St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) - History, Dimensions, Exterior, Interior, Vatican Grottoes, Necropolis

"St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) - History, Dimensions, Exterior, Interior, Vatican Grottoes, Necropolis" submitted by RomeTour Editorial Team and last updated on Tuesday 10th January 2012

The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter (Latin: Basilica Sancti Petri), officially known in Italian as the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and commonly known as St. Peter's Basilica, is a Late Renaissance church located within the Vatican City. St. Peter's Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. It is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites. It has been described as "holding a unique position in the Christian world" and as "the greatest of all churches of Christendom".


On the place of the crucifixion (67 a.C.) of St Peter the Emperor Constantine, at the request of pope St Sylvester I, built a basilica in 315- 349. Thus in the Year 2000 St Peter's will celebrate its 1685th birthday.

s. pietro vecchio
Fig: s. pietro vecchio

The basilica was 118m long and 64m wide, about half the sizeof the present construction. The nave and double aisles were divided by four rows of marble columns, 22 in each. It contained numerous monuments of popes and emperors, was decorated with frescoes and mosaics, and was visited by pilgrims from all over Europe. In the court there was a big canopy, co- vering the huge pine-cone (Pigna), which arrived here from the zone of Pantheon and now stands in the court of Vatican Museums visible for tourists. The basilica was lit by approx.100 oil lamps. To provide this illumination pope St.Gregory II cultivated 56 olive-yards in 8th century.


Bramante progetto
Fig: Bramante progetto

In 1451 Nicolas V decided to rebuilt the old St Peter's, as it was in extremely bad condition and was not appropriate any more to the needs of cult. He entrusted the work to B.Rossellino, L.B.Alberti, and G.da Sangallo, but on the Pope's death in 1455, work was suspended for half a century. Julius II started complete reconstruction and employed Bramante who began work in 1506. Most of the old church was dismantled and much which could have been preserved was destroyed : Bramante was nicknamed "Bramante Ruinante".The new basilica was on a Greek-cross plan surmounted by a gigantic central dome and flanked by four smaller cupolas. At the time of Bramante's death in 1514, the four central piers and the arches of the dome had been completed.


raffaello plan
Fig: raffaello plan

Leo X employed Raphael to continue the building on. Latin-cross plan in collaboration with Fra Giocondo and G.da Sangallo.


peruzzi plan
Fig: peruzzi plan

On Raphael's death in 1520 B.Peruzzi reverted to Bramante's design on Greek-cross plan.


sangallo plan
Fig: sangallo plan

Under Paul III the work was continued by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. In 1539 he made a huge wooden model of basilica on Latin cross (736cm x 602cm, and 468cm high), which was restored in 1994, but it is not on display.


michelangelo progetto
Fig: michelangelo progetto

At Sangallo's death in 1546, Michelangelo then 72 y.o., was summoned by Paul III. Michelangelo decided on the original Greek-cross plan and developed Bramante's idea. He took Brunelleschi's Florentine cupola for his model and replaced Bramante's piers with new stronger ones. His plan for the facade was derived from the Pantheon. Michelangelo directed the work until his death in 1564. Vignola and P.Ligorio then took over the work, and were followed by G.della Porta (assisted by C.Fontana), who completed the dome in 1590, and added the two smaller domes.


michelang maderno berni
Fig: michelang maderno berni

In 1605 Paul V demolished what had been left of the old basilica, pulled down the incomplete facade and directed Carlo Maderno to lengthen the nave towards the old Piazza San Pietro. The present facade and portico are Moderno's work. In the end, basilica was finished on a Latin-cross plan. On 18 November 1626, Urban VIII consecrated the new church. G.L.Bernini succeeded Maderno in 1629 and was commissioned to decorate the interior.


The length of the basilica is 212m (St Paul in London is 158m long),the width across the transepts is 140m; the height from the pavement to the cross of the dome is 137m. The outer diameter of the dome is 59m, the inner - 43m. The total area is 35 000 sq m (in Bramante's project - 24 000 sq m; in Michelangelo's project - 14 000 sq m). The capacity of the basilica is 60,000 people.


s.pietro exterior
Fig: s. pietro exterior

Eight columns and four pilasters support the entablature. The attic, almost without ornament, is surmounted by a balustrade on which are 6m high statues of Christ, St John the Baptist and 11 of the Apostles (St Peter's statue is inside). Two clocks made by G.Valadier in 1777 are located on the ends of facade and the left one shows the average European time, that one on the right - Italian time. Under the left-hand clock are the six bells of the basilica, electrically operated since 1931. The oldest bell dates from 1288; the largest (1786) is 7.5m round and weighs 10 tons.

The central balcony above the main entrance is that from which the senior cardinal-deacon proclaims the newly elected pope and from which the new Pope gives his blessing.

Below the balcony is a relief of Christ handing the keys to St Peter (by Ambrogio Bonvicino).

Above the columns on the whole length of the facade is inscribed "In honorem principis apost. Paulus V Borghesius romanus pont. max. an. MDCXII, VII". The pope Paul V made this inscription to memorize the time of his rein when the construction of basilica was finished.

s.pietro side
Fig: s. pietro side

On the way to entrance to St Peter's there are two gigantic statues of St Peter, by Fabris (left) and St Paul, by A.Tadolini (right) realized in 1838 and brought here in 1847 instead of the old statues.

san pietro grande
Fig: san pietro grande

Of the five entrances to the church, that on the extreme right is the Porta Santa, which is sealed from the inside and opened only in the Holy Year (it will be open from Christmas 1999 untill Christmas 2000). The bronze central door, from Old St Peter's, was decorated by Filarete in 1439-45 with relieves of Christ, the Virgin, Saints Peter and Paul and their martyrdom and events in the life of pope Eugenius IV. Around them is a frieze of classical and mythological subjects, fruits, and portraits of emperors.

san paolo grande
Fig: san paolo grande

Above the central entrance is the navicella, a mosaic representing Christ walking on the waters, executed by Giotto from the old basilica.

Fig: navicella

It has deteriorated from numerous restorations, so now we can see only the copy.


The Hall (by Maderno) is 71m long, 13m large and 20 high. At the left end of it is the equestrian statue of Charlemagne (by A.Cornacchini); on the right end, the statue of Constantine (by G.L.Bernini) (see picture below).

Fig: costantino

The first part of the nave is Maderno's extension, which transformed the plan of the church from Greek to Latin cross.

Further on the pavement are metal lines indicating the length of the principal churches of Europe.

The nave is separated from the aisles by colossal piers, each decorated with two fluted Corinthian pilasters, supporting great arches. In the niches between the pilasters of the nave and transepts are statues of the founders of the religious orders.

s.p. interno
Fig: s.p. interno

The aisles have decorations by G.L.Bernini. Over the spaces between the piers are elliptical cupolas, three on either side decorated with elaborate mosaics. In addition to these six minor cupolas there are four circular domes over the corner chapels in the main body of the church.

Michelangelo's dome is an architectural masterpiece. The great artist started to work here at the age of 72 and only on conditions "for God's love and for devotion", i.e. without material compensation.

s.pietro baldacchinocu
Fig: s.pietro baldacchinocu

After Michealngelo's death the work about the dome's construction was continued by G.Della Porta and D.Fontana. The Cupolone rises above the site of St Peter's tomb. On the frieze below the drum is inscribed in letters nearly 2m high: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum." ("You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven").

 Four pentagonal piers
Fig: Four pentagonal piers

Four pentagonal piers support the arches on which rests the drum of the cupola. The piers are decorated with balconies and niches designed by G.L.Bernini. Each balcony has two spiral columns taken from Saint's shrine in the old basilica.

san longino
Fig: san longino

The niches are filled with colossal statues that give each of the piers its name: St Longinus (by G.L.Bernini)(pictured above); St Helena (by A.Bolgi); St Veronica (by F.Mochi); St Andrew (by F.Duquesnoy). On the balconies are relieves referring to the "Reliquie Maggiori"; these precious relics displayed in Holy Week, are preserved in the podium of the pier of St Veronica.

They are: the lance of St Longinus - the soldier who pierced the side of Christ on the Cross, presented to Innocent VIII; a piece of the True Cross - collected by St Helena; and the cloth of St Veronica, with the miraculous image of Christ.

Fig: baldachino

Over the high altar rises the great baldacchino, designed by G.L.Bernini and unveiled in 1633 by Urban VIII. On the basements holding four columns of baldacchino there are eight big coat-of-arms belonging to the popes from Barberini's family (see below pic.).

stemma barberini
Fig: stemma barberini

On seven of them are visible the images of woman's face with different expressions an the moment of giving birth to her son and on the 8th - the smiling face of a child. This work of young F.Borromini embodies the concept of Mater Ecclesia, i.e. St Peter's as the mother of all the other Episcopal residences.

The High Altar, at which only the Pope may celebrate, was formed from a block of Greek marble found in the Forum of Nerva and consecrated by Clement VIII on June 16, 1594. It stands over the space which is recognized as the tomb of St Peter.

Fig: pieta-s

Cappella della Pieta' (first to the right of the entrance) is named after Michelangelo's composition "Pieta' " (pictured above) (1499). This tremendous work was made by him at the age of 24 for the French ambassador, cardinal Jean de Bilheres de Lagraulas. It is perhaps the most moving of all Michelangelo's sculptures and is the only one inscribed with his name (on the band crossing the breast of the Virgin).This masterpiece was damaged with a hammer by an Austro-Hungarian, Laszlo Toth on May 21, 1972. After a long restoration the chapel was protected by glass.

s.pietro capellasantiss
Fig: s. pietro capellasantiss

Further on the same side of the Baislica is Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento. The iron grille was designed by Borromini. Over the altar is a gilt bronze ciborium by G.L.Bernini, two angels, the Trinity by P.da Cortona, and over the altar on the right is a mosaic of the Ecstasy of St Francis, after Domenichino. This chapel is available only for those who want to pray and closed for general tourists.

s.pietro capellagrigori
Fig: s. pietro capellagrigori

Under the next arch is the interesting monument to Gregory XIII, the reformer of the calendar (by C.Rusconi, 1723). Next chapel after the monument is Cappella Gregorina (pictured above), that was built by the same Gregory XIII from designs by Michelangelo, with a cupola 42m above the floor. The chapel is dedicated to the Madonna del Soccorso, an ancient painting on part of a marble column from the old basilica, placed here in 1578.

Fig: sedia

Under a canopy against the pier of St Longinus is the famous bronze statue of St Peter (pictured above), which is considered to be the work of A.di Cambio (1296). The extended foot of the statue has been worn away by the kisses of the faithful.

s.pietro nero
Fig: s. pietro nero

In the end of the main nave the tribune stands , which has the Chair of St Peter (above photo) - the composition by G.L.Bernini. This enormous gilt bronze throne is supported by statues of four Fathers of the Church: Saints Augustine and Ambrose, of the Latin Church, and Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom, of the Greek Church. A circle of flying angels surrounds a great halo of gilt stucco in the center of which, providing the focal point of the whole church, is the Dove set in the window above the throne.

On the right of St Peter's Chair is a monument to Urban VIII, masterpiece of G.L.Bernini with: statues of the pope; two women symbolizing Charity and Justice; the figure of Death that writes the name of Urban VIII.

urbano viii
Fig: urbano viii

But the unveiling of the monument was discussed for a long time, due to the fact that it should had happen in 1647 (under the pope Innocent X Pamphilj), when the Barberini's (to who was dedicated the monument) were accused in receiving unfair incomes and were forced to emigrate to France.

paolo iii
Fig: paolo iii

On the left of St Peter's Chair is a monument to Paul III, one of the monuments of the basilica, including a naked woman, who was later covered by cloth . The naked model for the Statue of Justice (on the left) was Giulia Farnese, the sister of Paul III and the lover of another pope Alexander VI. The other woman's statue is embodying Prudence and was modeled from Paul's mother Giovannella Caetani. The monument was created by G.della Porta and before being placed to the left of St Peter's chair, it was first located on Chair's spot and then to the right of it.

clemento xiii
Fig: clemento xiii

A monument to Clement XIII (by A.Canova) is in the right transept. It represents the pope praying on the knees. The woman with a cross symbolizes the Religion. To realize two lions, Canova had to go to Naples to see real lions in the Royal gardens and draw them. But there is another curiosity, during the work about this monument Canova had a lot of assistants among them was a sculptor with a funny surname "Elefante" (Elephant), who only ambition was to immortalize his name on some part of the monument. And Canova granted his wish in an original way. If you look at the monument entirely from the left side and pay attention to the back of the left-side lion it will appear in the form of the elephant's head with a trunk, flapping ears and tusks.

At the same place but in the left transept there is a monument to Alexander VII (pictured below), the last work of G.L.Bernini in St Peter's (1672-78) in collaboration with his pupils. The woman representing the naked Truth was originally naked, but after the inauguration of the monument Innocent XI proclaimed it scandalous and ordered the Truth be covered with clothes.

alessandro vii
Fig: alessandro vii

In transept to the right from the Cattedra with the Chair of St Peter stands a monument to Clement X (by E.Ferrata) which was destroyed by a bomb in July 1962. Fortunately the damage was not grave and the statue was quickly restored.

The north transept contains confessionals for foreigners, served by the Penitentiaries, who hear confessions in 10 languages.

Between the first and the second chapels on the left side of the basilica there is a monument to Clementina Sobieska, wife of James Stuart, she is here called Queen of Great Britain, France and Ireland (by F.Barigioni). On the left is a monument to the last Stuarts, by A.Canova, with busts of the Old and Young Pretenders and of Henry, Cardinal York.

The Treasury (Museo Storico Artistico) is entered by the door under a monument to Pius VIII on the left side of the basilica. In the vestibule is a large stone slab with the names of the popes buried in the basilica, from St Peter to John Paul I. The treasury was plundered in 846 by the Saracens, and again during the sack of Rome in 1527 by Imperial troops, and was impoverished by the provisions of the Treaty of Tolentino (1797), which Pius VI was forced to conclude with Napoleon. It still however, contains objects of great value and interests.

Among the precious things conserved in the Treasury should be noticed the following:

Fig: dome

The entrance to the Dome is inside of the basilica in the beginning of the left nave. A lift (or staircase) leads to the roof, from which there is a close view of the dome, with the Cross. The two side cupolas by G.della Porta are purely decorative and have no opening into the interior of the church. On the roof are buildings used by the sampietrini (workmen permanently employed for the construction of St Peter's). Two stairways lead to a curving corridor from which is the entrance into the first circular gallery around the interior of the drum of the dome (53m above the ground and 67m below the top of the dome). From here there is an impressive view of the pavement far below and of the interior of the dome.

A spiral staircase leads up, where the first big window has a view south, with the roof of the huge Audience Hall directly below. Iron stairs continue up to the tiny marble stairs which emerge on the loggia around the lantern, 537 steps above the pavement of the basilica.

the view on rome
Fig: the view on rome

There is a view of the Vatican City and gardens, and on a sunny day, of the whole of Rome and of the Campagna from the Apennines and the Albanian hills to the sea. The cross surmounting the copper ball (2.5m in diameter, just large enough to hold 16 people) is 132.5m above the ground.

Another staircase leads down and out onto the roof with a view from the parapet, beside the huge statues on the facade, of Piazza San Pietro. The exit is at present inside St Peter's.

The Vatican Grottoes

In the space between the level of the existing basilica (30m above sea-level) and that of the old one (27m), the Renaissance architects built the so-called Sacred Grottoes and placed in them various monuments and architectural fragments from the former church. They were used for the burial of numerous popes and not only, among them is the Tomb of St Peter, John Paul I, Queen Christina of Sweden, Queen Charlotte of Cyprus, etc.

At the west end of the grottoes is a kneeling statue of Pius VI, realized by A.Tadolini according to the design of A.Canova. On 3 November 1969 a German tourist Josef Hans Hubner damaged with a hammer this monument. The restoration was finished in a brave period (below pic.).

popepius vi
Fig: popepius vi

Excavations of the Vatican Grottoes were carried out from 1939 to 1950, but particular explorations continued for a number of years more.

The Necropolis

sepolcro di pietro
Fig: sepolcro di pietro

It was discovered below the Vatican Grottoes and it is an enormous sepulchre, that was in use between I and IV centuries a.C. by pagans and Christians. Pagans were calling it necropolis ("city of dead people"), Christians named it as coemeterium, ("place of sleeping people"). The place of basilica over the necropolis was chosen by the reason that it contains the Tomb of St Peter (see on the photo above). A Greek inscription helped to identify the tomb : Petr (os) eni, which means "Peter is here".

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