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St. Peter's Basilica: interior

The Basilica of Saint Peter is Christianity’s most important spot and perhaps the most famous religious site in the world. For centuries it has been the destination of millions of people coming from every part of the globe but above all it’s the result of numerous projects by celebrated architects and engineers literally overlapping in time who’ve given life to one of the most impressive works of the Renaissance and of the 16th century. It’s a building of extraordinary proportions, more than 200 meters long, that houses an almost infinite number of masterpieces.

As soon as you pass through the entrance, the incredible size and splendor of the immense building leaves you literally breathless. The interior is so vast it’s easy to lose all sense of proportion. For instance, the two pudgy little angels holding up the basin of holy water near the entrance, at first glance might seem small, but as you come closer you realize they’re more than two meters tall: it’s a sort of mirage that applies to all of the masterpieces strewn about the basilica.

In the nave on the left, is the moving and, at the same time, somewhat disturbing funeral monument to Pope Alexander VII, yet another work by Bernini. A gigantic skeleton lifts a curtain made entirely of marble that hides the door to the beyond, while in its other hand it holds an hourglass as a reminder of how short is the time of human existence.

At the center of the basilica, to one side, is the bronze statue of Saint Peter, relatively small and almost in counterpoint to the massive marvels surrounding it. It portrays the apostle seated, hand raised in blessing; its feet have literally been consumed by the passage of hands of the pilgrims that have touched it with devotion over time.

For centuries the statue was believed to be a work from the late Roman period but modern technology has laid popular beliefs to rest, showing that it comes from about the year 1200 and was perhaps the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, an ingenious medieval sculptor and architect who aspired to the perfection of Roman sculpture.

The huge dome of the Basilica is covered by an immense mosaic and the entire ceiling is rich in golden stucco work. From below it’s difficult to see that all the mosaic decorations are created with tiles so small that they seem painted. But the ceiling isn’t the only precious decoration here: under your feet is a symphony of different colors and inlays that, as if by magic, exactly mirror the flashing colors of the ceiling’s mosaics.

There is no more vast or beautiful pavement in the world. Near the entrance, you’ll see a large disc of red Egyptian porphyry set into the floor. It comes from the ancient basilica of Constantine where there had been six of them. This is the only one to survive because it was right here that Charlemagne kneeled on Christmas Eve in the year 800, and was crowned emperor.

Saint Peter’s is the sum of the creative forces of a large number of artists, with its 45 altars, 11 chapels, 390 statues and 10,000 square meters of mosaics, but it still remains a church in which normal celebrations have been going on for centuries and, at the same time, it is the heart that unites both millions of faithful as well as simple lovers of artistic beauty. It’s part of the patrimony of humanity and there is no place on Earth so rich in history, faith and art.