Dominating the Roman skyline, St. Peter’s Basilica has become an inherent symbol of the Eternal City and its enduring Catholic tradition. Maintained to mark the Apostle Peter’s grave, St. Peter’s Basilica is a must-visit site for tourists, pilgrimaging Catholics, and art history students around the world. Since master Renaissance and Baroque artists including Bramante, Michelangelo, Moderno, and Bernini played a role in the current design of the church, I unsurprisingly studied St. Peter’s Basilica many times in my art history and European history classes.
I have always been particularly interested by St. Peter’s Basilica due to its rich collection of architectural, sculptural, and painted elements. Also, as someone who has visited the Vatican City as a tourist, I understand the impressive visual experience that the site provides. However, it was not until I returned to Rome for a second time as a study abroad student that I truly understood the importance of space and place in relation to history and even Catholic social activism.
Tourists flock to St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in Christendom. Yet, there is also a large amount of individuals who congregate in the basilica’s preceding open square, Piazza di San Pietro. This large, pincher-shaped space is created by Gianlorenzo Bernini’s surrounding, double-columned portico. The unique shape of Piazza di San Pietro is not simply due to Bernini’s artistic discretion, it was a choice that considered social justice. As Bernini explained in his memorial for the project written between 1657 and 1659, the piazza should not only be beautiful, but also serve rich and poor Catholics alike. As opposed to a square design, the space marked out by Bernini’s colonnade allows all who stand in the piazza to see the basilica’s benediction window and receive the Pope’s blessing. Also, the oval-shaped piazza appears to reach out into the community and pull its adherents in towards the basilica. Bernini’s project manipulates space to serve as an act of social justice.
When I was studying abroad in Rome, I volunteered my time along with other students to distribute food to the homeless in the Vatican. We aided a group of Romans who have been organizing this food distribution every Friday for about fifty years! Stationed at the mouth of Piazza di San Pietro, I saw Bernini’s social mindedness come to life: the privileged and the humble coming together under the light of the Catholic Church (literally!) to love their neighbor.
This past week as Ramonat Scholars, we were able to see how Dorothy Day’s social justice, like Bernini’s, was largely influenced by the implications of space and proximity. Dominic A. Pacyga, an expert on Chicago history, gave the class a tour of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the old meatpacking district of Chicago that Dorothy Day would have been familiar with. We learned of the heinous working conditions of this industry in the early-twentieth century. The meatpacking industry was in stark contrast to the grandiose buildings that were being built elsewhere in Chicago like the Carson Pirie Scott Building and Cultural Center. These expensive and richly-decorated structures loomed over the struggling immigrants and laborers that crowded the streets. Although undeniably beautiful, these buildings represented the economic disparities and injustices of a newly-industrial Chicago. The close proximity of these two realities in Chicago in the early-twentieth century was the Chicago that Dorothy Day was familiar with and no doubt inspired her social activism.
Bernini’s project in the Vatican and Dorothy Day’s experiences in Chicago reveal social justice’s heavy dependence on spatial proximity. Social activism is often started from exposure to injustices in one’s own backyard and continues to be focused on changing the status of a space to embody a higher standard of dignity. Ultimately, Catholic social activism is not about seeing Jesus only in a greater being, but seeing Him in the person sitting right next to you.
Lavin, Irving. Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Vol. II. London: The Pindlar Press, 2009.