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Piazza di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) and Vatican Obelisk (Obelisco), Rome

Overview

St. Peter's Square - view from the basilica
St. Peter's Square - view from the basilica

St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square

Directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica lies a large oval square, Piazza di San Pietro (in Latin, the Forum Sancti Petri), where most of the events, celebrations and religious ceremonies of the Vatican State take place. Continuing it outside the Vatican is the smaller, square Piazza Pius XII with adjacent wide boulevard Via della Conciliazione (Road of the Conciliation) which takes you to Castel Sant'Angelo and, after crossing River Tiber, to Rome. Piazza di San Pietro, designed by architect Marcello Piacentini during the interwar period, around 1930, at Mussolini's request, is in the neoclassical style. It wasn't inaugurated until 1950, when the last urban development in the area was completed.

Description

Piazza San Pietro is the result of works started hundreds of years ago. Its initial shape was rectangular, sloped up towards the stairs of Basilica San Pietro, with a difference in level of nearly 10 meters (33 ft). The current oval shaped piazza was designed at the request of Pope Alexander VII by one of the greatest artists representing the baroque era, architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1656 and 1667. If you climb into the St. Peter's Basilica's dome you could see from there that the piazza's current shape resembles St. Peter's key, with the key's head represented by the round area between the colonnades, and the rectangular area in front of the basilica representing the key's blade.

St Peter's Square - colonnades
St Peter's Square - colonnades

St. Peter's Square - view from the dome
St. Peter's Square - view from the dome

St Peter's Square - Colonnades and Fountain
St Peter's Square - Colonnades and Fountain

Bernini designed the piazza surrounded by two colonnades, consisting of 284 Tuscan columns in the Doric style and 88 pilasters, arranged in four rows and having a tiled roof. Above the columns in the front rows there are 140 travertine statues of saints standing, watching silently over the piazza and basilica. The colonnades shape the piazza, part of it drawing the border between the Vatican State and Italy. Bernini saw the elliptical shape of the colonnade ("ovato tondo") as the shape of the church's open, arched, protective arms, which receive and unite its followers in a symbolic embrace. He designed the open space in front of the basilica in such a way that "the Pope can be seen by a large number of people, to receive and give blessings from the balcony on the facade of the Basilica or from the window of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican". Bernini worked at Piazza San Pietro for over ten years.
St Paul's statue
St Paul's statue

St Peter's statue
St Peter's statue

The two gigantic statues in Carrara marble standing majestically in front of the Basilica are of apostles Peter and Paul. Including the pedestal, each statue is over 9 meters (30 ft) high. Saint Peter, made by Giuseppe de Fabris, holds the golden key to heaven, while Saint Paul, sculpted by Adamo Tadolini, holds a two meter sword (6.5 ft.), symbolizing the word of God. In time the sword lost its original gold plating. An Egyptian obelisk of monolithic red granite is standing in center of the piazza, at about 25.5 meters high (84 ft.), bearing no hieroglyphic inscriptions. It is one of the 13 ancient obelisks standing in Rome. The time passing can be seen on the obelisk, which bears inscriptions initially dedicated to the "Divine" Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and later symbols and inscriptions dedicated to the Holy Cross, added starting with Pope Sixtus V in the 16th century: the four bronze lions, heraldic symbols from Pope Sixtus V's coat of arms, the four eagles, part of Pope Innocent XIII's coat of arms, and the inscription: "Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat". The bronze cross on its top, which replaced the original Roman gilded ball, also contains from the 18th century a relic of the True Cross. The obelisk was standing in the Circus of Nero at the time of Apostle Peter's crucifixion, and so we can consider it a "witness" to Saint Peter's death.
St Peter's Square - Obelisk
St Peter's Square - Obelisk

St Peter's Square - fountain
St Peter's Square - fountain

The obelisk is framed, to the north and south, by two fountains, each with two large stone basins shaped like mushrooms, with water flowing around. One of the fountains was designed by Carlo Maderno in 1613 and the other built by Lorenzo Bernini during his project (1656-1667) to match. The paving is made of radiating lines in travertine, in some places stones of different colors having different religious, historical or functional symbols. The rays of white stones around the obelisk suggest the sun with its rays, and in 1817 stones were added in the paving to create a sundial, with the obelisk being the gnomon and its shadow moving with the sun and entering each of the signs of the zodiac. There were also added stones in the paving to mark several sites, like the location of the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Piazza San Pietro.

History

Circus of Nero - possible location in today's Rome
Circus of Nero - possible location in today's Rome

Photo by Jose Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro on Wikimedia Commons

Map of Ancient Rome with Circus of Nero
Map of Ancient Rome with Circus of Nero

Photo by Pirro Ligorio on Wikimedia Commons

The Egyptian obelisk was originally brought from the city of Heliopolis, Egypt and moved to the Alexandria Forum, and from here the Roman Emperor Caligula (34 - 41 AD) brought it to Rome in 37 AD. The obelisk was initially placed in the Circus of Nero (initially named "Circus of Caligula" and later renamed after Emperor Nero) and it is believed it was there where Apostle Peter was crucified. How do we know? Well, it is said Saint Peter was crucified upside down between two "metas", which were the obelisks built in arenas to mark the two turning points in races. Considering this description of his martyrdom place, it is thought that Saint Peter was crucified in the Circus of Nero, which, being used for races, had the two "metas" at each end. Also the location of Circus of Nero was only a few steps from where Saint Peter is considered to be buried, under the high altar of the Saint Peter's Basilica. In 1586, at the request of Pope Sixtus V, the obelisk was moved by the architect Domenico Fontana to Piazza San Pietro, where it is still standing. In Medieval times it was believed that the ashes of Julius Caesar were preserved in the gilt metal ball on top of the obelisk. The ancient ball was later removed and moved to a museum, and it is said that only dust was found inside it.