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The world's largest church, built over the tomb of St. Peter, is the most imposing and breathtaking architectural achievement of the Renaissance (although much of the lavish interior dates to the Baroque). The physical statistics are impressive: it covers 18,000 square yards, runs 212 yards in length, and is surmounted by a dome that rises 435 feet and measures 138 feet across its base. Its history is equally impressive. No fewer than five of Italy's greatest artists—Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio Sangallo the Younger, and Michelangelo—died while striving to erect this new St. Peter's.
The history of the original St. Peter's goes back to AD 349, when the emperor Constantine completed a basilica over the site of the tomb of St. Peter, the Church's first pope. The original church stood for more than 1,000 years, undergoing a number of restorations and alterations, until, toward the middle of the 15th century, it was verging on collapse. In 1452 a reconstruction job began
but was quickly abandoned for lack of money. In 1503, Pope Julius II instructed the architect Bramante to raze all the existing buildings and to build a new basilica, one that would surpass even Constantine's for grandeur. It wasn't until 1626 that the basilica was completed and consecrated.
St. Peter's Crossing and Dome
Though Bramante made little progress in rebuilding St. Peter's, he succeeded in outlining a basic plan for the church. He also, crucially, built the piers of the crossings—the massive pillars supporting the dome. After Bramante's death in 1514, Raphael, the Sangallos, and Peruzzi all proposed, at one time or another, variations on the original plan. In 1546, however, Pope Paul III turned to Michelangelo and forced the aging artist to complete the building. Michelangelo returned to Bramante's first idea of having a centralized Greek-cross plan—that is, with the "arms" of the church all the same length—and completed most of the exterior architecture except for the dome and the facade. His design for the dome, however, was modified after his death by Giacomo della Porta (his dome was much taller in proportion). Pope Paul V wanted a Latin-cross church (a church with one "arm" longer than the rest), so Carlo Maderno lengthened one of the arms to create a longer central nave.
Works by Giotto and Filarete
As you climb the shallow steps up to the great church, flanked by the statues of Sts. Peter and Paul, you'll see the Loggia delle Benedizioni (Benediction Loggia) over the central portal. This is the balcony where newly elected popes are proclaimed, and where they stand to give their apostolic blessing on solemn feast days. The vault of the vestibule is encrusted with rich stuccowork, and the mosaic above the central entrance to the portico is a much-restored work by the 14th-century painter Giotto that was in the original basilica. The bronze doors of the main entrance also were salvaged from the old basilica. The sculptor Filarete worked on them for 12 years; they show scenes from the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the life of Pope Eugene IV (1431–47), Filarete's patron.
Pause a moment to appraise the size of the great building. The people near the main altar seem dwarfed by the incredible dimensions of this immense temple. The statues, the pillars, and the holy-water stoups borne by colossal cherubs are all imposing. Walk over to where the cherub clings to a pier and place your arm across the sole of the cherub's foot; you will discover that it's as long as the distance from your fingers to your elbow. It's because the proportions of this giant building are in such perfect harmony that its vastness may escape you at first. Brass inscriptions in the marble pavement down the center of the nave indicate the approximate lengths of the world's other principal Christian churches, all of which fall far short of the 186-meter span of St. Peter's Basilica. In its megascale—inspired by the spatial volumes of ancient Roman ruins—the church reflects Roman grandiosità in all its majesty.
As you enter the great nave, immediately to your right, behind a protective glass partition, is Michelangelo's Pietà , sculpted when the artist was only 25. The work was of such genius, some rivals spread rumors it was by someone else, prompting the artist to inscribe his name, unusually for him, across Mary's sash. Farther down, with its heavyweight crown barely denting its marble cushion, is Carlo Fontana's monument to Catholic convert and abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden (who is buried in the Grotte Vaticane below). Just across the way, in the Cappella di San Sebastiano, now lies the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II. The beloved pope's remains were moved into the chapel after his beatification on May 1, 2011. Exquisite bronze grilles and doors by Borromini open into the third chapel in the right aisle, the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento (Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament), generally open to visitors only from 7 am to 8:30 am, with a Baroque fresco of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona. The lovely carved angels are by Bernini. At the last pillar on the right (the pier with Bernini's statue of St. Longinus) is a bronze statue of St. Peter, whose right foot is ritually touched by lines of pilgrims. In the right transept, over the door to the Cappella di San Michele (Chapel of St. Michael), usually closed, Canova created a brooding Neoclassical monument to Pope Clement XIII.
In the central crossing, Bernini's great bronze baldacchino—a huge, spiral-columned canopy—rises high over the altare papale (papal altar). At 100,000 pounds, it's said to be the largest, heaviest bronze object in the world. Circling the baldacchino are four larger-than-life statues of saints whose relics the Vatican has; the one of St. Longinus, holding the spear that pierced Christ's side, is another Bernini masterpiece. Meanwhile, Bernini designed the splendid gilt-bronze Cattedra di San Pietro (throne of St. Peter) in the apse above the main altar to contain a wooden and ivory chair that St. Peter himself is said to have used, though in fact it doesn't date from farther back than medieval times. (You can see a copy of the chair in the treasury.) Above, Bernini placed a window of thin alabaster sheets that diffuses a golden light around the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, in the center.
Two of the major papal funeral monuments in St. Peter's Basilica are on either side of the apse and unfortunately are usually only dimly lighted. To the right is the tomb of Pope Urban VIII; to the left is the tomb of Pope Paul III. Paul's tomb is of an earlier date, designed between 1551 and 1575 by Giacomo della Porta, the architect who completed the dome of St. Peter's Basilica after Michelangelo's death. Many believed the nude figure of Justice to be a portrait of the pope's beautiful sister, Giulia. The charms of this alluring figure were such that in the 19th century, it was thought that she should no longer be allowed to distract worshippers from their prayers, and she was thenceforth clad in marble drapery. It was in emulation of this splendid late-Renaissance work that Urban VIII ordered Bernini to design his tomb. The real star here, however, is la Bella Morte ("Beautiful Death") who, all bone and elbows, dispatches the deceased pope above to a register of blue-black marble. The tomb of Pope Alexander VII, also designed by Bernini, stands to the left of the altar as you look up the nave, behind the farthest pier of the crossing. This may be the most haunting memorial in the basilica, thanks to another frightening skeletonized figure of Death, holding an hourglass in its upraised hand to tell the pope his time is up. Pope Alexander, however, was well prepared, having kept a coffin (also designed by Bernini) in his bedroom and made a habit of dining off plates embossed with skulls.
Under the Pope Pius V monument, the entrance to the sacristy also leads to the Museo Storico-Artistico e Tesoro (Historical-Artistic Museum and Treasury; 06/69881840, €10 includes audio guide, Apr.–Sept., daily 9–6:15; Oct.–Mar., daily 9–5:15), a small collection of Vatican treasures. They range from the massive and beautifully sculptured 15th-century tomb of Pope Sixtus IV by Pollaiuolo, which you can view from above, to a jeweled cross dating from the 6th century and a marble tabernacle by Donatello. Continue on down the left nave past Algardi's tomb of St. Leo. The handsome bronze grilles in the Cappella del Coro (Chapel of the Choir) were designed by Borromini to complement those opposite in the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento. The next pillar holds a rearrangement of the Pollaiuolo brothers' monument to Pope Innocent VIII, the only major tomb to have been transferred from the old basilica. Lacking in bulk compared to many of its Baroque counterparts, it more than makes up in Renaissance elegance. The next chapel contains the handsome bronze monument to Pope John XXIII by contemporary sculptor Emilio Greco. On the last pier in this nave stands a monument by the late-18th-century Venetian sculptor Canova to the ill-fated Stuarts—the 18th-century Roman Catholic claimants to the British throne, who were long exiled in Rome and some of whom are buried in the crypt below.
Above, the vast sweep of the basilica's dome is the cynosure of all eyes. Proceed to the right side of the Basilica's vestibule; from here, you can either take the elevator or climb the long flight of shallow stairs to the roof (06/69883462, elevator €7, stairs €5; Apr.–Sept., daily 8–6; Oct.–Mar., daily 8–5; on a Papal Audience Wed., opens after the audience finishes, about noon; closed during ceremonies in piazza). From here, you'll see a surreal landscape of vast, sloping terraces, punctuated by domes. The roof affords unusual perspectives both on the dome above and the piazza below. The terrace is equipped with the inevitable souvenir shop and restrooms. A short flight of stairs leads to the entrance of the tamburo (drum)—the base of the dome—where, appropriately enough, there's a bust of Michelangelo, the dome's principal designer. Within the drum, another short ramp and staircase give access to the gallery encircling the base of the dome. (You also have the option of taking an elevator to this point.) From here, you have a dove's-eye view of the interior of the church. If you're overly energetic, you can take the stairs that wind around the elevator to reach the roof.
Only if you're of stout heart and strong lungs should you then make the taxing climb from the drum of the dome up to the lanterna (lantern) at the dome's very apex. A narrow, seemingly interminable staircase follows the curve of the dome between inner and outer shells, finally releasing you into the cramped space of the lantern balcony for an absolutely gorgeous panorama of Rome and the countryside on a clear day. There's also a nearly complete view of the palaces, courtyards, and gardens of the Vatican. Be aware, however, that it's a tiring, slightly claustrophobic climb. There's one stairway for going up and a different one for coming down, so you can't change your mind halfway and turn back.
Necropoli Vaticana. With advance notice you can take a 1¼-hour guided tour in English of the Vatican Necropolis, under the basilica, which gives a rare glimpse of Early Christian Roman burial customs and a closer look at the tomb of St. Peter. Apply by fax or e-mail at least 2–3 weeks in advance, specifying the number of people in the group (all must be age 15 or older), preferred language, preferred time, available dates, and your contact information in Rome. Piazza di San Pietro, 00193. 06/69885318. 06/69873017. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.vatican.va. €12. Ufficio Scavi Mon.–Sat. 9–6, visits 9–3:30. Ottaviano-San Pietro.
Grotte Vaticane. The entrance to the Grotte Vaticane is to the right of the Basilica's main entrance. The crypt, lined with marble-faced chapels and tombs occupying the area of Constantine's basilica, stands over what is believed to be the tomb of St. Peter himself, flanked by two angels and visible through glass. Among the most beautiful tombs leading up to it are that of Borgia pope Calixtus III with its carving of the Risen Christ, and the tomb of Paul II featuring angels carved by Renaissance great Mino da Fiesole. Piazza di San Pietro, 00120. Free. Weekdays and Sat. 9–4, Sun. 1:30–3:30; closed while papal audience takes place in St. Peter's Square, until about noon on Wed.
Piazza di San Pietro, Rome, Latium, 00193, Italy