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Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's Hardcover – June 8, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this absorbing story of the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome—the grandest architectural undertaking of the High Renaissance—Scotti (Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938) shows how the construction fed the ambitions of 30 popes, including the indomitable Julius II, who laid the first stone in 1506; Leo X, the Medici pope whose extravagant spending fueled the resentment toward the papacy that culminated in the Protestant Reformation; Clement VII, on whose watch Rome was sacked by Emperor Charles V; and Sixtus V, who restored the ravaged city and pushed, against all odds, to have the great dome completed during his lifetime. In 1506, the great architect Donato Bramante envisioned a gigantic central crossing topped by a dome of such daring design that many believed it could not be built. Throughout the 100 years of construction, numerous architects, most of them consumed with pride, lofty ambition and professional jealousy, followed. Among them were Raphael, who died at age 37; Michelangelo, who accepted the job reluctantly at the age of 71; and Giacomo della Porta, who, in 1590, succeeded in raising the grand cupola. All are brought to life in this fascinating tale of genius, power and money. B&w photos not seen by PW. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Just half a millennium ago, Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone for a new basilica of St. Peter. This event not only set to work an extraordinary group of architects and artists but it also led directly to revolution in Western civilization. The pope's need to finance the ambitious project ignited northern Europe's Reformation. In this engaging if uncritical history, Scotti is much less interested in the larger effect of the church's construction than in how successive artists shaped and reshaped the building, how new popes confronted the legacies of their predecessors and left their own imprints on the basilica. Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini had major control over one or another aspect of the vast, century-long project, and the building well illustrates the passage from a pure Renaissance aesthetic to the florid, excessive decorative impulses of the baroque. Scotti's recounting of the popular reaction to the destruction of the ancient Constantinian basilica that antedated the present building offers insight into the clash between ancient tradition and contemporary artistic expression. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; annotated edition edition (June 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670037761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670037766
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #717,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

My first books were espionage novels. Since this was an exclusively male field, I wrote as R. A. (rather than Rita Angelica) Scotti and gained a reputation as "one of the best modern writers of intrigue." Neither reviewers nor readers suspected my true identity until I dropped the disguise and turned to non-fiction. My mother was born in New England, my father in Italy, and my books reflect the duality. "Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938" recounts the worst natural disaster in New England history. "Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal--Building St. Peter's" is a book that I have wanted to write ever since I stumbled into St Peter's Square. I was 19, on my own for the first time, and awestruck. The magnificence of Michelangelo's basilica led me circuitously to the mystery of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. "Vanished Smile" reopens the case of the mysterious theft of Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Basilica, (see my review) I can't let A. McDonald's remarks pass unanswered. As Basilica explains, St. Peter's was constructed with concrete masonry, the same method that ancient Roman architects used to build their monumental edifices. McDonald may be thinking of Portland concrete which dates to the 18th c.

As to the question of the Reformation, A. McDonald seems to have completely missed the nuances in Scotti's writing. The author never says that the excessive cost of building St. Peter's caused the Reformation. Rather, she sees it as the straw that broke the camel's back, prompting Martin Luther to post his theses. In fact, Scotti makes the further point that Luther's theses did not cause the Reformation so much as start the conversation and that the causes of the Reformation were as much political as theological. The historical "what if" that Basilica asks is a fascinating question to think about: What if there had been no excessive Basilica costs and no outrageous clerical behavior in Rome to raise the dander of the young monk?

An equally intriguing question to ponder after reading Basilica: From the perspective of 500 years, was St. Peter's worth the incalculable cost?
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Format: Hardcover
I've been waiting for a popular history dealing with the Renaissance, Reformation, Catholic Reformation, etc. And at first glance this book is it. It's an easy and absorbing read, and endlessly fascinating.

And yet ... this story crumbles under closer inspection. Two examples, among many:

"By the end of Leo's disastrous, eight-year pontificate, all the main players in the first building phase of St. Peter's were dead: Guiliano della Rovere, Donato Bramante, Guiliano da Sangallo, Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Raphael Sanzio, and Agostino Chigi."

Aye. Guiliane della Rovere was Julius II. Of course he was dead at the end of his successor's reign. Scotti covers Bramante, Raphael, and Chigi in decent detail. But da Sangallo is only mentioneed a few times, and Fra Giocondo is only introduced once. It was a shock to realize they were 'major players.' And others, notably Michelangelo, were very much alive.

It seems minor, but over and over Scotti introduces secondary characters as if we know them already when, in fact, she has never mentioneed them before.

Other passages just confused me. The Sack of Rome is particularly confusing - I had to put the book down and look it up on Wikipedia to know what she was talking about.

I can still recommend the book as an excellent read ... but it should have been a classic, and could have been with a touch better editing.
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Format: Hardcover
On a positive note, this book on the building of St Peters does have some strengths. Scotti describes the dynamics between the patrons (the powerful dynastic families of popes and cardinals sponsoring Roman cultural projects) and the artists - and these are vivid personalities all. She breezily recreates scenes involving popes and painters, such as this typical passage describing the artist Perugino meeting the adult Raphael, formerly his pupil:

"Perugino, eyes moistened, rushed forward and embranced Raphael
like a son. It was an emotional moment for the old painter.
He pinched the boy's cheeks affectionately, marveling at how he had grown."

Although Scotti doesn't seem too bothered to examine original sources to create these scenes (the bibliography is entirely second source material), no matter, they are fun, lightly paced, and charming if this sort of pop historical creativity appeals to you.

Unfortunately Scotti's creative energy also involves fundamental fictions about her subject matter. There are the annoying, small errors like misnaming buildings in the Forum. These are forgivable -- what tourist hasn't got these confused? But then there are howlers that demonstrate she's unfamiliar with the building she's writing about: for instance, she incorrectly asserts that St Peters was built with cast structural concrete. In order to "cast the concrete vaults for the Basilica," as Scotti puts it, Bramante (the 16th century architect building St Peters) would have had to... invent concrete. Concrete as a technology was developed by the ancient Romans, but knowledge of its process vanished with the collapse of their building culture. So Scotti states that Bramante had studied the Romans and rediscovered their methods of using concrete.
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Format: Hardcover
As a lifelong and very active Catholic I was shocked to learn just how little I knew about the history of St. Peters in Rome. For example, I was totally unaware that Constantine erected the first St. Peters in the year 312 A.D. and that the original structure survived for more than 1200 years! And I had certainly never read very much about how the current St. Peters came to be either. "Basilica" tells the remarkable story of the planning and constructon of what many consider to be among the most beautiful and recognizable edifices in the world. It is a tale with more twists and turns, heroes and villains, triumphs and disappointments than one could ever imagine. It is a spellbinding story.

The prime mover and shaker behind the second St. Peters was Pope Julius II. The year was 1505. Julius envisioned a structure that would "embody the greatness of the present and the future." The new St. Peter's would dwarf the constructions of the Caesars and proclaim the power and glory of Christ and His Church. The pope would assemble the most brilliant minds in Rome and would spare no expense to achieve his dream. Among those he recruited for the project were Bramante, Raphael and yes, Michaelangelo. But building the new St. Peters would turn out to be a much more costly and time consuming proposition than anyone could have ever imagined.
"Basilica" tells the amazing story of what would turn out to be a 162 year project. The tale is replete with nasty politics, betrayal, bitter rivalries, greed and a variety of other moral shortcomings. But in the end the good really does outweigh the bad. R.A. Scotti writes of the remarkable engineering and architectural feats that made the new St. Peter's possible. She reminds us all of the genius of artists like Michaelangelo and Raphael.
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