This rare and precious parchment shows a view of old St. Peter's Square as it was before the changes made by Carlo Maderno in the early years of the 17th century for the construction of the new basilica and its façade.
The pope, wearing the papal vestments and the triple tiara, is shown on the gestatorial chair with its red canopy in the "Benediction Loggia". He is looking out and raising his right arm in blessing, surrounded by cardinals and acolytes and witnessed by a crowd of people standing in the square.
In the centre we see an armed guard, a member of the "Guardia dei Cavalleggeri" or "Cavalieri di Guardia di Nostro Signore", the corps entrusted with the pope's protection, wearing steel armour and a purple cloak ("sago"), mounted on a black horse and brandishing a lance with a yellow and blue pennant.
Thus the parchment depicts the apostolic blessing "Urbi et Orbi" traditionally imparted by the pope from the Benediction Loggia in St. Peter's after his coronotion or on Maundy Thursday, Easter Sunday or the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. A prototype for comparison purposes is the celebrated engraving by Étienne Dupérac, printed by Bernardo Faleti and dateable to 1567, depicting a blessing of Pope Pius V in St. Peter's Square (fig. 1), updated by Antoine Lafréry in the early 1570s (fig. 2) and by Ambrogio Brambilla a decade later.
fig. 1. E. Duperac, Blessing of Pope Pius V in St. Peter's Square
fig. 2. A. Lafréry, Papal Blessing in St. Peter's Square
If we examine these in detail, we can make a fairly accurately guess as to our own parchment's date. The absence of the church's definitive façade, which was constructed to a design by Carlo Maderno between 1607 and 1612, and the even more relevant presence of the bell tower on the "Palazzo dell'Arciprete" on the left and of the 15th century "Benediction Loggia", both of which were demolished starting in 1610, allow us to date our parchment to no later than that year.
By the same token, it cannot be dated earlier than 1586, the year in which Domenico Fontanta moved the obelisk into the square by order of Pope Sixtus V; but there is another element which can reduce that "window" even further. The presence of the main dome and two minor domes shifts the earliest possible date forward to 1590, when Giacomo della Porta completed Michelangelo's gigantic project after labouring for three whole years.
Thus the square is depicted as it looked between 1590 and 1610, and is as valuable from a documentary standpoint as the views shown in an unsigned drawing in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel (fig. 3) and a drawing attributed to Federico Zuccari and dated 1603 now in the Getty Museum (fig. 4).
fig. 3. Anonymous artist, View of St. Peter's Square, first decade of the 17th century, drawing,
Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek
fig. 4, F. Zuccari, View of St. Peter's Square, c. 1603, drawing,Los Angeles,
The J. Paul Getty Museum
The characteristics of the parchment – without margins and mounted on a probably coeval wooden tablet – together with the miniaturism pervading the view suggest that it was originally intended for use as the frontal decoration for the drawer of a cabinet, probably a "monettiere" or coin cabinet, known as a "studiolo" in Rome at the turn of the 16th century.
It is thus highly likely that our parchment was the work of a Flemish artist working in Rome, where workshops run by painters from Flanders were busily introducing new techniques and categories to the papal capital, constantly interacting with the output of local craftsmen specialised in the production of such cabinets. An outstanding Flemish artist in this field was Jan van Santen, known as "Giovanni degli Studioli", who devoted the early part of his career to this kind of work before going on to become the Borghese family's "in-house" architect. The view, meticulously accurate yet painted with rapid, cursive brush strokes, echoes early 17th century Flemish examples modelled on the work of Antonio Tempesta and Paul Bril, but the hand could belong to an Italian artist working in one of these workshops. In any event, we should consider it an unfinished work and thus it may never have reached its final destination, being reused instead as a cabinet picture. The inscription on the stair around the obelisk remains a mystery, although investigation prior to the parchment's restoration has revealed that it was added at a later date. The long and currently indecipherable acronym is likely to refer to an owner, or else to an artist who reused it for a different decorative purpose. The presence of a "W" certainly points to an individual from northern Europe, and a historical and topographical interpretation of the subject depicted – also taking into account the still "16th century" style of the figures' costumes – suggests that the parchment was produced at the turn of the 16th century.