VATICAN CITY — Chips of weathered travertine stone fall from its face occasionally, like hail.
Parts of the 13 massive statues that tower above its rooftop railing threaten to plunge, in 200-pound chunks, onto the usually crowded stairway 151 feet below.
An ancient, rusted iron lightning rod stretches like a handrail along the classic stone balustrade where millions of tourists have stood for a spectacular view of the Vatican and Rome and where two despondent visitors in recent times have ended their despair by clutching the rod during electrical storms.
Such hazards, long a problem at the famous facade of Christianity's largest church, are finally being brought under control. St. Peter's Basilica is getting a face lift, its first since the facade was completed in 1614.
Spiderwork of Scaffolding
Behind a screen of netting that shrouds a spiderwork of scaffolding, scores of workers have been laboring since April to replace the weathered travertine facing, refurbish the timeworn windows above the columned portico, shore up the weakened statues and replace the old lightning rod with a new one tucked well out of harm's way.
Standing beneath the 18-foot statue of St. John the Baptist and beside one of a cross-bearing Christ at the center of the high balustrade, the technical director of the renovation project, architect Giuseppe Zander, pointed out a rusting cable that had been wrapped around John's massive right arm and neck to prevent the upraised 200-pound forearm from falling onto the steps below.
Old iron bars and braces, worn and rusted after 371 years, propped up other equally endangered statues of the apostles, each represented holding the instrument or weapon of his martyrdom.
"They're rather exuberant, these angels, and very heavy," Zander quipped as he explained how the statues are being carefully reinforced and their old iron support bars replaced by modern steel and copper.
Slightly Off Center
The statues, in fact, were particularly exuberant once in the early 1800s, when, Zander said, an earthquake caused them all to turn to the left. They still stand slightly off center.
The instruments of martyrdom held in the statues' hands were carved of wood, now long since rotted, and sheathed in copper. Each will be replaced with new wood and sheathing.
If left alone, Zander said, the statues might soon be obscured by trees and weeds from windblown seeds that settle in the cracks between facing stones along the eaves of the roof. The fertile cracks are being sealed with lead strips to prevent St. Peter's from sprouting an unwelcome arboretum.
Zander and two other specialists from the Vatican's Office of the Reverend Workshop of St. Peter's, with apparently unlimited financial backing from the largely American Knights of Columbus, have devised a plan under which the basilica's 65,000 square feet of facade will be refreshed so that it looks almost as it did when new.
The basilica was consecrated on Nov. 18, 1626, a dozen years after it was completed to replace the dilapidated, 1,300-year-old Basilica of Constantine, erected in AD 322 over what is still believed to be the tomb of St. Peter.
No Cleaning Planned
But it will not be cleaned, as have many of the ancient buildings and churches of Rome, because the original architects of St. Peters--Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Maderno and Bernini-- wanted the great basilica to look as it does.
"Architects of that time knew that their buildings would become covered by a patina of the ages," Zander said. "In fact, Carlo Maderno, the architect who completed the facade and the nave of St. Peter's, actually applied a patina-like coating to give the stone a feeling of age, and you can still see it, a slightly red color painted on some of the columns."
Fortunately, the patina of St. Peter's, while somewhat dirt-gray in appearance, does not contain corrosive dirt, owing to the protective distance from Rome's auto traffic provided by the broad expanse of St. Peter's Square flanked by Bernini's graceful colonnades, Zander said.
"We are leaving it on because it is protective," he said, "and because to clean it would take away what the original architect wanted. Besides, when you clean travertine, it looks like a face with a blotchy shave."
A consulting architect, Giorgio Rocco, who studied restoration of Greek monuments in Athens, said St. Peter's is a special case even in Rome because of its relative isolation from auto exhaust fumes and very different from ancient monuments in Athens, which have been corroded by airborne industrial acids.
Unlike many other very old buildings, St. Peter's remains structurally firm and sound. But its face, like that of an aging person, has suffered the ravages of centuries of weather.