Vatican launches massive restoration effort of baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica

By Claire Giangravé
Posted Jan 12, 2024

[Religion News Service — Vatican City] Four hundred years after its creation, the famed baldachin that sits above the tomb of St. Peter in Rome will be restored ahead of the 2025 Jubilee year in what experts described as a titanic undertaking during a news conference at the Vatican on Jan. 11.

Nearing 100 feet tall and weighing over 60 tons, the bronze and metal structure decorated with gold details towers beneath the dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. The term “baldachin” derives from an ancient name of the city of Baghdad, Iraq, known for its precious fabrics. Four spiraling, 36-foot-tall bronze columns placed on 8-foot-tall marble blocks support a canopy made to resemble richly adorned cloths.

Since famed architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, along with a team of master artisans and artists, completed the imposing structure, the baldachin has suffered significant decay. The Fabbrica of St. Peter’s, which handles the maintenance of the basilica, teamed up with Microsoft to take 6,000 detailed pictures of the baldachin using drones, which revealed that the structure was in dire need of repair.

The sheer size of the baldachin represents a challenge for restorers. The tight schedule, which promises to unveil the newly restored structure in December, just in time for the Holy Year, makes it a massive undertaking.

“Everything is big in St. Peter’s, and this challenge is also big,” said Alberto Capitanucci, who leads the technical team at the Fabbrica of St. Peter’s, during the news conference.

The decay of the baldachin is also caused by the large number of visitors who come to view the basilica, sometimes as many as 50,000 in a single day. This alters the temperature and humidity enough to corrode the bronze and iron of the structure and to cause the constant expansion and compression of the wood.

“A prerogative of planning the work is the awareness of coming up against a giant,” said Pietro Zander, responsible for overseeing the tombs and artwork at the Fabbrica. “It’s a giant for art history, but above all a giant for its shape and size.”

“We are about to embark in a titanic endeavor,” he added.

The bright gold ornaments of the structure, especially at the top, are covered in a dark coat caused by fatty substances used to restore the baldachin in 1758, when a team of 60 experts worked for years on the project. Almost 250 years later, only a dozen people will work on restoring the baldachin using the latest technologies to assess the alloys, materials and a few mysteries.

At the base of the winding columns, inspired by the original columns’ position by the tomb and supposedly taken from King Solomon’s Temple, there are quirky and unexplained details that have puzzled art historians and enthusiasts alike. Small, gilded reliefs of a fly, a rosary, a lizard eating a scorpion and a reptile appear on the baldachin.

“The restoration will lead to many discoveries,” Zander predicted, including how it was built and the alterations that occurred during the restoration.

The restorers will be able to get close to the baldachin using a large structure that will enclose it completely. Masses and liturgies will still be able to take place in the basilica, reassured Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, who oversees the running of the basilica and heads the Fabbrica.

“The baldachin, as tall as a 10-story building, can be seen from any point in the basilica. It is the focal point of the basilica,” Gambetti said during the news conference. “The provisional works and the works on the construction site will not hinder the celebration of papal ceremonies on the main altar. Indeed, just as during the construction of the basilica, it will be possible to continue celebrating Holy Mass at Peter’s Tomb.”

The impressive undertaking will also need significant financing. For this, the Vatican has turned to the U.S.-based Knights of Columbus, a lay Catholic men’s organization with over 2 million members that has already collaborated with the Vatican on 16 artistic projects. The Knights will cover the full 700,000 euro bill for the restoration.

“The decision to support the restoration of the Baldacchino of St. Peter’s was an easy one for the Knights of Columbus. Why are we doing this?” said Patrick Kelly, the supreme knight of the organization. “Well, in the first place … it’s Bernini’s Baldacchino!”

Speaking at the presentation event at the Vatican, Kelly said the restoration is also an opportunity for the Knights of Columbus to fulfill its mission.

“It’s a singular masterpiece of sacred art — one which is instantly recognizable and impressive,” he said. “But, if that weren’t enough, this project also fits very well with our mission and with our history of service to the church, and especially, the successors of St. Peter.”