St Peter’s Basilica; a brief historyFebruary 12, 2014 9:00 am
With such an iconic silhouette, St Peter’s Basilica is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Italy – not only for its breath-taking skyline, but for the huge role it played in supporting the Roman Catholic Church and inspiring art and architecture for centuries.
As a visitor to Rome it would be a crime not to visit the Basilica so before you do, here’s a brief history of the impressive building and its patrons to help you get ahead.
Saint Peter and the original Basilica
St Peter was believed to have been the first Pope, chief apostle and a martyr. Legend has it he died on the Vatican Hill where he was entombed – so it makes sense that this Basilica was dedicated to him as a sort of shrine.
The early basilica was constructed by Emperor Constantine and was completed around 349 AD. Much smaller than how it stands now, it was a mere 85m in length with four aisles, a central fountain and bell tower. To put that into perspective, its nave now measures 211.5m alone – that’s over four Olympic swimming pools.
St Peter’s Basilica gets a revamp
The Basilica was falling into ruin in the middle of the fifteenth century but it wasn’t until the early 1500s that work began to restore it. Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante as chief architect who designed the high dome. After Bramante’s death in 1514 he was succeeded by a number of other architects; including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno, all of whom altered and personalised the design.
In 1626 it was finally re-venerated and was on its way to becoming the centre of Christianity; attracting pilgrims and visitors from around the world.
St Peter’s square was created in the mid seventeenth century by Lorenzo Bernini, in front of the Basilica. Surrounded by imposing colonnades, the square itself is almost as impressive as the building it leads up to. 140 hand-sculpted statues look down onto the paved square with its two fountains and tall Egyptian Obelisk, which was brought to Rome in 37 AD.
If you look up to St Peter’s Basilica from the square, you can admire Maderno’s 45.5m façade, lined with religious statues of the apostles, crafted by Giuseppe Valadier.
The wealth of the Catholic Church in the 1500s
The interior of the Basilica is a testament to the wealth of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and Bernini was commissioned to create many of the statues and monuments that adorn its vast 15,160 square metres. The Baroque bronze Baldachin is perhaps one of the most notable monuments, standing at 26m high, made from bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon. You can also admire the intricate detail of the painted dome ceiling, the statues of St Peter and Michelangelo’s famous marble Pietà.
The Romans aren’t ones to do things in half; the dome at St Peter’s Basilica is also one of the world’s largest, measuring 42 meters in diameter, with a height of 132.5 meters. Winding up the dome is a slanted narrow staircase that leads up to a spectacular viewpoint where you can walk all the way round for stunning panoramic views of Rome.
As you can see, nothing was left unplanned or without years of intricate design. From the supportive outer structure of the façade and square, to even the most minute of decorations within the church itself, St Peter’s is a true example of the wealth of the Catholic Church, the brilliance of the esteemed Italian Renaissance artists and sculptors of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and the underlying belief in creating a centre for Christianity.
What Emperor Constantine set out to achieve over 1600 years ago is so far from what he must have envisaged. St Peter’s is now regarded as one of the most famous landmarks in the world and receives over 4 million visitors a year – it has even starred in films and books!
So from its humble beginnings as a martyr’s shrine, to the iconic religious monument as it stands today – we’d recommend a quick visit; at least pop your head through the door.
NB: You have to adhere to a strict dress code and women need to cover their shoulders and legs.
Make your trip to Rome that extra bit easier and invest in a OMNIA Vatican & Rome Pass. Not only can you visit the top attractions and monumental landmarks for free and with discounted entry, but you can travel round the city with a Travelcard and experience the sites from the comfort of a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.