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Basilica Layout

St. Peter’s Basilica is the spiritual center of world Catholicism.  It’s also a really gigantic church.  A basilica was first built at the location in the fourth Century A.D. by the emperor Constantine, the spot being chosen because it was thought to be above the burial place of St. Peter, who had been crucified nearby three hundred years earlier.  This basilica was about 340 feet long, with a large, rectangular atrium in front of it.  It was used for many centuries, during which a number of renovations and embellishments undoubtedly took place.  For most of the 14th Century, the Papacy was moved to Avignon, France, a period during which the thousand-year-old basilica suffered from neglect.  After Gregory XI moved the Papacy back to Rome in 1377, the succeeding Popes made do with the beat-up old building for more than a century, though there was talk and even some preliminary planning on doing a radical renovation.  But not much happened until 1505, when Julius II, who had not yet commissioned Raphael and Michelangelo to perform their famous works, had a simple idea:  tear the whole thing down and start over.  This idea met with stiff resistance, as to many, the old basilica was a sacred structure that should not be disturbed.  But Julius was determined, and he was the Pope.

A competition was held for a plan for the new basilica, and the winner was Donato Bramante, who proposed a layout in the shape of a Greek cross (four equal “arms”, like the Red Cross logo), with a hemispherical, Pantheon-like dome in the middle, to be supported on four gigantic piers.

Greek Cross Layout

The piers were actually built by Bramante, with some demolition work on the old basilica taking place at the same time.  But only a small part of the old building was torn down, and services continued to be held there.  But then Julius and Bramante died, and a new Pope and architect had to be named.  This replacement of Popes and architects happened many more times during construction of the basilica, which ended up taking 120 years.  Among the chief architects at different times were both Raphael (from 1515 until his death in 1520) and Michelangelo (from 1547 until his death in 1564).  Between Bramante and Michelangelo, many changes in the plans were proposed, such as extending the layout into a Latin cross configuration (one extended arm, as seen on most churches in the U.S.) and reshaping the dome in various ways, but little physical progress was made, besides the strengthening of the still-domeless piers.  It didn’t help that the city of Rome was sacked in 1527, by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the Pope at the time, Clement VII, escaped through a secret corridor to the Castel Sant’Angelo, but most of the Swiss Guard was massacred).

Swiss Guard Members

Michelangelo reconciled the previous designs into a unified plan in the shape of a Greek cross, and provided a detailed design (and even a wooden scale model) of a dome which was more ovoid than hemispherical.  As far as actual progress on the Basilica, Michelangelo got as far as constructing the “drum” (a cylindrical base for the dome) atop the piers and then expired.

After Michelangelo’s death, succeeding Popes decreed that his plans should be followed exactly, but not much progress was made, as it wasn’t always clear exactly how to do this.  But in 1585, Pope Sixtus V appointed Giacomo della Porta architect, and della Porta energetically made a substantial amount of progress.  In 1588, Sixtus asked della Porta for a plan to complete the dome.  Della Porta hesitantly made some changes to the dome’s design, elongating it to make it even taller, in the belief that the forces generated by its weight would be more vertical than lateral (a belief that ultimately proved to be correct).  He presented it to Sixtus, half expecting to be berated for changing the plan.  Sixtus asked how long it would take to build, and della Porta guessed ten years.  Sixtus told him he had only thirty months, but would be supplied with all the workers and materials that were needed.  Della Porta got to work with his army of workers and, to everyone’s surprise, was able to complete the dome in 1590, after just 22 months.  Sixtus died three months later.

Della Porta/Michelangelo's Dome

One more major change in the plans remained.  In 1607, Pope Paul V decided the basilica as planned (and half-built) wouldn’t be big enough to cover all of the ground once covered by the not-quite-gone old basilica, or to hold the number of people desired, which was to be in the tens of thousands.  His remedy was to change the configuration to that of a Latin cross, and he chose Carlo Maderno to do it.  Maderno was able to artfully accomplish this, in the process completing the demolition of the old basilica.  He also designed and constructed the fašade which is seen today.  Paul and Maderno have since been criticized for the Latin cross configuration and the fašade – the configuration because it makes it impossible to see the dome from the square in front of the basilica, and the fašade because it seems too wide for its height.  Originally there were supposed to be bell towers at the corners of the fašade, but Paul’s death put a stop to this plan.  Years later, Bernini attempted to erect bell towers, but cracking in the fašade made it clear that the foundations of the fašade were not strong enough to support the weight, and the towers were hastily removed.  The new St. Peter’s Basilica was finally consecrated in 1626.

A few structural statistics:

Height (ground to cross atop the dome):  452 feet

Length:  730 feet (two football fields, including end zones)

Width (at widest point):  500 feet

Dome diameter:  136 feet

Capacity:  60,000

On passing under the fašade of the Basilica, we entered a portico area (also called the narthex) which was also designed by Maderno.  From this area there are five doors leading into the Basilica.  The rightmost door is known as the Holy Door, and is only opened by the Pope on special occasions.  On the inside it is bricked over, maybe so no one can open it by accident.  We were herded through the door next to it.

In the Narthex

The Holy Door, Vico Consorti (1949)

In the Narthex
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When entering the Basilica, one is first overwhelmed by the hugeness of the space, and then by the countless decorations and monuments.

Entering the Basilica
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The Nave

Basilica from Entrance
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Monument to Leo XII, Giuseppe de Fabris (1836)

Holy Water Font

Holy Water Font, Monument to Innocent XII
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Chapel of St. Sebastian, Monument to Innocent XII
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Vault Above Chapel

Monument to Maria Clementina Sobieski (1742)

Monument to Pius X (1923)

Gregorian Chapel, Altar and Monument to Benedict XIV
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Inscription and Statues

Arch Leading to Side Chapel

Monument to Clement XIII
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Corner with Clock

Monuments to Pius VII and Pius VIII
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Monument to Pius VII, Bertel Thorvaldsen (1823-31)

Monument to Innocent XII (1746)

Monument to Innocent XII and Coat of Arms
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Coat of Arms

Presentation Chapel with Body of Pius X

A few highlights:

Michelangelo’s Pieta is here, behind a protective glass wall.  Michelangelo sculpted this statue when he was 23 years old.

Pieta, Michelangelo (1498)

Michelangelo's Pieta
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Most of the paintings in the Basilica are not paintings.  If one looks closely, one can see that they are mosaics.  There is a mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration (see the paintings of the Vatican Museums for the original).

Mosaic of Raphael's Transfiguration (1767)

Transfiguration Mosaic and Clementine Chapel
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There is much to see under the dome.

Dome Interior

First, there is what looks like a huge bronze awning.  This is called the baldacchino, and it was done by Bernini.  It is 98 feet tall and covers the Papal altar.  Many feet directly beneath the altar is a tomb believed to be that of St. Peter.

Apse and Baldacchino


Roof of Baldacchino

Candle Holders

Dome and Baldacchino
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Baldacchino and Surroundings
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There are niches carved from the four piers supporting the dome.  The niches hold statues of Sts. Helen, Longinus, Andrew and Veronica.  The St. Longinus statue was done by Bernini.  Above the statues are niches containing relics related to the respective saints.

Statues in Niches
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St. Helen, Andrea Bolgi (1635)

St. Longinus, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1635)

St. Andrew, Franšois Duquesnoy (1635)

St. Veronica, Francesco Mochi (1629)

Just outside the dome area is a bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned.  Visitors have rubbed or kissed its feet for centuries, and they are worn smooth.

St. Peter Enthroned, Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1300)

Visitors to St. Peter Enthroned
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Behind the baldacchino is Bernini’s thoroughly-decorated Throne of St. Peter, below a window featuring a bird representing the Holy Spirit.

Apse with Throne of Peter

Ceiling of Apse

Throne of St. Peter, Bernini (1666)

Throne of Peter with Window and Decorations
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Baldacchino, Apse and Monument to Alexander VII
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Monument to Alexander VII, Bernini (1678)

Outside the Basilica and to the right of the fašade is an entryway to the grottoes beneath the Basilica.  Many Popes are entombed here, including John Paul I and II.

Tomb of John Paul I

Also to the right of the fašade is the entry to the dome.  This captured the imagination of Bob and Connie.  Nella and Philip elected to stay earthbound.  It is possible to pay a fee and ride an elevator to the roof of the Basilica, from which one needs to climb stairs to get to the top of the dome.  Or if one is cheap and in reasonable condition (like Bob and Connie), it is possible to avoid the line for the elevator and walk up a spiral ramp that corkscrews around the elevator shaft.  Once arriving on the roof, there is an entryway to a catwalk around the base of the dome on the inside, so you can look down on the many visitors.  But there is a grille, so you can’t drop stuff on them.

Up on the Roof
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View from the Catwalk
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View from the Catwalk

Congregation from Catwalk
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Connie on Catwalk

Back out on the roof, there is an entry to a stairway that goes up between the inner and outer shells of the dome and eventually emerges at the base of the lantern atop the dome.  This isn’t a very big area, and it can be very crowded.  But this is the highest point in Rome, and the view is unparalleled.

St. Peter's Square and Rome
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St. Peter's Square

Victor Emmanuel Monument, Colosseum & Churches

Castel Sant'Angelo and Tiber River

Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
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The Vatican Museums

Vatican Gardens
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Vatican Government Palace

Connie on Dome

When going back down, there is an exit to a different part of the roof, where there is access to a gift shop and to a point near the fašade where you can get a good view of the backs of the 19-foot-tall statues that line the top.  From here it is much easier to get down than it was to get up.

Descending Dome Passageway
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Backs of Fašade Statues

Bob on Roof

Fašade Statues and Roof
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The Dome

After reuniting, we agreed we’d seen enough of the Basilica, so we exited the square to the south and found a bus stop, where we waited for a bus that would take us back to the vicinity of the Piazza Navona.

Canonical Palace and Sacristy, Near Exit

We returned to the apartment and began making ready for the long trip back to the U.S.A.  But little did we know how long the journey would turn out to be….

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