The Plight of Women in Dacia Maraini’s Isolina


By Francesco Bonavita, Ph.D.

Feminine white stone statue in a Palermo square

Feminine  white stone statue in a Palermo square. This is also where the author, Maraini, spent a significant part of her youth.

Isolina, by the Italian novelist, Dacia Maraini (1936- ), is an investigative work that attempts to redress the wrongs perpetrated against women by reviving the memory of a nineteen-year-old woman who was savagely murdered at the hands of a well-to-do military officer, some eighty years after the event. Unlike Maraini’s much celebrated novel, La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (The Long Life of  Marianna Ucria; The Silent Duchess, 1990),which delineates the subjugation of women and the inevitability of their suffering in a patriarchal society, Isolina (1985) is based on real life events. Lines between reality and fiction are blurred and themes from the distant past join distinct and unifying ideas from the present. Although the reader is never presented with a conclusive condemnation of the criminals responsible for having committed a heinous crime – too many years have elapsed since the murder took place and much evidence has been destroyed or suppressed – the reader considers that justice has been served, albeit symbolically, and that the memory of Isolina Canuti, the victim, has been vindicated.

Nonetheless, Maraini has not embarked on a voyage of exploration just to reveal the callous culprits of an assassination and to solve another murder mystery that illustrates a brutal crime committed against an innocent woman.  Here, she offers an indictment against middle-class moral values with its hypocritical affirmation of righteousness.  Also, she launches a serious blow at social conventions, which have ascribed women to a de facto disadvantaged existence from which there is no escape.  In other words, Isolina was condemned a priori, based on the notion that she was an unattractive woman, a lower-class individual who had sexual relationships with military officers.

Indeed, Isolina was an uneducated, a simple girl living in Verona at the end of the nineteenth century.  Her sole transgression was that of having had a relationship with a military officer, Carlo Trivulzio.  Upon learning of her pregnancy, the young lieutenant manages to convince her to have an abortion so that he could protect the name of his aristocratic family.  Unfortunately, he relies on his friend who performs the abortion with rudimentary tools, and Isolina dies.  Trivulzio and his entourage, fearing unimaginable consequences, cut up the victim’s body into four pieces and dump it in the Adige River. While the assassins hope to avoid prosecution, the murder is discovered in January 1900, and lieutenant Trivulzio is implicated in the crime.  At the trial, Isolina is portrayed as a loose woman whose untimely death resulted from her unconventional lifestyle. The legal proceedings focused on exposing the woman’s character rather than on the homicide.  Thus, the officers are absolved of all wrongdoings.

Castelvecchio Bridge, Verona, Italy

The Adige River where the mutilated body of Isolina was found.

Through her meticulous investigative techniques, Maraini uncovers substantial material, demonstrating irrefutable evidence that this trial had, in fact, been a travesty of justice.   Moreover, as an ardent advocate for women’s rights, especially, the innocents, the defenseless and the uneducated, Maraini is determined to absolve Isolina and to restore the image of an innocent, generous, and hard-working young girl who contributed to the economic well-being of her household.  Her mother died some years earlier, leaving four children and a husband who needed support, so Isolina, the only person capable of working, earned money by doing housework. Finally, Maraini denounces a bourgeois society that accepts as perfectly normal the fact that wealthy military officers may commit violent crimes against women with impunity.

Maraini’s work is methodical.  She unearthed much evidence in an effort to come up with objective findings of the real murder story of Isolina.  She examined court proceedings, conducted interviews of descendants of the families involved, and she combed newspaper articles of the time so as to learn about the public’s reactions to the sensational trial.  A veritable suspense is created as if the investigation were dealing with a contemporary offender ready to be unmasked.  Not surprisingly though, public opinion of that time manifested an overwhelming compassion for the lieutenant as if to suggest that Isolina got what she deserved for being a woman and a member of the working class.  In effect, it was a collective condemnation of a young woman in the name of values and decency.

One of the points Maraini makes in defense of Isolina is that the memory of this victim vanished, soon after the trial came to an end, in spite of the fact that this was a high-profile case.  Our author ferociously condemns the eloquent silence of a Christian society for the murder of a poor woman whose major offense was that of dreaming of a romantic relationship with a wealthy young man.  Such a collective desire to ostracize Isolina and forget her existence seems to be based on her low social status, as well as on the pervasive misogyny prevalent in the Italian society of the time.

If the public exhibited a stolid posture as to whether or not justice would be served, one journalist of the time, Mario Todeschini, a modest Emile Zola, tried to bring the case to national attention, by advocating for an equitable trial and tried assiduously to debunk the good-old-boys mentality and to raise public awareness (see Giuliano Dego, “Un delitto tutto al maschile,”L’Unità, Aug. 8, 1985).  Unfortunately, it was the collective mindset of a society that ultimately condemned a defenseless woman, based on the traditional assumption of false perceptions, namely, that an unattractive poor woman, who behaved imprudently, should be condemned at all cost. The people sympathized, instead, with male defendants of the military class who deserve the acquittal for no other reasons of being members of the elite class.

Many of Dacia Maraini’s seven novels – as well as her poetry, short stories, and plays – have been translated into English.  Her 1975-novel Donna in Guerra (Woman at War), generally considered the manifesto of Italian feminism, is known worldwide among feminists.  Isolina is consistent with her long-standing advocacy for a just society, as it highlights the social and political factors that exacerbate the plight of women.  Maraini can be considered a modern Voltaire, as she supports staunchly an enlightened community.  She shows no tolerance for prejudice, double standards, or hypocritical values that exclude the innocent, the disenfranchised, especially those who happened to be women from the disadvantaged segments of society.




The Baths of Caracalla

AdobeStock_47543604.jpegThe Baths of Caracallacompleted around 216 CE by the emperor Caracalla, is just a complex of massive ruins today, sitting on a huge plot of land, just a walking distance from the Colosseum, in Rome.

The epithet “Rome, the eternal city,” has always resonated in me, ever since I was a child. Taken at its face value, it means that the city has always existed and it will continue to be so indefinitely. Recently, I revisited the Baths of Caracalla site, which for many centuries accommodated as many as 8,000 visitors each day. Even though the area has suffered defacement and pillaging over time, one can still admire its architectural splendor, which provided inspiration for future builders of cathedrals, during the Middle Ages, as well as train stations in the United States, most notably, the original Pennsylvania Railroad Station of New York City, in 1910, and the Union Station of Chicago in 1925. Thus, the term “eternal” is not simply relegated to the notion that Rome will perpetuate itself, rather that the antiquity of Rome will continue to be a source of inspiration. The baths, as with so many other structures, embodied the identity of ancient Rome.

Union Station Hall in Chicago
Chicago, IL, USA: The Great Hall inside the Union Station in Chicago, Illinois.

The Chicago Union Train Station was inspired by the Baths of Caracalla with its vaulted ceiling and its classical columns, all of which were intended to create space and to give exhausted travelers a sense of tranquillity in the midst of frenetic activity.

Built in the 3rdcentury CE, between 206 and 216, the Baths of Caracalla are the culmination of Rome’s design to improve the quality of life for its citizenry. Along with the Baths of Diocletian, the creation of exercise areas that would enable Romans to cultivate the philosophy of “mens sana in corpore sano (A rational mind in a healthy body),” have proliferated throughout the empire. These magnificent bath areas can still be seen today in Sicily at the Villa Romana del Casale, the Bath of Trajan in Rome, among many others. One of the gifts the Romans have handed down to posterity is the notion of the bath as a therapeutic center of wellness, recreation and social gathering, which to this day, it is still vibrant. From Rome to Aix-en-Provence, Baden-Baden, Tivoli, Pompei, one can truly appreciate the importance of baths in Roman life.[1]


Villa Romana del Casale built around the first quarter of the fourth century CE, is an extraordinary example of Roman bath, allowing for physical exercise, as well as focusing on wellness of the human body.

Now, the presence of baths in antiquity goes as far back as Etruscan times, for they, too, understood the correlation between health and physical exercise. The thermal waters of the Etruria among many others in the region, between Tuscany and Rome, are believed to be the origin of the Roman of baths. These eventually grew out into larger projects throughout the empire, the most notable examples are those of Nero’s and Trajan’s. The Baths of Caracalla, however, are the most impressive. Built on 27 acres of land, the Baths of Caracalla were described as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Baths had a huge underground system that allowed for the transportation of cold and hot water.

The original project was initiated by emperor Septimius Severus in 206 CE and was completed by his son, Emperor Caracalla who wanted to create the most memorable site, in order to astonish the viewer, surpassing the accomplishment of many of his predecessors. Caracalla was a rootless man who had no regard for the rule of law. Like many dictators, he was interested in extolling his own virtues of grandeur. To this end, he employed fifteen thousand slaves and brought the project to a completion within five years. This was the most extraordinary public venue created by the Romans in an effort to promote wellbeing.


An Olympic size swimming pool at Caracalla which was used daily by the Romans, as part of affording citizens the opportunity to stay in shape.

By the Augustan Age, during the first century CE, baths had become an integral pastime of Roman life. To enter a bath, was like entering a sacred temple. To this day, even though the Baths of Caracalla have been reduced to ruins, one can still feel an aura of spiritual sentiment. Indeed, the baths were decorated with colored marbles, distinguished sculptures, representing Roman divinities of gods and goddesses and mosaics laid in sophisticated patterns that can still awe modern visitors. The mosaics decorated the floors as well as ceilings in order to endure the condensation created by hot water.


A mosaic floor designed to provide comfort to one’s feet, as well as enduring cold and hot water coming from a system of pipes beneath the floor.

In order to appreciate the level of physical engagement at a bath, one would need to refer to the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily where women and men can still be seen playing ball, exercising, attending a lecture in one of the libraries inside the bath area or enjoying a conversation among friends. The bath was a social center just as today people convene at restaurants in order to discuss business or other social concerns. The significance of the Roman bath is that it afforded the general population the opportunity to cultivate one’s health, to attend to one’s personal hygiene, while at the same time fostering social connections. It was truly an ancient cafe without the coffee. Perhaps, only modern Japan appears to have come close to the Roman notion of the bath. The ofuro in Japan, a bath concept that enables the participants to switch between the hot and the cold, affords everyone an opportunity to engage in socialization, just as the Roman baths did.

Mosaic decoration of the ruins of ancient Villa Romana del Casal
Mosaic decoration of the ruins of ancient Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy.

The Baths were open to all Roman citizens. Initially, baths were coed but, as time passed, rigorous schedules were imposed to accommodate women in the morning and men in the afternoon. If one can imagine, the baths must have been a moment of intense relaxation, especially for the wealthy ones. Members of the so-called patrician class who monopolized political power, would come to the baths with an entourage of servants, bringing bathing gear, oils for massaging the body. After working out a sweat in the palaestrae (gym), they might move to the laconica (steam room) and gradually move into caldarium (warm bath), the tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and finish up with an invigorating frigidarium (cold bath). One could also opt for the natatio, an Olympic size swimming pool.[2]


Although the Baths of Caracalla’s vaults are now in ruin, one can still admire its architectural wonder.

Although the Baths of Caracalla ceased to function, its architectural feat had enormous inspiration on subsequent structures, most notably the Baths of Diocletian, the Basilica of Maxentius, the original Pennsylvania Station of New York City, and the Chicago Union Station. The huge vaults with their large windows became the model for medieval cathedrals. Even though the ruins of Caracalla are today void of decorative statues portraying Roman divinities, one can still feel its pulse, its atmosphere and imagine the myriad of people and voices that used to convene here in order to cultivate one’s body, as well as one’s inner being. Thus, ancient Rome has faded but it has not gone into oblivion, as its way of life is still intrinsically embedded into our collective consciousness.

[1]Annunziata Berrino. Andare per Terme. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2014.

[2]Maryl B. Gensheimer, Decoration and Display in Rome’s Imperial Thermae: Message of Power and their Popular Reception at the Baths of Caracalla. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Taking the Mystery out of the Mona Lisa: Revisiting Leonardo Da Vinci’s Masterpiece. Francesco Bonavita


Reproduction of painting Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and light graphic effect. The Mona Lisa, 1503. A portrait of Lisa Gherardini, by Leonardo.


Leonardo Da Vinci began working on the Mona Lisa when he was in his early fifties and probably reworked this subject until his death in 1519. Since the creation of the portrait, which is indisputably one of the greatest works of art, critics have focused primarily on the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa, as well as the man who painted the masterpiece, about whose life we know little. To be sure, there are many suppositions surrounding the reasons for this work’s enigmatic interpretation, namely, the smile and the surreal background upon which the Mona Lisa’s image has been affixed. There are also additional stories in connection with the portrait that help foment the notion that Da Vinci’s work is intimately associated with an aura of mystery. Thus, the portrait, which was commissioned by a wealthy tradesman, was never presented to the owner. So, too, there are several copies of the portrait located throughout the world that have been attributed to the Florentine master, but it is extremely difficult to corroborate the authenticity of the works even though they bear a remarkable similarity to Da Vinci’s techniques. In this essay, we will try to take away the mystery of the painting by examining the life of Da Vinci, the cultural and political climate of the Renaissance and the painting itself.

Early Life of Da Vinci


The Madonna and Child by Andrea del Verrocchio is one of many religious icons that were widely used in Renaissance painting. Verrocchio was was also Leonardo’s mentor during his early formative years.

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 in the small village of Vinci in the Tuscany region, not too far from the city of Florence. Right from his birth, he was labeled as an illegitimate child, as he was born out-of-wedlock. His father, Piero Vinci, was a successful notary public who managed the legal affairs of prominent Florentines, including the celebrated artist Andrea Verrocchio. His mother, Caterina, whom we know nothing about, is said to have had humble origins and may have been a servant in the Vinci’s household. Although he was the older child of the Vinci family, his illegitimate status may have precluded Da Vinci from receiving a classical education, grounded in Latin and Greek, as was customary for members of privileged families during this time. From his own writings, we know that Leonardo was an avid observer of nature and someone who possessed acuity and curiosity, which may have led him to educate himself. We do not know the kind of relationship Leonardo had with his father but we may infer that Piero may not have had quality time with his son, as he was a very busy man, tending to his professional affairs. What is certain is that Piero took his son to Florence when he was just twelve years old and left him with Verrocchio as an apprentice. However scant Leonardo’s early biographical accounts are, it is fair to assess that his childhood may not have been eventful. In essence, we do not know the kind of rapport he may have had with his father, except for the fact that Leonardo was excluded from the family will, even though he was righteously the oldest son. This is remarkable because nothing in Leonardo’s work demonstrates that he may have suffered psychological and emotional damage on account of his father’s detachment from him. On the contrary, Leonardo had a jovial disposition and was seen as someone who had a well-adjusted personality, suggesting he was extroverted and socially well versed.

The Renaissance

italy cathedral dome tuscany
Photo by Pixabay on

Brunelleschi’s Duomo (1420-1436) in Florence gave architecture a transformative expression

    In 1464, when Leonardo came to Florence, the city was experiencing the height of the Renaissance. Filippo Brunelleschi had completed the daring architectural project of the Cathedral’s Dome and Verrocchio was putting the finishing touches on its lantern.


David (1430) by Donatello introduced a new vision of sculpture, which had a remarkable influence on the Baroque sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


David by Donatello who introduced a new vision of sculpture around 1430.

Donatello revolutionized the art of sculpture with his creation of David by mastering movement, grace and space. Masaccio was experimenting with perspective, so as to give painting a three-dimensional effect and Lorenzo de’ Medici elevated civic consciousness to a new dimension by creating an enlightened city.

nativity painting of people inside a dome
Photo by Pixabay on

The School of Athens by Raffaello. Lorenzo de’Medici (1449-1492) ruler of Florence and a humanist in his own right created an intellectual environment whereby there was great interest in reviving the study of classical antiquity.

This was the spirit of the Renaissance that sought to explore classical antiquity in order to liberate the mind for greater expression in the arts, literature, mathematics, science and every form of human endeavors. The Age of the Renaissance represents man’s unlimited potentials in that dreams are attainable. This posture is in stark contrast to the Middle Ages, which saw the destiny of man inextricably connected to a fatalistic acceptance of life on earth, as a temporary pause before attaining eternal peace in the after life. This is not to say that the Middle Ages were reflective of the Age of Darkness, as historians often incorrectly portray it. On the contrary, medieval times were just as creative as the age that followed it. Its cathedrals were majestic, as were the establishment of the universities all over Europe, exhibiting fervor for learning. Nonetheless, the medieval spirit was not as bald and liberating as was that of the Renaissance man, which was to affirm one’s autonomy and to recognize that one’s potentials could be unfolded to every extent possible.

The Florence Years

   Leonardo spent several years at the workshop of Verrocchio during which time he emerged as a fine painter.


The Baptism of Christ by Leonardo offers an insight of the master’s early works.

His early works, notably, the Baptism of Christ (1472) and the Annunciation (1472) have all the marks of the genius who will eventually go on to work on the Mona Lisa.


The Annunciation of Leonardo is an excellent example of perspective and panneggio.

 In these works there are three distinct techniques that constitute the signature of the great master. The so-called panneggio approach focuses on the clothing, specifically on the undulating quality of the robe being worn by the Madonna of the Baptism of Christ, as well as that being fashioned by the Virgin of the Annunciation. In the latter example, the panneggio technique gives life to the image and it makes a statement. So, too, the backgrounds of both images are unmistakably associated with Leonardo’s work. The viewer is invited to observe nature in its primordial state, just trees and mountains, without referring to a specific time and place. This kind of backdrop creates a transcendental quality. Lastly, both images illustrate the depth by means of perspective. The viewer is looking at a flat surface but, in reality, one is able to perceive far behind the image, in a three-dimensional way. This is an extraordinary accomplishment and it will, as we shall see, be truly refined with the composition of the Mona Lisa.

The Milan years   

   It is important to note that Italy as a nation did not exist at this time. The Italian peninsula was divided into city-states, most notably Siena, Pisa, Genoa, Mantua, Ferrara, Milan, Bologna and, of course, the major cities of Florence, Venice and Rome, as part of the Papal State. In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, every city, small or large aspired to creating an ideal city, conceived in such a way as to embellish and to make it pleasantly habitable for all citizens. The Medici family went out of its way to make Florence the most beautiful city in the world and the Pope was so obsessed with making Rome the capital of the Christian world so much so that the Church’s coffins were nearly depleted, which led to the Protestant Reformation movement. Consequently, it was not surprising that the Sforza family of Milan had similar ambitions for its city. After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence was beginning to lose its luster and the civic discourse, which had distinguished Florence was now being overshadowed by the fascist fanaticism of years of dictatorship by Girolamo Savonarola. Thus, being threatened by the destruction of secular art and culture, Da Vinci was eager to work in Milan, which was relatively more progressive.

After setting up his own workshop, Leonardo was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in 1482 to create a colossal project, namely, a bronze equestrian statue of his father, Francesco Sforza, in order to extol the virtues of the Milanese leader. Unfortunately, the work was never completed because the Sforzas were involved in the defense of the city against the invasion of French troops. Thanks to Leonardo’s notebook, we have a series of impressive sketches of horses and the viewers can formulate a precise idea of what the statue may have looked like.


Leonardo’s The Last Supper offers drama with emotional density and perspective

In 1495, when the political climate had changed for the better, the Sforza family commissioned Leonardo to create The Last Supper, a large fresco in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This was a large mural and it was completed within a two-year period. Unlike most projects initiated by Leonardo that were never brought to a conclusion, this mural attests for a different work ethic by the Florentine master. The mural measures approximately 15’ x 29’ and it was painted directly on the wall. What makes this work special is that Leonardo managed to create a theatrical drama, capturing the moment whereby Judas displays his intentions of betraying Jesus. The mural is divided into four scenes, with Jesus in the middle, each of which narrates the angst of what is about to take place.

Return to Florence


Chateau d’Amboise where Leonardo spent the last few years of his life.

The Mona Lisa is probably one of the most celebrated paintings of all times. This work was commissioned in 1503 by a rich silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and may have been completed as late as 1517, in France, where Leonardo spent the last few years of his life at the court of King Francis I, at the Château d’Amboise. Some art historians have suggested that the Mona Lisa’s popularity came to light in 1911 when the painting was stolen from the Louvre Museum and went missing for two years, before it was recovered. According to this view, the international press began talking about the merits of the painting and everyone’s attention focused on this portrait. What may have triggered such a distorted view of the portrait is that the thief himself, Vincenzo Peruggia, felt compelled to return the Mona Lisa to Italy in order to bring about restitution of criminal wrongdoing committed by the French some five hundred years ago. This is an inaccurate assessment because the painting had been sold by one of Leonardo’s most trusted students, Salai, to King Francis I in 1519, shortly after the death of the Florentine master, for 4,000 golden coins, which is believed to correspond to approximately $100,000 in today’s currency.


A self-portrait of Giorgio Vasari who is considered to be the father of art history.

Actually, the popularity of the Mona Lisa goes as far back as the composition itself. During the Renaissance, most Florentines knew of Leonardo’s famous painting. Indeed, the renowned Renaissance biographer, Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 (Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architetti) whose work sets the mark for future manuals on the history of art, speaks of the Mona Lisa as a work of art of divine achievement for its beauty and technique. For many years, the painting was kept at the Palace of Fontainebleau where it was admired. In Napoleon’s time in 1800, the Mona Lisa became the subject of great interest when the French Emperor decided to decorate his bedroom with the da Vinci’s masterpiece. So, too, the French poet, Charles Baudelaire, devoted a poem to the ineffable beauty of the Mona Lisa and his contemporary, Theophile Gautier, speaks of the portrait as the “sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously.”


Lady with an ermine by Leonardo in 1489-1490. This is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.

Over time, a great deal of mystery has shrouded the production of Da Vinci’s painting because there are several versions of the Mona Lisa that have surfaced in various parts of the world, most notably the Mona Lisa at the Museo del Prado in Spain, the Isleworth Mona Lisa in England, the Mona Lisa at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the Mona Lisa in St. Petersburg, Russia. Aficionados of Dan Brown, the popular author ofThe Da Vinci Code,are greatly attracted to secretive themes and cryptic narratives. The reality, however, is that during the Renaissance it was a standard practice for the disciples to reproduce works of their masters, many of which are sometimes indistinguishable from the original. One of the best examples of this trend is Michelangelo’s famous Battle of Cascina, which is a lost artwork, but survives through a faithful copy executed by his pupil Sangallo.


The Battle of Cascina by Sangallo offers a remarkable similarity to Michelangelo’s work.

Da Vinci’s work began in 1503 and was constantly being refined by the artist until he died in 1519. Mona Lisa is sometimes referred to as La Gioconda or La Joconde because her husband who ordered the work went by the name il Giocondo. How did Mona Lisa get its name? In Florence it was customary to refer to signora as a Monna, hence the term Mona was long associated with the painting. Not much is known about Lisa Ghirardini who married Giocondo, twice her age, when she was fifteen years old. It was customary for members of the nobility to commission artists for portraits. What is striking here is that Lisa’s husband, while wealthy, was not a member of the elite class. Portraits were a rare request that only the most privileged could afford, namely, members of the nobility. What was once relegated to the nobles, in the Renaissance this trend was reversed. Wealthy merchants were now requesting portraits of family members. This was a costly proposition and the subject would have to sit for long periods of time. Traditional portraits were painted in profile and figures were rather stiff. Piero della Francesca’s Battista Sforza is a good example of this tradition (c.1465-66).


Battista Sforza by Piero della Francesca

Leonardo’s frame of mind

   Leonardo introduces a new formula of the portrait. It is one that is daring and filled with human emotions. His portrait is frontal and the bust is showing together with the subject’s hands. The sfumato effect creates a hazy impression. In the traditional portrait the viewer is disengaged but in Leonardo’s we are active participants. [1]


A drawing by Leonardo known also as the universal man.

In his lifetime, Leonardo accumulated more than seven thousand pages of notes and sketches, exploring a variety of topics, such as science, mathematics, painting, engineering, anatomy, geology, botany and a whole range of human interests in an effort to understand why things are they way they are. He had an insatiable appetite for learning that would go as far as discovering why a woodpecker could tap on tree trunks for hours on end without suffering brain damage. He would climb mountains in order to understand why the sky is blue. In his notebook, which consists of more than 7,000 pages of sketches and illustrations, there are images of flying machines and parachutes, long before these devices were invented.


Illustrations from Leonardo’s Notebook, which makes up more than 7,000 sketches, the artist was able to amass during the course of his lifetime, exploring nature and physical matters.

But just how complex was Leonardo? The biographer Walter Isaacson likes to point out that subsequent generation of geniuses, most notably, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were similar in that they all operated on combining arts and sciences in order to arrive at their discoveries. Indeed, Leonardo did not fit the typical mold of his humanist contemporaries in that he was not educated formally, as he was an illegitimate child, which may have contributed to his ability to think outside the box.[2]Possibly, it is this mind-set that may have given Leonardo that creative elan that allowed him to explore and to elevate artistic expressions to unprecedented levels.

The Mona Lisa Smile

Since the creation of the Mona Lisa, which, incidentally, was never given to il Giocondo, critics have been fascinated with the smile of the subject whose eyes appear to follow the viewer, as if the subject were a real person. This posture has generated a kind of mystery that has come down to our time. Some scholars have speculated that the smile was the result of many hours spent while posing for Leonardo who was said to have had musicians playing while Lisa sat patiently for hours on end. Some have even gone as far as attributing the smile to Lisa’s possibility of being pregnant. Whatever the circumstances, there is not question that what makes this portrait so powerful is the smile itself, because the stare projects a certain mystique. So, the question arises: is she smiling with the intent of seducing or is she simply enchanting the viewer? Much has been written about the smile, which for some borders on the fatal. Leonardo has used the technique of the sfumato in order to create this mystery. The art of Leonardo resides in the notion that a smile was created without having the person contorting her lips. The sfumato techniques

allowed the artist to create a mystique, as well as an element of vagueness and in the end her facial expression is indecipherable. This is why for many the Mona Lisa’s smile is seductive whereas for others it is calm and serene. This is what makes Leonardo an innovator of the portrait because he himself stated that the purpose of painting is to project the soul of the people.



Leonardo’s study of facial expression in his Notebooks.

The structure of the composition differs from the classical portrait that made other Renaissance painters famous. As with the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa projects a frontal pose with a well-orchestrated pyramidal image and an intriguing lunar scape backdrop. It should be noted, though, that the backdrop of the Mona Lisa is not as ambivalent as that of the Virgin of the Rocks, in that a winding road on the left side and a bridge on the right flank it, reminding the viewer that its background recalls the familiarity of the Tuscan landscape. Similarly, the right hand with its elongated fingers is leaning on the pulse of the left hand and the sleeve, which appears to be a very fine cloth worn by many distinguished ladies of the time. So, too, the hairstyle is simple at the top in that it is straight with a part in the center. The lower part of the hairstyle is curly and it resembles the water ebb designs that are recorded in Leonardo’s Notebooks, suggesting that the subject dedicated a significant amount of time on caring for her look. She is also wearing a transparent veil that seems to decorate her forehead and on the left shoulder she is wearing a light mantel, all of which projects an element of luxury. This is the image of a new woman who is emerging in the Renaissance that is no longer relegated to nobility, rather it is that of Lisa Ghirardini who embodies the virtues of the middle class.

The mantel does not take away from the centrality of the image but it creates a sculptural effect and it removes the stiffness quality that characterized many of the portraits that preceded Leonardo’s work. As mentioned above, the panneggio technique used in the garment suggests not only a sensual look but, most importantly, it makes the portrait come alive. Ultimately, the eyes of the Mona Lisa are truly remarkable, as they convey instant connection between the viewer and the subject. It’s as if the subject is talking directly to us. [3] It is a bald statement of the new style that celebrates the emphasis of cultivating the human body. The adornment of the human figure represents a celebration of life, which for many years to come will distinguish Italian style in fashion. For Leonardo, this is a fixing moment. As with his Last Supper, whereby he captures the drama during which Judas is about to betray Christ, the portrait of the Mona Lisa captures the universal drama of a young woman with her angst and aspirations, her uncertainties as well as her hopes. The portrait is a true reflection of Leonardo’s art, the embodiment of beauty, which aimed at projecting the very soul of the subject. Utilizing the three-dimensional effect of perspective and all the techniques available to him such as panneggio and the sfumato, Leonardo transcends the finality of his work by making this a universal icon that is destined to speak to a multitude of generations for centuries to come. This is the reason why this masterpiece is forever relevant, capturing the imagination of the viewer time and time again.


Will the element of mystery subside, as time evolves? Probably not. The sfumato approach, as we have seen, with its contours and the smile itself create an aura of enigma and indefiniteness about the Mona Lisa that will continue to arouse one’s imagination. The distinctive feature of the face is really what invites the viewer to speculate for otherwise this could have very well been an uneventful portrait.


  1. Walter Isaacson, “How Leonardo Made Mona Lisa Smile,” in Atlantic, Nov. 2017, Vol. 320, Issue 4, pp.50-58.

2. “The Mona Lisa Gives Up the Secret of her Smile,” in USA Today Magazine, June 2011, Vol. 139 Issue 2793, pp.11-12.

3. Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

[4]Angela, Alberto. Gli occhi della Mona Lisa: Il genio di Leonardo raccontato da Mona Lisa. Kindle edition (Italian version). Rizzoli Vintage: Milano, 2016.


Siena: A Unique Contribution to World Heritage By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.

Place du champ et palais public à Sienne

Siena has had a Renaissance much earlier than its rival city of Florence. 

UNESCO, which stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for mankind has long been preoccupied with identifying and protecting artistic accomplishments made throughout the world, during the course history. While many countries can boast of significant cultural treasures they are scattered and, at best, confined to a specific age or period. On the other hand, Italy can boast 25 centuries of major contributions, which begin roughly with the Etruscans, evolve through the Roman period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque and all the way up to the present time, with the visual arts, cinema and music. This is an enviable situation for Italy but a stark reminder that such a cultural wealth is greatly in need of protection and to make certain that subsequent generations will come to appreciate it as well. It is important to note that recognition by a world body agency cannot be equated to a prize rather it is a distinct reminder that such an acknowledgement wishes to point out the various landmarks that human endeavors have forged, since time memorial, so that subsequent generations may never forget. In this issue, we will be exploring the marvels of Siena, which have been identified by UNESCO as part of an ideal city that expresses the values and the heritage of humanity.

Val d 'Arbia, Tuscany, Italy. Hills cultivated with wheat and canola, with its yellow flowers. With background the Crete Senesi. Siena, Italy

The Val D’Orcia in Siena illustrates how the landscape has been managed with savvy ecological initiatives over many centuries.

The Val D’Orcia, the rural territory surrounding the city of Siena, which has escaped the devastation of urban sprawling since the Middle Ages, was created for the purpose of preserving agricultural capacity, safeguarding water resources and respecting the environment. This rich and soothing landscape situated just outside Siena can be traced back to medieval times, as early as 1200 CE in that local artist magnificently depicted it. This area, which produces the exclusive Brunello di Montalcino wine, embodies the qualities of land management that is not only pleasing to the eye, but a reflection of good government tutelage for subsequent generations. This unique landscape has been painted and photographed by a plethora of artists, since time memorial, who have extolled the aesthetic richness of the location.

After visiting the Duomo, the Biblioteca Piccolomini, Palazzo Pubblico, Torre del Mangia, the Piazza Campo is where every visitor ends up. It is a majestic piazza that is generally known for the Palio of Siena, a horse race that takes place annually, during summer months. It evokes the competing spirit of Siena’s 17 contrade, the city’s quarters. It is a very colorful race filled with medieval costumes, at the end of which everyone celebrates at the various restaurants around the Piazza. The Piazza, however, is also known for its structure that when seen from above shows nine travertine lines across, radiating from its borders, dividing the Piazza into sections. The lines represent the Rule of the Nine, which for many years governed Siena at the height of its power until 1355. The square is shell-shaped and it offers a great sense of space and depth. This is probably the largest example of a medieval piazza, designed to create a community venue for people to socialize and to interact with one another in a harmonious way. In many ways, the Piazza embodies the civic spirit that became the model of many Renaissance cities throughout Italy. Italian civic discourse and social interaction cannot be understood without the venue for a piazza because it is here where people of all ages interact with one another, where ideas are generated and where the imagination is unleashed.

Piazza del CampoThe diagonal lines of Siena’s Piazza Campo allude to the Rule of Nine which has brought civic government to the people of the region.

The Palazzo Pubblico, which dominates the Piazza with its huge tower of the Mangia, houses a wonderful collection of paintings that provide a living testimony of Senese history because it was the building where the Nine ruled the city and where heated debates took place in deciding public policies. Thus, upon entering the Sala del Mappamondo – the Hall of the Globe – the first thing that strikes the visitor is the so-called La Allegoria ed Effetti del Buono e del Cattivo Governo, The Allegory and Consequences of Good and Bad Government, illustrated by the Senese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The panel of bad government depicts the horrors and the consequences of poorly managed political leadership. It highlights a ruler who is seated on a throne, flanked by military figures. He lives in a castle that is heavily fortified on top of which there are three allegorical figures, namely, greed, cruelty and betrayal. At the side of the fortress, there lies a city with abandoned buildings, incarcerated citizens, living in fear with no just laws to protect them. These illustrations must have been a powerful daily reminder for the Nine rulers of the city, as they convened in the building in order to decide the welfare of their citizens.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoes in SienaAllegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti illustrates a harmonious interaction among citizens in times of peace and prosperity. 

In contrast, the Allegory of Good Government represents an ideal government based on the rule of law, whereby its citizenry lives in harmony with one another. The view of this city is vibrant. Everyone is employed and men and women work together on building their community. The city thrives on commerce and shoppers give the impression that the economy is strong. Women at the center appear to be dancing at the beat of a tambourine, suggesting a strong absence of governmental repression, where people are free to express themselves.

The goddess on the left holds a scale, representing the form of justice in a democratic government. On the right, an angel rewards exemplary behavior whereas on the left another angel is quick to condemn criminal conduct. The most intriguing figure of the illustration is the goddess who holds a carpenter hand plane. Carpenters use the plane to shape and to smooth the rough hedges of a wooden block. The message that is conveyed here is that every one is equal and that no one is above the law. This allegory is truly extraordinary given the historical period during which this vision was articulated. This represents a political vision that is way ahead of its time. In many ways, it foreshadows the Enlightenment, whereby everyone is deemed free with unalienable rights. The Sala del Mappamondo merits a visit in that the works of celebrated artists such as the Lorenzetti brothers, Simone Martini, Duccio di Buoninsegna as well as images of Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of the city, can be seen here.

Sunrise view of Siena Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta (Duomo di Siena) in Siena, TuscanyThe Duomo of Siena and its Bell Tower stand as a great Gothic architectural achievement. 

The Duomo of Siena is arguably one of the best examples of Roman Gothic architecture. Its façade is highly decorated and its triangular spire gives the impression of soaring to the sky. Its exterior is decorated with white and black green marble, which has become the city’s color. It has three naves, the center of which is truly majestic. Indeed, the floor of the Cathedral offers a breathtaking view of artistic accomplishment made possible with a technique known as marble intarsia (tarsie marmoree), directly illustrated on the floor. This is essentially a form of mosaic art done with selected large pieces of marble, from which images are created. There are altogether 56 panel illustrations on the floor of each nave.

Interior of Siena Cathedral in Tuscany, ItalyInterior decoration of the Cathedral of Siena, which houses great works by Pisano, Donatello, Michelangelo and other prominent artists. 


The Piccolomini library, Duomo of Siena, italyA detail of one of Pinturicchio’s masterpieces that can be admired at the Piccolomini Library in Siena. His Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge can be seen at the Duomo.


Of the 56 panels that decorate the floor of the Duomo, none is signed, except for one that belongs to the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio known as the Allegoria del colle e della sapienza, the Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge. In this evocative panel, the Greek philosopher Crates warns the viewer that money is the corruption of all evils. He is shown dumping money into the sea, in exchange of pursuing loftier goals, presumably truth and knowledge. On the left, Socrates is holding a book, inviting us to read and to become wise. In the lower right hand corner, we see lady fortune that appears to vacillate with a foot on the globe and another on a boat, illustrating that fortune is only an ephemeral object, destined to vanish. On the other hand, the group on the center is firmly glued to the ground following the virtue of hard work and wisdom. The message indicates that virtue is attainable and that those who work are rewarded with truth and knowledge.

Lupa Senese (she-wolf of Siena) with Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remo, founders of the city. Marble statue, symbol of the city of SienaThe statue of She-wolf of Siena connects to Rome’s founding. The so-called Lupa Senese, with Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remo, founders of the city, is an ubiquitous image in Siena. 

The illustration of one of the panels highlights the myth of the Roman twins, Romulus and Remo who founded the city of Rome. This Roman image is intimately associated with Rome, which depicts a she-wolf breast-feeding the future Roman leaders. So, one may wonder, what this legend has to do with Siena. The truth is that the image of a She-wolf in Siena is not confined to the Duomo rather it is a ubiquitous symbol of the city that is encountered with frequency. The early annals of Senese history state that the children of Remo, Senio and Ascanio, upon learning of their father’s death, slaughtered by their uncle Romulus, decided to flee north, thus founding the city of Siena, which bears the name of Senio.

Amazing interior of Siena cathedral of Saint Mary Assumption in Tuscany, ItalyThe amazing interior of the cupola of Siena’s Duomo is topped by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’ s gilded lantern.

Interior y techo de Catedral de Siena.An additional view of the cupola whereby the Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge by Pinturicchio can be seen.

The cupola of the Duomo is impressive, as it measures 177 feet from the ground up. At the base of the cupola there are a series of sculptures that depict various saints, all of whom constitute a veritable museum of sculptures. Works by Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini can be admired, the most impressive of which is four sculptures made by Michelangelo in his early years. The most striking of these is the one of Saint Paul because it is a portrait of the artist as a young man. The work embodies the sculptural elements that we have come to associate with Michelangelo’s work, namely, energy, proportions and beauty. In a sense, this work is a remarkable anticipation of David, which was executed a couple of years after. 

Best view of Siena is from the Viewing Platform Facciatone above the unfinished facadeHad it not been for the Black Death, the famous Facciatone of Siena would have constituted part of the largest cathedral of Europe.

The Duomo offers a view of what the Senese people have come to call il Facciatone. This is an unfinished cathedral that was supposed to replace the Duomo itself. The Senese architect, Bernardo Rossellino, conceived a project, which, if made possible, it would have been the largest cathedral in the world. In the early 1300’s the population of Siena reached 50,000. This is a remarkable achievement that is comparable only to Paris of the time. The city was prospering and its wealth was reflected in quality of life of its citizens. Unfortunately, from 1346 to 1353, the Black Death, which decimated one-third of the population of Europe, plagued Europe and Siena was not exempted from this horror. Two out of every three people died, as a result of the plague. Among the victims, there were also prominent people, most especially the architect Bernardo Rossellino in charge of building the new cathedral and the Lorenzetti brothers who were to have decorated the interior, which consisted of three naves. After the plague abated, efforts were made to continue the project but the spirit and the resources just were not there. The construction was abandoned and the façade was left there on purpose, as a stark reminder of man’s impotence in the face of natural disasters. Arguably, had it not been for the Black Death, Siena would have surpassed Florence in beauty and purpose.

Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral

The Biblioteca Piccolomini is a significant wing of the Duomo of Siena.

The Biblioteca Piccolomini was created as a commemorative expression in honor of Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who was a Senese humanist, a scholar and a poet in his own right. In the library, one can admire the ten works by Pinturicchio, and two by Raphael, among others.

medieval folio with choral noteThis is an illuminated manuscript with choral notes found alongside the Senese Constitution, written in 1309 in the Italian.

After admiring the Bibblioteca Piccolomini, we enter an adjacent room that displays two huge volumes. They embody the Constitution of Siena, which was written in 1309. What is so striking about this document is that unlike other official documents of the time that were written in Latin, the Costituto is entirely composed in Italian. Any Senese citizen who entered the Biblioteca would have had access to this text created for the sole of purpose of being consumed by the citizens. This is an extraordinary event for it tells us the degree to which this city was transparent and to a large extent, relatively democratic for its times. This is not a common text; rather because it was highly decorated one has to assume that the Senese people took pride in knowing that they could partake of a free political exercise.

As we continue our visit of the Biblioteca, we come across what is known as the Tavolette di Biccherna. As with any administrative practices, Siena kept annals for the purpose of recording birth, property owners and other form of transactions. In the beginning, these books were decorated with a wooden plate, known as a tavoletta. It was, at first decorated with rudimentary illustrations but as time went on, artists were summoned to create more sophisticated illustrations that gradually developed into fine paintings. These Tavolette di Biccherna, as they are called today, make up a wonderful expressive achievement of Senese art, highlighting history, famous people, landscape or the daily life citizens. The following Bicherna illustrates how the Senese people viewed their territory: a harmonious natural body of land destined to bring peace and prosperity to its inhabitants.

Extraordinary panorama of the Siena countryside, in the valley of the valleyThis image is often referred to as Il Tesoro of Siena: la Val d’Orcia. This extraordinary panorama of the Siena countryside, in the valley of the valley, is still unchanged, since the Middle Ages.

 This tavoletta, which goes as far back as 800 years, illustrates also how very little the Val D’Orcia, the Senese landscape, has changed. It is a remarkable testimony of the strength of the Senese people to hold on to their heritage. This is a powerful message for posterity in that a respect for the environment is not only essential, but also vital to state unequivocally our true commitment for those who come after us.

The story of Siena as a functional city and a benevolent government is unique in that it provides a blue print of what governing is all about. Siena has articulated a civic vision that had not been seen since the days of ancient Athens, whereby citizens work assiduously for the pursuit of the common good. It is an egalitarian view of government, allowing everyone to partake of civic life. In so many ways, Siena anticipates many centuries ahead of its time, during which the Age of Enlightenment took place, affording all citizens a Bill of Rights, whereby everyone is created equal. Most importantly, Siena sets the tone for maintaining a critical balance between the environment and political expansion. The Senese people have understood perhaps more than others that with leadership comes a civic and a social responsibility.

panforteThe Panforte of Siena is an ancient staple used by Crusaders in medieval times.

Trionfo di pasta fresca fatta a manoThis is senese’s pasta selection that may very well go with the Ribollita soup.

Montalcino CastleThe Montalcino Castle is in the area where the Brunello wine originates.


Siena’s contribution to civilization is immeasurable. On the gastronomic side, we are familiar with the so-called the Ribollita soup, which is a delectable dish that may be served with legumes and pork meat. We also enjoy a superb glass of Brunello di Montalcino wine, which has attained excellence throughout the world. Similarly, one cannot do without the Senese dessert known as Panforte, which has been around since the Middle Ages, when soldiers would take it along on their expeditions to the Crusades, as a fine source of complete nutrition. The Senese anticipated NASA’s ingenuity of creating compact food packaging, designed to sustain long-term shelf life. So, too, in the field of finances Siena is credited with an advanced banking system that became a model of Renaissance economic affairs. Ultimately, though, Siena’s legacy lies in its vision to create a livable society, taking into account the common good, whereby people could live in concert with one another, enjoying a civil protection in a system of equitable laws for all. Short of creating a parliamentary form of government, Siena ensured that every citizen had a voice in the administration of public affairs. As we mentioned earlier, Siena’s fate is inseparably connected to the events of the bubonic plague of 1346. Had it not been for these untoward natural calamities, the history of Siena may have taken on a different form. Perhaps, the enlightened view that all men are created equal that came to form the basis of the French Revolution as well as fueling the ideals of the American Revolution, could have taken place much earlier in Europe. This is, of course, highly speculative, but it suffices to say that Siena’s contribution to the free world registers extremely high, as a model of civic enlightenment for subsequent generations.

Siena, Tuscany, ItalyA panoramic view of Siena

The Making of St. Peter’s Basilica: History, Controversies and Genius at Work

by Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D. 

 Vatikan Panorama in Rom, Italien

A view of St. Peter’s in front of an Egyptian obelisk, which was brought to Rome some 2500 years ago.

Part I


For many centuries, on grounds of religious considerations, the Christian tradition at St. Peter’s Basilica was reluctant to initiate any sort of excavation beneath the base of the church. Thus, since its origin, there sat an incredible wealth of archeological, historical and religious accounts. Despite a long series of Popes who led the Church since the Fourth century AD, and a whole slew of visitors who came from all over the world, as well as artists, architects, sculptors, artisans and countless workers who helped to shape the Basilica into one of the world’s most admired holy grounds, the hidden treasures of the underground Vatican have been precluded from the public, as they have come to light only within the last few decades. Indeed, Pope Pius XII gave permission to begin archeological excavations in 1941 because when his predecessor, Pius XI, died in 1939, he let it be known that his greatest desire was to be buried as close as possible to St. Peter’s tomb. Much to their surprise, the archeologists came upon an impressive discovery: a Roman necropolis from the First and Second century CE, which was situated in the heart of Caligula’s and Nero’s arena.

Castore and Polluce Temple, Foro Romano, Rome

The Basilica was built on the grounds where there was a Roman arena.


It appears that the existing Basilica was built on the grounds known as ager Vaticanus (Vatican field), situated right where the arena was located. The grounds connected to the fortification, which today is commonly known as Castel Sant’Angelo. In the First century, Nero restructured Caligula’s arena. It was a huge circus, with an oval shape, used for performances and chariot races, as well as military training grounds. During the Great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero turned the area into a killing field, executing hundreds of Christians for their alleged role in the burning of Rome, which was presumably orchestrated by the Emperor himself. In time, the entire area became a necropolis. In the Fourth century, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the area was earmarked for the creation of St. Peter’s Basilica. This was a significant development in that all Christians were liberated and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Rise of the New Basilica under Constantine


What strikes the visitor upon seeing the necropolis beneath the Basilica is its decorative richness. Its walls are endowed with niches, arches and paintings; its floors are adorned with mosaics, sarcophagi, and cinerary urns, made out of marble or alabaster. St. Peter is buried here at approximately fourteen feet below the main altar. From the very onset, this became an area of worship with hundreds of worshippers making a pilgrimage from all over the world. It is believed that a modest tomb was built originally at around 160 CE and it resembled a little chimney.

Lights of the Vatican

The tomb of St. Peter bears the Greek inscription “Petrus eni,” Peter is here.


In 312 CE, before battling Maxentius over the control for the Empire, Emperor Constantine had a vision whereby the battle is seen as a divine intervention in the course of history. As a result of this religious experience, Constantine grants all Christians Roman citizenship, unconditional freedom and orders for the church of St. Peter’s to be built on the Vatican field. This was a monumental project in that it required leveling the grounds, which was compounded by having to build over the existing necropolis. The construction, which took many years, when completed, became one of the most beautiful religious site of its kind and it housed the holy seat of Christianity for nearly twelve hundred years, before it could be demolished, in the Sixteenth century, in order to make room for the current Basilica.

Arch of Constantine in Rome, ItalyThe Arch of Constantine, in honor of the Roman Emperor who changed the course of history when he converted to Christianity.

This imposing structure had a series of steps, leading to the main façade, which had three main doors and a bell tower, topped by a golden rooster. Upon entering the site, visitors would make their way onto a squared atrium, called the Paradise Garden, at the center of which there was a huge bronze fountain in the shape of a pine cone that can still be seen today in the Vatican Gardens. This was a symbolic fountain in that it spouted water as a source of spiritual cleansing for the visitors. Although the Basilica is no longer in place, we have a plethora of materials that have come down to us through the ages, by means of written testimony and pictorial accounts, the most notable of which is the detailed map drawn by the cleric Tiberio Alfarano who wanted to make sure that subsequent generations had a good view of what the church looked like.


An illustration by Tiberio Alfarano in 1567 illustrates how the original Basilica appeared.

Part II

Early History of the Basilica

After the church was built and Emperor Constantine had chosen Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, as the new location for the Byzantine Empire, Rome experienced a significant decline and ongoing pillaging at the hands of Goths and other Germanic tribes that invaded Italy on a periodic basis. Ironically, the Church itself suffered relative few damages as compared to cities and towns across Italy. The reason for this is that the Church was seen as inclusive and representative of all ethnic groups. In addition, many of the Goths gradually converted to Christianity. In contrast, the Saracens who invaded Rome in 843 CE were hardly benevolent, as they sacked the Basilica for all its gold and silver they could find. Fortunately, the golden rooster that topped the bell tower was not taken. This splendid sculpture can be seen today at the Vatican Museums, as a testament of what fine decorative pieces the old church may have contained. The rooster, of course, is a very symbolic icon in that it is intimately associated with St. Peter himself, because according to the New Testament he betrayed Christ three times, each time the rooster crowed.

Throughout the years, each pope worked assiduously to embellish and transform the Basilica into a veritable shrine so much so that by the beginning of the Eighth century, thousands of pilgrims would come to Rome from all over Europe on a weekly basis. The power of the Vatican grew by leaps and bounds, up until the Christmas of 799 CE when, Emperor Charlemagne was crowned by the pope, as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This must have been a memorable ceremony not only on account of the numerous visitors but also because the church was illuminated with thousands of candles. Raphael has given us a vivid account of this festive and historical occasion, which can still be seen in the so-called Constantine Hall.

The ascendance of the church was not always void of difficult moments. In 1300, the leadership of the Church suffered a major setback when Pope Boniface VIII decided unilaterally to institute a periodic Jubilee event, which would take place every twenty-five years. The Pope who arguably must have been one of the worse popes in the history of the Church, managed to alienate a considerable segment of European thinkers. They saw the Pope’s Jubilee as a ploy to sell indulgences and as a means to silence any papal opposition. Among the many intellectuals, Dante was particularly taken aback so much so that Pope Boniface VIII ends up in his Inferno, as one of the most corrupted popes that Christianity has ever experienced. So, too, many prelates were infuriated and as a result the Church reached the famous Schism, which saw the papacy moved to Avignon, France, for nearly a century.

As one can imagine, the Fourteenth century witnessed a regression with respect to the stride forward marked by the Church, thus far. In the absence of a vibrant papacy, the Basilica underwent a period of decadence. With the advent of the return of the papal seat to Rome, leaders began thinking seriously about a restoration project. This initiative coincides with a new way of thinking about how men ought to play their role on earth. This was the beginning of the Renaissance, which at the onset of the Fifteenth century was spreading like wildfire. The leaders of the Church began to seriously consider replacing the Basilica altogether in order to express a new world order. This was no easy project to undertake, as St. Peter’s Basilica was also seen as a holy ground.

To complicate matters, the old Basilica had a holy shrine around the tomb of St. Peter, which consisted of twelve pillars that originated from the Middle East during the Third century. It is believed that they came from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and that Jesus used one of its pillars to lean against it while praying. In addition to being one of the most beautiful churches of all times, there were many areas of the old Basilica that were intimately connected to history, which made its demolishing project a very complicated undertaking. The red marble floor piece, for example, with its circular design marked the exact area whereby the Emperor Charlemagne, supposedly knelt upon receiving the coronation as a Holy Emperor. So, too, the majestic holy door, which was entirely redone by Filarete in 1430, after the original one had been damaged by the Saracens. Filarete was a Florentine Renaissance artist whose bronze door depicts scenes from the New Testament and, most notably, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s crucifixion. Similarly, the famous mosaic of the Navicella (The Little Ship), created by Giotto around 1305, which occupied a large part of the wall, at the entrance of the old Basilica, was a work of art that made it difficult for anyone to part with. These, together with a multitude of treasures, constituted a substantial obstacle for the restoration project to move forward.

Finally, in 1450, Leon Battista Alberti, the famous Florentine humanist, architect, inventor and a scholar of the Renaissance, declared that the structure of the old Basilica was in danger of collapsing, thus recommending a new church, altogether. In the eyes of the humanists, the old Church was seen as a medieval structure and, as such, it was looked upon as an anomaly. The Church, on the other hand, interpreted these recommendations as sacrilegious, which needed to be strongly resisted. Thus, the project went from one hand to another, until Pope Julius II appeared on the scene.

Part III


The Building of the Second Basilica

The Moses in St. Peter Vincoli church

Michelangelo’s Tomb of Pope Julius II in St. Peter Vincoli Church. Arrogant, autonomous and a strong leader, Pope Julius II was determined to move the Basilica project ahead.


Julius II was an ambitious pope who came to be called “the warrior Pope” and felt he had infinite divine power, religious, political and otherwise. He was obsessed by the idea of making St. Peter’s Basilica the most magnificent sight in the world and he wished to be remembered as one of the greatest popes of all times. To this end, he needed to finance the project by increasing indulgences, even if it meant offending members of the curia outside Rome. Julius II was initially interested in creating his own tomb, as he wished to be remembered by posterity, in much the same way one can recall the feats of Julius Caesar. Ironically, this pope was motivated to serve his own agenda by having his own colossal tomb, before restructuring the Basilica. For this purpose, he called upon Michelangelo to design the project. Although the Florentine artist was only twenty-three when he was recommended for this monumental task, his reputation had already been established, first with the Pietà, David and then with the Tomb of the Medici family, in Florence. Much to his chagrin, Julius II soon realized that the old Basilica would not be able to accommodate for his lofty project. This is when he decided to go ahead for the construction a new church. He commissioned the architect Antonio da Sangallo who worked on a wooden model for eight years, before presenting it to the pope. Sangallo’s design, which can still be seen today at the Vatican Museums, is remarkably intriguing, as it measures approximately 16’x22’ in dimension.

Church of the Madonna di San Biagio in the vicinity of Montepulciano. Italy

The architecture of Sangallo in Montepulciano who was working on a wooden model of the Basilica, which was never brought to bear because the Florentine architect died prematurely.


Although Sangallo’s project envisioned a cupola, the two bell towers flanking the façade of the Basilica appeared to have detracted and obscured the beauty of dome. This may have been the reason why Julius II opted for Donato Bramante’s design. The work of Bramante envisioned a revolutionary concept based on a Greek rather than a Latin cross, as a base. The dome would rest on a square and the Basilica would not have five naves, as had been suggested by Sangallo. Bramante was an established architect in his own right. His famous work at Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, exhibited a remarkable dome in a perfect circular design resting on a cube. This geometrical effect gives the viewer an optical illusion of a cupola resting on a cubic structure. Pope Julius gave Bramante full approval for this project, but as destiny would have it, the famous architect and painter died in 1514, before he could even get started.

santa maria delle grazie, milano

Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan by Bramante whose model of the Dome failed to generate sufficient sunlight.

The work on the Basilica was proceeding slowly, because in addition to Julius’ death, which occurred at around the same time of Bramante, the Sack of Rome in 1527, brought about by the French troops, which created instability for the Church and the lack of funding to continue the project, all of which did not bode well with the Vatican whose ambition was to bring the work to a speedy conclusion.

Italia,Toscana,Firenze,David di Michelangiolo

A copy of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. The Florentine artist  had a tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius II.

When the work was resumed, Michelangelo was summoned by Pope Paul III in an effort to put a finishing touch on the Basilica. In 1546, Michelangelo was 71 years old and had no plans to get involved, as he had already accomplished so much. The Pope insisted and even promised to remunerate him with a hefty sum of money, but Michelangelo refused any monetary compensation and decided instead to take on the project for personal spiritual reasons. Michelangelo’s project was much more economically sound than the one originally conceived by Sangallo. He worked at a frenetic pace, utilizing as many as ten thousand artisans. He refined Bramante’s plans and in the course of two years the dome was erected and the basic structure of the Basilica was completed. For the creation of the dome, Michelangelo was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and the dome of Brunelleschi in Florence. The structure itself is made out of wood. Iron bands all around the dome were used to provide support and bricks covered the spaces. The artist himself, to ensure perfect results and to attain the desired effects, inspected the bricks, one by one, personally.

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican.

Michelangelo’s Dome set a new bar for architecture, which would be emulated throughout the world, most notably, the U.S. Congress, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and Les Invalides in Paris.


The Dome from the interior measures approximately 140 ft. in diameter, which is slightly smaller than Brunelleschi’s famous cupola in Florence and the Pantheon of Rome. What makes Michelangelo’s dome unique is that it provides ample light. It’s as if the Glory of God filters through the cupola on any given day. Michelangelo’s work set a new bar and his work becomes a model for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, Les Invalides in Paris and the United States Congress in Washington, DC. Although the lantern, which tops the cupola, was left unfinished, Michelangelo left behind specific instructions for subsequent architects to compete the work.

Upon completion of the Basilica, Michelangelo felt very strongly about leaving the house of worship bare. He voiced his opposition to any attempts to embellish the divine shrine because it would be in line with the simplicity of Christ himself. The artist’s wishes were not heeded, as every succeeding pope was deeply committed to the notion that St. Peter’s Basilica had to reflect splendor and grandiosity. Thus, a young artist emerged on the scene, just a few years after Michelangelo passed.

Part IV


A Sublime Experience

Piazza San Pietro, Colonnato, Roma

This is the Colonnato of Gian Lorenzo Bernini who was a painter, sculptor, architect, playwright and a universal man who single-handedly left his Baroque vision throughout Rome.


Gian Lorenzo Bernini was hardly twenty years old when his reputation as one of the greatest artists in Rome came to the fore. He was a universal man and had already created a whole series of statues for the Borghese Gallery. He was not simply a sculptor rather he excelled in every imaginable artistic form. He was a painter, a playwright, a poet, an interior decorator, an architect and an inventor. In short, he was a genius whose Baroque style left an indelible imprint on the city of Rome.

A prolific artist endowed with an uncanny ability to assemble hundreds of craftsmen, Gian Lorenzo Bernini became the uncontested coordinator of St. Peter’s Basilica. For six decades, he worked for many popes, most notably Urban VIII and Alexander VII for whom tombs he created in their memory.

The first major significant work by Bernini is the so-called Baldacchino, which is a highly decorative canopy that embellishes the main altar of the Basilica. It is a majestic structure, measuring 66 ft. in height and it stands perpendicularly above St. Peter’s tomb. It stands monumentally on four columns, which are decorated in bronze and they combine sculpture and architecture, an important development for Baroque art. The canopy is resting on the four helical columns, each of which stands on a marble pedestal. On the canopy stand four large size angels supporting a sphere, which represents the world redeemed by Christianity. The columns are shaped in a helical form that recall those of the original Temple of Solomon where, supposedly, Christ is said to have worshipped there.

St Peter's Basilica - baldachin

The Baldacchino by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is an imposing altar situated directly above St. Peter’s tomb.

Upon completion of the decorative aspects of the Basilica, Bernini undertook to create the largest Baroque square in the world in an effort to give the Basilica an eminent preamble, before entering the holy grounds. The effects are astonishing, as the Colonnato with 140 statues on top of the Doric style columns and adorned with Travertine marble, symbolically represent the arms of the Church, accepting every human being. The square is embellished with two symmetric fountains and at the center of which there lies the Egyptian Obelisk that was brought to Rome by Caesar Augustus. The obelisk represents the continuity of civilization in that the cultural chain between the east and the west is unbroken. On the square itself, between the Obelisk and the fountains there are white discs, whereby one can stand on it and see only one row of columns, rather than four, creating an optical illusion.

Roma - Citta' del Vaticano: Basilica di san Pietro

The Colonnato of Bernini decorates the largest Baroque square in the world.

The history of the two Basilicas is replete with so many accounts, all of which provide a narrative of amazing developments. With respect to the first Basilica, the history of the Catholic Church is unfolded within this context. As the Roman Empire was coming to a close due to the consistent invasions by the Huns, the Church provided a point of reference in the midst of social turmoil. It quickly established itself as a spiritual and political power throughout Europe. The Basilica was at the center of the dialog. The coronation of Charlemagne in 799 CE at St. Peter’s establishes the Church with a clear spiritual mandate in that no political leadership can flourish without the sanction of the Vatican. The building of the second Basilica, on the other hand, created a spiritual crisis within the Catholic Church that ultimately led to the Reformation. In their fervent desire to erect the greatest house of worship the Vatican coffers needed all the financial resources they could access. In doing so, the popes had to come up with creative schemes even if it meant risking a bitter reaction from the Northern curia, most notably Martin Luther who ended up heading the Protestant movement. In the final analysis, though, the Catholic Church survived its most severe challenge by virtue of great papal leadership, such as Nicholas V and Julius II. The former Pope Nicholas V, a Renaissance man, was truly a magical moment for the Catholic Church. He was a scholar and a humanist. He was well read in Latin, Green and Italian. He resolved the Schism that had been threatening the unity of the Church and invited nobles to the papal court. He resuscitated the concept of Jubilee or the Holy Year in 1450. Millions of people descended on Rome from all over Europe, on foot, on horseback, on ox cart, and by ship. These pilgrims braved the long voyage in order to receive a pardon for their sins and in return they helped fill the Vatican coffers, needed for the construction of the new Basilica. In short, he managed to establish St. Peter’s Basilica as the uncontested seat of Christianity. Julius II, on the other hand, as controversial as he was, succeeded in moving forth the notion that the artistic genius was needed to convey the Christian message to the people. Bringing Michelangelo to the Vatican and ultimately endorsing the universal genius of Gian Lorenzo Bernini accentuated the artistic expression to another realm, which was embraced by people from all walks of life. St. Peter’s Basilica is not just a house of worship it is a museum and a spiritual testament of mankind. It represents the power of creativity and of mankind in all its dimensions whereby one can experience the sublime. One cannot predict if the second Basilica can last twelve hundred years as did the first, but what is certain is that the creative geniuses of Michelangelo and Bernini will outlive the test of temporal time and it will forever engage the minds and imagination of future generations.


Angela, Alberto. San Pietro: Segreti e meraviglie in un racconto lungo duemila anni. Rizzoli: Milano, 2015.

Carmen C. Bambach and Claire Barry. Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. The MET: Yale University Pr., 2017.

Franco Mormando. Bernini: His Life and his Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Pr., 2015.