Those Enterprising Women

Author: Arabella Cifani

Those Enterprising Women

Arabella Cifani

The feminine role in the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica

The millions of faithful and visitors from all continents who enter Saint Peter’s Basilica every year are always left breathless by its majestic beauty. Built to the greatest glory of God, like a precious mosaic, a multitude of artists and craftsmen, over the centuries, adorned it with the world’s most beautiful paintings, sculptures, marble, bronzes, glass and stuccoes. In one of his poems, Bertolt Brecht asked himself: “who built the Seven Gates of Thebes?”. Indeed. Who built this temple of faith and beauty? And where did the builders live, the masons? No one, or few, imagine that the soul of this magnificent Church built of solid stone and perfect bricks, beams and chains cost endless toil and grief and that likewise, it was also a secure source of income for those who worked there.

From the start, the Fabbrica di San Pietro oversaw the construction of the new Vatican Basilica which began in 1505. The Fabbrica s beautifully preserved archive contains an enormous quantity of documents on Saint Peter’s, which include all the bookkeeping for the construction and the minutes of the group of truly “enlightened” cardinals who supervised the complex finances involved in the construction of a building of such proportions. From architects to foremen, master builders down to the humblest levels of labourers, everything was screened, checked and, in a certain sense, “certified” with the strictest of tests and quality controls. A river of money flowed into the coffers of the basilica thanks to contributions which included large royal donations, but also the most modest of alms.

The basilica was erected as the sum of the creativity of exceptional artists and craftspersons together with doctrinal elements and spirituality which, still today, exude from every stone. No one, however, could even remotely suspect that many women also played unquestionably key roles in its construction. The book Le donne nel cantiere di San Pietro in Vaticano. Artiste, artigiane e impreditrici dal XVI al XIX secolo [Women on the Worksite of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican: Artists, Artisans and Entrepreneurs from the 16th to the 19th Century] (Foligno, Il Formichiere, 2017) is hot off the press. Compiled by Simona Turriziani and Assunta Di Sante, respectively manager and assistant manager of the historical archives of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, are no strangers to the high-level cultural enterprises dedicated to the study of the treasures of this Vatican institution. Their book documents with clarity and in-depth research this specific aspect of the gigantic endeavour.

Many physically strong and well organized women worked in the construction of Saint Peter’s: female “teamsters”, building suppliers and master bricklayers; labourers capable of transporting heavy wagons filled with bricks, sand and mortar. And then many “sorters” for the enamels to be used in the mosaics that would adorn the church: this back-breaking activity required these women to remain hunched over for hours on end, searching through mosaic tiles to salvage and recycle from the ancient Constantine-era basilica which was then being gradually dismantled.

Aside from these women, there were the kiln operators whose task was to prepare the glazes for use in the new mosaics: the Fabbrica needed enormous quantities of these delicate materials: glass that was formed into “pizzas”, then manipulated to obtain the small coloured tiles.

In the course of time, there were standouts among these women. Vittoria Pericoli, a painter, glass and enamel maker, was active in the early 19th century with her own glass and crystal factory that provided products of “perfect” quality to the Vatican’s mosaics studio. This very modern, autonomous and independent woman would also provide mosaics for the reconstruction of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls in 1847 and for the restoration of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna. Pericoli was also a refined artist, an apprentice of miniaturist Theresa Mengs.

Incredible women like the sophisticated Paola Baldo, a printer born around 1520 and wife of a well-known Roman typographer, Antonio Baldo. When widowed, she certainly did not remain closed up in the house but, rather, dedicated herself to successfully continuing her husband’s business and, for the Fabbrica di San Pietro, printed highly refined stamps, breviaries, dispensations and confessionals bearing the seal of Saint Peter.

Among all the stories brought back to life, perhaps the most striking for its great symbolic value is that of Francesca Bresciani, a lapis lazuli cutter. Between 1672 and 1675, she was entrusted with the decoration, in the purest lapis lazuli, of the Tabernacle in the Vatican Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s last works. After an exhaustive search, the many kilos of lapis lazuli used to decorate the iconic object, particularly dear to Pope Clement X Altieri, were purchased on the Neapolitan market.

Through his customary enquiries prior to tendering the contract for this project, Bernini decided in the end that among all those who had bid, the best “man” for the job was a woman: Francesca Bresciani. The extremely difficult work involved cutting the rough stones to match the contours of each single slab, a thorough search in pursuit of quality, homogeneity of colour, and the ability to obtain a monolithic effect among the stones, with continuity between one vein and the next. The Archive of the Fabbrica di San Pietro still preserves the paper “masks” for the polylobate panels of the dome of the ciborium: fragile, unique and precious evidence of a very lofty conception of workmanship. Francesca worked on this commission for two years, even to the detriment of her family, her home and above all her “very sanity”, working until three o’clock in the morning and justifiably challenging Bernini, stating that working the stone and working the “joys” were quite distinct, and that Bernini did not know the difference.

Bresciani was so skillful, wise and professional that, in 1678, she would be entrusted with the engraving and the “mitring” of the lapis lazuli base of the cross cast by Domenico Lucenti with the 8o-year-old Bernini’s design: another perfect effort, where Christ’s body, exquisitely chiseled in gold, seems to soar above the blue heavens of which he is Lord. Thus, a woman created one of the basilica’s most sacred objects, destined to host the Eucharist: a fact that still moves us today in times when women should not be denied any place or any work, but in which they continue to find very dismal scenarios.

Yet 250 years ago, in a vastly different cultural and historical climate, no one in the Vatican was afraid to entrust such an important job to a woman. We hope that, united by Francesca’s hands, the prayers of all women in the world will always be gathered around that Tabernacle. Pope Wojtyla recalled in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem that even in the darkest periods of history we find the “feminine genius” as the lever of human progress and of history.

This new book constitutes a novel and precious testimony to this.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 March 2018, page 10

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