Old St. Peter’s, Visigoths and a Henry

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome isn’t nearly as old as it looks.

John Goldicutt's 'View in Rome,' watercolor over pencil. (1820) Huntington Library Art Collections, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Architects in ancient Rome often covered large interior spaces with barrel vaults and semicircular arches, although they hadn’t invented either.

Someone started using arches and vaults, probably in Mesopotamia, long before Romans started a republic. Several someones, most likely.

Those architectural forms date back at least to the 13th century B.C., when Egypt’s Seti I and Ramses II built the Abydos temple of Seti I and the Ramesseum.

I’m guessing that ancient Romans often get credit for inventing barrel vaults because so many of the ones they built are still around. Plus, the Italian Renaissance was all about ancient Roman glories. That’s how I see it, and that’s another topic.1

At any rate, in this “A Tale of Two Churches…” series, I’ll be talking about St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Both of them. As well as people, politics and ideas in play during the most recent two millennia.

Today I’ll be taking a quick look at a famous Roman architect, Vitruvius, and then recap what happened during the half-dozen centuries after Emperor Constantine signed off on building the first St. Peter’s basilica.


Architecture, Partly

Ricardo André Frantz's photo of Bernini's baldacchino, inside Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. (2005)
(From Ricardo André Frantz, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City: Bernini’s baldacchino, under the dome.)

Vitruvius was the chap who wrote “De architectura,” around the time Caesar Augustus said he was “first amongst the citizens” and made it stick. “De architectura” was the go-to resource for Western civilization’s architects for more than a dozen centuries.

Oddly enough, we don’t know much about Vitruvius apart from what’s in his ten-volume work. These days we’d call him a civil and military engineer, as well as an architect.2

If — this is a very hypothetical “if” — Vitruvius visited today’s St. Peter’s, then he’d see a nice, normal first-century B.C. Roman interior.

Normal, that is, aside from electric lights, a bronze canopy supported by squiggly pillars, and the outlandish clothing everyone’s wearing.

Virtuvius would likely notice all that.

Domes and Squinches

Andrea Herrera's illustration, comparing pendentives and squinches.
(From Andrea Herrera, via Riverside City College, used w/o permission.)
(One of the better illustrations I found, comparing pendentives and squinches.)

But I’m pretty sure he would be particularly interested in the not-quite-triangular bits connecting the dome with the vault intersection’s corners.

Depending on who you listen to, they’re pendentives or squinches. Either way, they transfer the dome’s weight to corners of a lower rectangular space. And they don’t show up until maybe the third century.3 That’s more than two centuries after Vitruvius.


History and Getting a Sense of Scale

Duc Du Berry's Book of Hours: January, February, March. And the Limbourg brothers' Christ Led to Judgment.

What’s “a long time ago” and what isn’t depends on your frame of reference.

On a cosmic scale, everything since Sargon of Akkad’s day is current events.

Last year’s fall fashions are, well, last year’s fashions.

And the last I checked, historical scale hasn’t been formally defined; so I’ll list a few ‘long ago’ examples, on a decades-to-millennia scale.4

  • Three decades ago
    • United Nations General Assembly revokes Resolution 3379
    • Soviet Union nominally ends
  • Three centuries ago
    • Peak of the Little Ice Age
    • Statute of Anne/Copyright Act 1710
  • Six centuries ago
    • Joan of Arc ends Siege of Orléans
    • Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry finished
  • One millennium back
    • Erik the Red/Erik Thorvaldsson exiled
    • Medieval Warm Period begins
  • Two millennia back
    • Pliny the Elder publishes first 10 volumes of Naturalis Historia
    • Pax Romana begins
  • Three millennia back
    • Villanovan culture flourishes (earliest phase of the Etruscan civilization)
    • Mycenaean Greece transitions to Greek Dark Ages
  • Five millennia back
    • Egypt’s First Dynasty begins
    • Cuneiform in use

Old St. Peter’s and a Post-Roman World

Encyclopedia Britannica's 'facade of old St Peter's, Rome.' (1910)
(From Encyclopedia Britannica; via Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida; used w/o permission.)
(Old St. Peter’s, Vatican City, Rome.)

Emperor Constantine had Old St. Peter’s Basilica built in the 300s. He also decriminalized Christianity, got sick and died.

But before that happened, he turned the empire over to his sons, Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans. Then they died, too.

Meanwhile, work continued and Old St. Peter’s was finished after about 30 years. Or maybe after about 40 years.

Which it was and who was emperor at the time depends on who’s telling the story. I figure it was in the year 360 or thereabouts, and that Constantius II or maybe Julian was emperor.

These days we’ll occasionally call Emperor Constantine “The Great.” I’ll talk about him some other time.

Old St. Peter’s was a basilica in the architectural sense. It was rectangular, with a central nave flanked by aisles.

It was also a Catholic basilica, which has nothing to do with architecture.

Catholic basilicas are important ceremonial and pilgrimage sites. We’ve currently got four major ones, a little over 1,800 minor ones, and that’s yet another topic.

St. Peter’s Basilica was particularly important because its altar was directly over St. Peter the Apostle’s tomb.5 Which I think goes a long way toward explaining why Constantine picked such an otherwise-unsuitable site. I’ll get back to that, later in this series. (A Tale of Two Churches: St. Peter’s, Rome)

Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths and Normans

The Walls and Gates of Rome in the 6th century, with Gothic camps from the Siege of Rome 537-538 from Edward Stanford's 'Procopius, History of the Wars, Books V-VI' (1919)
(From Edward Stanford, via Project Gutenberg and Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Old St. Peter’s, Vatican City, Rome.)

St. Peter’s was still standing when King Brennus of the Gauls raided Rome in 387.

Or maybe the year was 390. Documentation for that era is a trifle sketchy. Understandably, I think.

Anyway, Alaric’s Visigoths hit Rome in 410, give or take a few years. Geiseric’s Vandals went through around 455, followed by Totila’s Ostrogoths in 546. And there was that siege of 537-538.

Someone else raided Rome in 846. Some European chroniclers said they were “Saracens.” Others called them “Moors.” That narrows the field to Aghlabids, Maghreb, muscle hired by Radelchis and/or Siconulf — or someone else.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV started attacking Rome in 1081. Three tries later, in 1082, he held part of the city. Robert Guiscard’s Normans — liberated? — the city in 1084.6

There’s a bit of a story behind that.

“It Was the Best of Times….”

science fiction movie postersAs a youth, I may have watched more Hollywood fantasy and/or historical tales than was good for me.

Science fiction flicks, too, with titles like ‘Atomic Cockroach’ or ‘Invaders From Planet Q.’

Those memories, and today’s experience with social media, suggest that seeing a particular nation, culture or mutant horror as utterly evil is fairly common.

The attitude’s flip side, assuming that the ‘good guys’ are paragons, doesn’t seem any more reasonable.

I think one film actually had a “Prince Paragon.” He spent most of the story as some sort of ape. There had been a difference of opinion involving a wizard, as I recall. And that’s yet again another topic.

Where was I? Visigoths, Vandals and Ostrogoths.

Saracens, Aghlabids and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.

“Cosmic Monsters” and history by Hollywood. Right.

Europe’s 11th century was a mixed bag, like any other era.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — although that famous literary quotation’s story was set in an 18th century puree of politics, patriotism and paranoia.

During the 11th century, folks like Hildegard of Bingen and Albert of Lauingen were laying groundwork for today’s science.

But Albert’s work was controversial, inspiring tales of dark arts. And, eventually, a Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company Trading Card.

I think Hildegard’s work was good news. Albert’s, too. Others get skittish about “tampering with things….”

What we call the Holy Roman Empire had been in northern hands since Otto I’s day.

That wasn’t its name at the time. Folks started calling it the Heiliges Römisches Reich, Holy Roman Empire, a few centuries later.

Whether Otto’s takeover was good news or bad news depends on viewpoint.

Unruochings, Franks living in what’s now northern Italy, lost power and prestige. Otto and his folks probably celebrated.7

Saxons and Viewpoints

William R. Shepherd's map of stem duchies in the German kingdom 919–1125. (
(From William R. Shepherd, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The German kingdom’s stem duchies, 919-1125.)

Otto I, Otto the Great, Otto der Große, whatever, lived in the 10th century.

His father, Heinrich der Vogler, was elected East Francia’s king in 919. That’s roughly where the western bit of Germany is today.

Heinrich earned the der Vogler or der Finkler epithet by being an avid hunter. Folks speaking my language translate his name as “Henry the Fowler.” European epithets are the sort of thing that became surnames a few centuries back.

Heinrich was a non-foreign German king, for folks living in Saxony. It’s part of today’s Germany; south of the Danish peninsula, down to around Arnsberg and Dunderstadt.

Maybe having Heinrich in charge was good news for grass-roots Saxons. Some German aristocrats weren’t so happy. Heinrich apparently figured kings should act like kings.

I’ve read that Heinrich was too “weak” to crush every bothersome aristocrat. Maybe so, but I suspect “savvy” might be a better term. In any case, Heinrich passed the mixed blessing of kingship on to his eldest son.

That brings me back to Otto I. He was as Saxon as his father, but wore Frankish clothes to his 936 coronation. Maybe that’s another sign of ‘weakness.’ I agree with folks who say it was an ‘image’ tactic. Otto wanted folks to see him as Charlemagne’s successor.

A few rebellions, wars, and negotiations later, Otto I was Holy Roman Emperor. His term lasted from 962 until 973.

In the meantime, Swabian aristocrats with names like Burkhard and Friedrich were dealing with their current realities. Swabia’s story — is still another topic.8

Pope Problems

Emmeram Evangeliary's Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, miniature. (1105/1106)A few emperors after Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, Emperor Henry IV — I’m back to him now — had Pope problems.

Henry IV was among the 11th century’s big names. His diplomacy got him in trouble with three different popes.

Oversimplifying the story, a lot, Henry IV said Pope Gregory VII shouldn’t be the Pope.

Henry’s choice was Wibert of Ravenna. Wibert had boycotted Gregory’s election partly because Gregory wanted to decouple the Church and Imperial Court.

So Wilbert of Ravenna became Henry’s Pope Clement III.

But Pope Gregory VII began a long-overdue housecleaning anyway.

Henry kept backing Wibert, and then Cencio I Frangipane kidnapped Gregory. I’m not sure why Frangipane decided to snatch Gregory at the Santa Maria Maggiore. During the Christmas evening Mass.

Folks who’d been at the Mass apparently saw where Frangipane took the Pope. Word of the snatch spread. Concerned citizens got together and sprung Gregory the next day.

Gregory figured Henry was involved. Maybe so. Or maybe Frangipane was the sort of friend who makes enemies superfluous.

Henry kept saying Gregory wasn’t Pope. Gregory excommunicated Henry and said that his subjects needn’t recognize Henry’s authority.9 That wasn’t at all like the occasionally-cordial state-church 11th century status quo.


The Donation of Pepin

'Central States of the Church after the Papal Restoration c. 1430', from Reginald Lane Poole's 'Historical Atlas of Modern Europe.' (1902)I don’t envy Catholics living in Henry’s turf. Those who heard about the Pope’s decision, that is.

They’d be in the awkward position of choosing between the Church’s authority and Henry’s not-inconsiderable clout.

Henry IV went on to survive the Saxon Rebellion and the Battle on the Elster.

I could blame the Henry-Gregory-Wibert imbroglio on Gregory’s refusal to go with the flow.

Instead, I’ll skip back three centuries, to the Donation of Pepin; a shrewd bit of statecraft by Pippin der Kurze. Pepin the Short we call him in my language.

Pippin der Kurze lacks name recognition these days. He’s chiefly famous for being Charlemagne’s father. And for the 756 Donation of Pepin. That, and for almost sharing a name with a hobbit.

I think the Donation of Pepin made sense at the time. Let’s remember that St. Peter’s Basilica was outside the walls of Rome. And Rome itself was none too safe from pillage.

Speaking of which, remember the Vandals who hit Rome in 455? Those were capital-V Vandals, Germanic folks who ruled Mallorca, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and parts of north Africa from around A.D. 435 to 534.

Anyway, Gaiseric was the Vandal king around that time.

Then he died, his kingdom ended and — finally! I’m getting to Pepin the Short’s day — Aistulf, King of the Lombards, conquered a sizable chunk of land in northern Italy and told Roman authorities to start paying tribute.10

If you want a simple story line, then I’d recommend an action-adventure novel. This is real life. It’s complicated.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Map of Lombard Kingdom under Liutprand at his death, A.D. 744. Castagna's adaptation from Paulus the Deacon's' Historia Langobardorum.' (ca. A.D. 790)Bottom line, Pippin der Kurze arranged to be elected King of the Franks.

Then he defeated Aistulf. Or made life hard for Aistulf and his subjects until the Lombardi king fell of his horse and died.

I’ve seen it told both ways.

Along the way, Pippin der Kurze seized property and land Aistulf had acquired, and returned it to the Pope.

That’s assuming that the property and land had been Papal property before.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

The Donation of Pepin in 756 is our name for Pepin the Short’s formally transferring ownership of real estate he’d acquired from Aistulf.

Good news, this gave the papacy legal ownership of land outside Rome; along with a tad more security than before the transfer.

Not-so-good news, in 20-20 hindsight, the Donation of Pepin gave the papacy legal ownership of land that grew into the Papal States.

That arguably gave Frankish kings too much influence over who became pope.

Leading first to ‘Frankish Popes;’ then the ‘Saeculum obscurum’ and the ‘Tusculan Papacy,’ when the papacy was a subsidiary of the Theophylacti family. Allegedly.

My guess is that the Theophylacti family was sufficiently savvy to either leave no paper trail, or have a system for destroying incriminating documents.

Pope Gregory VII sorted out that mess about three centuries after Pepin the Short’s day.

More time passed. European aristocrats and nobles followed Pepin’s example, giving land to bishops: and so, indirectly, to the Catholic Church.

And that, also and very indirectly, led to the Hundred Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution.11

All of which helps explain why Old St. Peter’s Basilica had to be demolished. And that’s something I’ll talk about in another part of this series. (A Tale of Two Churches: St. Peter’s, Rome)


Authority, Faith, and Living in Chickenman’s12 World

Dick Orkin's Chickenman, opposing crime and/or evil. From  radio-ranch.com, used w/o permission.This is where I’d usually talk about history, authority, faith and why I’m a Catholic: despite the occasionally appalling popes we’ve had.

But this week’s deadline is fast approaching; and besides, I’ve talked about natural law and accepting reality before:


1 Arches, vaults and a little history:

2 Two Romans, a book and a title:

3 Impressive architecture:

4 Assorted temporal landmarks:

5 Emperors and basilicas:

6 Sacking and — liberating? — Rome:

7 Good times, bad times:

8 Otto I. and Swabia, too:

9 11th century SNAFU:

10 History and epic fantasy:

11 Church, state and politics:

12 Remembering Chickenman and his never-ending struggle against crime and/or evil:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Old St. Peter’s, Visigoths and a Henry

  1. By the way, exploring all this context also gets me having more appreciation for how the Saints lived their lives across time and the earth. Like, I’ve been having this tendency to think of them as detached from stuff like civil matters, you know? So yeah, praise and thanks be to God very much that He’s always clashing against such madness and offering true sanity.

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