St Peter’s in Rome recently celebrated the 389th anniversary of it’s consecration on 18th November 1626, 120 years after the first stone was laid. And Pope Francis’s Jubilee, or extraordinary Holy Year, commenced with the opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica on December 8, 2015. But whether or not you are a believer, it’s hard to deny that St Peter’s is a stunning building, filled with fabulous art and architecture. So let’s take a look at some of the facts and figures relating to the house built for Peter.
Several Italian architects contributed to the Basilica of St Peter.
Donato Bramante was the first to be commissioned by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. The Pope wanted the basilica to mark the spot where St Peter was believed to have been crucified by Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar or buried in the 1st century.
Bramante’s design formed the basis for the finished basilica but others would leave their mark including two legendary artists Raphael and Michelangelo, more of whom later….
St Peter’s Basilica is considered by many to be the largest church in the world
Although it kind of depends on what you mean by largest! Highest? Biggest footprint? Largest capacity? There is an argument that the largest church is actually the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire but although the church is taller than St Peter’s, St Peter’s seats up to 60,000 visitors (instead of the Yamoussoukro capacity of 15,000), which, to my mind, makes it bigger.
Michelangelo designed St Peter’s dome
When Michelangelo Buonarotti, otherwise known as Michelangelo for short, took over construction of the Basilica in 1547, aged 71, he redrafted Bramante and Sangallo’s designs for the dome using the Ancient Roman Pantheon and Florence’s Duomo as artistic inspiration and engineering examples. Michelangelo was careful, however, to make his dome 1.5m, or 5 feet, narrower in diameter than the Pantheon saying “I could build one bigger, but not more beautiful, than that of the Pantheon.” Carlo Maderno added the lantern to the top of the dome that today serves as a vantage point for visitors across the city, if you can manage the 323 steps from the lift to the top, that is!
St Peter’s Square isn’t actually a square
St Peter’s Square isn’t actually a square, it is oval in shape and designed to heighten the theatrical effect for visitors. 4 rows of colonnades surround the Piazza, enclosing the visitor with the “maternal arms of the Church” in sculptor-designer Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s words. 90 statues of saints were originally situated on top of the colonnades in 1657 acting as a “choir.” A further 50 were added in 1703 making 140 in total and an awful lot of carving for the various artists involved!
There are many funereal monuments in St Peter’s grotto
There are many funereal monuments and over 100 tombs in the underground grotto (as opposed to the scavi or ancient necropolis) including 91 popes dating back to 461, Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, Queen Charlotte of Cyprus and the Swedish Queen Christina who was apparently compelled to abdicate when she converted to Catholicism. You can visit the grotto from the basilica as part of your visit to St Peter’s. The steps are to the left, in front of the Baldacchino altar canopy. But be aware, once you exit the grotto you will be outside the Basilica so make this the last thing you visit.
Neopolitan architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini worked on the basilica
Architect and artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini didn’t just work on the exterior but also contributed to the interior too, designing the 96 foot tall high baroque Baldacchino canopy that covers the altar at the centre of St Peter’s. Finished in 1633 the bronze canopy is extremely opulent, some would say over the top or garish, and attracted a lot of criticism, not least because Bernini was rumoured to have stripped the bronze roof off the beloved Pantheon. Tut tut!
Michelangelo’s statue of Pity is his only signed work
Talking of artists and statues takes me back to our old chum Michelangelo and his statue of Pietà, or pity. Michelangelo took 2 years to carve the Carrera marble statue, commissioned for a French Cardinal working in Rome. And originally the statue was not signed, as was Michelangelo’s habit. But, according to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, the artist changed his mind in a fit of pique after overhearing visitors crediting someone else with carving the beautiful sculpture. Michelangelo was so offended that he carved his name into Mary’s sash as Michaela[n]gelus Bonarotus Florentin[us] Facieba[t] or in other words “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this”. Vasari later reported that when Michelangelo calmed down he greatly regretted his outburst of egotism and mis-placed pride, vowing never to sign anything ever again. And he was true to his word, well, as far as we know!
The history of St Peter’s is long and international
The history of St Peter’s doesn’t just encompass the Ancient Romans, the Bible and the greats of the Renaissance, which would be pretty impressive in itself, but also includes Ancient Egypt. If you’ve been to St Peter’s Square you might know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty hard to miss, actually, as it’s a red granite Egyptian obelisk standing 25.5m, 84 ft, tall and weighing an estimated 326 tonnes! Not much is known about the obelisk or which Pharoah commissioned it but it was first recorded in Alexandria around 30 BC. Gaius Caligua then brought it to Rome in 37 AD and stuck it in his garden before moving it to his circus, much of which is now under the basilica. But the Vatican obelisk is more than just the spoils of empire. It is believed that St Peter was crucified at the circus, almost in the shadow of the pillar, and so Christians venerate the stone tower as a witness to Peter’s death. If only it could talk eh?
And so there you have it, 8 (hopefully) fascinating facts that you didn’t know about St Peter’s in Rome. Next time you’re visiting the Eternal City why not see how many other hidden gems you can spot. And please leave me a comment with your favourite little known facts about well-known places in Rome and around Italy – I’m always fascinated to hear more! In the meantime, lets all wish St Peter’s Basilica a very happy anniversary!
Useful information for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome
Website (in English) here
Opening Hours – St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is open every day from 7.00 to 19.00, April to September and from 7.00 to 18.00, October to March.
Entry – entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free. Queues can be long during the summer and vary throughout the day so either go early in the morning or later in the afternoon to try to avoid the crowds.
Dress-code – As with most Catholic churches there is a strict dress code. Access is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats and no topless men are allowed). Women are expected to cover their shoulders, midriffs and wear skirts or trousers that cover their knees. Men are expected to cover shoulders and knees too. If you are not appropriately dressed you will be given a disposable sarong/scarf to cover yourself before being allowed into the Basilica.
Security – Expect airport style controls. All visitors have to go through a metal detector and all bags are X-rayed beforehand. All large bags, suitcases, umbrellas, camera tripods, alcohol or weapons have to be checked in at the cloakroom and can be collected at the end of the visit. Europe’s security levels are currently elevated so advice may change.
Selfie sticks are strictly forbidden! Hooray!