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The Cantharus and Pigna at Old St. Peter's

Margaret Finch
Gesta
Vol. 30, No. 1 (1991), pp. 16-26
DOI: 10.2307/767006
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/767006
Page Count: 11
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Abstract

Renaissance drawings by il Cronaca and Hollanda show the Pigna (pine cone) and cantharus (or pool) of Old Saint Peter's enclosed by a tabernacle. According to arguments reviewed at the outset, the Pigna arrived at Saint Peter's in the eighth century. At issue are the presence of eight porphyry columns, provisions for a fountain, and marble slabs with reliefs of griffins. In the early medieval period, the colossal bronze carried three-fold significance: religious, political, and sepulchral. Religious meanings were attached to the pine cone in antiquity. The shape was employed by various cults as a familiar sign of rebirth. Political associations are traceable to the Delphic omphalos, which supposedly marked the center of the world. The idea of a hub became part of papal imagery and was echoed in Renaissance Rome by Michelangelo's piazza on the Capitoline Hill. Sepulchral connotations are implicit in the pine cone because tapered tombs were common in Mediterranean antiquity. In medieval Rome, such pyramidal tombs were called metae. Evidence of dating and conflated iconography comes from Charlemagne's palace in Aachen. A bronze pine cone installed there featured a base bearing representations of the Four Rivers of Paradise. When the Pigna was newly installed at Saint Peter's, the atrium in front of the church was given the name "Paradise." The drawings by il Cronaca and Hollanda depict decorations on the canopy featuring animal motifs, including bronze peacocks and dolphins. Both artists improvise details of the architrave; Hollanda shows a cross, and Cronaca renders motifs taken from the repertory of antique places of sacrifice. The Pigna at Old Saint Peter's marked the nucleus of the Roman Church and the burial place of St. Peter, the founder of Christian Rome.

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