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). 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. Five of Italy's greatest artists—Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio Sangallo the Younger, and Michelangelo—died while striving to erect it.
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 on the verge of collapse. In 1452, a reconstruction job began but wasabandoned for lack of money. In 1503, Pope Julius II instructed the architect Bramante to raze
all the existing buildings and build a new basilica, one that would surpass even Constantine's for grandeur. It wasn't until 1626 that the new 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. He also 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.
Works by Giotto, Michelangelo, and Borromini
As you climb the shallow steps up to the great church, 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 mosaic above the entrance to the portico is a much-restored work by the 14th-century painter Giotto that was in the original basilica.
Pause a moment to appraise the size of the great building. It's because the proportions of this giant building are in such perfect harmony that its vastness may escape you at first.
Inside the great nave, 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, unusual for him, across Mary's sash. 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), with a Baroque fresco of the Trinity by Pietro da Cortona.
In the central crossing, Bernini's great bronze baldacchino—a huge, spiral-columned canopy—rises high over the papal altar. At 100,000 pounds, it's said to be the largest, heaviest bronze object in the world. Bernini designed the splendid Cattedra di San Pietro (Throne of St. Peter), in the apse above the main altar and, above, placed a window of thin alabaster sheets that diffuses a golden light around the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, in the center.
From the right side of the basilica's vestibule, you can take the elevator or climb the long flight of stairs to the roof (06/69883462; €7 elevator, €5 stairs; Apr.–Sept., daily 8–6; Oct.–Mar., daily 8–5; closed during Papal Audience [Wed. until 1 pm]; closed during other ceremonies in piazza). From here, you'll see a landscape of vast, sloping terraces, punctuated by domes. The terrace has a souvenir shop and restrooms. Another flight of stairs leads to the tamburo (drum)—the base of the dome—where there's a bust of Michelangelo, the dome's principal designer. Within the drum, another 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 of stout heart and strong lungs, you can then take the stairs that wind around the elevator to reach the cramped space of the lantern balcony for a 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.
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 sculpted 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.
The entrance (free; Mon.–Sat. 9–4, Sun. 1:30–3:30; closed during Papal Audience [Wed. until 1 pm]; closed during other ceremonies in piazza) is inside the basilica to the left of the High Altar. The crypt is lined with marble-faced chapels and tombs and the confessio (directly beneath the high altar and on your left after you reach the bottom of the stairs), flanked by two angels and visible through glass, is above the tomb believed to belong to St. Peter himself.
The Basilica is free to visit but a security check at the entrance can create very long lines. Arrive before 8:30 or after 5:30 to minimize the wait and avoid the crowds).