In 1536, the famous Renaissance painter and sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, was given a commission to renovate the Piazza del Campidoglio on the famous Capitoline Hill in Rome. This hill is adjacent to the ancient Roman Forum, the seat of government for one of the most influential western empires. The piazza renovation went through a few different designs, and lasted ten years.
In the end, the piazza included an overlapping petal pattern surrounding a twelve pointed star at its center. The star showcases the piazza’s centerpiece, an ancient statue of the Roman ruler, Marcus Aurelius. In addition to the stone pattern in the ground, the other significant change Michelangelo made to the piazza was to rotate this statue 180 degrees. Instead of facing the ancient Roman forum, the new orientation pointed the statute towards St. Peter’s Basilica. This likely indicated Michelangelo’s view that truth, and in turn true power, comes from the church.
What, then, is the connection between this important piazza in Rome and Education in Zion? In answer, take a quick look at this picture of the Joseph F. Smith Building plaza, home to Education in Zion gallery:
Although seen from two different vantage points, the similarity between the two locations emerges. In fact, the two are almost identical. For a closer view, go to the Education in Zion lobby on the Joseph F. Smith Building’s first floor on the east side and find the twelve pointed star in the floor.
What’s the significance of a plaza in Provo, Utah with an identical layout to a piazza in Rome? Here is perhaps one possible interpretation of this plaza/piazza parallel. Just as the center of Michelangelo’s star indicated where he felt true power came from, I think the center of the JFSB star points to what we believe to be the source of real truth. It’s the staircase, leading up to the Education in Zion exhibition.
This does not mean that Education in Zion is the source of truth and light. However, the underlying theme of the permanent exhibition is that the source of all true knowledge is our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. The journey up these stairs invites us to come up to a higher plane of being and thinking. When we have the right perspective about our education here at BYU, we recognize that it is something eternal, something in which the Master and Creator of the universe can be intimately involved. It truly is an “education for eternity” as President Spencer W. Kimball referred to it.
These architectural similarities are probably passed over by the great majority of people as they scurry across campus, hurrying from one class to another. There certainly isn’t any reason for the average student to know the source of architectural inspiration for one of the many buildings on campus. However, I do think it’s important for all of us to recognize and remember the central message of the plaza because it’s a message shared by the University, the Church, and the Gospel itself. Light and truth come from the Savior, and without Him there is no progression, educational or otherwise. If we can nestle this message in our hearts and make it our center, then just like Michelangelo’s piazza, it will point us on a course; a straight and narrow course leading to light, knowledge, happiness and eternal life.
– Kenny Bentley, Education in Zion gallery educator