The most difficult architectural problem Gianlorenzo Bernini ever faced was a staircase—a long, dark, ugly, treacherous set of stairs in the unseen part of the Vatican. It was the only way popes had to go down to St. Peter’s for Mass and it was scary as hell. Many old popes had to be carried down, which was as bad as trying to find their way themselves. On a swaying, tilting chair they held their breath as their grunting servants tried in the dark to find each step and get their footing. One hundred times.
Pope Alexander VII finally decided to end this daily Calvary. He called in Bernini. “Could you do something about those stairs? It’s getting to where I’m afraid to go down to Mass.”
“Can I do something?” said Bernini, a little too loud. “No, Holiness, I won’t. I won’t do ‘something’. Of that dingy tunnel of steps I’ll make the greatest stairs in Rome.”
Only then did he go and look at them. He liked a good problem and now he had one.
It wasn’t a nice space to fill. Most of it was a long, dark tunnel that varied in height and width. It started out low and narrow and ended tall and wide, like a long funnel.
But Bernini, as it turned out, was as good as his word. The stairway he made, the Scala Regia or Royal Stairs, is one of the most spectacular in the world. And his ingenious solutions to its problems have been helpful to architects ever since.
First, he vaulted the whole tunnel, which did away with the cave look of its ceiling and gave it a conforting regularity. The vault he supported with columns, which he put along the wall the entire length of the stairs.
The columns did more than hold up the vault. They deceived.
At the top, where the staircase was narrowest, Bernini set them against the wall and farther down where it widened, he moved them toward the middle, a little away from the wall. That way they were all in line and when you came from below and looked up, your eye followed the columns and you assumed the steps were the same width all the way up.
The columns weren’t the same height either. At the top of the long funnel where the ceiling was lower they were necessarily shorter. You noticed that but figured they only LOOKED shorter because of perspective.
A view from the bottom of the stairs:
Notice the row of columns and the contrived look of regularity. Notice their size. That giantness is typical of Bernini. Everything had to be larger than life. You might think that when you saw the sick little pope actually coming down those gigantic steps you would have to hide a smile at the contrast (the mountain and the mouse). But Bernini thought the giant size and all the marble fanfare transferred magnificence to the man, or at least to his position, his office. Inside St. Peter’s everyone feels child-size.
At the top of the great arch is Pope Alexander VII’s coat of arms.
The irregularity of the tunnel was only one of the problems. There were two others: its discouraging (for the climber) length and its darkness.Bernini broke the long flight of stairs into two and put a big, friendly landing halfway along. And above the landing he raised a dome to give an even greater feeling of space.
For light he opened a window beside the landing. And at the top of the stairs he put another window, which not only lit up the second flight but served as a sort of comforting goal-post for a climber.
Bernini’s decoration of the stairway didn’t end here. He sculpted an equestrian statue of Constantine for a landing just where the columns start. Read about that impressive statue in another post.
(The dialog in this post between Bernini and the Pope is fictional.)