Basilica of St Peter

Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano

The Basilica di San Pietro is the largest historic Christian church in the world. It is the center of the Roman Catholic community, which took efforts of several generations of great masters. The Basilica is so large that it can hold up to 60 thousand people. In ancient times the Circus of Nero was in the spot, where the basilica stands now, and the Egyptian obelisk on St Peter’s Square still reminds of that. As per the legend, the bronze ball atop the obelisk contained ashes of Julius Caesar.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini designed the square in front of the Basilica to hold many believers, coming to the church for pontifical blessing or to take part in religious festivals. 284 Doric columns are topped with 96 statues of saints and martyrs. In 326 AD Emperor Konstantin erected the first basilica on this spot. Its altar was installed atop the tomb of St Peter, who suffered martyrdom in the Circus of Nero in 64 or 67 AD, as burial places of saints were always of particular significance to the believers.

As time passed, the building was falling into disrepair, and Pope Julius II ordered to build a grand temple instead of the ancient basilica. This temple should have outshined all other Christian churches to promote Catholicism. Almost every famous Italian architect took part in design and construction of the St Peter’s Basilica. In 1506 the project by Donato Bramante was approved, and construction of a Greek cross-shaped building began. The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople has similar shape. Whereas Baldassare Peruzzi and Michelangelo were for the Greek-cross-shaped basement, Rafael, who became in charge of construction after Bramante died, and Antonio da Sangallo wanted to use the traditional Latin cross with a longer forth end. Michelangelo erected the drum of the central dome, but the dome was completed by Giacomo della Porto, who made it more prolated. In the beginning of the XVII century Carlo Maderno made the Eastern part of the cross longer, making the basement Latin-cross-shaped, and he constructed the facade, too.

The new church was opened for public in 1626. There are marks on the floor of the central nave, showing sizes of other largest temples in the world, thus, one can compare St Peter’s Basilica with them. The facade completed by Carlo Maderno is topped with enormous statues of Christ, John the Baptist and 11 Apostles (but for Peter the Apostle). The blessing box from where the Pope blesses people is above the facade with its five portals.

Five doors lead to the church from the gallery. Door wings of the central portal were made in the middle of the XV century and were originally placed in the ancient basilica. The famous mosaic Navicella by Giotto, remaining since the XII century, is located in the atrium, to the right from the central entrance to the church. The utmost right Holy door is opened only in Anniversary years.

Be sure to look up at the dome and feel its enormous power. The dome supported by four powerful columns is 119 m high from the inside and its diameter is 42 m. This is a real masterpiece of architecture and engineering of its day. The statue of St Longinus by Bernini stands in the column niche along with statues of St Andrew, St Veronica and St Helena.

Bernini made an invaluable input to creation of the Baroque interior of the church. With several interruptions, he worked in the basilica for as much as 50 years, from 1620 to 1670. The masterpiece by Bernini is the large pavilion (29 m high) supported by four wreathed columns topped with statues of angels. The pavilion is located above the main altar. There are heraldic symbols of the Barberinis – bees – in laurel branches on the top of the columns. It was Pope Urbano VIII (Barberini), who ordered to take bronze for the ciborium from the Pantheon. Behind the ciborium the throne of St Peter by Bernini can be seen, above which there is the symbol of the Holy Ghost, a dove hovering in golden sunbeams.

In the end of the central nave, at the last column on the right, there is a supposedly miraculous statue of St Peter: numerous pilgrims come here to kiss its bronze leg. There is a tomb of Pope Urbano VIII by Bernini in the right part of the apse, and there is a tomb of Paul III (the XVI century) by Guglielmo della Porta, the Michelangelo’s apprentice, in the left. By now 147 Popes have been buried in the Basilica. Be sure to visit their tombs. The tomb of Alexander VII by Bernini showing Pope kneeled and surrounded by statues that symbolize virtues is especially remarkable. The tomb of Innocent VIII by Antonio del Pollaiuolo is the only pontifical tomb that was moved from the ancient basilica. Not far from the entrance there is a tomb of the last members of the Royal House of Stuart from Scotland designed by Canova.

The jewel of the collection held by the basilica is Michelangelo’s marble Pieta that was created at the turn of the XV century, when he was only 24. After there was an attempt to break the statue in 1972 (which however allowed to discover a concealed monogram of the Master), it was protected with the glass. The grave-stone of Matilda of Tuscany by Bernini and his apprentice is located a bit further from the Chapel of Crucifixion. Matilda was the first woman to be buried in the Basilica. The Chapel of St Gregory holds the famous fresco Madonna the Protectress by Giacomo della Porta.

You can get a ticket to the treasury to see liturgical dresses and holy roods, the angel by Bernini and many other interesting objects. To get to grottos of Vatican, where many Popes were buried, you should go to the right from the main altar. Archaeologists have discovered burial places of Pre-Constantinian times here, which you can see free of charge, if you sign up for it in advance, though, it is necessary to register as early as three months before arriving. You can make an appointment and join a guided excursion to the Vatican Gardens, where the Casina of Pope Pius IV is especially remarkable.

An absolute must is to ascend to the sightseeing platform of the Basilica. Be sure to spare some time to see the Eternal city in its superlative magnificence. It will be a good idea to get there in the afternoon or at sunset, when there are not too many tourists there. You can either climb up all the 551 steps, or ascend 320 steps by foot and use an elevator after that. The easiest way is to use an online ticket to the Vatican museums so that you don’t have to wait in the line, and then to get to the St Peter’s Basilica and up to its dome. Another good idea to get to the Vatican museums without standing in the line is to take a guided excursion. Many guides offer multi-language excursions for those wishing to get to museums or to the sightseeing platform. On Mondays and Tuesdays the Swiss guards distribute a limited amount of tickets for the Pope’s appearance, which takes place in the church square on Wednesdays. However, if you manage to get to the pontifical service inside the church, you will get some really unique experience. Many other Vatican tours you can find here.

On your way to the Vatican Museums or to St. Peter's Basilica have a bite of a mind-blowingly tasty tiramisu in a wonderful confectionery called Pompi located in Via Cola di Rienzo, 313 (a 5 minute walk from St. Peter Square). Since 1960 this place has been offering its guests more than 10 kinds of different tiramisu, ice-cream and unforgettable desserts! Yummy, this is probably the best tiramisu in Rome! This tiramisu bar offers its delicious products daily from 11 am till 11 pm, Fri and Sat till 2 am.

Address: Piazza San Pietro
Opening hours: Basilica 1 Oct – 31 Mar 7 am – 6.30 pm, 1 Apr – 30 Sep 7 am – 7 pm; sightseeing platform 1 Oct – 31 Mar 8 am – 5 pm, 1 Apr – 30 Sep 8 am – 6 pm
How to reach: metro Ottaviano
Coordinates: 41.902153, 12.453699