Vatican "School of Arts and Crafts" has students again

Stonemasons, masons, marble workers, decorators, carpenters... These and other ancient trades will be learned by the 20 students who this year begin a peculiar academic journey in "St. Peter's Factory", the oldest professional workshop in the world, inside the Vatican walls.

Leticia Sánchez de León-January 27, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
san pedro factory

Photo: Mausoleum of the Valerii family in the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica restored by the Fabbrica di San Pietro ©CNS photo/courtesy of Fabbrica di San Pietro

250 years away, but with a historical continuity of several centuries, the so-called "St. Peter's Factory" in the Vatican inaugurated last January 16 its new "School of Arts and Crafts", where the centuries-old skills that have kept St. Peter's Basilica standing since the 15th century will be taught.

A work of centuries

Anyone who visits St. Peter's Basilica (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982) can get an idea of the work involved in its conservation and routine maintenance. It is the so-called "St. Peter's Factory", which has been working on it for several centuries since its construction. Moreover, the Factory, according to the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 1988 of Pope John Paul II, "will continue to take care of everything concerning the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles, both for the conservation and decoration of the building, and for the internal discipline of the custodians and of the pilgrims who come to visit the temple".

In addition to the daily work - and very much in the future, one might add - the Factory wants to continue transmitting this "practical knowledge", "within an educational community, where the spirit of fraternity and the integral human growth of each person prevails, as an alternative to loneliness and the growing professional individualism", according to the press release published on the occasion of the inauguration of this academic year 2023.

Craftsman by profession

This marks the beginning of the "pilot" course with 20 students - twelve boys and eight girls - from Italy, Peru, Germany and Belarus, who will learn the centuries-old trades for the conservation and repair of the great basilica under the guidance of the highest masters of the factory.

Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, president of the Factory and of the Fratelli Tutti FoundationThe two entities promoting the initiative, emphasized at the opening ceremony that "students will learn traditional crafts, adapted to new technologies to monitor the state of conservation of paintings, marble, stucco and mosaics".

It is, therefore, an ambitious project that is expected to last, following the path initiated in the eighteenth century when the Factory instituted the Pontifical Studio of the Arts, which was attended by young masons, stonemasons, carpenters, etc., and which made the institution a technical center of excellence.

At that time, attendance at the School was free and was aimed at young artisans from all over Rome: it was open in the afternoons and on holidays to allow students to work in the morning. Even then, the aim was to pass on to the new generations the traditional technical knowledge and skills necessary for the conservation of the great church.

According to the press release issued by the Holy See on the occasion of the inauguration of the new "School of Arts and Crafts", the objective pursued is twofold; on the one hand, the personal and human growth of the young people admitted and, on the other hand, a clearly academic objective: the students will have to develop their manual skills, and will learn everything necessary about the materials used as well as the technological and technical skills appropriate to each type of material or work.

It is planned that each academic year will include cycles of theoretical lectures as well as seminars. There will also be guided visits to various Italian locations. Students "must be fluent in Italian and have a humanistic background, with studies in Art History," explain the organizers.

A workshop with history

The history of the Fabbrica di San Pietro dates back to the 15th century, during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas V, when work began on the reconstruction of the choir of St. Peter's Basilica. At that time it became evident that there was a need for an adequate management of the imposing work of the basilica and for an internal organization especially dedicated to dealing with the innumerable difficulties involved.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the configuration of the organization was not yet well defined when Pope Julius II decided to start working on the reconstruction of the Constantinian basilica, which at that time was in ruins.

It was in the last months of 1505, during the reconstruction works, that the pontiff initiated a precise and clearly delineated configuration of the San Pietro Factory as an institution specifically charged with the maintenance of the work of the 16th century. Specifically, he entrusted to a group of people the task of "presiding over the great work and collecting the oblations of the faithful for such a pious and praiseworthy work" through the Apostolic Constitution Liquet omnibus.

In 1523, Pope Clement VII, in order to obtain stricter technical and administrative control and to eliminate certain abuses that had occurred, appointed a commission of sixty members chosen from among the officials of the Roman Curia, belonging to all nationalities and with special knowledge in architectural, economic and legal aspects, to take charge of the construction and administration of the Basilica.

This "college" had full decision-making autonomy and was under the immediate dependence of the Holy See, being invested with the broadest powers; in fact, it had its own tribunal and its own representatives in the twenty-four "commissariats" of the Papal States.

At the end of the 16th century, the final works of the basilica were completed and at the beginning of the 17th century Pope Paul V definitively instituted the Sacred Congregation of the Fabric of St. Peter and made it a pontifical congregation.

During the following years, the competencies and attributions of the Factory changed; the tribunal and all its representations were abolished; some procedures were streamlined and others were eliminated. Some members of the Congregation were summoned to meet monthly in the so-called Particular Congregation and thus a small management group began to emerge, called to untangle the juridical, administrative, organizational and technical knots aggravated by the succession of planners.

With the 1908 reform of Pope Pius X, the Congregation was reduced to deal exclusively with the administration of the Fabbrica, and in 1967, following the general reform of the Roman Curia carried out by Pope Paul VI, the Congregation ceased to exist as such and was counted among the Palatine Administrations. With the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus In 1988, the Factory's competencies were established and remain so to this day.

Tens of thousands of people visit the Basilica every day, accessing various areas, each with its own conservation and maintenance conditions: the dome, the Vatican grottoes, the Vatican Museums, the so-called "Scavi" or archaeological excavations under the present Basilica where the foundations of the first church were built and where the tomb of St. Peter is located.

It is clear that the Vatican Basilica, because of its size and historical-artistic richness, requires continuous maintenance and disciplined organization of repairs and conservation of all the works of art it contains, so it can be said that the work carried out by the employees of the St. Peter's Factory is irreplaceable. The know-how centenary will continue to be passed on to young artisans, at least during this course.

The authorLeticia Sánchez de León

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