The Vatican: Basilica of Saint Peter

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in April 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

The Vatican came into existence in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty, and became a territory under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Its name comes from the Ager Vaticanus, a marshy plain on the west bank of the Tiber. This area was apparently not seen auspiciously by the Ancient Romans, as it was particularly close to the Etruscan settlements near the area (which made it dangerous) and was frequently affected by floods from the Tiber.

Today, the Vatican (also known as Vatican City) covers an area of 49 hectares (121 acres) and has a population of 825, which makes it the smallest state in the world both in area and population. It is home to a number of important sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums.


Basilica of Saint Peter

So, this is a doozy of a building. While not the cathedral of Rome (that is the Lateran Basilica), it is undoubtedly the most important building in Christendom (as well as the largest church in the world). It is also, of course, not the first of its kind.

The Old St. Peter’s Basilica was originally built in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the new official religion of his empire, and later moved his capital to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and founded what eventually became the Byzantine Empire (he was a busy guy). Old St. Peter’s was the site of Papal coronations, and Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire there in 800. In the 15th century, architects Bernardo Rossellino and Leon Battista Alberti improved upon the existing structure, but the latter declared it structurally unsound, in danger of falling apart at the slightest movement.

Pope Julius II (the man responsible for commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel) took upon the project of restoring the church, though he soon decided to tear it down and begin anew instead. This was a shock, you understand, since the building represented continuity between the popes going back to Saint Peter, the first pope.

Nevertheless, the new construction began on April 18th, 1506, and was not completed until… wait for it… November 18th, 1626. I mean, I guess when you consider that it took 140 years for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence to be completed, it doesn’t sound that bad. And don’t even get me started on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (139 years and expected to take another 5ish).

A small aside – this Egyptian obelisk, known as “The Witness,” is the second largest standing obelisk. It is thus called because it is believed to have stood witness to the crucifixion of Saint Peter.

The New Saint Peter’s building was principally designed by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno (architect of Santa Maria della Vittoria), and Gianlorenzo Bernini.

The space in front of it was turned into a square — Piazza di San Pietro, or St. Peter’s Square — extending like arms open to welcome those of Christian faith into the fold. It was built between 1656 and 1667 by Bernini.

Entrance to the church is free, but reaching its roof is only available by paying a fee. I definitely recommend it, as the church dominates the Roman landscape, and so you get views from it that you can get nowhere else. You can choose to climb all 551 steps, or you can take a lift that lets you skip 320 of those steps and deposits you at the inside of the dome.

Can you spot the Pantheon?

These statues represent the Twelve Apostles, and line the top of the building’s façade.

Its interior is also… overwhelming. It’s a whirlwind of marble, paintings, and gilded reliefs. Many popes are buried here, and their tombs and other niches are decorated with sculptures by many different artists.

Pietà by Michelangelo

The Baldacchino di San Pietro, or St. Peter’s baldachin — a baldachin being a canopy of state generally placed above an altar or a throne — was created by Bernini, and marks the place of Saint Peter’s tomb underneath the church, directly below the dome. Its Solomonic columns (also called, I just learned, Barley-sugar columns) are part of a tradition inspired by a set of columns brought by Constantine the Great from Greece. A painting by Raphael, The Donation of Constantine, placed them in their “original” setting, claiming them to have been part of the Temple of Solomon, giving the style its name.

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