Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: 'Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: building St. Peter's' by R. A. Scotti

✰✰✰½ As a popular tourist destination, St. Peter’s Basilica is an architectural wonder and a treasure trove of art. Millions of people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, from all over the world visit annually. While the images of St. Peter’s Basilica are familiar to many, few know the behind-the-scenes story of how it was constructed. The building of St. Peter’s spanned almost two centuries and involved thirty popes. 

Built during the time of the Renaissance, the list of artists who participated in the building of St. Peter’s Basilica reads like a who’s who of the era including Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini. Work began in 1506 when Pope Julius II had the audacity to raze the original St. Peter’s, which had been built by Constantine the Great during the 4th century. Pope Julius II recruited only the best for his project. But that was just the beginning. As the years passed into decades and then centuries, each pope influenced Bramante’s original plans. Building the basilica from the inside out made it easy to change plans on a whim and, indeed, the plans changed frequently. Yet, somehow it all came together into the magnificent structure we know today.

The Bottom Line: R. A. Scotti’s historical narrative invites the reader to explore the history, politics, and art of one of the world’s most sacred buildings. There was plenty of scandal during that time in church history making this book read almost like a Renaissance soap opera. Spanning two centuries, thirty popes, and numerous artists, it provides a snapshot of each personality and event. However, sometimes the snapshots were so brief that I had to do additional research to more fully comprehend topics like the Sack of Rome.

All in all, this is an interesting read for the lay person. Recommended for amateur historians and those interested in art, art history, church history, and architecture. Also, recommended for those who are traveling to or who have already been to Rome. Scotti has included black and white illustrations and four walking tours of Rome.

Book Club Notes: Reaction to the book was mixed, but overall the group enjoyed the book. Each participant seemed to gravitate towards a different topic including politics, history, art, architecture, religion, and biographies. The book was thought provoking; however, there are so many people to keep track of which made reading it difficult at times.

While Scotti covers almost two centuries of history, the book is more like a brief introduction than a text.  The black & white illustrations were helpful, but as the group moderator, I felt they were insufficient. Full color images were needed to supplement the discussion. Scotti’s writing style was hit-or-miss at times as well. While mostly engaging and fast paced, some chapters were a bit dull. We agreed that the short length of the chapters helped present an enormous amount of information in small doses. Recommended for book clubs looking for something different to read and discuss.

Book clubs considering this book can find a reading guide with discussion questions at Penguin.

Details: Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R. A. Scotti. Paperback published by Plume in 2007. 336 p. ISBN: 978-0-452-28860-7

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