Basilica of Saint Peter
Universal seat of the Catholic Church in Rome, Pontifical Chapel and destination of every pilgrimage to the holy city, St. Peter's Basilica houses famous works of art celebrating the Christian faith.
Preceded by the spectacular colonnade in St. Peter's Square, it has a majestic façade and is surmounted by the large dome designed by Michelangelo. Regarded as one of the absolute masterpieces of architecture, it is the product of the work of dozens of designers who have created it over 160 years.
At St. Peter's tomb
The construction of St. Peter's Basilica was started in 1506 on the initiative of Pope Julius II, who is also considered the “father” of the Vatican Museums, and was only finally completed in 1667 with all the final arrangements of the square.
On the site of today's basilica stood an early Christian one built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, right where St Peter was supposedly buried. The history of its construction is very complex, with a long list of architects and artists who helped make it possible: Bramante, Giuliano da Sangallo, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Baldassarre Peruzzi, Michelangelo, Vignola, Giacomo Della Porta, Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno and, in the last 40 years, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The colonnade and façade of St Peter's Basilica
A piece of advice: enter the square from one of the side entrances to guarantee the surprise effect of Bernini's elliptical colonnade, which suddenly opens and seems to move.
Coming from the wide, frontal Via della Conciliazione, built in the 20th century, this effect is lost.
There are 284 columns and they are topped with 140 statues over three metres high and six coats of arms of Alexander VII.
In the centre of the colonnade is an obelisk from ancient Egypt transported to Rome in 37 AD and two fountains, one by Maderno, the other by Fontana. If you stand on the porphyry discs on either side of the obelisk, which are the foci of the ellipse, the rows of columns line up perfectly and you will only see the first one, the others seem to vanish!
In order to walk into the Basilica, you have to climb a flight of steps and cross the portico built into the façade: from the central balcony, known as the Loggia delle Benedizioni, the pope appears for the Angelus and when the election of the new pontiff is announced.
The interior of the Basilica: an array of masterpieces
The interior of the basilica is stunning in its majesty and the richness of Baroque-style decorations. Don't miss the bronze statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio; the monumental canopy with twisted altar columns, made of bronze taken from the Pantheon, 30 metres high, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Michelangelo's Pietà, which the sculptor made when he was 23 years old; the funeral monument of Clement XIII, considered to be one of Antonio Canova's best works; the statues of Urban VII, the tomb of Alexander VII and the gilded bronze Chair of St. Peter in the apse, other Bernini masterpieces.
After the Sacristy, a late 18th-century room with eight columns from the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, one has access to the Treasury of St. Peter's, where sacred furnishings, statues and various art objects, mostly gifts given to the popes, are on display. Don't miss a ciborium by Donatello, the monument to Sixtus IV by Pollaiolo, some precious works from the Byzantine era and the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus from the 4th century.
The majestic dome of St Peter's
The symbol of the city of Rome, the “Cupolone” for the Romans, the Dome of St. Peter's was designed by Michelangelo, but he did not see it completed: it was Domenico Fontana and Giacomo Della Porta who completed the building. On the Dome you can take the lift up to the terrace overlooking the square.
A staircase of 330 steps in a corridor between the outer and inner dome, about halfway down which you can look out into the first gallery, 53 metres above the ground, and admire the dome mosaics up close.
You can also climb to the top of the lantern and from there all of Rome will truly be at your feet.
The Vatican Grottoes
The so-called Vatican Grottoes are located under the floor of the nave of the basilica, in the gap between the current floor and the floor of the Constantinian basilica on which the church was built. It houses the Tomb of Peter, at the altar and Michelangelo's dome, and numerous other pontiffs and rulers.
The Grottoes are a very atmospheric environment with various altars and niches, filled with the artwork adorning the various papal tombs and other works from the early Christian period from the ancient basilica, such as sacred vessels, statues and column fragments. One of the most valuable works is the tomb of Boniface VIII, partly created by the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in 1300. Also noteworthy is the tomb of Pius VI by Antonio Canova (19th century).