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Basilica of Saint Peter

Basilica of Saint Peter (68)

“You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”. This phrase uttered by Jesus to the Saint Peter the Apostle established the foundations of Catholicism. The famous Basilica is built directly above the Apostle’s tomb.

The Basilica of Saint Peter has an area of 22,067 square metres and it is 186 metres long (212 metres including the portico). The central nave is 44 metres high and 26 metres wide. The dome has a height of 136 and a half metres up to the apex of the cross, and measures 42 metres in diameter.

It dates back to the Emperor Constantine, who ordered it to be built, from 320 to 322, on the spot where Christian tradition maintains Saint Peter is buried. 

The Basilica was often plundered by Barbarians and then rebuilt until, in the late fifteenth century, the threat of ruin prompted Julius II to build a new basilica, construction upon which started in 1506. Building work lasted over a century. It was designed by the architect Bramante and work was interrupted upon his death in 1514, when only the foundations had been completed. In 1547, Pope Paul III commissioned the aged Michelangelo to continue the work. Eventually, however, it was Carlo Maderno who constructed the building in 1614. His Latin cross floor plan replaced Bramante’s Greek cross design that had been maintained by Michelangelo. 10 years later, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, to embellish and decorate interiors.

Opposite the famous Basilica and no less important is Saint Peter’s Square. Thousands of devotees come to this square every Sunday in the hope of seeing the Pope. 

The square, the elliptical shape and large columns of which were created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is considered a great architectural masterpiece. It has 284 Doric columns, 88 pilasters and 140 statues. 

You will notice that in the centre of the square there is a great Egyptian obelisk. This monolith was brought from Alexandria by Caligula in 37 AD to decorate the Circus of Nero. It was Sixtus V who ordered it to be set in the centre of Saint Peter’s Square. Raising the obelisk is said to have been an extremely difficult task as there was no machinery and it therefore had to be done using ropes. During the process, the who had people gathered at the site were told to be totally silent. However, a certain Bresca, upon seeing that the ropes were tearing suddenly shouted “Water on the ropes!”. He thus prevented obelisk from collapsing. The Pope, in gratitude, is said to have granted him a monopoly on the sale of palm leaf sales during festivals. 

If you look at the top of the monolith, you will notice that it is crowned by a cross. This is a fragment of the True Cross of Christ.

There are two fountains, one on either side of the obelisk. The one on the right is the work of Maderno and the fountain on the left is by Bernini.

Half way between the obelisk and each fountain is a stone disk. If you stand on this, you can see how the rows of columns surprisingly align to form a single line. 

The Basilica of Saint Peter is reached by climbing a large three-section staircase designed by Bernini. You will notice that on both sides of the stairway there are statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. 

The striking travertine facade of the Basilica of Saint Peter, which has recently been restored, is the work of Carlo Maderno. At the bottom it leads onto the five-door portico and at the top there are nine balconies. The central balcony is used both for the Pope’s Christmas and Easter blessings, and to announce the election of new Pontiffs.

Inside the portico are two equestrian statues. The statue at the far end on the right is “Constantine”, by Bernini, and the statue on the left is “Charlemagne”.

Before entering the basilica, remember that a series of dress regulations must be followed. You may therefore not go inside if you are wearing short trousers or T-shirts with shoulder straps.

Once inside, you will discover that its decoration and proportions are simply spectacular. When you walk along the centre of the nave, take a look at the bronze strips on the floor. These indicate the comparative lengths of other cathedrals, all of which are clearly smaller.

The bronze statue of Saint Peter leads to the dome, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. It is illuminated by 16 windows and has four huge decorative medallions that represent the four evangelists. On the base is an inscription of the famous phrase uttered by Jesus: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven....”. 

Take a look also at the baldachin above the papal altar. It was made in gilded bronze, wood and marble by Bernini and Borromini from 1624 to 1633 and is 29 metres high. It seems that Bernini, upon the request of the Barberini family, melted the bronzes of the Pantheon to build it. This gave rise to the famous popular saying: "What the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis did". Four Solomonic columns sustain a canopy decorated with the figures of angels while, above everything else, there is a globe that supports a cross.

Opposite the baldachin is the confessional, which was designed by Maderno. It is surrounded by 99 lamps that are always lit and indicate the site of Saint Peter’s tomb. 

This is also the site of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, which is one of his two surprisingly artistically mature early works. He completed it when he was only twenty-four. The other work is the magnificent David, which he began when he was twenty-seven.

It is precisely because of his youth that some people questioned whether he was truly the author. Upon discovering such doubt, in attack of anger Michelangelo chiselled his name on the sculpture, which is the artist’s only signed work. On the ribbon across the Madonna’s breast is the inscription “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this”. 

The Pietà is a marble sculpture group made by Michelangelo between 1498 and 1499. It measures 174 by 195 cm.

It is strikingly beautiful and shows a mother’s pain for her dead son. The artist, in his eagerness to show the Madonna’s eternal virginity, made her face younger than that of her own son. 

The interaction of the proportions of the figures is also surprising. If they were both to stand up, the mother would be much larger. This produces a greater sensation of motherly protection for her son and the son’s fragility. The serene expression, the precise, detailed chiselling and, of course, the unrivalled polish of the marble, of which Michelangelo was the greatest master, give the work exceptional brilliance and luminosity.

Because of these, you are, without the shadow of a doubt, before one of the world’s most beautiful works of sculpture.

On 21 May 1972, the image was attacked with a hammer and vandalised. It had to be restored and is therefore now protected behind glass for security reasons. 

You should also visit the Treasury Museum that contains both a collection of ecclesiastic garments and crucifixes, and the Grottoes, the burial site of Pope John Paul II. The Vatican Grottoes also contain the Chapel of Saint Peter, the site of the tomb of the Apostle and of other characters from history such as Pope John XXIII and Queen Christina of Sweden. 

You are lastly recommended to visit the dome. To go up, there is a lift, for which there is a charge, that will take you to the first floor. A 330-step stairway thereupon leads to the top. It is a long, tiring climb. The stairway is very narrow but the climb up is worthwhile to see the striking views of all the city. 

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