Mostly enclosed within high walls that recall the papacy's stormy history, the Vatican opens the arms of Bernini's colonnade to embrace the world only at St. Peter's Square, scene of the pope's public appearances. One of Bernini's most spectacular masterpieces, the elliptical Piazza di San Pietro was completed in 1667 after only 11 years' work and holds 400,000 people.
Surrounded by a pair of quadruple colonnades, it is gloriously studded with 140 statues of saints and martyrs. Look for the two disks set into the piazza's pavement to either side of the central obelisk. If you stand on either disk, a trick of perspective makes the colonnades look like a single row of columns.
Bernini had an even grander visual effect in mind when he designed the square. By opening up this immense, airy, and luminous space in a neighborhood of narrow, shadowy streets, he created a contrast that would surprise and impress anyone who emerged from the darkness into the light, in a characteristically
At the piazza center, the 85-foot-high Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome by Caligula in AD 37 and moved here in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. The emblem at the top of the obelisk is the Chigi star, in honor of Pope Alexander VII, a member of the powerful Chigi family, who commissioned the piazza.
Alexander demanded that Bernini make the pope visible to as many people as possible from the Loggia delle Benedizioni (Benediction Loggia) and to provide a covered passageway for papal processions.
The Vatican post offices (known for fast handling of outgoing mail) can be found on both sides of St. Peter's Square and inside the Musei Vaticani complex. You can also buy Vatican stamps and coins at the shop annexed to the information office. Although postage rates are the same at the Vatican as elsewhere in Italy, the stamps are not interchangeable, so any material stamped with Vatican stamps must be placed into a blue or yellow Posta Vaticana box. Public toilets are near the Information Office, under the colonnade on the side closest to Via di Porta Angelica, and at the entrance to the Basilica after the statue of St Paul.