the cross atop the obelisk. In the distance is the ideal image of New Saint Peter’s, described as “the design of the new basilica of Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, which all hope for” (Formae Novae Basilicae D. Petri in Vaticano quam Omnes Sperant).

Pope Sixtus V’s hope for a St. Peter’s would be realized, but not in the design seen here: “Had he lived only ten years longer, he might well have demolished what was left of Old Saint Peter’s, built a façade on new Saint Peter’s, and finished the piazza on a grand scale. As it happened, not until some seventy-five years after his death were these things accomplished. If Sixtus V had lived, Saint Peter’s might look today as it does in [this] print of 1587 documenting the ceremony consecrating the cross on top of the obelisk … The view conforms with what were thought to have been Michelangelo’s intentions, as published in the three Dupérac prints – the plan dated 1569, the section, and the [lateral] elevation; since no façade elevation had been published, the façade was a projection from the information available. In the print, the basilica is built on a central plan around the core of Bramante’s great piers. The façade has a portico supported by eight colossal Corinthian columns to the right and left of a two-story central door; the two innermost columns of the ten on the Dupérac plan have been omitted. Projecting forward from the portico is a triangular pediment supported by four more Corinthian columns and surmounted by orb and cross, as actually was the triangular pediment of the façade of Old Saint Peter’s. Statuary has been placed liberally at the points between the bays, all around the balustrade above the attic story, and around the bases of the domes, major and minor. A Risen Christ stands at the very top. Inside the pediment, two genii or angels support the arms of Sixtus V. Old Saint Peter’s is gone, as are the other buildings to the north and south, and a huge open area, covered with checkered pavement, surrounds the basilica” (S. Boorsch, p. 21).

Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome of St. Peter’s to completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern. The next pope, Clement VIII, had the cross raised into place atop the lantern. In February of 1606, under Pope Paul V, the dismantling of the remaining parts of the old Constantinian basilica began. Carlo Maderno extended the nave (converting Michelangelo’s central plan into that of a Latin cross) and completed the narthex and façade (1607-15). The Piazza di San Pietro in its present arrangement was constructed between 1656 and 1667 under Bernini, who inherited the location of the Vatican obelisk and retained it as the central element of his design.

The present example of this etching was printed from a plate in which Grassi’s address was effaced (though still legible), suggesting that it is possibly a later strike, but we believe issued around that time. Nothing is known about the fate of the copperplate or the history of later editions.

OCLC locates U.S. examples of this print at Yale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 * S. Boorsch, “The Building of the Vatican: The Papacy and Architecture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. XL, no. 3 (1982-3), pp. 1-64; M. Bury, The Print in Italy 1550-1620, pp. 102-4, no. 64; B. Dibner, Moving the Obelisk; B. A. Curran, A. Grafton, et al., Obelisk: A History, pp. 103-40; P. O. Long, Engineering the Eternal City: Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome.

Price: $7,500.00