From February to December 2024, the Holy See will restore Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, officials announced at a press conference in Rome on January 11, 2024. The work, which will cost some 700,000 euros, has been authorized by Pope Francis and will be financed entirely by the Knights of Columbus.
Rising above the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, the baldachin is intended to highlight “Peter’s presence in the Confessio of the Vatican,” the sacred space where the tomb of the apostle and first pope is located below the altar, explained Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, and president of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the entity in charge of the building’s maintenance and restoration.
As “high as a 10-story building,” Bernini’s baldacchino is “the hinge around which the entire architecture of the basilica revolves,” he added.
A magnificent work of collaboration
The baldacchino was commissioned in 1624 by Pope Urban VIII from his personal architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with the help of basilica architect Francesco Borromini who ensured that the work’s proportions were appropriate for the building. Although the cooperation between the two men was not without its tensions, they managed — with the help of numerous talented founders, sculptors, carpenters and workers — to complete the project in 1634 after just 10 years of work.
Nearly 100 feet high and weighing over 60 tons, the baldacchino is made up of marble pedestals some 8 feet high, and 36-foot-tall partially gilded twisted bronze columns supporting cornices and decorated draperies on all four sides. The structure’s wooden ceiling is adorned with gilded bronze elements, including angels nearly 13 feet tall.
No major deterioration of the metal
Given the deteriorating condition of parts of the baldacchino, “we couldn’t remain idle,” explained engineer Alberto Capitanucci, technical manager of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, who reported that the last restoration was carried out in 1758.
A meticulous inspection of the construction was carried out with the help of the Holy See’s fire department and by Microsoft — thanks in particular to the use of drones. This made it possible to make a model of the baldacchino and an estimate of the extent of the damage, most of which is located in the upper part of the monumental work.
While there is no “major deterioration of the metal,” heavy “dark patinas” consisting of “greasy substances” and “atmospheric particles” — dust — have encrusted certain surfaces, both bronze and marble. In addition, some inlays and wooden structures are said to be “in the process of peeling off.” The massive influx of tourists and pilgrims, sometimes up to 40,000 in a single day, has an impact on the condition of the entire basilica, he explained.
Ready on time for the upcoming Holy Year
The work begins on February 12 and is due to be completed in early December “just before the opening of the Holy Door.” It should not prevent the various ceremonies usually celebrated at the Altar of the Confession, those of Holy Week and Easter in particular, announced Cardinal Gambetti.
The work involves the installation of a sort of “Russian doll” of scaffolding that will encompass the baldacchino, while allowing access to the basilica’s high altar, explained Pietro Zander, head of the necropolis and artistic assets at the Fabbrica.
Zander said the work is designed to ensure that the baldachin is “returned to the faithful in its restored integrity and original splendor at the beginning of the next Holy Year,” which Pope Francis will inaugurate in December 2024. They will require the work of a team of 10 to 12 people.
The Knights of Columbus
Present in 13 countries, the Knights of Columbus are major patrons of the arts in the Catholic world. According to their most senior official, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly, the organization raised $185 million and devoted 49 million hours of volunteer work to charitable and devout causes in 2023.
This is not the first time that the Knights of Columbus have financed this type of project in the Vatican. In the past, they have restored 16 structures or works of art, including the famous wooden crucifix in St. Peter’s Basilica.