Christopher Wren represents a new kind of architect, or more correctly, the reappearance of the old kind of architect, who was interested in architectural theory but also in the practical issues of design, process, and structure. He was, in short, a modern architect. Although a few of his contemporaries probably had some grasp of theory, none had the training or background that allowed them to develop it in any scientific way. Wren took an active role in the construction of his great cathedral, personally hiring and supervising the workmen, auditing and approving the accounts for materials and labor, and visiting the site each Saturday. Nowhere is his commitment to making architecture better seen than in the brilliant construction of the great dome, then the second largest in the world. It is in fact a triple dome. The outer hemispherical shell is timber framed and sheathed with copper. The inner saucer dome, 111 feet (34 meters) in diameter, begins at 173 feet (53.4 meters) above the floor at the crossing and is decorated with scenes from the life of St. Paul by Sir James Thornhill. At its center an oculus admits light to the interior from the lantern above. Therein lies the genius of Wren: in order to transmit the tremendous load of the stone lantern, reaching to 355 feet (109 meters) above the ground, he constructed a cone of brickwork hidden between the inner and outer domes. Wren is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and his epitaph stands upon his tomb; it reads in Latin Si monumentum requiris, circumspice—If you seek his monument, look around.

See also


Further reading

Downes Kerry. 1988. Sir Christopher Wren: The Design of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects Press.

Gray, Ronald. 1982. Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications.

Hart, Vaughan. 1995. St. Paul’s Cathedral: Sir Christopher Wren. London: Phaidon Press.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Vatican City, Italy

St. Peter’s Basilica is the central place of the Roman Catholic Church. From its inception, it took 225 years to complete. No fewer than sixteen architects were responsible for it, under the patronage of twenty-two popes. Nevertheless, the great building presents a degree of integrity, of harmony (perhaps helped by the mellowing passage of the centuries) that might seem improbable given its heterogeneous and sometimes philosophically conflicting sources; that ultimate unity of form and detail is in itself no small architectural feat.

In a.d 323, the first Christian Roman, emperor, Constantine the Great (died 337), commissioned a magnificent basilica on the Vatican Hill, south of the River Tiber. It was built with difficulty on the sloping site, its altar supposedly above the spot where St. Peter was believed to have been buried around a.d. 64, and dedicated to him. Twelve centuries passed from the building of Constantine’s basilica to the first phase of its demolition.

Between 1309 and 1377, for political reasons, the papal residence was at Avignon, France. Rome became derelict; according to some sources, packs of wolves roamed the streets. Its churches were neglected, and the old St. Peter’s descended into decay, its walls leaning and its frescoes encrusted with dust and grime. With the popes again in residence, around the middle of the fifteenth century Rome succeeded Florence as the center of the Italian Renaissance, and in 1452 Pope Nicholas V (reigned 1447–1455) commissioned the architect Bernardo Rossellino (1409–1464) to build a new apse for St. Peter’s west of the old one. Rossellino, who had already restored the church of San Francesco, Assisi, and many other buildings in Italy, proposed to surround the choir and transept, continuing the elongated Latin-cross plan. But only the tribune and foundations had been built when Nicholas V died and work stopped. Pope Paul II (1464–1471) passed the project to Giuliano da Sangallo in 1470, but none of the subsequent three popes pursued it.

Early in 1505 the warrior-pope Julius II (1505–1513) was considering what form his own tomb might take. The sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti designed an imposing monument, but it called for an appropriate setting. Julius decided to rebuild St. Peter’s, and late in 1505, a competition was held for the design. The winner was Donato Bramante, who, inspired