St. Peter’s Basilica, otherwise known as Basilica di San Pietro has always been a tremendously popular attraction of tourists to Rome. Visitors to the site can happily pass a day taking in all there is to see there. Of the many popular locations in Vatican City, St. Peter’s ranks high in popularity and number of visits by tourists.
The popular lore says that Saint Peter is actually buried here but that legend is not backed up by evidence. The real history of the location of St. Peter’s is that it probably sits on the original Circus of Nero from the first century.
About 1000 years before St. Peter’s was built, the site was dedicated for a basilica by none other than the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine.
But it was in the 16th century that Pope Leo X got the vision for what St. Peter’s could be. He also knew how to divert funding to the effort by calling on zealous Christians to fund the crusades against the Turks and then quietly moved those funds to the building of this beautiful structure.
But as was the way with any very large and ambitious construction effort of that time, it took many, many years, many architects and many Popes before the job was done in the late 16th century.
Compared to other Roman buildings of that time, St. Peter’s is very tall – standing an impressive 445 feet from the floor of the basilica to the beautiful cross at the top of that world famous dome. That dome is a beloved part of the skyline of Rome and it is a wonder of architecture in every respect. It was designed by probably the most well known Renaissance artist who served as chief architect on the project, Michelangelo. He developed and used a double shell design that he borrowed from a fellow architect of the time, San Gallo.
Even though Michelangelo was made the architect in charge of St. Peter’s in 1546, the completion of the masterpiece came long after his death. With the passing of the great master, one of his students, Giacomo della Porta went on to complete the work in 1590. The design plans of the brilliant architects of St. Peter’s are often utilized in other great buildings including the Capital Building in Washington DC.
That dome was a durable design and it was 200 years later that the first cracks showed up in the surface. To contain these cracks from doing any more damage, four huge chains of iron were attached to the inside of the shell. If you were to climb the winding stairs between the dome shells, you would still see those chains today.
As wonderful as it is to admire the magnificent dome at St. Peter’s, there is so much more to see here. The building itself is so large it covers close to six acres and at full capacity it can seat 60,000 people. And over the centuries, many Popes have packed the basilica out for special ceremonies or when they held mass at this revered site.
The outer facade of the basilica is large as well, standing at 148 feet high and 377 feet wide and there are many statues gracing the outside of the building as well.
It is said that over 100 tombs of legendary figures from history are buried inside the halls of St. Peter’s Basilica. One notable example is Sweden’s Queen Christina, who in 1654 gave up her royal post so she could have the freedom to become a Catholic.
There is no question that the most well known and stunning art work inside St. Peter’s is the Pieta by Michelangelo. But we will have to admire it through an insulated glass barrier that was put there after a lunatic tried to destroy the masterpiece with an axe.
From the exterior of the basilica, there are a number of worthwhile historical things to look for.
For example, be on the look out for a number of ancient clocks including one with a bell that dates back to the late 13th century. But an artwork that is hard to miss is a huge Egyptian obelisk on display outside St. Peter’s that dates back to Nero’s Circus where it stood not far away during the same time period.
In the square, you will find two fountains both of which were designed by the famed artist Bernini. The southern fountain was created by the master artist in 1675. And to the apse of St. Peter’s you will find Bernini’s stellar fountain creation, The Triumph of the Chair of Saint Peter.
A trip to Rome would almost be incomplete without including at least a couple of hours to wander at your leisure taking in the majesty of this amazing display of outstanding architecture from the Renaissance period of history.
Tags: Destinations, Michelangelo, Rome, St. Peters Basilica, vatican
August 12 2008 07:55 am | Destinations