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Saint Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro), Rome

Overview

St Peter's Basilica - Facade
St Peter's Basilica - Facade

Saint Peter's Basilica is one of the four major Papal basilicas in Rome, along with the Archbasilica of Saint John in the Lateran, the Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Saint Paul's Outside the Walls. Saint Peter's Basilica is the only one inside the Vatican, in the Piazza San Pietro, the other three being on Italian territory and not in the Vatican City State, though owned by the Holy See. Even though Archbasilica of Saint John in the Lateran is the mother church of the Catholic Church and the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, Saint Peter's is considered "the greatest of all churches of Christendom". It is the largest church in the world: the length is 186 meters, the height of the dome is 119 meters and the total area is over 15,000 square meters. It is considered the burial place of Saint Peter, whose tomb is supposedly under the high altar, and also contains 91 tombs of popes and other notable people.
View of Rome from the dome
View of Rome from the dome

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

Atop of the basilica there is a rooftop terrace "Panoramic Loggia", or belvedere, offering spectacular views of the city. The terrace can be reached by climbing the 537 steps, with the last section of the climb following the spiral stairs between the double walls of the huge dome, or by simply taking an elevator for the first stage of the ascent.

Description

St Peter's statue
St Peter's statue

St Paul's statue
St Paul's statue

The front entrance of the church is at the Piazza San Pietro, flanked by two massive statues, made from Carrara marble. They are of the apostles Peter, made by Giuseppe de Fabris, holding the golden key to heaven, and Paul, by Adamo Tadolini, holding in his hand a two meter sword (6.5 ft.). The sword has lost its original gold plating, symbolizing the word of God. An imposing staircase, made by Lorenzo Bernini, leads to the entrance. The façade of the church has Corinthian columns (as opposed to the Doric columns from the colonnades in Piazza San Pietro). Above the columns there is a pediment, and a balustrade with 13 statues representing Jesus, Saint John the Baptist and 11 apostles, from left to right: St. Thaddeus, also known as Judas Thaddaeus; St. Matthew, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and one of the four Evangelists; St. Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus; St. Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus; St. James the Elder, son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus; St. John the Baptist; Jesus Christ the Redeemer; St. Andrew, brother of Saint Peter; St. John the Apostle, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus; James the Younger; St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus; St. Simon the Zealot; and St Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. Of the three balconies on the façade, the one in the middle, larger, is the Loggia delle Benedizioni ("Loggia of the Blessing"), from which the election of a new pontiff is announced with "Habemus Papum", and also where the pope periodically delivers his "Urbi et Orbi" blessing upon his election, at Christmas, and for Easter. In the towers to either side of the façade there were installed two clocks in 1800. The church doesn't have a separate bell tower, and instead has a bell room, housing the six bells of the Basilica. Since 1931, the bells have been operated electrically. The Great Bell (Campanone), is visible through a window, below the clock on the left side of the façade. Two huge statues are at the entrance of the nartex: the equestrian statue of Emperor Constantine the Great, made by Lorenzo Bernini, and the statue of Charlemagne, crowned as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D. in the basilica, sculpted by Cornacchini. The basilica's entrance is through five massive portals, three of which are framed by huge antique columns. The first one on the right is "Porta Santa" (Holy Door), made in bronze by Vico Consorti in 1950, which only opens for certain holidays and ceremonies. The central portal has a bronze door created by Antonio Averulino in 1445 for the old basilica, and enlarged to fit the new space. Above the middle portal, the main entrance, is the "Navicella Mosaic" executed by Giotto in 1300 with the biblical theme of the storm in Lake Tiberias where Jesus walked on the waters, the ship symbolizing the Christian Church. The mozaic is one of the most important treasures of the basilica. The other three doors were executed later, in 20th century. The first one from left is the "Door of Death" by Giacomo Manzu (1961 - 1964), the second the "Door of Good and Evil" by Luciano Minguzzi (1970 - 1977), and the fourth door the "Door of the Sacraments" by Venanzio Crocetti (1965).
St. Peter Basilica - interior
St. Peter Basilica - interior

St. Peter Basilica - interior
St. Peter Basilica - interior

The interior is impressive and vast, able to accommodate several tens of thousands of people. It conveys greatness, brilliance, harmony, and despite the huge spaces, it gives a sense of calm and protection. It is richly decorated, and the several altars and chapels are decorated with paintings, sculptures, mosaics, stained glass windows from the most exquisite materials. Everywhere you admire the beauty and the brilliance of marble, bronze, gold. There are 868 columns, 395 statues of marble, travertine or bronze, and 135 mosaics in the basilica. The main altar is in the central space. Over the high altar of Saint Peter's Basilica and under the dome, there is the Saint Peter's Baldachin, a large Baroque sculpted bronze canopy, 29 meter high, made by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is intended to mark the place of Saint Peter's tomb underneath. Two curving marble staircases near the Bernini's canopy lead to the underground Chapel of the Confession ("Confessio") at the level of the early Constantinian church, immediately under the basilica's high altar and above the burial place of Saint Peter. On the same level there are the Vatican Grottoes, which were actually located on the ground level of the old Constantinian basilica at the time. The grottoes are now housing over 100 tombs of popes, cardinals and public figures, archeological rooms and vestiges kept from the initial church from the Constantinian era. They can be accessed through the entrance near the elevator kiosks for the dome. On the next level below, in the space under the grottoes, there is the Vatican Necropolis, now at depths varying between 5-12 metres below Saint Peter's Basilica. The necropolis was the old Roman cemetery built on the southern slope of the Vatican Hill at that time, and this is where the tomb of Saint Peter is. Tours are organized to visit the Vatican Necropolis and see Saint Peter's tomb, the "Scavi Tours", allowing a limited number of people to visit at a time. Booking a tour should be done in advance if desired.
The marble staircases leading to the Chapel of the Confession
The marble staircases leading to the Chapel of the Confession

Photo by Kevin McGill on Wikimedia Commons

St. Peter's statue and Bernini's 'Baldaquin'
St. Peter's statue and Bernini's 'Baldaquin'

 Chapel of the Confession ('Confessio'), on the floor below the baldaquin and above St Peter's tomb
Chapel of the Confession ('Confessio'), on the floor below the baldaquin and above St Peter's tomb

Photo by Dnalor 01 on Wikimedia Commons

Section view of the basilica showing the three different levels
Section view of the basilica showing the upper level with today's basilica, middle level with 'Confessio' Chapel and Vatican grottoes, and lower level with St Peter's tomb and Vatican Necropolis

Photo by Mogadir on Wikimedia Commons

Around the four piers supporting the dome, in a Baroque style, there are four niches with statues of Saint Longinus by Bernini, Saint Andrew by Francois Duquesnoy, Saint Helena by Andrea Bolgi, and Saint Veronica by Francesco Mochi.
Michelangelo's 'Pieta'
Michelangelo's 'Pieta'

Photo by Jebulon on Wikimedia Commons

Chair of St. Peter with the golden casing designed by Bernini
Chair of St. Peter with the golden casing designed by Bernini

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT on Wikimedia Commons

The Chair of Saint Peter (or Throne of Saint Peter) is preserved in the apse. The tradition says this is the chair used by Apostle Peter as the Bishop of Rome (Pope). It is supported by four saints of the Catholic church: Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Athanasius and Saint John Chrysostom. The relic is enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1647 and 1653). The wooden throne was a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Charles II the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875 AD. Studies determined though that no part of the chair dated earlier than the sixth century. Near the entrance, in the first chapel on the north aisle, is the statuary group "Pietà" created by Michelangelo between 1498 and 1500. It was carved from a single white marble block from Carrara and shows the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. It is one of the most famous sculptures in the world for the beauty of the characters, the expressiveness of the faces and the rendering of the human beings and feelings: the sadness of the mother and the inert body with the face devoid of life of the Son. The pain, the despair of the Virgin and, by contrast, the serenity of her Son's lifeless body laying on his mother's lap, creates a unique image of the biblical moment. Mary, young, beautiful, sad, is draped with a wave and broad folds that support the dead body of Jesus. The arms and the feet hang freely, lifeless, and the head, inert, in the silence of death. The surfaces, treated differently, highlight the beauty of the human body but also the elegance and the refinement of the folds of the clothes, in a realism close to perfection. And the dramatic organization of volumetric elements announces the transition from the refinement of the Renaissance to the tragic and emotional baroque charge. The marble toes of the inert foot of Jesus are seen, polished by the millions of lips that kissed them asking for mercy and blessing. Currently it is protected by a transparent wall of anti-bullet glass, after it had been damaged in the past.
Bernini's Monument for Alexander VII
Bernini's Monument for Alexander VII

Basilica's baptismal font
Basilica's baptismal font

Mosaic reproducing Raphael's Transfiguration
Mosaic reproducing Raphael's Transfiguration

Bernini's 'Saint Longin'
Bernini's 'Saint Longin'

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT on Wikimedia Commons

St. Peter Basilica - interior
St. Peter Basilica - interior

The most famous mosaic in the basilica is the mosaic which reproduces Raphael's Transfiguration. Raphael's original painting is now in Vatican Museum. Also in the basilica is Bernini's final masterpieces, the Monument for Alexander VII. It was made when Bernini was 80, and completed with the help of his assistants. The statuary group represents the Pope and the four figures representing Justice, Truth, Prudence and Charity, all in white marble, contrasting with the bronze skeleton and the amazingly intricate colored shroud, which has been carved in such a way that the natural pattern of the stone adds to the effect of folded cloth.

History

Saint Peter, also known as Simon Peter, Simeon, Simon, Cephas, or Peter the Apostle, was originally a fisherman from Galilee, who was among the first of the disciples called during Jesus' ministry. He became the most prominent of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Church in Rome, and its first bishop and pope. His death is said to have taken place during the Christian persecutions by Nero. At the time of the persecutions, Peter, trying to avoid being captured and executed, decided to flee Rome. But during his travel he had a vision of the risen Jesus on Via Appia Antica, where the church of Domine Quo Vadis stands today. Saint Peter asked Jesus: "Quo Vadis, Domine?" ("Where are you going, Lord?"), and he replied "Romam Vado Iterum Crucifigi" ("To Rome to be crucified again"). Gaining the courage needed, Peter returned to Rome and in 67 AD Nero ordered his public martyrdom by crucifixion. Peter asked to be crucified upside down, as he felt unworthy to die the same way Jesus did. The place chosen for Peter's execution was in the recently built Circus of Nero, near the bank of the Tiber, on Ager Vaticanus ("The Vatican Plain"). Peter's dead body was buried in a simple grave in a nearby cemetery on Via Cornelia. Peter's death is referenced by multiple resources: in a letter of Clement, bishop of Rome, to the Corinthians (1 Clement, a.k.a. Letter to the Corinthians, written c. 96 AD); then historian Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine also mentions it, referencing theologian Origen, who died c. 254 AD; and it is also described by the Christian author Tertullian (c. 160-220) in Scorpiace. Above Saint Peter's tomb a shrine was later built, and, in the 4th century, the Old Saint Peter's Basilica was built over the shrine by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Over the next centuries, the church gradually gained importance, eventually becoming a major place of pilgrimage in Rome and one of the major churches in Rome. Around the 15th century, the church was falling into ruin. In 1505 Pope Julius II decided to demolish the ancient basilica and replace it with a new, monumental structure. He organized a competition for the project, with some designs competing surviving and being held at the Uffizi Gallery, with Donato Bramante winning the competition. The construction works lasted over 120 years and over the existence of 20 popes. The basilica was finally completed in 1626 and was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII. It is the largest Christian church and owns hundreds of valuable works of art. The project was realized by Donato Bramante, appointed architect of the papal seat in 1503 by Pope Julius II. Bramante died in 1514 and was buried at Saint Peter's Basilica. Many of the best Italian artists contributed to the completion of the great project. Raphael Sanzio continued the plan of the building, transforming the initial Byzantine Greek cross model with equal arms (inscribed in a square), into the Latin cross model, with unequal arms, with three ships. The monumental staircase from the entrance was made by Lorenzo Bernini. The impressive and distinctive dome was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti, who, taking over the work in 1547, is to be regarded as the principal designer of a large part of the building as it stands today, and to bringing the construction to a point where it could be carried through. He was able to recognize the qualities of his predecessors' designs, and, "with a few strokes of the pen, converted its snowflake complexity into massive, cohesive unity", as the art historian Helen Gardner perfectly said. The Baroque façade was the contribution of Carlo Maderno.

Link to the Scavi Tours website, for Saint Peter's Tomb visits reservations: www.scavi.va

The Dome

Michelangelo's Dome
Michelangelo's Dome

Photo by patano on Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo's Dome
Michelangelo's Dome

One of most important architectural achievements in the Vatican was the design and construction of the cupola of the Saint Peter's Church, which is the tallest dome in the world, with a height of 136 meters (446.2 ft) from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It has an internal diameter of 41.47 metres (136.1 ft), slightly slimmer than two of the three other huge domes that preceded it, those of the Pantheon of Ancient Rome, with a diameter of 43.3 metres (142 ft), and Florence Cathedral of the Early Renaissance, with a diameter of 44 metres (144 ft). At these two domes the Saint Peter's architects looked for solutions when planning and building it. Bramante's plan for the dome of Saint Peter's (1506) follows that of the Pantheon very closely. The profile is very similar, hemispherical, except that in this case the supporting wall becomes a drum raised high above ground level on four massive piers. After Bramante's death, with different architects, including Raphael and Baldassare Peruzzi, Antonio da Sangallo created different plans for the dome and the works stagnated. In 1547, the Pope asked Michelangelo to build "the most beautiful dome in the world" for the San Pietro Basilica. Knowing the dome designed by Brunelleschi for the Duomo in Florence, Michelangelo's response was "It can be bigger, but not more beautiful!" Michelangelo started the redesign of the dome looking for inspiration at the Florence Cathedral's dome and also at the previous architects' designs, and changed the dome's profile to be ovoid instead of hemispherical, making it thrust upwards, and constructed it of two shells of brick, similar to the one in Florence. After he died in 1564, his assistant Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, and later Giacomo della Porta, assisted by Domenico Fontana, followed to continue the works after Michelangelo's plans with small changes introduced by della Porta. The dome was finally completed in 1590. In the 18th century, cracks appeared in the dome and concentric iron chains were installed between the two shells to bind it, acting like hoops on a barrel. It is believed Michelangelo himself planned on installing chains for precaution, the way Brunelleschi did at the Florence Cathedral's dome.