St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest churches in the Christian religion. It is one of four major basilicas located in Rome and the principle church of the Pope. Although St. Peter’s is located within Vatican City, this basilica is not the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. That honor belongs to St. John the Lateran. So while the official cathedra, or seat, of the the Pope is not St. Peter’s, the Basilica remains a landmark within the Catholic Church and Roman history.
St. Peter’s Brief History
St. Peter’s and Vatican City are situated on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the ancient Campus Martius. Outside the walls of the city, Nero built a circus on the site to hold chariot races and carry out executions. These executions shaped the future of Vatican Hill. You’ve heard the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” Here’s some historical context behind the saying. In 69 A.D., Rome was consumed by a terrible fire that lasted for days. Actual cause of the fire is unknown, but because Nero one one of the few who gained from the destruction, fingers point to him. To shift the blame away from himself, Nero blamed the Christians, a new group of monotheists, and began executing them at the circus on Vatican Hill. One of those executed was Peter, one of the original apostles of Jesus Christ and the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. Peter was buried nearby and an altar was set up as a place to worship at the apostle’s tomb. Modern day St. Peter’s sits over the site and acts as a modern incarnation of that memorial.
After St. Peter’s execution, the site became a pilgrimage destination, as well as a burial site for Christians. In 326 A.D., the emperor Constantine built “Old” St. Peter’s in a typical latin cross plan. The basilica style suited the nature of Christian religion and contained several key elements. The building began with a large atrium for people to gather. Only those who had been baptized were allowed beyond the narthex and into the holy space of the church. For that reason, you often see a small round structure called a baptistry set just outside the church. The main body of the basilica style church contains a long nave, flanked by aisles. The altar is located in the semi-circular apse at the back of the building. The transept cross section creates the familiar latin cross floor plan. Santa Sabina is a great example of the old basilica style church. Old St. Peter’s stood until 1506, when Pope Julius II began plans to rebuild a grander St. Peter’s. At that point a new structure was probably needed, as the wooden structure was now almost 1200 years old! Construction was underway for 150 years before the church was finally completed, funded in part by the sale of indulgences. During that time over a dozen Popes oversaw the evolution of New Saint Peter’s as consecutive architects modified the existing plans, notably these three. Bramante was first hired by Julius II to and he set forth a greek-cross floor plan, that is a centrally planned church with a “plus” sign shape and a dome. Both Bramante and Julius died before the work was completed and Michelangelo was brought in as chief architect. Michelangelo also did not live to see the basilica completed. Carlo Maderno was recruited by Paul V and ordered to extend the central nave of the church to create the more traditional latin cross plan. The extension of the nave and the addition of the facade created a problem of scale and perspective. The closer you get to the facade, the more you lose sight of Michelangelo’s dome. Bernini was brought in to decorate the interior and add the finishing touches.
The Basilica’s Exterior
When Bernini first began construction on the Piazza’s enormous porticos, the surrounding area was a tight knit cluster of buildings, much like most of Rome today. To approach the Basilica, a visitor had to meander through the maze of streets until the vast open Piazza was finally revealed, with anticipation and all the grandeur the space deserves. That effect remained until Mussolini began another one of his building projects and created Via della Conciliazione. The new road cuts a direct path to Vatican City, enabling a visitor to grow accustomed to the massive size of St. Peters as they walk up to it. It kind of undercuts the overall effect of the square. Consider approaching St. Peter’s from another route. Bernini was faced with the unusual challenge of trying to unite the open space of St. Peter’s by distinguishing the square and drawing your attention to the Basilica. The result is an unique elliptical shaped portico comprised of 284 columns. With two lanes for pedestrians and a center lane wide enough for a carriage, the simple design draws our eye to the facade of Saint Peter’s and ties together the open piazza. The vast reaches of Bernini’s portico extend out into the square, like a pair of arms greeting the worshippers. The portico in some ways replaces the old basilica church component of an atrium, a courtyard for the faithful to gather. The placement of the columns allows visitors open access to the piazza, and yet the view of the surrounding buildings is obscured. Entrance to St. Peter’s begins in line near the right hand side of the portico. Placed in the center of the elliptical is the large obelisk. This obelisk was the same that sat in Nero’s circus, and witnessed St. Peter’s execution. Flanking the obelisk are two fountains, one designed by Maderno, the other by Bernini. It’s fitting that the two fountains sit together. Bernini’s work on the portico draws attention to Maderno’s work on the facade. When Michelangelo died he left no plans for a facade. How did you manage to draw attention to the front door in the middle of such a large piazza? Maderno solved the problem by gradually increasing the depth of the columns and bringing each set slightly closer together. That draws our eye to the center balcony where the Pope appears to greet the audience in the square.
The Basilica’s Interior
Where to begin. It’s sites like this that make a little research go a long way. I’m hoping to get individual posts up on many of the highlights very soon. But for now we’ll begin by walking up to the church. As you scale the stairs up to the church your eyes begin to adjust to the vastness of the building before you. The letters that spell out: “In honor of Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, supreme pontiff in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate” are each three feet tall and the sculptures that adorn the roof are over twenty. The two sculptures that greet you outside are of Peter and Paul, added in the 19th century. Before you enter the basilica you can see equestrian statutes of Constantine and Charlemagne on your right and left under the atrium. Directly before you is the Holy Door, only opened for the Jubilee every 25 years. Once inside, stop for a moment to take in the result of 150 years of planning. Step back and take a look around before you get swept up in the excitement of the other tourists.
On your right as you enter is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Done when he was only 24 years old, the marble sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Don’t forget to take a glimpse at the floor as you enter. Noted by stars along the nave, are comparable sizes of the other great churches in the world. The great round porphyry stone – a very expensive type of red stone – just in front of the entrance, is the same stone that Charlemagne kneeled on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Continuing on you’ll see the monument to Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi in 1723. Gregory is responsible for the Gregorian Calendar, and is flanked by personifications of Faith and Wisdom. Back in the central nave is the statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Centuries of worshippers kissing the Saint’s foot have left it shiny. Even a short list will include Bernini’s enormous Baldachino, the bronze canopy that graces the papal altar and marks the center of the basilica’s transept. The Pope gives mass from this altar, which sits over the confessio and the tomb of St. Peter. The baldachino’s four spiraling columns are intended to evoke the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The source of all this bronze came from the ceiling of the Pantheon, where Urban VIII infamously called for its removal. Be sure to take a moment here to look up and admire Michelangelo’s impressive dome. It’s 348 foot height means the Statute of Liberty could stand inside it. The inscription reads: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The dome is supported by four large piers, within each Bernini placed a sculpture of a saint: Veronica, Helen, Longinus, and Andrew. Beyond the Baldachino on the left hand side is another Bernini work, this one the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini utilized the space effectively despite the fact that a door lies underneath the marble folds of fabric. Move closer to see that the personification of Death raises the cloth to allow passage through the doorway. At the great apse at the very end of the nave is the Altar of the Throne. A sun burst of gold crowns the monument lifted by the four doctors of the church. Inside is reportedly the throne of St. Peter. Sunlight hits the transparent window in the afternoon.
Visiting the Basilica
Admission to the Basilica is free like all churches. It is open from 7am till 7pm April through September and from 7am till 6pm the rest of the year. The best days to visit the Basilica are probably Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I mean that with a grain of salt. Vatican City is a very popular tourist attraction so the down times are still going to be busy. But process of elimination can help you choose a good day. Vatican City observes the day of rest and is closed on Sundays. Mondays are crowded because all other museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. Wednesdays the Pope give an audience and appears at 10:30am to bless St. Peter’s Square so Wednesdays are a bit busier. Saturdays the locals come to visit. It’s important to remember the Basilica is still a working church and sometimes portions may be blocked off as a service takes place. If you have the time, stick around until the service is over and the area become open again. You can get a glimpse of church officials as they leave and beat the rush once the section becomes open again. Good things come to those who wait. Very few people are willing to stick around, so you may find yourself in quiet corner.
Just like the Vatican Museum, there is a metal detector before the entrance to the Basilica. The entrance is located underneath the right hand side of the portico. (Right hand side when facing the Basilica.) Sometimes the line to the metal detectors begins to filter out into the piazza. Don’t be dismayed. The line moves quickly. Don’t be expected to keep your pocket knife or anything though. The guards take their jobs seriously. Here too, dress code will be enforced. Rome in July and tank tops might seem like a perfect match, but not at the Vatican. Shorts or dresses down to the knees are safe, as well as shirts that cover your shoulders. This applies to gentlemen as well. Close-toed shoes are also a good thing. Better to play it on the safe side when visiting the Vatican.
Visitors can also take a climb up to the top of the dome. It’s a bit of a hike and warm in the summer, but very cool and worth it. The view from the top of the dome is one of the best in the city. If you go in the summer, fill up a water bottle and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. The first leg get you up to the roof of the basilica, which I thought was kind of fun. You can stop and shop at a small gift store, on the roof, that’s run by nuns. There’s also a water fountain up there. An elevator can take you this far, if you’re traveling with handicapped or children. The second leg lets you pause inside the dome of the basilica. Not at the top, but inside, where you can walk around and look down at the church below. The final leg is the tightest fit, but keep in mind that you’re actually inside the dome now and nearing the cupola. Don’t be afraid to pause at the windows as you go for the view (And some fresh air).
Do keep in mind that the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums, not through St. Peters.
Here are some sites I found very helpful:
Sacred Destinations has a great page on St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to check out their other pages as well.
The Vatican website is brimming with information. Here’s a link to their Basilica information page.
Also, a link to “Practical Information” on the Vatican’s site. Here you can find information on how to arrange tickets for a Papal Audience, as well as more in depth tours, like a tour of the grottoes and necropolis.