The great Basilica of Saint Peter, the most important in the Christian world, is the monument that manages to unite in a single place the religious faithful and lovers of art. It’s dedicated to Peter, first among the apostles, first pope and head of the Church.
All around the church, Bernini’s magnificent colonnade enfolds the surrounding oval piazza in a spectacular and metaphorical embrace.
Why is it called St. Peter's Basilica?
To understand the origins of the St. Peter's Basilica, we need to go back in time almost 2,000 years. It wasn’t by chance that it was built here; this was the place where the apostle was killed and then buried. Peter, given this name by Jesus because he would be the “pietra”, the rock, on which the Church would be built, was the most dynamic of the Apostles: he was put in jail and then miraculously liberated, he left Jerusalem for Rome, center of the Roman Empire. Here he was first bishop then pope for 25 years.
During the ferocious persecution ordered by Nero, Peter ended up in jail along with thousands of other Christians and died crucified, around 64 AD on the Vatican hill. Contrary to popular belief, Christians were not killed in the Colosseum as many films would have us think, but rather in the circuses and it’s in this very spot, where Nero’s gigantic royal complex spread out surrounded by palaces, temples and gardens, that Peter’s execution and burial took place, he who was the first and most authoritative of the Apostles of Christ.
The story has it that he wished to be nailed to the cross upside down because he didn’t think he merited being crucified in the same manner as his Lord.
The area outside Nero’s Circus, far from the center of town, was considered unhealthy and fit only for burials. Soon after Peter’s martyrdom, veneration of this sacred place began, so enduring was it that, while the grandiose Roman buildings fell to ruin, a great necropolis was built for Christian and pagan burials.
How was the St Peter's basilica built?
When, in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine decided to erect a great basilica dedicated to Saint Peter, a solid foundation was needed: his architects created it by destroying the Vatican hill and flattening the ground over the tombs. Many tombs were buried and disappeared this way, notwithstanding the protests of their owners as they watched the necropolis buried by force. This is how the first Basilica was born that, since then, has represented the physical and spiritual centre of Christianity.
It was a spectacular building, that safeguarded priceless works of art and golden relics. It appears that the pilgrims of those times were overwhelmed before such great marvels. The first Basilica of Saint Peter functioned for more than a 1,000 years and was very different from what it is today. Its original shape, now lost forever, was the same as the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, built in the same period, with 5 naves, the colossal central one incredibly high-ceilinged.
The building Constantine wanted protected what for everyone was a monument of Christianity: the tomb of Saint Peter. Its exact spot is known thanks to the strength of the tradition that passed down the location, and to the fact that Christians and above all the first popes, did anything they could to be buried as close as possible to the founding father of the Church.
Remember that the main altar, covered by Bernini’s “Baldacchino” in the St. Peter's Basilica today, is exactly above the altar of Constantine’s basilica which is located exactly above the tomb of St. Peter. It’s truly incredible to think that underneath that altar, more than ten meters down, are preserved 2,000 years of history.
A thousand years after its founding, Constantine’s Basilica began to show signs of collapse. At the dawn of the 15th century, Pope Nicholas V and the architect Bernardo Rossellino, wanting to build something that surpassed Constantine in magnificence, 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”, that would go on for a good 200 years.
Constantine’s imposing edifice was demolished to leave space for the new Basilica, that which we know today. Many prestigious architects and artists of the time were involved with the construction of St. Peter’s, but almost a hundred years after the work began, it was first Donato Bramante and then Michelangelo who created the revolutionary plan of the new construction.
The first design of the Renaissance Basilica, Bramante’s, was daring and grandiose: an immense dome as big as that of the Pantheon, on top of an equally majestic church. Saint Peter’s Brickworks continued with many changes during construction and interruptions until Pope Julius II called Michelangelo, entrusting him personally with the job of finishing the basilica and of designing his monumental tomb, something that became an obsession for Michelangelo. Later, it would be the same pope that would ask the artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The dome was one of Michelangelo’s many flashes of genius. He modified Bramante’s original design to give the dome more importance. He wanted it larger than the one on the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, designed by Brunelleschi, but which had certainly inspired him. In fact, the dome is supported by large curved beams but, like the dome in Florence, the secret is that it’s a double dome, one on top of the other with a space in between.
It was an ingenious solution because the lower part is what holds everything up; the upper part has only the job of protecting the rest of the structure. Michelangelo died before the dome was finished however, and the work was brought to a conclusion by Giacomo Della Porta, who raised it even further making the dome more slender and solid —and even finished the job in only two years instead of the ten years that had been expected. The end result is a structure weighing 14,000 tons, with the cross a good 130 meters above the ground.
Michelangelo, besides designing the “cupolone”, as the Romans affectionately call the enormous dome, also has the merit of setting the simple and majestic style of the exterior of the St. Peter's Basilica, that was actually completed by Carlo Maderno.
By the 15th century it was falling down, so in 1506 Pope Julius II laid the first stone of a new church. It took more than a century to build and all the great architects of the Roman Renaissance and Baroque had a hand in its design.
In 1626 Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to continue the work, especially the restructuring of the façade. Then, after falling from favor under Innocent X, he was brought back by Alexander VII (1655-67) to design the new square in front of the basilica.
Maderno's façade needed to be given greater breadth; the irregular buildings surrounding the square in 1586 had to be hidden; the obelisk set up in the square in 1586 had to be taken into account; and it was also necessary to enable a larger crowd to see the Pope during the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing.
Bernini'solution was to design a piazza in the form of an ellipse, bordered by a quadruple colonnade forming a portico wide enough to let a carriage pass. The foci of the are indicated by marble disk on each side of the two fountains; standing on either of these disks you can see only one row of columns, instead of four.
Two wings link the colonnades to the St. Peter's Basilica: the one on the right end at the Scala Regia, the one on the left at the Arco delle Campane.
In 1626, when the new basilica was finally finished and consecrated, pilgrims from all over Italy and Europe were at last able to admire the immense beauty of this holy place. The Basilica is so gigantic that its true proportions are easily missed at first glance: for example, the statues of Jesus, John the Baptist and the apostles towering at the summit of the facade may appear small but they’re actually giants 6 meters tall!
During the fascist era, the ancient medieval quarter of Borgo, right in front of the piazza, was demolished to make way for the via della Conciliazione, because the Regime needed wide and straight streets for its demonstrations and military parades.
In Bernini’s time and up to the first 20 years of the 20th century, when via della Conciliazione didn’t yet exist, coming upon the Basilica must have had an even more amazing effect: from the narrow alleyways of the picturesque medieval neighborhood, you suddenly found yourself face to face with the enormity of the columned piazza and the startling whiteness of the basilica leaving you literally breathless.
From everywhere, the faithful have come to Saint Peter’s for centuries —nobility, princes and kings— but also pilgrims dressed in rags, who undertook a long and exhausting journey on foot that took many months, just to be able to climb those steps and pray inside this extraordinary basilica.
Today, the view of Saint Peter’s doesn’t leave much to the imagination but it’s still an incredible sight that leaves visitors and pilgrims alike lost in a profound sense of admiration.
St. Peter's has made me realize that Art, like Nature, can abolish all standards of measurement. – J. W. Goethe