The Basilica of St. Paul's outside the Walls is probably best known today for its spectacular incineration in 1823. Its picturesque and melancholy ruins were powerfully described by Stendhal (246) and other writers, and they were memorialized in evocative views by leading engravers and painters. To many readers of this journal, those views may be more familiar than the basilica's extant replacement, widely regarded as a cold and lifeless counterfeit.
In his commendable book St. Paul's outside the Walls, Nicola Camerlenghi brings the lost basilica back to life through a combination of traditional print-based research and digital visualization. Conceived as a contribution to the burgeoning genre of lives or “biographies” of buildings, the book traces the basilica's evolution through six stages: its imperial founding (386–410), early transformations (410–700), liturgical changes and fortification (700–1050), monastic reform and a golden age (1050–1423), rebirth and modernization (1423–1655), and new appreciation and restoration (1655–1823). An initial chapter describes the site and the small basilica over the tomb of Saint Paul that preceded the book's subject, and an epilogue covers its demise.
The introduction lays out the importance of the basilica and the author's biographical approach. As built by order of the three emperors reigning in 386, St. Paul's was the last and largest imperial basilica in Rome. It was a magnificent building, but, in Camerlenghi's view, a book devoted only to its original state would be insufficient. His subject is “the enduring Basilica,” which he describes at any given point after its construction as an “assemblage of stages” (20). The introduction also addresses the salient methodological problem: all of the stages disappeared in 1823. The architectural history of the Middle Ages is full of such absent protagonists. Scholars and teachers routinely discuss them on the basis of two-dimensional plans and elevations derived from archaeological research and verbal and graphic historical sources. In a significant innovation, Camerlenghi supplements these traditional representations with ten digital models, which in aggregate produce a “virtual basilica” that includes the dimension of time. The construction of the models is thoughtfully described in an appendix.
In addition to their heuristic value, the models expand the audience for the book considerably. Still frames created by Evan Gallitelli make the stages of the basilica visually accessible in a way that two-dimensional plans and elevations cannot. The book includes such traditional graphics as well, and it offers many rewards for specialists, but it is above all the models that convey the author's vision of “a survey course packed into a single building” (7). The text is concomitantly teacherly: clear, sometimes informal, self-explanatory. Chapters end with helpful reiterations of their main points.
The basilica inaugurated in 386 was the grandest and finest Christian building ever constructed in medieval Rome. It replaced a relatively tiny church credited to Constantine (d. 337), with the evident purpose of elevating the stature of Saint Paul's martyrium to that of his fellow apostle Peter on the Vatican Hill. St. Paul's had the same components as St. Peter's basilica (atrium, nave and four aisles, transept, and apse), but it was bigger and better designed. The apostle's tomb, virtually hidden on the chord of the apse in St. Peter's, stood on display in St. Paul's at the crux (or “core”) of the building, the intersection of transept and nave. Instead of the assorted spolia decried by Giorgio Vasari at St. Peter's, the colonnades of St. Paul's comprised purpose-made white marble shafts (fluted in the nave) with Corinthian and Composite capitals. In another departure, the columns all carried arches rather than architraves, creating a buoyant, spacious, and decidedly postclassical elevation. Medieval architects recognized St. Paul's superiority, and Camerlenghi rightly observes that the paradigmatic churches of the eleventh- and twelfth-century Roman Reform adopted St. Paul's design rather than St. Peter's, even though the latter had greater prestige.
The early stages of Camerlenghi's biography contain some surprising revisions, such as the attribution of the paintings covering the flat walls of the nave to Emperor Honorius around 403–4, rather than to Pope Leo I (440–61). This makes St. Paul's the prototype, not the follower, of the similar decoration of St. Peter's and “countless” later churches (73). The replacement of twenty-four (of forty) original columns in the nave with pavonazzetto spolia is redated to the seventh century, and the contributions of Leo I are redefined as primarily liturgical.1 Camerlenghi explains the north–south wall on columns that bisected the transept, which he convincingly attributes to the antipope Anacletus II (1130–38), as not just a pragmatic repair but a “stroke of theatrics” that “ordered the spiritual experience” of the transept (157, 159).
But for the dividing wall, St. Paul's endured into the nineteenth century with remarkably few structural changes. This is not to say that its biography was uneventful; on the contrary, St. Paul's witnessed multiple physical disasters, restorative interventions, and bursts of beautification offset by neglect and even abandonment. Nevertheless, excepting the continual need to replace collapsed or rotted roof beams, the most dynamic part of the building was the “sacred core”: a multilevel installation comprising the apostle's tomb, crypts, an altar over the tomb, and a repeatedly reconfigured liturgical precinct around the altar. Much of Camerlenghi's digital modeling is devoted to analysis and reconstruction of the many phases of this setup, and the stills that illustrate chapters 3–6 are a boon to students of relic worship and liturgy. Some (like the wonderful fig. 5.13) are literally worth a thousand words.
Over time, the basilica suffered from its location, more than 2 kilometers south of the city wall on the Tiber riverbank, and from its size. The site was prone to floods and disease. The size all but precluded routine maintenance. While the dividing wall halved the span of the transept roof and enabled its repair, the nave still required beams more than 24 meters long. The end of its “golden age” in 1423 found the basilica partially unroofed, “full of wind, rain, snow and hail,” occupied by pilgrims cooking their meals and “reveling in drunkenness” and by shepherds with their herds “as if it was a barn” (181). Readers who know the Roman paintings of Hubert Robert (1754–65) can picture the tents and laundry lines strung from the colossal column shafts, the campfires, and the animals. Such temporary installations left no quantifiable traces, and the book makes no attempt to model or reconstruct them. The focus on the sacred core tends to play down the recurring episodes of ruination in the nave, but like the other giant basilicas of Rome, St. Peter's and the Lateran Cathedral, St. Paul's lived much of its later life like impoverished nobility, sometimes in shocking decrepitude.
Chapter 6 lays out the repairs and liturgical remodelings of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, including the repainting of the murals in the nave and the near miss of a radical remodeling by Francesco Borromini aborted on the death of Pope Innocent X (1655). In 1680 the basilica was again “deserted and abandoned” (215). In the eighteenth century it attracted the new historical sensibility of the Enlightenment (chapter 7), served as a stop on the grand tour, and became a candidate for modernization. A competition to design its reconstruction was held in 1758, and only lack of funds kept the basilica intact. In his epilogue, Camerlenghi recounts the debates over how to replace it post-1823, as it was or in a modern design by Giuseppe Valadier; the pope's decision in 1825 to reconstruct it with “no innovation” (252); and the practical and neoclassical alterations that Pasquale Belli and Luigi Poletti nevertheless introduced. These later chapters provide opportunities for reflection on changing theories of architectural renovation all'antica or alla moderna and David Hume's position (articulated in 1739–40) that “an entity transcends its material state” (267). Camerlenghi's term “self-spoliation” to designate the reuse of material elements from one phase of the building in a later one merits more discussion; to me the practice seems more like salvage, the taking of tokens, or the keeping of souvenirs (204, 260).
Camerlenghi's book is deeply researched and exceptionally well illustrated, with a generous selection from the 1,400 historical images that he discovered in museums, libraries, and photo archives. The digital stills set a new bar for the publication of multiphase churches, even if they isolate new features from the entropy (also a dynamic process) that surrounded them. The models are available online, and the author generously encourages others to download and make use of them (273).2 This is the proverbial icing on the cake. Remarkably, Camerlenghi's biography is the first book in English on this seminal building of Western Christendom. We can be thankful that it is such a good one.
The seventh-century date was demonstrated by Paolo Liverani, “S. Paolo f.l.m. e i restauri di Eusebius (ICUR II, 4794),” in Marmoribus vestita: Miscellanea in onore di Federico Guidobaldi (Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 2012), 2:867–81.
See “St. Paul's outside the Walls: A Virtual Basilica,” https://n2t.net/ark:/81428/v81593 (accessed 28 July 2021).