It is thanks to Peter, the first Apostle and the first pope and leader of the Church that the most important basilica in the Christian world, the St. Peter's Basilica, was built in Rome.
Peter was given his name by Jesus because he was destined to be the foundation "stone" (in Italian "Pietra") on which the church would be built. He was certainly one of the most enterprising of the Apostles to say the least. He was imprisoned, and then miraculously released, following which he left Jerusalem and headed for Rome, the "Capital of the World", which was the centre of the immense Roman Empire at that time. Here he became bishop and then reigned as the first pope for 25 years.
During the fierce persecution of Nero, he was imprisoned with millions of other condemned Christians and died by crucifixion sometime between 64 and 67 AD on the Vatican Hills in the Neronian circle. Rumour has it that he wanted to be put on the cross head-down as he did not feel he was worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus.
Among the other tales about Peter is the one that says while he was on the road to his place of execution, or possibly when he ran away from Rome to flee his death, he met Jesus and he posed the fateful question "Domine, quo vadis?" to his Lord and decided to return.
It was here in the gigantic complex of the Neronian circle with its palaces, temples and gardens that the execution and burial of one of the most important Apostles of Christ took place. A long veneration of this sacred place soon began, so much so that while the grandiose Roman buildings fell to ruin, a Christian necropolis was built and successively, in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine decided to erect the first basilica in honour of the Saint.
This is how the Church, the physical and spiritual centre of Christianity was born. The first basilica was an immense and magnificent building, which guarded treasures of art and gold. It appears that the pilgrims of those times were greatly overwhelmed before such great marvels. Among the many works of art is the famous Navicella mosaic by Giotto, of which today, only a copy is still conserved in the portico.
Thousands of years later, Constantine's Basilica began to show the first signs of collapse. At the dawn of the 15th century, Pope Nicholas V and the architect, Bernardo Rossellino set to work on what would be one of the most famous and demanding building sites of the Renaissance; the so-called "Brickworks of St. Peter"
Many prestigious architects and artists of the time were involved with the construction of St. Peter's, but it was first Donato Bramante and then Michelangelo who created the revolutionary plant of the new construction. Bramante built the immense central body in the form of a Greek cross held up by four gigantic pillars. Michelangelo was the designer of the 'cuppolone', or the "enormous dome" as the people of Rome fondly call it, and he was also responsible for the simple, yet majestic exterior with its gigantic columns crowned by a very evident horizontal fascia. In the end, it was Carlo Maderno who lengthened the central nave of the church and erected the monumental façade. An imposing construction that was as big as a football field and as high as a thirteen-storey building, crowned with the colossal statues of Jesus, Giovanni Battista and the apostles.
From the portico, you enter the Basilica through five heavy bronze doors: the one on the far right is called the "Porta Santa", which is only opened during the jubilee year.
Inside, the effect is truly impressive and what surprises the most are its dimensions. You have the sensation of finding yourself in an empty void, and indeed the space is enormous when you consider that it can take in up to 20,000 worshippers. With its vast size, it is difficult to work out the true scale of the objects inside. At St. Peter's, nothing exists unless it is ten times as big as what it appears to be from a distance.
St. Peter's is also an extraordinary museum and it is impossible to estimate the priceless worth of the infinite works of art that can be found here. All you need to do is to think of the Baldachin by Bernini, or the sweet Pieta, which in Italian means 'Compassion', by Michelangelo. And then there is the exterior, where all around the church, you will see the magnificent marble columns of Bernini that enfold the surrounding square in a spectacular and metaphorical embrace. Seen from the centre of the square that was built to hold the crowds of believers who flock here from all over the world, the double columns of the portico are perfectly aligned in a surprising play with perspective.
Today, it is probably not the same as it was in Bernini's times before the Via della Conciliazione road was built. It was actually constructed during the Fascist era and an enormous part of the historic district was demolished because the Regime required larger and straighter roads for their processions and military parades. Before this occurred, Piazza San Pietro with its columned square must have appeared immense as you came out of the narrow streets of the small Borgo district, leaving onlookers totally breathless. Even today, before the magnificence and sacredness of this extraordinary place, one still feels so small and full of awe.
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