St Peter’s Basilica, located in Vatican City, is an important pilgrimage site. The centre of the Roman Catholic faith, it attracts visitors from all over the world. It is where the Pope presides over many liturgies all year round.
I am sure nobody is disappointed when, after queuing for ages, they enter the stunningly decorated Basilica beneath the vast dome designed by Michaelangelo. Of course, the greatest church in Christendom had to be crowned with the greatest dome. From its conception, the dome of St Peter’s was intended to be the highest ever seen. It is still Rome’s tallest building four hundred years later, standing 136 m (447ft) tall.
St Peter’s has the largest interior of any Christian church. Marks on the floor of the nave demonstrate how other great churches of the world would easily fit inside it. When Pope Julius II decided to rebuild the church that had stood on the site since the fourth century it was his intention to make it the grandest church in Christendom.
Achieving such a feat took 120 years. Some of the greatest artists of the day were employed in its design and construction. Work started in 1506 and it was finally consecrated on 18th November 1626.
Old St Peter’s
The old Basilica was itself a splendid affair of marble and mosaic built on the orders of Rome’s first Christian emperor – Constantine. This was the site of the Circus of Nero where it is said that St Peter had been martyred and buried. St Peter was one of the original 12 apostles and considered by Catholics to be the first Pope.
Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor there in 800 followed by 22 of his successors. It was filled with the tombs of Saints and Popes. It had been a major pilgrimage for a thousand years, and people believed that the golden cockerel on its bell tower would crow to signal the end of the world. But the building was crumbling and it was perhaps convenient that the masters of the Renaissance were on hand to design and build its replacement.
Donato Bramante was the first to be commissioned and he planned a Greek Cross with a dome inspired by the Pantheon. Raphael and Antonio de Sangallo contributed different designs, but it was the elderly Michelangelo who created a unified whole from various ideas. He also designed a great parabolic dome which was completed in a couple of years by 800 builders. Sadly, Michelangelo didn’t live long enough to see it completed.
It is still the largest brick dome in the world. Michelangelo was inspired by the pioneering structure by Brunelleschi in Florence. The dome has a double shell and stairs in between the inner and outer dome which lead up to the cupola at the very top, 120 meters above the altar.
The dome is immediately over Bermini‘s great bronze baldachin which covers the site of St Peter’s Tomb.
Change of Plan
Bramante’s and Michelangelo’s vision was ultimately compromised by Pope Paul V. He decided to extend the nave eastwards to match the ground plan of the old basilica. By 1607 a Greek Cross carried the taint of paganism and the Latin Cross was seen as more purely Christian. Carlo Maderno’s nave and massive Baroque facade consequently block the view of Michelangelo’s dome from St Peter’s Square.
Inside the Basilica
The Basilica opens at 7:00 am and is free to enter. Best to arrive early if you want to avoid queuing. The queues can be very long at peak times.
The Basilica is huge and can accommodate 20,000 people. It is 190 m (624ft) long and the nave is 46 m (150ft) tall. There are many impressive artworks including; The Pieta, a sculpture by Michelangelo, St. Peter’s Baldachin designed by Bernini, and the statue of St Peter on his throne. The right foot of the statue has actually worn down due to the number of people touching it.
If you are staying in Rome then visiting St Peter’s Basilica is an unforgettable experience. The building is a truly awe-inspiring space and the many pieces of art, stunning. The highlight for me though was climbing to the top of the dome.
Climbing the Dome
It is possible to climb right up to the Cupola on the top of the dome where there are stunning views of St Peter’s Square and if it’s a clear day most of Rome. The dome opens at 8:00 am and closes an hour before the Basilica. The Basilica might be free but there is a charge for climbing the dome. You have two choices, the cheapest is to climb all 551 steps to the top. Slightly more expensive is to take the lift to the roof terrace and then climb the 320 steps to the cupola.
As well as the physical exertion required, the staircase towards the top is narrow and steep. However, this is well worth all the effort. As you step outside into the cupola the views will take your breath away. I could have easily spent hours up here, watching the activity far below.
St Peter’s Square
This is probably the most famous square in the world and one of the largest at 320 m long and 240 m wide. The square was designed by Bernini during the 17th century and it can accommodate 300,000 people. This many people are often present during one of the Pope’s liturgies.
Framing the square are massive Doric Colonnades four columns deep. Above the columns sit 140 statues of saints, created by Bernini’s disciples. Completing the square are two fountains and an obelisk which was carried all the way from Egypt in 1586.
Be sure to visit the Vatican City post office located in the square. Vatican City has its own stamps. Send yourself a postcard from this special place to remind you of your visit when you return home.
The Via della Conciliazione is the best way to arrive in the square. This is a long street that begins in the Castel Sant’Angelo. The grand approach has a clear line of sight to St Peter’s Square with the Basilica behind it. For directions on how to get to Castel Sant’Angelo visit the Moovit website.
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