Just who dusts that 95-foot pillar?

High-flying cleaning cohort has handled St. Peter’s for centuries

At this time of year — even more so this year — thoughts turn to spring cleaning.

That’s always a big project, but can you imagine cleaning a house that covers 163,000 square feet and tops out at 448 feet high?

Emanuele Roncaccia lowers himself from above the baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica in order to clean parts of the altar canopy in this 2012 file photo. (CNS photo | Paul Haring )

That’s the job for the workers of the Fabric of St. Peter (Fabbrica di San Pietro) at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Affectionately known as the Sanpietrini (or Sampietrini), these men (there are some women who work with mosaics) clean the basilica every day – and give the famous baldachin over the main altar a cleaning twice a year. Those times are just before Christmas and Easter, as well as a sprucing up for the feast of SS. Peter and Paul on June 29.

These people are experts — not only at plumbing, painting, masonry, electrical work and, yes, cleaning — they know the basics of mountain climbing.

The baldachin — the four-columned canopy that surrounds the main altar — is 95 feet tall and adorned with larger than life angels and putti (what we like to call “child cherubs”). Made of bronze and gilt, it weighs over 500 tons. The work was the brainchild of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who also designed the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.

Like mountain climbing

Until recently, the Sanpietrini used a method dating back centuries for their cleaning. They climbed to the top of the columns of the baldachin, sat in wooden seats and were lowered by their companions, cleaning the columns as they dropped slowly to the floor below. It earned them the nickname “the flying Sanpietrini.”

Today, they more commonly use a bucket lift, or an electric “spider lift” borrowed from the Vatican City State, but the wood swings are still needed to get to certain spots of the spiraling columns.

The Fabric of St. Peter’s goes back to 1506, when Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone for the “new St. Peter’s.” (This is the second basilica in honor of the prince of apostles on the site.) The church was finally consecrated on Nov. 18, 1626. This date is now a special feast day for the basilica and all its candles and candelabra are lighted that day – work that requires the skill of the Sanpietrini.

Besides the spectacular cleaning of the baldachin, the Sanpietrini do regular cleaning. Each day, before the basilica opens at 7 a.m., they clean its floors, both the upstairs church and the lower grotto where many of the popes are buried, as well as the 551 steps of the winding staircase leading to the Dome of St. Peter’s. They tend the gardens and make the floral arrangements for the basilica’s dozens of altars. The Sanpietrini also regulate the ringing of the bells in the basilica’s towers and excavations in caves under the basilica. They even build the Nativity scene in Vatican Square each Advent. The workers even change lightbulbs, which requires four men to lower the ceiling chandeliers to the floor.

Litterbugs and pickpockets

In their work, they are helped by volunteers of the Association of SS. Peter and Paul and by students. When they are not cleaning they keep an eye out for thieves and the pickpockets that are common around tourist sites, as well as people trying to touch statues or altars, or litterbugs. They also make certain proper attire is worn in the church. “Short shorts, undershirts, sleeveless blouses — they can’t come in,” one of the ranking Sanpietrino explained to Religious News Service.

For generations, the Sanpietrini passed their skills on through their families. St. Paul VI ended that practice in the 1970s with an anti-nepotism rule for all of Vatican City. Today, when a job does open in the corps, there are hundreds of applicants.

The workers of the Vatican Mosaic Studios, begun in the 18th century, are an annex of the Fabric of St. Peter. According to the basilica’s website, there are about 10,000 square meters of mosaics in St. Peter’s. In fact, there are no paintings in the basilica today. Everything is a mosaic, so finely done that people often mistake them for paintings.

In March 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called the Sanpietrini “the ‘living stones.’ as the Apostle Peter wrote, living stones of the spiritual edifice which is the church.”

Cobblestones

The now-retired pope was probably making a play on words, because “Sanpietrini” is also the name for the volcanic rock cobblestones that line the streets of Rome. There is a saying in Rome about being “as hard as a sanpietrino.” It refers to the cobblestones, but also to the workers who lent their name to those cobblestones, which were first used in Rome about 50 years after the Fabric of St. Peter’s was founded.

Bishop Vittorio Lanzani is secretary of the Fabric of St. Peter’s. He told the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, that there is another common phrase in Rome. He said, “Fabbrica di San Pietro” (the work of St. Peter) is used, above all in Rome, to indicate a work that never seems to end.”

So the Sanpietrini seem assured of employment for centuries to come.

 

Editor’s note: The recent COVID-19 cleaning of St. Peter’s Basilica was handled by the sanitation department for the Vatican City State.

 

Sources: Vatican.va; vaticannews.va; Religious News Service; theguardian.com; catholicnews.com; stpetersbasilica.info; travelangel.me; lifeinitaly.com; Aleteia.org; “Inside the Vatican” PBS; thelocal.it; L’Osservatore Romano