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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Tempietto del Bramante in Rome

What is Tempietto del Bramante?

Tempietto del Bramante is a small circular temple built by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante in the early 16th century on the orders of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Tempietto del Bramante in Rome

Tempietto del Bramante History

It was once (incorrectly) believed that St Peter, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, was crucified on this very site, and so a church was built in commemoration. It was granted by Pope Sixtus IV to Amadeo de Silva, his fellow Franciscan (Sixtus was a Franciscan friar before he was pope) and personal confessor, in order to revitalise the site which was occupied by only two nuns at the time. In 1481, the 9th-century church was rebuilt at the expense of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, in the hope that this ‘would ensure the birth of a male heir to the Spanish throne’. 20 years later, the royal couple commissioned Donato Bramante, arguably the finest architect in Renaissance Italy (who designed St Peter’s Basilica around the same time), to construct a memorial to the saint on what was believed to be the exact site of Peter’s martyrdom.

In response, Bramante produced this tempietto (or ‘little temple’), a small circular structure beset by 16 granite Doric columns, clearly inspired by the architect’s study of ancient Roman temples of the same shape. The structure, which embodies the ideals of classical harmony and proportion, is considered an iconic representation of Renaissance architecture. So much so, in fact, that other notable architects of the era featured the temple in their works, praising its splendid design. Sebastiano Serlio included a plan of Bramante’s building in his 16th-century treatise, whilst Andrea Palladio included it in his survey of ancient temples, since Bramante was ‘the first to bring back to light the good and beautiful architecture that from antiquity to that time had been hidden’: high praise indeed.

Given the fact that the interior is a mere four and a half metres in diameter, the temple is, unsurprisingly, too small for the celebration of ecclesiastical rites. In that sense, it’s a purely symbolic and celebratory monument. Its architectural features, too, play a symbolic role. On both the exterior and interior you’ll see that Bramante included shell niches, or small alcoves in the stonework in the shapes of shells. These niches honour Peter as a fisherman and recall a passage of the Bible in which Jesus invites Peter to become a fisher of men, helping to bring people into the kingdom of God. The shells are also said to be a reference to James, another fisherman of the Apostles, who first introduced Christianity to Spain (remember the temple was built at Spanish royal expense). St James was (and still is) venerated on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which pilgrims would wear shells on their garments.

At the centre of the structure, exposed in the circular crypt (and also visible through an opening in the paved floor), is the supposed point where, according to the legend, the inverted cross of St Peter’s crucifix was driven into the earth.

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