I wish I had Keith Miller's book when I entered St Peter's basilica for the first time! I will certainly take it with me on my next trip to Rome.
Miller leads the reader in via Bernini's Piazza San Pietro, a space which is "a zone of transition between a secular, democratic republic on one side, a scant 137 years old, and the rump of an ancient and granitically conservative theocracy on the other."
From there, the book proceeds to describe the origins and the history St Peter's: arguably the most important and the most famous church in the world. It was founded at the supposed site of St Peter's tomb and developed throughout centuries to become a place of unrivalled religious, artistic and social significance, a " church forever crowded with visitors pursuing different agendas: the tourists inconvenience the faithful, while the faithful baffle the tourists ".
It is huge: not only in space but in time and structure; and in the non-material sphere of the complex interplay of meanings, symbols and significances. Miller's book, intentionally combining cultural and political history, art criticism and travel writing, manages to reflect that hugeness without weighting the reader down with too much austere detail.
In addition to describing the history of the current re-built basilica and its precedesors, Miller devotes a fascinating chapter to excavations of the Roman and Early Christian tombs underneath St Peter's and finishes brilliantly with "perspectives". We are led to climb the dome (with a passing discussion of Michelangelo's role in its creation and an account of similar climb's role in " Dolce Vita") to gaze at the Rome itself and revisit the architectural counterpoints to St Peter's in the city, including Mussolini's Via Conziliazion and EUR. The analysis of perspectives moves up a gear in a brief account of buildings inspired or influenced by the basilica, from a multitude of Catholic churches of 17th and 18th centuries to the London (and Protestant) St Paul's to the Capital to the notorious design for the Great Hall of Germania by the Hitler's court architect, Albert Speer and culminates in the report of critical and literary responses to the building.
The earlier chapters dealing with the actual history of the current building are perhaps the most specialist and likely to overwhelm a lay reader. But even in those Miller effortlessly connects disparate strands of history, art and architecture into a rich palimpsest of a book, irreverent but not mocking, amused but avoiding the theatrical outrage that often characterises British attitudes to Catholicism in general and papacy in particular.
The sections (including a separate chapter) concerning art in the basilica are the crowning glory of "St Peter's" . Miller concentrates on a few works only (the mosaic copies of painting, several tombs, Michelangelo's Pieta), using them as starting pints for fascinating and informative discussion of diverse subjects, from the potted history of Opus Dei to the fates of post-Culloden Stuarts to mediations on the dynamic between religious and artistic, always aware of the historically changing meanings of art and often successfully attempting to recover the " period eye ". The florid Baroque of Bernini is and excellent candidate for such a treatment, initially revered, then condemned by many critics as corrupt, ridiculously affected and pretty rather than beautiful, to become recently fashionable again among the post-moderns.
At the end of "St Peter's" Miller provides excellent suggestions for further reading (even Dan Brown gets a mention) and concludes with a practical guidebook-like chapter that alone is worth the purchase price for anybody planning a visit.
" St Peter's " cries out for more quality illustrations. There is a plan in the introduction, but the images of the building itself, especially external ones, are a few and far between, scattered throughout the text which makes it harder to refer to them while reading. A (glossy) insert with illustrations would be a much better solution, and the plan should be on the fold-out sheet to allow for easy consultations.
Fervently erudite, stylish, occasionally flippant but always sensitive to the continuing aesthetic and political dialogue between the basilica and the surrounding city, both current and ancient, Miller's book is an ideal piece of background reading for those who treat preparations for sightseeing seriously. It is also a brilliant exploration of the art and architecture of a church that is as much an expression of the temporal power of the papacy as of the spiritual dimensions of Christianity and which still stands, abiding, the Mother Church of Catholicism, as it has been for the last one and half millennia.